To Q. Horatius Flaccus.
From Letters to Dead Authors
Andrew Lang

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 out-worn of mighty heroes, boys and unwedded maids,
and young men borne to the funeral fire before their parents' 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.'


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

  '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
. '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 dawn or
seemed to set. Yet 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,

  Solemque suum, sua sidera borunt.
It is hard, for you looked for no such thing.

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


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 thy temperate
cups of Sabine _ordinaire_. Your melancholy moral was but meant to heighten
the joy of thy 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
princely sway to blossom into the blood-red flower of Nero. In the hall
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 whole-hearted in your praise of them, perhaps, for
passion frightens you, and 't is 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.


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)

(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.
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 is the barren moor and black peat-water swirling
in tanny 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 conjujis osculum,
 Parvosque natos, ut capitis minor,
  Ab se removisse, et virilem
   Torvus humi pusuisse 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. (1)

(1) '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 tormenters, who, none the less, put aside the kinsmen that barred his
path and the people that would fain have held him back, 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.'
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 gift 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

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

Immunis aram si tetigit manus,
Non sumptuosa blandior hostia
  Mollivit aversos Penates
   Farre pio et salienta mica. (1)

(1) 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.'
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.

Previous Letter (to Omar Khayyám) | Letters to Dead Authors

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.