Not comfortable with analysing poetry? Don’t know what sort of thing to look for? Don’t see what the point of it all is? Well, I’m here to help! On this page I’ll be pulling apart a short poem by the Augustan poet Horace, to show you some of the interesting quirks it contains. Hopefully that will give you a stronger sense of what you’re looking for when you analyse a Latin poem.
Horace, Odes Book 1, Poem 11 (usually written as Odes 1.11)
Don’t try to predict the future, Leuconoe; the gods don’t like it. Enjoy the day, pour the wine and don’t look too far ahead.
Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
You should not ask – to know is a sin – which end
the gods have given to me, or to you, Leuconoe, nor
should you meddle with Babylonian calculations. How much better to suffer
whatever will be, whether Jupiter gives us more winters, or whether this is our last,
which now weakens the Tyrrhenian sea on the pumice stones
opposing it. Be wise, strain the wine, and cut back long hope
into a small space. While we talk, envious time will
have fled: pluck the day, trusting as little as possible to the future.
Take a look at the Latin, now that you know what it means. Make a note of the features that stand out to you. You can listen to it, too:
Let me guess… You probably noticed carpe diem. Most people do, because it’s one of those Latin phrases which even people with no Latin tend to know! It pops up all over the place, from tea towels to motivational posters, and everyone knows that it means ‘seize the day’.
The interesting thing about carpe diem is that it’s usually mistranslated. If you know a bit of Latin already, you probably know enough to realise that if you wanted to write ‘seize the day’ in Latin, you’d use an imperative verb and an accusative noun (just like carpe diem), but the verb you would choose would probably be ‘rape’ from ‘rapio’, or maybe ‘cape’ from ‘capio’. You probably wouldn’t even think of ‘carpe’ because it’s a much more obscure verb, which means ‘pluck’ or ‘harvest’.
So take a moment to think about the implications of this mis-translation. Does it matter that popular culture translates carpe diem incorrectly, on its wall decals and mugs and tattoos?
If your answer is ‘yes’, then maybe you’d like to think about what the difference is. How different are the two metaphors: ‘seize the day’ and ‘harvest the day’? What are the connotations? What is the tone of each one? How does ‘harvest the day’ fit with the rest of the poem? Would Robin Williams have made an inspirational speech about it?
There’s another interesting thing about carpe diem, and it’s to do with metre. Now, Latin metre is complex, particularly in Horace’s poems; but you don’t have to know all about it to appreciate what’s going on here.
The lines of this poem have a metre which, in its basic form, goes like this…
dum-dum, dum-di-di-dum, dum-di-di-dum, dum-di-di-dum, dum-dum.
The three feet in the middle of each line go ‘dum-di-di-dum’ (long-short-short-long), and those are called choriambs. Mostly, words and phrases run across these choriambs: but every now and again they fit into a choriamb precisely, and that’s when your Roman audience would sit up and take notice. So, take a close look at this beauty of a line:
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Look how it fits into the metre. The first two words, quae nunc, are the introductory ‘dum-dum’: and then we’re off, with three words which fit perfectly into three choriambs. oppositis, debilitat and pumicibus are all dum-di-di-dum words. It’s the sort of neatness which might generate a spontaneous round of applause from the audience!
Listen to it again: in the final read-through, you might spot how this line stands out!
All the way through this poem, Horace fits particularly catchy phrases into the choriambs. So vina liques (‘strain the wine’) is a dum-di-di-dum phrase, as is dum loquimur (‘while we are speaking’), and even the multi-syllabic Greek name for the girl in this poem, Leuconoe. And of course (you know where I’m going with this, I suspect!), so is our famous Latin phrase carpe diem. It takes a moment to spot that, because we’re so accustomed to putting a strong emphasis on the first syllable of diem; but metre is about length of syllables, not emphasis.
So the metre is what made carpe diem so catchy to a Roman reader, because it’s a single, evocative command which fits neatly into just one choriamb. Lovely stuff!
What else do you notice about the Latin of this poem? If you’re stumped, take a look at this advice:
There are no strict rules here. If you notice something that you like – in the arrangement of words or sounds, perhaps – then you can talk about it. As long as you discuss its effect, you’re doing it right! Take a look at this list for inspiration if you get stuck:
Another way to find something to say about a poem is to look for the things that confuse you. If something doesn’t make sense to you immediately, then that suggests that it’s worthy of a closer look.
