Literary essay: Horace, Odes 1.11



Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi

finem di dederint, Leuconoe, 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.

In this brief sympotic poem, Horace criticizes the human condition of begrudging the past and being anxious about the future. With Epicurean undertones the author formulates a moral message that later became one of the predominant themes in western literature: carpe diem. Despite its philosophical component, the ode also becomes a love poem thanks to the elegant reference to a woman who apparently cares for Horace - quem mihi, quem tibi (v. 1). Her name Leuconoe - which means 'clear-minded' (λευκός, νοῦς) - reinforces the message of the poem by means of the vocative case, through which it almost becomes a command for the woman to be more straightforward: to only care about the present, and forget about the past and the future.

Horace develops the archetypical analogy of wine as a symbol of enjoying life by using language of viniculture - very much in physical terms - to express abstract concepts of morality (reseces, carpe...). Although the metaphor is fairly common in Horace, it immediately reminds the reader of ode 1.9, where the theme of carpe diem is introduced also through the symbol of wine (deprome quadrimum Sabina, v. 7). The way the poet treats the gods' will in the first two verses of 1.11 is also reminiscent of 1.9 (permitte divis cetera, v. 9), and both poems also share an almost identical construction when dealing with the worries about the future: quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere (1.9, v. 13) and tu ne quaesieris... finem di dederint (1.11, vv. 1-2). Furthermore, not only are the two poems linguistically similar, but also thematically, for they both add to the moral message a secondary topic of love: nec dulcis amoris sperne puer (1.9, vv. 15-16). All these associations suggest a sequential reading in an ABA structure between 1.9 and 1.11, which further empowers their moral advice.

It is also interesting to note the surprising exaggeration in debilitat pumicibus mare (v. 5). Unexpectedly, Horace creates a very odd image where the rocks weaken the water, instead of the other way around. It is not exactly an adynaton, but it is indeed a very original hyperbole where even the sea - one of the strongest natural landscapes in ancient literature - can be potentially destroyed. There is also a second oxymoron in the image, since the author chooses a rather soft rock as pumice to be the one that wears down the sea, which further increases the exaggeration.

Finally, to add a morphological comment, it is important to note Horace's precision in the word choice. His fugerit in verse 7 goes beyond the later motif of tempus fugit. By choosing the future perfect tense he is reinforcing the meaning of the word through its form, because not only does time leave, but it has in fact already left as we speak. This expression, of course, is a reference to the prototypical πάντα ῥεῖ of Heraclitus.