Happy is he who far from business cares, Even as the oldest race of men, Tills with his own oxen his patrimonial fields, Freed from every debt….
How sweet it is to lie under the ancient ilex tree, Or on the matted grass,
While the stream flows on between high banks, And the woodland birds sing, And springs with leaping waters plash, Inviting to soft sleep!
It should be added, however, that these lines are put with Horatian irony into the mouth of a city moneylender, who, having uttered them, at once forgets them and loses himself in his coins. Probably it was in those quiet haunts that he labored with “painstaking happiness”- curiosa felicitas – over those odes by which he knew that his name would live or die. He was tired of hexameters, the endless march of their measured feet, the sharp caesura cleaving the line like some inexorable guillotine. He had enjoyed in his youth the subtle and vivacious meters of Sappho, Alcaeus, Archilochus, and Anacreon; he proposed now to transplant these “sapphics” and “alcaics,” these iambics and hendecsyllabics, into Roman lyric form, to express his thoughts on love and wine, religion and the state, life and death, in stanzas refreshingly new, epigrammatically compact, modeled for music, and teasing the mind with the complex skein of their weaving. He did not intend them for simple or hurried souls; indeed, he warned such away by the bluenosed opening of the third group:
Odi profanum vulgus et arceo. Favete linguis. Carmina non prius audita Musarum sacerdos
virginibus puerisque canto:-
“I hate and shun the profane crowd. Be silent! I, priest of the Muses, sing for maidens and youths songs never heard before.” The maidens, if they had cared to tread and skip their way through Horace’s playful inversions of speech and desire, might have been pleasantly shocked by the chiseled epicureanism of these odes. The poet pictures the pleasures of friendship, eating and drinking, and making love; one would hardly surmise from such lauds that their author was a recluse who ate little and drank less. Why disturb ourselves with Roman politics and distant wars? he asks (anticipating the reader of these pages). Why plan so carefully a future whose shape will laugh at our plans? Youth and beauty touch us and flit away; let us enjoy them now, “reclining under the pine trees, our gray locks garlanded with roses and perfumed with Syrian nard.” Even as we speak, envious time runs out; seize the occasion, carpe diem, “snatch the day.” He intones a litany of loose ladies whom he claims to have loved: Lalage, Glycera, Neaera, Inacha, Cinara, Candia, Lyce, Pyrrha, Lydia, Tyndaris, Chloe, Phyllis, Myrtale. We need not believe all his protestations of guilt; these were literary exercises almost compulsory among the poets of the day; the same ladies or names had served other pens. The now virtuous Augustus was not deceived by these iambic fornications; he was pleased to find, among them, stately praises of his reign, his victories, his aides, his moral reforms, and the Augustan peace. Horace’s famous drinking song- Nunc est bibendum – was composed on receipt of the news that Cleopatra was dead and Egypt taken; even his sophisticated soul thrilled at the thought of the Empire victorious and expanding as never before. He warned his readers that new laws could not take the place of old morals; mourned the spread of luxury and adultery, of frivolity and cynical unbelief. “Alas!” he says, referring to the latest war, “the shame of our scars and crimes, and of brothers slain! What have we of this hard generation shrunk from? What iniquity have we left untouched?” Nothing could save Rome but a return to the simplicity and steadfastness of ancient ways. The skeptic who found it difficult to believe anything bent his hoary head before the ancient altars, acknowledged that without a myth the people perish, and lent his pen graciously to the ailing gods. There is nothing in the world’s literature quite like these poems- delicate and yet powerful, exquisite and masculine, subtle and intricate, hiding their art with perfect art, and their toil with seeming ease. This is music in another scale than Virgil’s, less melodious and more intellectual, meant not for youths and maidens but for artists and philosophers. There is rarely any passion here, or enthusiasm, or “fine writing”; the diction is simple even where the sentence stands on its head. But in the greater odes there is a pride and majesty of thought, as if an emperor were speaking and not in letters but in bronze: