Posts Tagged ‘Horace’

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

On feeling oppressed by time…

October 31, 2020

I have realised it’s an aspect of growing older: the further I get in life’s journey, the more oppressed I feel by the very idea of time. At one level, it’s a personal thing. I look back to my early life and my parents, and realise how long ago all those memories are now; when I can say it’s half a century since I did my O levels, that feels overwhelming in a way. I look back to my own children’s early lives – they’re grown, now – and that feels an age away, looking at photographs and thinking, ‘thirty years ago?’…

Literature is interesting (though not particularly helpful) at this point in my reflections. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and how much time has gone by between the making of the statue, now ruined, and the visit of the traveller who brings back the account of what he has seen. Even the situation, in the sands of the desert, feeds into our notions of time measured in the sands of an hourglass, remorselessly slipping away.

Ursula Le Guin is very interesting in the way she presents the pain of the passage of time. In the Hainish stories and science fiction novels, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and the officials of the Ekumen, the collective of known worlds peopled by human-like creatures that are sprinkled across the universe, often travel between worlds on journeys that take centuries in real time. This means that a person leaves their world knowing that even if they ever do return to it, their return will be centuries later, and everyone and everything that is familiar to them about home, will no longer exist, or will be radically changed. Ivan Yefremov, in A for Andromeda, takes us a thousand years into the future, to a world where communism and the Soviet way of life rules the planet, has created a utopia for humanity and abolished religion completely, and yet has his characters contemplating similar themes.

Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living, and anyone who spends time reflecting on their life will surely at some time experience how hard it is being aware of both the enormity of the universe in time and space, and the brevity of their own personal existence. For some, religious or spiritual beliefs offer solace; for others, not.

We can look back over centuries, millennia even, of literature, and see same these preoccupations voiced: Horace’s poignant ode to his friend Postumus (even his name evokes mortality!), reflections on life and death in Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy!), Tolstoy… nothing has changed. And I have admired the way that somehow Tolstoy managed to capture the sense of the broad sweep of history and the individual’s place within it, in War and Peace. But, given that better minds than mine have wrestled with time over so much time in the past, I’m not sure I will ever resolve anything… What was one our present becomes our past, the past; becomes history, and then we are part of it. As an Arab sage once said, ‘One day you will only be a story. Make sure that yours is a good one.’

De lingua latina

September 22, 2018

I was reminded about this topic when at the Pont du Gard a couple of weeks ago. There is a small tablet placed on the road bridge side of this huge edifice; it’s in Latin and tells – who, exactly? – that the Romans built the aqueduct, and the Occitans added the road bridge in 1745. There were some students, engineers I think, larking about and taking their task half-heartedly. They were supposed to note down what the tablet said. One of them admitted defeat, telling his mates it was in Italian and he couldn’t read it. I helped him, whereupon he tried to pass off my help as his own genius…

In our country the teaching and learning of classical languages has pretty much vanished from the state sector of education, in some cases replaced by a vague and optional course in Classical Civilisation. And for years it was acceptable to decry Latin as a dead language, the study of which was of no possible use to anyone in such a modern and technological age as ours. So it has gone: people can no longer make out inscriptions in churches and on old monuments, and most people have no idea how to understand Roman numerals…

I find all of this very sad, not because I am a luddite, sitting here typing at my desktop PC using the linux system I installed and customised myself. I can manage the social media I want to use, admittedly not an awful lot. And I’ve been writing this blog for over five years. I studied Latin at school, up to A Level and originally intended to read it at university, until my love of English Literature overtook that desire. I read and prepared Julius Caesar and Virgil, HoraceLivy, Cicero and Tacitus for my examinations, and enjoyed them, too, along with the history we studied. I think I can still just about decipher Caesar’s Gallic Wars, though I do enjoy engaging with a fellow-blogger’s more demanding passages from Roman authors which she occasional excerpts.

I have found Latin useful throughout my life. My first encounters came as a Catholic in the days when all services were in that language, and I was trained as an altar-boy in all the responses at mass; I can still recite then today. I am passionate about history and visit many old churches and other archaeological sites, and Latin helps me understand inscriptions, books and other artefacts. A working knowledge of Latin has been invaluable in my studies and teaching of English, both language and literature, and obviously immensely helpful in my learning of French at school, and now Spanish. Latin helps us understand an engage more fully with our past, and in these divisive days a reminder of a common language, first via the Roman empire and then the Western church, is salutary.

I can’t advocate inflicting the study of Latin on all school students; I don’t suggest it replace other subjects in our school curriculum. But I would like the option of learning it, and using it to access an enormous wealth from the past, to be available to all students, alongside other subjects. I do have an issue with the prescriptiveness of the school curriculum and our current obsession with science, technology and mathematics to the exclusion of the arts, languages and creativity.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…


Choices, ageing, regrets…with poems

July 26, 2018

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,

labuntur anni, nec pietas moram

rugis et instanti senectae

adferet indomitaeque morti;

Looking back nearly half a century I can see why I loved Horace at school. Even as a school student I found I could tune in to the rhythm of his verse, as well as the images he conjured up of the Roman countryside, food and wine, so very atmospheric. And at the ripe old age of 17, though I couldn’t really have known anything about the subject, l loved this poem of his about ageing and its inevitability: the years slip by and there’s nothing you can do about it; wrinkles and death will arrive, no matter how good you have been… now I really know that. And if there’s nothing to be done, then I have to accept and come to terms with it. Which took me on to this poem by Robert Frost:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The first twelve lines are a single sentence that flows slowly, deliberately, creating a sense of thoughtful reflectiveness, partly through the poet’s use of enjambment which allows his ideas to run on; then the single exclamatory line which follows brings him up short, with the impossible idea that he can always go back and start again… the entire third stanza is his reverie interrupted, and he then re-joins it in the final stanza, where he acknowledges the finality of that original choice.