I’d guess that one bit of Ode 1.11 that made you scratch your head was the bit about the pumice stones and the Tyrrhenian Sea – and that’s why you should take another look at it. The reason why this may have puzzled you is that Horace is doing something clever here.
For a start, he’s twisting a popular image. Instead of the sea battering the rocks and wearing them down, a process familiar to poets and geologists alike, we see the rocks wearing down the sea itself. It’s a bit silly, and may have made the audience smile. But while he’s doing this, Horace is also laying down clues about where he is and what is happening. He’s by the shore, and pumice is a volcanic rock. So it’s not a big leap for us to imagine that he’s staying in one of the seaside villas on the Bay of Naples.
And he’s there with Leuconoe, another element of the poem that may justifiably have confused you, because Horace doesn’t explain who she is. Horace rarely explains: he simply drops clues, like breadcrumbs to follow; and by the end we’ve collected enough of them to form a picture.
Leuconoe has a Greek name, shared with some very minor characters from mythology. It’s a woman’s name. (It’s also, as we’ve noticed, a choriamb, which is probably why this name was chosen!) So this woman is not a Roman woman, present at a social occasion. No, her Greekness and the fact that Horace gives her domestic chores to do (‘strain the wine’) suggests that she might be a slave.
Horace is talking to her in a way that implies her concerns and interests. He tells her to stay away from Babylonian astrology, which suggests that she has some non-Roman superstitions. He tells her not to seek to know what is going to happen to both of them in the future, which suggests that she’s been worrying about what their future holds. There’s a whole back-story here, about the relationship between Horace and Leuconoe, which is left tantalisingly out of view.
Another point to note is that this is a seduction poem. Horace, with his ‘harvest the day’ line, is trying to seduce Leuconoe. It’s interesting to compare this to more ‘modern’ seduction poems, like Andrew Marvell’s famous 1681 poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’:
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Marvell’s poem is not subtle. It’s so blatantly unsubtle, in fact, that some people think it’s meant to be ironic. In contrast, Horace’s address to Leuconoe is so subtle and restrained that we could almost miss the seduction element.
That’s one of the reasons why people who are starting out in Latin can find Roman poetry difficult to analyse: in our tradition of English poetry we’re used to much more blatant stuff! Roman poetry is circuitous and subtle; it often dumps you into the middle of a scenario which you have to piece together; and the clever elements take some work to identify. The Romans, for instance, rejected rhyming poetry as too childish, many generations before the Augustan poets. They had standards of sophistication in poetry which we still struggle to understand. They wouldn’t have been impressed with poor Marvell at all.
Another point worth mentioning is that, throughout this discussion, I’ve been referring to the character in the poem as ‘Horace’. But this isn’t necessarily the “real” Horace. It’s a character, a persona, which he creates through his poetry, and it’s very persuasive because it’s consistent across a lot of the poems. But we should be wary of thinking that this character in the poem actually is Horace. To appreciate the poem, we don’t need to believe that Horace really was staying in a seaside villa on the Bay of Naples on a winter’s day with a Greek slavegirl called Leuconoe. This is not history or autobiography. It’s art, and we need to take it with a big pinch of salt.
There’s a great deal more that we could say about this poem, in relation to the word order, the agricultural metaphors, the role of the gods, the sound effects, etc. And it’s only a short poem! One of the problems people run into at this stage is feeling that there’s nothing more to say: but if you really look at a poem, questioning the choices that the poet has made, you’ll always spot something!
A lot of the points I’ve made here (particularly in relation to metre) have been inspired by David West’s wonderful edition of Horace, Odes 1. It’s pretty expensive, but if you get the chance, do pick up a copy. It’s the most accessible and readable introduction to Horace that there is, and it will really help you with the Latin.
I hope this discussion of Ode 1.11 has helped you to make sense of Latin poetry appreciation – or at least has highlighted some of the reasons why you might find the process confusing!
(You might want to follow Horace’s advice now. Break out the wine…!)
If you’ve found this helpful, do check out the ongoing Comfort Classics series, featuring text interviews with Classics enthusiasts from all over the world, including academics, museum curators, teachers, authors and artists. You might particularly enjoy Llewelyn Morgan’s thoughts on Horace – and do check out his blogpost on ‘carpe diem’!
And this is me, reading one of Horace’s poems from Book 3 of his Odes for the Actors of Dionysus Daily Dose…