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Letters To Dead Authors
LETTER--To Q. Horatius Flaccus
by Lang, Andrew


In what manner of Paradise are we to conceive that you, Horace, are dwelling, or what region of immortality can give you such pleasures as this life afforded? The country and the town, nature and men, who knew them so well as you, or who ever so wisely made the best of those two worlds? Truly here you had good things, nor do you ever, in all your poems, look for more delight in the life beyond; you never expect consolation for present sorrow, and when you once have shaken hands with a friend the parting seems to you eternal.

Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
Tam cari capitis?

So you sing, for the dear head you mourn has sunk, for ever, beneath the wave. Virgil might wander forth bearing the golden branch "the Sibyl doth to singing men allow," and might visit, as one not wholly without hope, the dim dwellings of the dead and the unborn. To him was it permitted to see and sing "mothers and men, and the bodies outworn of mighty heroes, boys and unwedded maids, and young men borne to the funeral fire before their parent's eyes." The endless caravan swept past him--"many as fluttering leaves that drop and fall in autumn woods when the first frost begins; many as birds that flock landward from the great sea when now the chill year drives them o'er the deep and leads them to sunnier lands." Such things was it given to the sacred poet to behold, and "the happy seats and sweet pleasances of fortunate souls, where the larger light clothes all the plains and dips them in a rosier gleam, plains with their own new sun and stars before unknown." Ah, not frustra pius was Virgil, as you say, Horace, in your melancholy song. In him, we fancy, there was a happier mood than your melancholy patience. "Not, though thou wert sweeter of song than Thracian Orpheus, with that lyre whose lay led the dancing trees, not so would the blood return to the empty shade of him whom once with dread wand, the inexorable God hath folded with his shadowy flocks; but patience lighteneth what heaven forbids us to undo."

Durum, sed levius fit patietia!

It was all your philosophy in that last sad resort to which we are pushed so often -

"With close-lipped Patience for our only friend,
Sad Patience, too near neighbour of Despair."

The Epicurean is at one with the Stoic at last, and Horace with Marcus Aurelius. "To go away from among men, if there are Gods, is not a thing to be afraid of; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of providence?"

An excellent philosophy, but easier to those for whom no Hope had dawned or seemed to set. Yes! it is harder than common, Horace, for us to think of YOU, still glad somewhere, among rivers like Liris and plains and vine-clad hills, that

Solemque suum, sua sidera norunt.

It is hard, for you looked for no such thing.

Omnes una manet nox
Et calcanda semel via leti.

You could not tell Maecenas that you would meet him again; you could only promise to tread the dark path with him.

Ibimus, ibimus,
Utcunque praecedes, supremum
Carpere iter comites parati.

Enough, Horace, of these mortuary musings. You loved the lesson of the roses, and now and again would speak somewhat like a death's head over your temperate cups of Sabine ordinaire. Your melancholy moral was but meant to heighten the joy of your pleasant life, when wearied Italy, after all her wars and civic bloodshed, had won a peaceful haven. The harbour might be treacherous; the prince might turn to the tyrant; far away on the wide Roman marches might be heard, as it were, the endless, ceaseless monotone of beating horses' hoofs and marching feet of men. They were coming, they were nearing, like footsteps heard on wool; there was a sound of multitudes and millions of barbarians, all the North, officina gentium, mustering and marshalling her peoples. But their coming was not to be to-day, nor to-morrow, nor to-day was the budding Empire to blossom into the blood-red flower of Nero. In the lull between the two tempests of Republic and Empire your odes sound "like linnets in the pauses of the wind."

What joy there is in these songs! what delight of life, what an exquisite Hellenic grace of art, what a manly nature to endure, what tenderness and constancy of friendship, what a sense of all that is fair in the glittering stream, the music of the waterfall, the hum of bees, the silvery grey of the olive woods on the hillside! How human are all your verses, Horace! what a pleasure is yours in the straining poplars, swaying in the wind! what gladness you gain from the white crest of Soracte, beheld through the fluttering snowflakes while the logs are being piled higher on the hearth. You sing of women and wine--not all wholehearted in your praise of them, perhaps, for passion frightens you, and 'tis pleasure more than love that you commend to the young. Lydia and Glycera, and the others, are but passing guests of a heart at ease in itself, and happy enough when their facile reign is ended. You seem to me like a man who welcomes middle age, and is more glad than Sophocles was to "flee from these hard masters" the passions. In the fallow leisure of life you glance round contented, and find all very good save the need to leave all behind. Even that you take with an Italian good- humour, as the folk of your sunny country bear poverty and hunger.

