Robert Pinsky

III. Horace, Epistulae I, xvi

The Poet Horace, writing to a friend
About his Sabine farm and other matters,
Implies his answer about aspiration
Within the prison of empire or republic:

“Dear Quinctius:
                         I’ll tell you a little about
My farm—in case you ever happen to wonder
About the place: as, what I make in grain,
Or if I’m getting rich on olives, apples,
Timber or pasture.
                              There are hills, unbroken
Except for one soft valley, cut at an angle
That sweetens the climate, because it takes the sun
All morning on its right slope, until the left
Has its turn, warming as the sun drives past
All afternoon. You’d like it here: the plums
And low-bush berries are ripe; and where my cows
Fill up on acorns and ilex-berries a lush
Canopy of shade gives pleasure to their master.
The green is deep, so deep you’d say Tarentum
Had somehow nestled closer, to be near Rome.

There is a spring, fit for a famous river
(The Hebrus winds through Thrace no colder or purer),
Useful for healing stomach-aches and head-aches.
And here I keep myself, and the place keeps me—
A precious good, believe it, Quinctius—
In health and sweetness through September’s heat.
You of course live in the way that is truly right,
If you’ve been careful to remain the man
That we all see in you. We here in Rome
Talk of you, always, as ‘happy’…there is the fear,
Of course, that one might listen too much to others,
Think what they see, and strive to be that thing,
And lose by slow degrees that inward man
Others first noticed—as though, if over and over
Everyone tells you you’re in marvelous health,
You might towards dinner-time, when a latent fever
Falls on you, try for a long while to disguise it,
Until the trembling rattles your foot-smeared hands.
It’s foolishness to camouflage our sores.

Take ‘recognition’—what if someone writes
A speech about your service to your country,
Telling for your attentive ears the roll
Of all your victories by land or sea,
With choice quotations, dignified periods,
And skillful terms, all in the second person,
As in the citations for honorary degrees:
‘Only a mind beyond our human powers
Could judge if your great love for Rome exceeds,
Or is exceeded by, Rome’s need for you.’

—You’d find it thrilling, but inappropriate
For anyone alive, Except Augustus.

And yet if someone calls me ‘wise’ or ‘flawless’
Must one protest? I like to be told I’m right.
And brilliant, as much as any other man.
The trouble is, the people who give out
The recognition, compliments, degrees
Can take them back tomorrow, if they choose;
The committee or electorate decide
You can’t sit in the Senate, or have the Prize—
‘Sorry, but isn’t that ours, that you nearly took?’
What can I do, but shuffle sadly off?
If the same people scream that I’m a crook
Who’d strangle my father for money to buy a drink,
Should I turn white with pain and humiliation?
If prizes and insults from outside have much power
To hurt or give joy, something is sick inside.

Who is the ‘good man?’
                                       Many people would answer,
‘He is the man who never breaks the law
Or violates our codes. His judgment is sound.
He is the man whose word is as his bond.
If such a man agrees to be your witness,
Your case is won.’
                              And yet this very man,
If you ask his family, or the people who know him,
Is like a rotten egg in its flawless shell.
And if a slave or prisoner should say
‘I never steal; I never try to escape,’
My answer is, ‘You have your just rewards:
No beatings; no solitary; and your food.’
‘I have not killed.’ ‘You won’t be crucified.’
‘But haven’t I shown that I am good and honest?’

To this, my country neighbor would shake his head
And sigh: ‘Ah no! The wolf himself is wary
Because he fears the pit, as hawks the snare
Or pike the hook. Some folk hate vice for love
Of the good: you’re merely afraid of guards and crosses.’

Apply that peasant wisdom to that ‘good man’
Of forum and tribunal, who in the temple
Calls loudly on ‘Father Janus’ or ‘Apollo’
But in the undertone implores, ‘Laverna,
Goddess of thieves, O Fair One, grant me, please,
That I get away with it, let me pass as upright,
Cover my sins with darkness, my lies with clouds.’

When a man stoops to pluck at the coin some boys
Of Rome have soldered to the street, I think
That just then he is no more free than any
Prisoner, or slave; it seems that someone who wants
Too much to get things is also someone who fears,
And living in that fear cannot be free.
A man has thrown away his weapons, has quit
The struggle for virtue, who is always busy
Filling his wants, getting things, making hay—
Weaponless and defenseless as a captive.

When you have got a captive, you never kill him
If you can sell him for a slave; this man
Truly will make a good slave: persevering,
Ambitious, eager to please—as ploughman, or shepherd,
Or trader plying your goods at sea all winter,
Or helping to carry fodder at the farm….
The truly good, and wise man has courage;
And if need be, will find the freedom to say,
As in the Bacchae of Euripides:

King Pentheus, Lord of Thebes, what will you force me
To suffer at your hands? 
                                       I will take your goods.

You mean my cattle, furniture, cloth and plate?
Then you may have them.
                                          I will put you, chained,
Into my prison, under a cruel guard.

Then God himself, the moment that I choose,
Will set me free…

I think that what this means is: ‘I will die.’

Death is the chalk-line towards which all things race.”