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HORACE, ODE I. 9

HORACE, ODE I. 9

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TO AN OLD LATIN TEACHER



Snow fell all night and suddenly there was morning:

a startling vision from a familiar window,

while yet an ordinary sight: a

neighboring hill had become itself more

completely, thrusting forward in all that sunlight

as having donned a secular alb with which to

set out along the gleaming paths of

vision extending in all directions

and so what one had always been quite aware of

had shown a new significance now—or merely

revealed what it had always meant (this

must have been slowly accumulating).

I know this keeps on happening all the time with

what one has lived with knowledge about but never,

until now only, knowledge of, then

suddenly seeing it one bright morning . . .

as if, like some Chocorua or Monadnock

I’d left alone for others to climb, I saw the

hill as a text I’d only known in

pieces; and such was my understanding

of Horace. Never having him as a schoolboy,

for I’d come late to Latin in any case; since

an introduction back in sixth grade,

nothing amounted to more than hearsay.

Then I acquired some more later on, yet not in

an overheated classroom some winter morning

but rather, warm in bed, beside you

clasped by the Latin you’d always loved, in



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the way we’re told vernaculars best are studied

in undemanding, intimate pedagogy,

you answered all the simple questions,

sending me back to old Suetonius

and Robert Graves and others for all the raunchy

and easily retold imperial scandals,

and all the while the scraps of grammar,

stories of syntax—a kind of folklore—

that barely got me started on all those decades’

unearned and poor and ignorant use of Latin,

Catullus holding my attention,

Ovid then coming to claim his own; and

then it was Milton led me at last to Virgil

and finally, delighting in the Aeneid,

which, most preposterously through this

mode of progression, I came to live with.

What scraps of Horace hovered about my childhood,

though? “Integer vitae scelerisque purus,”

my father sang, in its contracted

setting from Germany, shorn of all those

last words of loving Lalage, softly laughing

and chattering, and thus undoing what Horace

was up to, then the carpe diem

coming, of course, when I got older,

enough to guess what all that might have to do with

the growing bed of flowers I’d want to pluck from:

eheu fugaces, with its Roman

sigh that a friend informed me had been

pronounced at his St. Grottlesex school to rhyme with

“give me the key, Hugh” (rather than—what?—forget it—

and poets all are doomed in being

ever Postumus, in any case); then



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odi profanum vulgus at just the time I

began to feel a bit of all that myself, seemed

like pure high modernism to a

celebrant aetat sixteen, who’d later

believe beatus ille qui procul—parents?

negotiis of all of the nineteen fifties?—

it rang a bell and who could say the

wrong one? Then nunc est bibendum and all

(and any undergraduate yahoo knew what

the gist of that was, sans any word of Latin),

and then the quite indifferent foot of

Pallida Mors, which to think of causes

a simple form of shuddering in us, rather

than any sense of fairness . . . and all those other

old rags of tags that the English language

made seem its own like the tough aes triplex.

What Wilfred Owen called the “old lie” of dulce et

decorum est pro patria mori (what could

you mean by patria to make this

true? Later on we would come to wonder).

I finally came to pick up the pieces, putting

these tags and all the others where they belonged and

when raised from later dead allusion

quickened in far-reaching strophic vigor.

Thus I’ve been led to consider how exegi

monumentum paululum, how my sense of

Horatian verse emerged today in

crystalline meanings: I’ve finally come to

“See how Soracte, glistening, stands out high in

its cape of snow, how laboring woods let go of

their load, and all the streams are frozen

over completely with sharpest cold now.”



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So turn the heat up high and bring up a case of

the famous wine that’s seventy winters old, which,

though better than it ever was, had

best be drunk soon for another reason.



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WHERE IT COMES FROM



Yes, the source of it always remains a kind of

Spring—and when the original one they told of,

High on Helicon, opened

Up when Pegasus struck his hoof

Hard against an unyielding expanse of talus,

First it seemed that expression its very self had

Substance all of its own, and

Not just blustering energy,

Self-aggrandizing suddenness of appearance

Courting only the easiest cries of wonder,

All the cheapest applause. But

If so only because a spring

Can’t acknowledge its proper supplier, being

Always stuck with the business of keeping hidden

Where its water had come from

Even if it had been (which it

Most emphatically wasn’t) the very first, the

Very fons et origo of every spring and

Fountain that subsequently

Thrust a secret of some sort out

Into various pools of availing liquid.

They can only proclaim that at best they’re like some

First one, never that it was

Like them: truth would be better served

Searching ever the sources of all the sources,

Not through time—an original spring event in

Space: a place at the bottom

Whence the water has always first



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Burst, a pocket of aquifer self-enclosed (no

Subterranean eloquence it was fed by),

Source of only itself, and

Drawing on no original

Water, rock, or whatever—a colored gas, a

Plasma, even the trace of a something lying

Deep inside the remotest

Probability that there was

Some particular stuff, though unphased, unbothered

Quite by what would be seen as its helplessness to

Get its physical act—if

Not its more metaphysical

One—together. A substance—the means and product,

Work and play—of expression itself, combined in

One astonishing bit of

Time and space with a mystery:

Something hidden in those porosities, some dim

Unseen shadow of meaning that preexisted

Matter, energy, even

Mind, the youngest of all their sons.

Where it first had emerged from is ultimately

Not the point here, nor what its constituents could

Be: but rather just how it

Comes, and from just what pool or stream—

Whether shallower, narrower, deeper, wider;

Straight, or turning its purposive slow meander

—That, and just what the pool is thinking,

What the river-bound stream has got to

Finally say for itself, are what matters most to

What within us whatever might matter matters

To; and thus it will be that

Any one of our private springs



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May be numbered among the most noble fountains

Like one sung of by Horace above the rocky

Grotto out of which all its

Waters, chattering, tumbled forth.



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A KIND OF FEAR



Golden does, one fawn,

move among afternoon trees

shading the long lawn

standing as if framed

in some bad landscape painting

still of course untamed

yet seeming somehow

quite domestic, grazing there

like a sheep or cow

not much can disturb;

that the deer have overrun

most of our suburb

follows from our own

civilized interventions

who removed their one

local natural

predator—our hunters—by

limiting the fall

hunting season and

just by being too many

of us on the land.

What had all been farm

went back into second growth

where, quick with alarm

and with fleeting grace,

the deer returned to what now

seemed their native place

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when a second tier

of cultivation should have

then displaced the deer

once more, but they grew

fruitful and multiplied as

if after a new

deluge and now reclaim

driveway, summerhouse, and pool

as if they were game

for anything here

in their own third-growth wild.

But a kind of fear

touches me, that they

appear to fear me not, but,

fifteen feet away,

stand and stand and stare,

ears untrembling, curious

but unalarmed there,

irredentist and

innocent of the language

of right and demand.

I could feel it then

better to be living in

a milder time, when

deer such as these three

would start up suddenly, in

healthy fear of me.



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FROM A PALACE DIARY



The procession was still arriving, the trumpets and drums

Were coming and then their echoes, and then the queen herself,

A black jewel, a shining darkness that glowed in the sunset.

Then came a slow halt, with all of her servants dismounting

And then their shadows. And I the expectant child, youngest

Princess in my grandfather’s palace, peering out, seeing

Her arrival from my high window above the Great Gate.

My grandfather the wise king was told by an informed bird—

A prophetic hoopoe—that of the kingdoms of the earth

Only that of Sheba was not subject to him, its queen

Alone did not bend the knee to him in acknowledgment.

He thereupon dispatched that bird over the sand and sea

A letter folded tight, bound to its long-sustaining wing.

And then in answer many, many ships arrived, bearing

Many more many wonderful gifts, bearing six thousand

Young men dressed all in red, of just the same size and stature

(All of whom were born, they said, at the same hour), themselves

Bearing the queen’s word, carrying her promise to appear

In three years. And so that day, bearing her own dark grandeur,

And countless many other gifts, the queen arrived, amid

The trumpets and drums, among harps and high-sounding cymbals.

And came in by the Great Gate, thus she entered the palace.

That evening she appeared to the king, approaching his throne

(I saw this standing there among the household as she came),

Walking through the long shining hall, along the polished floor

Of yellow stone, and saw herself reflected there darkly

In the flickering of so much lamplight and, believing

That it was a shallow pool of water returning her

Image, lifted the skirt of her long golden robe, baring

Her ebon legs, but swiftly Grandfather, leaning over,

Whispered to her, of her mistake, at which she sweetly smiled

As in acknowledgment of it, of him, of everything.



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At a great feast some days after, she set him three riddles,

Put to him three knotted but living engimas whose breath

Was to be drawn out of them, leaving their shells of dead words.

“Two things, no, three, scurry away from all understanding:

What may look at you, O Solomon, whenever it wants?

The second is: what is most wise when most it is silent?

The third, What most will give of love through loving of itself?”

“My own image in the mirror of the great floor,” the king

Answered the first of these; and to the second he replied,

“The water of the river having entered the deep lake.”

But before he could answer the third engima, two small

Furry creatures crept out of a basket her servant held—

Two creatures smaller than our mongoose who frees the palace

Of rats and mice—creatures with pointed ears and active tails,

One black as the queen herself, one tawny as the desert

Sand over which she’d traveled. Scurrying across the floor,

They came to rest at last, at which they seemed to wrap themselves,

Each in itself, there at the feet of the visiting queen.

The king, wise himself as the water of the deep lake, laughed,

And the queen laughed, as if delighted by her own error

About the water-smooth floor; and I laughed and was reproved

Until the queen presented them to me to keep. I did,

And we have had secret cats in the palace ever since.

It will be said by one of the old men fussing over

Legalities in later times that Moses had allowed

Our ancestors to take their cats out of Egypt with them.

But we had known no cats until the day when Sheba’s queen

And her all train departed, heading for the many ships,

Leaving in my care these creatures the Egyptians call miw.

Only thereafter did we have them or a name for them,

But only I knew what the queen knew, how they in themselves

Each answered each of her three enigmas, each one of which

Had, in its double way, one light answer and one dark one.



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