Carpe diem


λαβὲ καιρόν (see last post) is a call for action: ‘seize the moment’.

But carpe diem comes from a practising Epicurean: it is a call for enjoyment.

tu ne quaesieris—scire nefas—quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoë, 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.
Horace, Odes, I.11

Please don’t ask, Leuconoë—it’s wrong to know—what end
the gods have fixed for me, for you: please don’t search
the Babylonian tables. Far better to take what will be,
whether Jupiter grants us more winters,
or makes this the last
which is now wearing out the Tyrrhenian Sea
on the defiant cliffs. Be wise—strain the wine,
and prune your long hope to a short space.
While we speak, envious time will have flown:
savour the day—and trust to the next
as little as you can.

The students of ours who last read this poem said that they loved it, even though—or perhaps because—they had been required to learn it by heart.

The reasons why they liked it included:

  • The scene is set in a kitchen (they supposed), and Horace is watching the girl—or woman—doing culinary tasks. There is a homeliness about it.
  • We don’t find out who Leuconoë is, so we can see either a young slave girl, or perhaps a middle-aged freedwoman.
  • Horace seems to be genuinely fond of her, and he is interested in what she is thinking.
  • She is fond of him—enough to want to know his fortune as well as her own.
  • Horace seems to appreciate women and is observant of them. He notices that Leuconoë is anxious, and wants her to live in the present.
  • Horace is enjoying the winter.
  • The metre (Second Asclepiad) makes the poem memorable.

So Horace casts his spell on yet more readers.

Next post:  Mottos, aphorisms and apophthegms.

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