Notice also Frost’s use of the first personal pronoun, which occurs quite regularly through the poem, reminding us of the personal nature of the choice, and the effect of the hiatus in the final stanza, where ‘I’ is repeated, perhaps anchoring the poet’s responsibility for that choice. A certain feeling of wistfulness – or is it nostalgia? – is created by the exclamatory ‘Oh’, and the word ‘sigh’ in the opening line of the final stanza, carefully placed to balance the ‘I’ at the start of that line and to rhyme with the ‘I’ ending the line two lines further on.

Choices. We make them all the time, little ones and big ones, ones we understand and ones we can’t know the significance of, at least until much later on. At the actual moment of choice, Frost observes, there may seem very little in it: ‘really about the same’.

There’s also the matter of impulse for Frost, the idea of certain choices as leaps in the dark: having considered one option carefully for almost the length of the first stanza, he leaps at the other possibility in a single line. The idea of paths you cannot return along is quite haunting in a way, too, almost as if those turnings on life’s map are erased once you have passed them by.

It’s almost impossible not to apply this poem to one’s own life: it’s a poem with a particular meaning for Frost, but which, once out there in the public domain, becomes almost the property of every reader. I often reflect on my younger years and the choices I made way back when, which helped turn me into the person I am today, whether I like him or it or not. Inevitably such thoughts also which lead me to Edith Piaf’s famous song, Je ne regrette rien. If I regret my past choices, am I not also regretting what I am today, given that those choices helped shape me? I think that depends on how happy or satisfied or content I feel with my life, my achievements and my current self…

I made life-changing choices at school: studied English, not History; studied French and English and not French and Latin at university, chose to be an English and not a French teacher. Long ago now, I chose to leave a relationship which meant a lot to me at the time but which I could then see would not give me what I most wanted in my future. Once made, as Frost acknowledges, fairly soon those choices could not be unmade: ‘way leads on to way’ and one is somewhere and someone else before one realises it…

I’ve mentioned some of the choices I’m aware of having made. Then there are also choices I didn’t have, such as – for instance – to not have had a very religious upbringing. But if I hadn’t, who would I be today? And finally there are choices I didn’t know I’d made, the most obvious example of which was not getting on a plane one day when I was much younger and flying somewhere, so that I’ve ended up today with what’s either a phobia or a total unwillingness, meaning there are a lot of places I’d really like to visit that I’m never going to see…

For me, neither Horace nor Frost have said anything I didn’t already know: what they have done – and here is another skill of a true poet, it seems to me – is to put something I already knew into words I could not, and thereby made me stop and reflect more deeply on those things. My truth was mine: they capture the eternal as well.

De lingua latina

January 10, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This is a recent treat to myself, and I’ve just started reading it; it’s sent me back about fifty years, thinking about my acquaintance with the classical world…

Raised as a Catholic and trained as an altar-boy before the change to Mass in one’s own language, my acquaintance with Latin began at an early age. True, it was Church Latin, not classical Latin, but I soon met the latter at grammar school, and never looked back; once I’d cracked the grammar, there was a whole new world ahead of me. In those days you met real authors for O Level – Caesar’s Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid; I had that under my belt at fourteen and an A Level in Ancient History at fifteen; more authors and more Roman History followed in the sixth form. It was a curiously censored literature, with anything remotely rude excised from schoolboy texts, and no chance of getting anywhere near Catullus and other such racy authors. The history, too, was very sober and old-fashioned – battles, dates and famous men, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the Roman Empire had lasted quite a lot longer than the British or American ones…

Life is shaped by chance decisions: I rejected my original choice of History as an A Level subject in favour of English (!) and I changed my mind about going off to read Latin and French at university in favour of English Literature and French (and look where it got me…)

But I have retained my fascination with Latin and things Roman, along with a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. My knowledge of the language, along with my religious upbringing, has given me very useful keys to understanding a great deal of European art, literature, history and culture, as well as an enormous amount of pleasure and enjoyment: whether one is religious or not, the fact remains that Romans and Christianity have shaped our part of the world into what it is today…

I can still manage to read Church Latin; classical Latin has faded rather, though a recent look at Caesar again (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…) showed me that it hadn’t vanished completely without trace. I recall my enjoyment of Horace‘s lyrics, Cicero‘s mastery of the language through oratory, and the weird syntax of Tacitus: magical stuff. And I can still remember the recipe for making bees (Virgil, Georgics IV)!

On time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

%d bloggers like this: