After Zorba the Greek, here comes Horace the Roman. The peasant Zorba, you’ll remember from the film, releases uptight, genteel Alan Bates from his cage of repressed Englishness. Now it’s Horace, the Augustan lyric poet, releasing another repressed Englishman: Harry Eyres, Old Etonian scholar, Cambridge graduate, poet and author of the ‘Slow Lane’ column in the Financial Times.
This charming, moving book calls itself ‘Life Lessons’, as if it were a general teaching guide for the reader. Really, though, it’s a personal guide for Eyres — who realises that the poet he first struggled to appreciate at school has valuable lessons to teach about love, wine and friendship. Now Eyres never goes anywhere without his little battered red Loeb translation of Horace in his pocket.
Non-classicists will be more familiar with Horace than they think. He’s probably the most quoted of all Latin writers. Among his famous lines are ‘Carpe diem’, ‘Nunc est bibendum’, and ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. These one-liners were ripped from the Odes, and Eyres rightly returns them to their fully-formed contexts.
That was how Horace was learnt by Eyres and earlier generations of schoolboys and how the late Paddy Leigh Fermor learnt him; which was why he could share his knowledge with General Karl Kreipe, the German -officer he kidnapped in Crete in April 1944. As they trudged to the summit of Mount Ida, Kreipe recited the first line of a -Horace ode: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum -Soracte’ — ‘See how Soracte [a mountain north of Rome] stands white with snow on high.’ Leigh Fermor continued reciting the poem to its end — as he put it, he suddenly realised that they had both ‘drunk at the same -fountains’ before the war.
But there’s no need for the reader to have drunk at those fountains. The Latin is translated by Eyres into pleasing English poems, with contemporary references: Brunello stands in for ancient Falernian wine, the Iraq War for skirmishes on the fringes of the Roman Empire. In any case, the poems are staging posts in what is really a dual memoir — of two poets, ancient and modern.
Eyres’s beginnings were luckier than Horace’s. Born the son of a slave, Horace had literally to fight his way to his privileged position as a poet at Augustus’s court. Eyres was brought up in upper-middle-class comfort in the Home Counties, able to track his lineage through the pages of Burke’s Landed Gentry. On top of that, he’s clever, one of the last beneficiaries of the old-fashioned classical education conferred on the brightest public school boys.
Still, doubt and melancholy hover over Eyres as he passes through the upper reaches of Eton and Cambridge. Even as he triumphs in his exams, he writes an article in the school magazine on the misguided emphasis on dead as opposed to living languages. At Cambridge, he so tires of Classics that he changes to English. When he returns to the subject, in a doctorate on Greek tragedy, he drops out after a year.
It’s only after a long trip to Spain, and immersion in a living Latinate tongue, that he revives the beauties of Latin from the dusty ashes of the language he’d learnt at school. And Horace is the chief reviver — the poet who can write a stirring, heart-lifting ode to a friend, god or bottle of wine.
As Eyres ignites a dormant taste for the poet, he sets off in search of Horace’s -beloved farm in the Sabine hills near Licenza, 30 miles outside Rome. There’s little proof that the ancient ruin he finds really is Horace’s villa; and the same doubt looms over the so-called Casa di Orazio in Venosa, -Horace’s home town near Naples. But it doesn’t really matter. Although at Naples airport Eyres quotes Horace’s saddest line — ‘Eheu -fugaces, Postume, Postume, labuntur anni!’; ‘Oh how the years slip away, Postumus!’ — his own melancholy has disappeared.
Harry Mount’s books include Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life.