George Myerson's most recent book was a biography of the rogue talent of Edwardian football, Tim Coleman - Fighting For Football. E-book editions of his three little books on the philosophy of everyday life originally published in 'proper' formats by Icon in the UK and Totem in the US were released in 2009, the author's favourite being a grumpy theory of mobile telephony. He has previously written on social and political argument, on poetry and on environmental issues, as well as on previous world cup prospects - England: The World Cup prophecies (Arrow, 2002), a work undone ultimately by its obligatory optimism. George has loved Latin since first reading Horace - whose Odes he discusses below - with one of those light-giving teachers (Mr Harvey, it was) in the sixth form, many decades ago.
George Myerson on Horace's Odes
In difficult times, each of us hears a different voice, one bringing our own measure of comfort. For Paul McCartney in shaken moments this comforting voice was Mother Mary 'speaking words of wisdom': 'and in my hour of darkness', as he sang, along that lovely rising curve of the music in the face of sorrow, she spoke again. 'Let it be'. That is the humane comfort of being philosophical, though not the grandiose Consolation of Philosophy.
For me, in an ordinarily difficult time recently, such as we all have, the voice of comfort was the Roman poet Horace, saying, well, not quite 'let it be', but something not so far away. Part of the consoling power of Horace's Odes lay for me in the sound and feel of the ancient language: Latin has not only a different grammar but also a different kind of logic from English, another way of putting the world together to make sense. If, as Wittgenstein argued, the limits of my language bound my world, then even a hesitant step towards another tongue might bring the sight of another horizon.
Horace's short poems abound with lines and phrases that have momentarily softened the world for readers down the centuries:
solvitur acris hiems
I love everything about these syllables, the first line of the fourth poem in Horace's inaugural collection of Odes, one of the watersheds in world literature: 'the bitter winter dissolves'. In the original, the softness of that first word, 'solvitur', 'it is dissolved', precedes the sharpness of 'acris', 'acrid', keen-edged winter. Those words in that order have had the power to raise the hairs on the back of my neck (Housman's poetry test) for three decades. The winter is passing 'grata vice veris et favoni', 'by the pleasing change of spring and the west wind'. Lady Mary (Wortley Montagu) caught the feel of these words of wisdom in her translation:
Sharp winter now dissolved, the linnets sing,
The grateful breath of pleasing Zephyrs bring
The welcome joys of long desired spring
It is not just any beginning... it is the sound of all beginnings... inner as well as outer. She has smuggled that little word 'now' into the lines on her own account, but this was right as the poem does keep repeating 'nunc... iam' - beautiful Latin words for the present moment as it rises up and passes. From two decades before the birth of Christ, here is another way to speak of comfort.
But then there is another side to wisdom as well, as there is in McCartney's lyric. Comfort is not at all the same as sentimental escapism:
Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
'Pale death knocks with equal beat upon the taverns of the poor and the towers of kings...'
I can't resist putting in the Latin because I love the drum taps of the p... p... p as death beats on the door, a soft insistent rhythm rather than a hammering - and all the harder to ignore. We live in the space between these two lines, the coming of spring and the tap of death on the door of the tavern where we gather together for pleasure and community. Still, there is a radical consolation even in this acceptance of mortality. Here is a spiritual equality, a sense of common ground.
What I love even more than this deep and humane sense is the way the words are all folded into each other. The patterning is so different from English and in fact it would have seemed quite strange even to a Roman, verbs and nouns interlaced. Nietzsche, usually associated with tragedy and prophecy, also loved this infolded quality in Horace, which he relished as the 'artistic delight' of the 'mosaic of words', the 'minimum... number of signs' with the 'maximum realized in their energy'. I dislike his more famous pronouncements but forgive him for speaking so well about the feel of these Odes.
All of this lively beauty can, though, become 'classical' in a bad way, when presumed ideas or truths are separated from the magical patterns of the language. Indeed Horace has often suffered the fate of being cannibalized for philosophical sounding mottoes, at worst things like 'dulce et decorum est' (3.2). Yet in context, this is immediately qualified by the wry acknowledgement that since even cowards must die anyway, we might as well stand and face it. He also gave one of the most vivid accounts of the terror of battle in another poem, sadly and humanely mocking his own lack of heroism in defeat at Philippi (2.7). For all the polished phrases, the Odes give no answers but offer instead a constantly changing play of light and shadow. Words of wisdom...
One reason these poems are so consoling, though they solve nothing for us, is that the poet himself found consolation in their composition. Calling himself 'musis amicus' (1.26), friend to the muses, he declares that when he writes he will cast sadness and fear into the sea wind which will bear them off over the waves. Two millennia have passed and the wind still blows fresh out to the ocean.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]