Robert Pinsky

IV. Filling the Blank

Odd, that the poet who seems so complacent
About his acorns and his cold pure water.
Writing from his retreat just out of Rome,
Should seem to end with a different love of death
From that of someone on a mystic plain—
But still, with love of death. “…A rather short man,”
He calls himself, “and prematurely gray,
Who liked to sit in the sun; a freedman’s child
Who spread his wings too wide for that frail nest
And yet found favor, in both war and peace,
With powerful men. Tell them I lost my temper
Easily, but was easily appeased,
My book—and if they chance to ask my age
Say, I completed my forty-fourth December
In the first year that Lepidus was Consul.”

I think that what the poet meant was this:
That freedom, even in a free Republic,
Rest ultimately on the right to die.
And though he’s careful to say that Quinctius.
The public man able to act for good
And help his fellow-Romans, lives the life
That truly is the best, he’s also careful
To separate their fortunes and their places,
And to appreciate his own: his health,
His cows and acorns and his healing spring,
His circle—“We here in Rome”—for friends in gossip.

It would be too complacent to build a nest
Between one’s fatalism and one’s pleasures—
With death at one side, a sweet farm at the other,
Keeping the thorns of government away…

Horace’s father, who had been a slave,
Engaged in some small business near Venusia;
And like a Jewish or Armenian merchant
Who does well in America, he sent
His son to Rome’s best schools, and then to Athens
(It’s hard to keep from thinking “as to Harvard”)
To study, with the sons of gentlemen
And politicians, the higher arts most useful
To citizens of a Republic math;
Philosophy; rhetoric in all its branches.

One March, when Horace, not quite twenty-one,
Was still at Athens, Julius Caesar died,
And the Roman world was split by civil war.

When Brutus came to Athens late that summer
On his way to Asia Minor—‘half-mystical,
Wholly romantic Brutus”—Horace quit school
To follow Brutus to Asia, bearing the title
Or brevet-commission tribunus militum,
And served on the staff of the patriot-assassin.

Time passed; the father died; the property
And business were lost, or confiscated.
The son saw action at Philippi, where,
Along with other enthusiastic students
(Cicero’s son among them), and tens of thousands
In the two largest armies of Roman soldiers
Ever to fight with one another, he shared
In the republican army’s final rout
By Antony and Octavian.
                                           Plutarch says
That Brutus, just before he killed himself,
Speaking in Greek to an old fellow-student,
Said that although he was angry for his country
He was deeply happy for himself—because
His virtue and his repute for virtue were founded
In a way none of the conquerers could hope,
For all their arms and riches, to emulate;
Nor could they hinder posterity from knowing,
And saying, that they were unjust and wicked men
Who had destroyed justice and the Republic,
Usurping a power to which they had no right.

The corpse of Brutus was found by Antony,
And he commanded the richest purple mantle
In his possession to be thrown over it,
And afterwards, the mantle being stolen, 
He found the thief and had him put to death;
The ashes of Brutus he sent back to Rome,
To be received with honor by the mourners.

Horace came back to Rome a pardoned rebel
In his late twenties, without cash or prospects,
Having stretched out his wings too far beyond
The frail nest of his freedman father’s hopes,
As he has written.
                             When he was thirty-five,
He published some poems which some people praised,
And so through Vergil he met the Roman knight
And good friend of Augustus, called Maecenas,
Who befriended him, and gave him the Sabine farm;
And in that place, and in the highest circles
In Rome itself, he spent his time, and wrote.

Since aspirations need not (Some say, should not)
Be likely, should I wish for you to be
A hero, like Brutus—who at the finish-line
Declared himself to be a happy man?
Or is the right wish health, the just proportion
Of sun, the acorns and cold pure water, a nest
Out in the country and a place in Rome…

Of course, one’s aspirations must depend
Upon the opportunities: the justice
That happens to be available; one’s fortune.
I think that what the poet meant may be
Something like that; and as for aspiration,
Maybe our aspirations for ourselves
Ought to be different from the hopes we have
(Though there are warnings against two much hope)
When thinking of our children. And in fact
Our fantasies about the perfect life
Are different for ourselves and for our children,
Theirs being safer, less exciting, purer—
And so, depending always on the chances
Our country offers, it seems we should aspire,
For ourselves, to struggle actively to save
The Republic—or to be, if not like Brutus,
Like Quinctius: a citizen of affairs,
Free in the state and in the love of death…
While for our children we are bound to aspire
Differently: something like a nest or farm;
So that the cycle of different aspirations
Thread through posterity.
                                         And who can say
What Brutus may come sweeping through your twenties—
Given the taste you have for noble speeches,
For causes lost and glamorous and just.

Did Horace’s father, with his middle-class
And slavish aspirations, have it right?—
To give your child the education fit
For the upper-classes: math, philosophy,
And rhetoric in all its branches; so I
Must want for you, when you must fall upon
The sword of government or mortality—
Since all of us, even you, race toward it—to have
The power to make your parting speech in Greek
(Or in the best equivalent) and if
Yo ever write for fame or money, that Vergil
Will pick your book out from a hundred others,
If that’s not plucking at a soldered coin.