Friday, August 28, 2009

Ode 11, Book 1: Cueille le Jour

Carpe diem—seize the day! This is the subject of today's poem by Horace, as he tells some girl named Leuconoë that, since we don't know the future, we'd better make the most of the present. The English phrase "seize the day" is more aggressive than the original Latin. Carpe is what you do with ripe grapes not days. According to Daniel Garrison, carpe may even be erotic. The French say cueille le jour, pick the day.

"Pick," of course, doesn't work in English because "pick" also means "choose." But why not? I suppose we can choose to make the most out of the present. We can say, "This is going to be a good day." Or: "This is going to be a terrible day." We soothsay ourselves into happiness or sadness all the time.

But Horace isn't talking about choice.  "Seize the day" not "pick the day" will have to do in English. The phrase is part of our culture.

Culture is an important part of understanding any poem. I might like to think that Horace was like me culturally, but he wasn't. He was rooted in a very different society with a pantheon of gods that weighed him down with superstitions and fears I know nothing about. 

Take Hafiz' poems. The message of carpe diem or— گلیبچین امروز pick the flower today— rings loud and clear through his work, but carries a different meaning. His carpe diem  is the time to get right with God. The five days we are alloted on this earth are flying by(هر کس پنج روز نوبت اوست), and Judgment Day is at hand! No matter how much modern translators of his work try to make Hafiz fit into out cultural parameters, try to make him and fellow Persian poet Rumi as ecumenical as possible,  the fact remains,  for these poets, being a mystic was getting right with God. Being a Muslim was believing in a final judgement.

I suppose that this is why reading a poem in the original is so important. Each step you take into this foreign world, be it the world of Hafiz or of Horace, brings you closer to understanding what the poet meant. It forces you to cast aside bits and pieces of your culture, the assumptions you make because of the language you speak. It invites you to pick up new thoughts and form new associations.

This is what I hope I will do, as I make my way through Horace: new thoughts, new associations.

Here is my prose rendition of Ode 11 from Book One, followed by the original.

Tu ne quaesieris scire—nefas!—quem finem di mihi quem tibi dederint, [o] Leuconoe, nec numeros Babylonios temptaris. Ut melius pati quicquid erit, seu Iuppiter hiemes pluris tribuit, seu [hiemem] ultimam quae nunc mare Tyrrhenum pumicibus oppositis debilitat. Sapias. Vina liques et spem longam spatio brevi resces. Dum loquimur, aetas invida fugerit—carpe diem, quam minimum postero credula.

[Revised March 27, 2015]

Original Ode:

Tū nē quaesieris (scīre nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
fīnem dī dederint, Leuconoē, nec Babylōniōs
temptāris numerōs. ut melius quicquid erit patī,
seu plūris hiemēs seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositīs dēbilitat pūmicibus mare
Tyrrhēnum, sapiās, vīna liquēs et spatiō brevī
spēm longam resecēs. dum loquimur, fūgerit invida
aetās: carpe diem, quam minimum crēdula posterō.

Here is a link to two English translations.

En voilà un à une traduction en français. 

One of the surprising things about this poem is that the word order is fairly reasonable. Only one phrase confuses me: quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare.  I am not sure what's going on!  Something is happening to the ocean, the rocks opposing it, the last winter.

:: Latin books by James Rumford ::

For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetizedfor $11.50 at 

For a Latin translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at $12, click here: 

To find out more about Carpe Diem go to the blog of March 26, 2015; 
for more about Pericla Thomae Sawyer, go to the blog of November 22, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Hi James,

    I've been reading and following your work for awhile now, and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. My 9th graders are currently memorizing this Carmen and I'll be sharing some of your thoughts with them. If you don't have those pesky rocks figured out yet, feel free to let me know :).