Friday, September 16, 2005

Horace's advice to writers

I've been reading Horace. Well, you probably have to call him Quintus Horatius Flaccus, but Horace and I go way back. At least as far as, oh, the day before yesterday.

There's a bit of Horace which I think is worth bearing in mind if you're a writer or a publisher or indeed anyone who works in the book business. It's his ode number I-XI, entitled Carpe Diem, which means seize, or pluck, the day: and hence enjoy the day.

As far as I can discover, the ode is addressed to someone called Leuconoe, who seems to have been a young lady. The ode offers advice -- advice which, I fear, might possibly be interpreted as an attempt to get inside Leuconoe's underwear. But perhaps I just have a suspicious mind.

Judging by the first couple of web sites that Google throws up, there is a fairly standard translation of Carpe Diem. And I would guess it is often quoted because it's out of copyright. Here it is in its basic form:
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings, Leuconoe. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!
That, as I say, is a fairly common translation. But there are lots of others. You can find at least a dozen, kindly assembled for us by Michael Gilleland. In addition he provides a modern version, which I suspect is his own. It goes like this:

Don't ask (it's forbidden to know) what final fate the gods have given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don't consult Babylonian horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be, whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within short limits. While we're talking, grudging time will already have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

Now that, I think you will agree, makes the meaning crystal clear for modern readers, and thus makes the point that I was striving for.

Michael Gilleland lists eight principal points which the ode makes, and clearly it has made them sufficiently forcefully to survive for a couple of thousand years. The ones which strike me as relevant are his points numbered 3, 7, and 8:

3. We must endure whatever befalls us.
7. It is foolish to make long-range plans.
8. It's better to enjoy the present moment.

In addition, I think the ode suggests that it would be wise not to build up your hopes too high, but to be content with a modest level of achievement. Temper your ambition, in other words.

Think on, as they used to say in Yorkshire when I were a lad.

1 comment:

Heretic said...

Hi there. Just came upon your site searching for bits of Horace.

Just to comment on you picking the second version over the first as in some way better?

I am a bit amazed; i personally would prefer the first--it has a rhyme, the feeling of hearing a clear voice speaking to you, there is life and flow in it...

The "modern" one seems dull,in comparison... lifeless, pedantic....

Btw, i am not a native speaker of English (just an opinionated one), in case that has something to do with it.

Hope you are doing well. take care. Bye.