Here's an essay, which I've just finished writing. I set the question for my year 12 class recently, and thought I should have a bash at trying to answer it myself. If you're not in my year class, you may not find it very interesting (sorry). If you are in my year 12 class, I hope you find it helpful. Feel free to leave a comment (even a negative one).
What can we learn about Horace’s approach to life from his poetry? In your answer refer to at least three poems we have read this year.
Though it may be a dangerous task to try to discern something of a poet’s character from his work, a strong impression of Horace’s approach to life presents itself throughout his Odes. He writes often about the brevity of life and the inescapability of death, and consequently urges his readers to make the most of the short time they do have, without worrying too much about the future.
One important motif which seems to have an important influence on Horace’s approach to life, and which we see again and again in his poetry is that of the transience of life and the certainty of death. In Ode I.9 for example Horace vividly juxtaposes youth and old age to impress upon his readers that though they may be young now, old age is inevitable. The vivid contrast of green youth (viridi) with white old age (canities) is a poignant reminder of this fact. This is also highlighted by the imagery of cold winter (nive, gelu, frigus), associated with bitter suffering (onus, laborantes, acuto), used as a metaphor for old age.
Similar imagery occurs in IV.7, where the cycles of the seasons (mutat terra vices) and of the moon (damna tamen celers reparant caelestia lunae) lead Horace to reflect that once we are dead (cum semel occideris) nothing can bring us back (restituet). We are, he says, ‘dust and shadows’ (pulvis et umbra), the present tense of sumus emphasising that as robust as life may seem to us, in reality it is fragile and fleeting.
Then there is the heartfelt lament of II.14 (eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, labuntur anni), in which Horace grieves the swift passing of the years and the approach of inevitable old age (instanti senectae) and unconquerable death (indomitaeque morti). The negative epithets here vividly convey both the tragedy and the unavoidability of these things. The gerundives scattered throughout this poem (enaviganda, visendus, linquenda) also reinforce the inescapability of death, as does the repetition of ‘frustra’ (emphasised through word placement), as Horace describes the futility of trying to avoid (carebimus) death. The recurrence of this concept seems to suggest that it was important to Horace, and that it influenced his approach to life significantly.
In fact, in each of the poems discussed above Horace makes explicit what he believes is the best way to respond to the inevitable approach of death, that is to enjoy the present as much as possible. In I.9 he urges his readers to break out the wine (deprome quadrimum Sabina… merum diota), and to seek out love (dulces amores) and dancing (choreas) while they are still young. In IV.7 and II.14 he encourages us to enjoy what we have now, lest it pass to our greedy heir (manus avidas heredis, heres… dignior). These exhortations can be summarised in a phrase famously used by Horace in another of his Odes, I.11. There, again urging his readers to break out the wine (vina liques) he writes carpe diem- ‘seize the day’.
From the examples already given it becomes clear what Horace means by this metaphor; he believes strongly that to live life fully is to take advantage of all of life’s pleasures (eg wine, love, dancing). There is no point saving one’s possessions or hoarding them up as he makes clear in several of his poems (II.14 as already mentioned; cf IV.7.19f), the pleasure of life is found in enjoying them now. We see this, for example, in I.9; the repetition of nunc in the fifth and sixth stanzas makes it clear that there is no time to waste, and in IV.7 Horace urges his readers (to paraphrase line 19f.) to enjoy what they’ve got now, lest someone else enjoy it when they’re dead. The hyperbole in poem II.14 also highlights the futility of storing up one’s riches; there is no point protecting your wine with 100 locks (centum clavis- note too the alliteration) if you never get to enjoy it.
Another interesting, though more subtle example is seen in Ode I.22. Here Horace writes of how the ‘righteous’ person (integer… purus) has the favour and protection of the gods, but his definition of righteousness turns out not be what we might expect. According to Horace the righteous person, the person whose life is to be most admired and emulated, turns out to be the lover; the wolf fled from Horace because he was in love and singing about his girlfriend (canto Lalagen), and it is his love which will enable him to endure even the harshest of circumstances.
Another important aspect of Horace’s approach to life is his insistence on not worrying about the future. This is obviously related to the two points already mentioned; one of the consequences of life’s transience (at least according to Horace) is that there is no point in worrying too much about the future- old age and death await us regardless. On the other hand, spending too much time worrying about the future also prevents us from living in the present, another concern of Horace’s as we have already seen. Worrying about the future is thus both futile and undesirable.
In several places Horace refers to the impossibility of knowing the future. In IV.7 for example he asks ‘who knows’ (quis scit) whether the gods will add tomorrow to today, and similarly in I.11 he stresses the impossibility of knowing whether we have many winters (plures hiemes) left, or just one last one(ultimam).
But more importantly, Horace emphasises the undesirability of knowing the future. We see this most noticeably in I.11. The poem begins with a strong warning not to attempt to find out what the future holds (quem tibi finem di dederint), and Horace goes so far as to say that it would be wrong to try to discern the future, with the word nefas carrying strong moral and religious connotations. Instead Horace urges his readers to give up their hope for a long life (spem longam reseces; cf. IV.7, immortalia ne speres), and focuses on how much better (ut melius) it is to endure whatever may happen (quidquid erit). Similarly in I.9 we are encouraged to let the gods take care of the future (permitte divis cetera), to flee (fuge) from knowing what the future (futurum cras) will bring, and instead to consider each day as a bonus (lucro appone), the imperatives conveying Horace’s passionate conviction.