The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Llewelyn Morgan
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Yes, Horace’s Odes, and especially 2.10.13-15 (from a poem about the Golden Mean, never going to extremes), sperat infestis, metuit secundis/alteram sortem bene praeparatum/ pectus, “The well-conditioned heart in hostile circumstances hopes for, and in favourable conditions fears, a change in fortune.” Very hard to translate Horace in anything less than twice the word count, on which see below…
When did you first come across the Odes?
I had an amazing teacher at school, Douglas Cashin, who lent to me David West’s Reading Horace, a very short, pocket-sized book I still love (I’ve got my own copy now). I spent a summer when I was 17 trying to convince myself I could read Horace like West could. 25 years later I got a letter from David saying that if he’d seen my theory on one of Horace’s Odes before he produced his commentary on it he’d have binned what he wrote in favour of what I had. Definitely the highlight of my professional life.
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
Horace’s Odes are four books of lyric poetry, a three-book collection followed later by a self-standing fourth book. Lyric means drinking parties and dubious sexual interests, lots of irredeemably ancient stuff, but also a middle-aged persona (Horace adopted poetic forms that suited his age at point of writing, and Odes 1-3 came out when he was around 42), and a kind of mature, seasoned perception of life.
Horace’s medium in the Odes, a set of very restricted metrical systems inherited from Greek lyric poets like Sappho, Alcaeus and Anacreon, demands a particular discipline from the poet, hence densely meaningful mottoes like carpe diem (really “pluck the day”, as if the day were an apple, to be eaten before it rots) or aurea mediocritas (“Golden Mean”, but a paradox: a precious ordinariness).
What is it about the Odes that appeals to you most?
I am middle-aged, I’m afraid, and from the middle-aged voice of the Odes come observations on life, its brevity, right and wrong ways to approach it, which aren’t very original in thought at all, but are peerless in the way he expresses them. Horace selects the right word, combines it with other perfectly chosen words, and positions them perfectly in his miniature metrical canvases. For me his lyric verse is the most subtle exploitation of the intrinsic resources of the Latin language.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I find walking our dog, Chester, extremely calming, and we’ve covered a few thousand miles by now strolling round the neighbourhood. I believe he enjoys it, too. Off and on in the last decade I’ve been learning Persian, and at the moment I’m taking some remote classes at SOAS with a brilliant teacher named Alireza Sedighi, who reminds me a bit of Dougie Cashin. Preparing for the classes and the classes themselves are simultaneously very hard work and also, somehow, profoundly relaxing. Simply sitting and puzzling out another language I find calming, for some reason. Something to do with being 17 again.
Llewelyn Morgan teaches at Brasenose College, Oxford, where has been around long enough now to be Vice-Principal. His interests are Latin literature, with a special focus on poetic form, and he has a tangential interest in British bad behaviour in N-W India. He is currently working on the proofs of Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, writing a book about the colonial origins of archaeology in Swat, Pakistan, with Professor Luca Olivieri of the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, and pondering whether to make a proposal to OUP for Horace: A Very Short Introduction.
Catch up with the other Comfort Classics interviews here.