A reason to learn Latin. Unrolling the wisdom and humor of Horace's poetry

Horace's Poetic Journey: A Reading of Odes 1-3, by David H. Porter. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 281 pp. $35.00. When I threatened to teach my 11-year-old son Latin, he answered: ``Let's do Greek. I start Latin next year.''

He's a normal kid. Latin is on the rise. It's all things to all people. In the inner city, it looks like an answer to the problem of literacy. In the suburbs, it's a ticket to the fast track.

Latin may be all these things. It's also the language of Horace. Judging from a study of translations, over time Horace has meant more to English-speaking peoples than any other foreign author. Horace is known for saying carpe diem - ``seize the day'' - before the 1960s radicals took it over. He's often contrasted to the glum epic writer Virgil.

Horace is notoriously hard to pin down. Sometimes he's seen as a time server in the early Empire when Augustus was imposing pretty strict moral standards.

His own moralism has an irony, though, and it's known that he refused the emperor's offer of a job as his personal secretary. Horace cherished his freedom as a man and artist. His country mouse, city mouse poem is taken to mean he'd prefer to retire early rather than face the heat in Rome.

In ``Horace's Poetic Journey,'' David H. Porter, now president of Skidmore College, brings us as close to Horace as we are likely to get. He doesn't try to build up a historical picture independent of the poems. His Horace is as real, he argues, as ``Hamlet and Oedipus.''

That's a rare quibble on the word ``real.'' Porter's book is a model of common sense criticism. He starts with the fact that Horace's poems were read from rolls, not books with pages. The poetry unrolls in time. Each poem builds on the last. Horace's architecture is fluid.

Which makes a big difference. Porter uses many ingenious diagrams to show how the poems relate to one another. Like colored bricks, they hold their places in the total construct. Through an analysis of key words and themes, Porter found that the patterns are concentric. Individual poems and groups of poems dovetail.

But as we read them, a linear narrative takes over. Poems become poetry, the book a journey, a journey from retreat, passivity, escapism, to rational individual action and initiative.

Horace has always been one my heroes, but Porter's portrait is deeper than any other I know. It speaks, he says, ``for all who have felt inadequate for a particular task or role, have initially sought an easy way out, but have eventually plunged in and in confrontation and even despair unexpectedly found renewal.''

Porter's work is based on minute contextual analysis of all 88 poems in Horace's book of odes. (An epilogue sets the book in the larger context of Horace's other poems.) Porter follows many themes. When we get to what I have translated here as ``Horace's holiday ode,'' Horace - and his reader - has been through a lot. The long civil war that meant the destruction of the Roman republic has emptied Rome of its best men and left everybody else in a state of moral exhaustion.

Horace, the son of a freedman who gave his son a good education, began by trying to escape through art. When that proved unsatisfactory, he had to face himself - his personal history, his ambitions, his mortality. (Porter relates this briefly to other ``dark nights of the soul.'')

Since his personal history included fighting on the wrong side in one of the final battles of the civil war, Horace tells us - and the emperor, a very interested reader at the time - that he threw his shield away and ran.

Images of escape haunt the early odes. Porter argues that while throwing away his shield may have been diplomatic, given the outcome, it also carried a lot of guilt. It brought into question Horace's ``virtue'' - his manliness, his ability to act in a crisis.

As Porter shows, it's precisely virtus that receives Horace's keenest attention in the odes. Now that peace has been established, military virtue is not enough. The old macho virtue is not only anachronistic, it's spiritually dangerous. Taking it out on foreign peoples just won't do. Romans must come to grips with the problems of peace.

Does peacetime allow virtue to flourish? In Horace's holiday ode - a late one - he paints a scene of peacetime prosperity. As Porter shows, it took a lot of work and hard thinking for Horace to be able to create this non-epic, Breugel-like, ``down-to-earth atmosphere.'' No imported erotic or military images disturb the Roman scene. The true test of manliness is at home.

A man can be measured in terms of what he prays for. Behind this little masterpiece is an ecology of the soul. Faunus represents that independent law of nature - ``the environment'' - that we moderns have only lately come to recognize. The second stanza indicates the cost of maintaining a good relationship with Faunus. He deserves our respect.

In the second half of the poem, an almost utopian scene unfolds. It's a marvelous speaking picture of a civilized ideal. In the final stanza, Horace's capacity to keep a straight face is tested. The wolf goes with the sheep, and vindictive ditchdiggers take it out on their old enemy, the earth.

Does Horace smile - or grimace? Oddly, the wolf is somehow more ``real'' than the god Faunus. Given the context, the wolf could well be an image of temporal, not spiritual power - which makes the sheep the unsuspecting Roman citizenry. In any event, this little ode shines with the Horatian polish of irony.

Nothing mars the refinement of Horace's holiday ode, and nothing spoils the peace. A precarious balance is secured through art. There's no escape into proud visions of international hegemony, no fantasy of erotic domination. While not one of Horace's great poems, it conveys the sanity Horace finally achieved.

Porter's Horace is a model citizen in peacetime. He's also very funny and very wise. Which is what he has always been taken to be, a true humanist hero.

And reason enough to learn Latin any day.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

Horace's holiday ode, III 18 Sly lover of shy nymphs, Faunus, will you pass my gates, over my sunny fields, and not touch the nurslings if we kill a tender year old and keep the punch bowl full and the old altar smoking with piles of incense... The herd romps on the green as your winter day returns, and villagers feast in the meadow with the resting oxen. A wolf rubs shoulders with bold sheep, the oak sheds leaves for you, and farmhands do a three-step on the odious earth.

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