Durum, sed levius fit patientia!

To them, to you, the loveliness of your land is, and was, a thing to live for. None of the Latin poets your fellows, or none but Virgil, seem to me to have known so well as you, Horace, how happy and fortunate a thing it was to be born in Italy. You do not say so, like your Virgil, in one splendid passage, numbering the glories of the land as a lover might count the perfections of his mistress. But the sentiment is ever in your heart and often on your lips.

Me nec tam patiens Lacedaemon,
Nec tam Larissae percussit campus opimae,
Quam domus Albuneae resonantis
Et praeceps Anio, ac Tiburni lucus, et uda
Mobilibus pomaria rivis. {1}

So a poet should speak, and to every singer his own land should be dearest. Beautiful is Italy with the grave and delicate outlines of her sacred hills, her dark groves, her little cities perched like eyries on the crags, her rivers gliding under ancient walls; beautiful is Italy, her seas, and her suns: but dearer to me the long grey wave that bites the rock below the minster in the north; dearer are the barren moor and black peat-water swirling in tauny foam, and the scent of bog myrtle and the bloom of heather, and, watching over the lochs, the green round-shouldered hills.

In affection for your native land, Horace, certainly the pride in great Romans dead and gone made part, and you were, in all senses, a lover of your country, your country's heroes, your country's gods. None but a patriot could have sung that ode on Regulus, who died, as our own hero died on an evil day, for the honour of Rome, as Gordon for the honour of England.

Fertur pudicae conjugis osculum,
Parvosque natos, ut capitis minor,
Ab se removisse, et virilem
Torvus humi posuisse voltum:

Donec labantes consilio patres
Firmaret auctor nunquam alias dato,
Interque maerentes amicos
Egregius properaret exul.

Atqui sciebat, quae sibi barbarus
Tortor pararet: non aliter tamen
Dimovit obstantes propinquos,
Et populum reditus morantem,

Quam si clientum longa negotia
Dijudicata lite relinqueret,
Tendens Venafranos in agros
Aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum. {2}

We talk of the Greeks as your teachers. Your teachers they were, but that poem could only have been written by a Roman! The strength, the tenderness, the noble and monumental resolution and resignation--these are the gifts of the lords of human things, the masters of the world.

Your country's heroes are dear to you, Horace, but you did not sing them better than your country's Gods, the pious protecting spirits of the hearth, the farm, the field; kindly ghosts, it may be, of Latin fathers dead or Gods framed in the image of these. What you actually believed we know not, YOU knew not. Who knows what he believes? Parcus Deorum cultor you bowed not often, it may be, in the temples of the state religion and before the statues of the great Olympians; but the pure and pious worship of rustic tradition, the faith handed down by the homely elders, with THAT you never broke. Clean hands and a pure heart, these, with a sacred cake and shining grains of salt, you could offer to the Lares. It was a benignant religion, uniting old times and new, men living and men long dead and gone, in a kind of service and sacrifice solemn yet familiar.

Te nihil attinet
Tentare multa caede bidentium
Parvos coronantem marino
Rore deos fragilique myrto.

Immunis aram si tetigit manus
, Non sumptuosa blandior hostia
Mellivit aversos Penates
Farre pio et saliente mica, {3}

Farewell, dear Horace; farewell, thou wise and kindly heathen; of mortals the most human, the friend of my friends and of so many generations of men,

Ave atque Vale!

{1} "Me neither resolute Sparta nor the rich Larissaean plain so enraptures as the fane of echoing Albunea, the headlong Anio, the grove of Tibur, the orchards watered by the wandering rills."

{2} "They say he put aside from him the pure lips of his wife and his little children, like a man unfree, and with his brave face bowed earthward sternly he waited till with such counsel as never mortal gave he might strengthen the hearts of the Fathers, and through his mourning friends go forth, a hero, into exile. Yet well he knew what things were being prepared for him at the hands of the tormentors, who, none the less, put aside the kinsmen that barred his path and the people that would fain have delayed his return, passing through their midst as he might have done if, his retainers' weary business ended and the suits adjudged, he were faring to his Venafran lands or to Dorian Tarentum."

{3} "Thou, Phidyle, hast no need to besiege the gods with slaughter so great of sheep, thou who crownest thy tiny deities with myrtle rare and rosemary. If but the hand be clean that touches the altar, then richest sacrifice will not more appease the angered Penates than the duteous cake and salt that crackles in the blaze."


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