Thursday, August 12, 2010


Writing to his brother Warnie in December 1939, C. S. Lewis includes this offhand report about his current reading habits:

"After years of estrangement I found myself this week going back to Horace, who has at least this advantage--that a single ode makes just the right length of reading for the odd five minutes before a pupil appears, or between the last pupil and dinner. I suppose the first lines would still wake in you as they do in me a flood of reminiscence--Solvitur acris hiems--O fons Bandusiae--Vides ut alta stet nive candidum...."

I'm not sure why Lewis--whose critical judgments I have always admired--would refer to the reading of Horace (the greatest poet who ever lived, as any of my well-coached children would be happy to tell you) as having "at least" a single advantage. Talk about damning with faint praise. Could Lewis have been reading Horace's rich, dense, and allusive Latin too quickly?  (It certainly takes me longer than "five minutes" to get through one of the odes -- even one of the short ones.)  Perhaps if Lewis had paid a little more attention....

Okay, I jest. I know that Lewis's Latin was a lot better than mine, and that de gustibus non est disputandum. What really caught my eye was that the last of those quoted opening lines in Lewis's letter ("Vides ut alta stet nive candidum") is from my favorite of all the Horatian odes. You can find it, and a parallel English translation, here. Horace looks out at the snow atop Mount Soracte north of Rome, realizes that winter is on its way, and uses that realization as the occasion to lecture his male servant (whom he fancifully calls Thaliarchus) about the necessity of enjoying life while one is young. Pretty much the quintessential Horatian sentiment--a philosophical commonplace turned, in Horace's magical hands, into poetic gold.

I was thinking along these lines recently because I bought this 1833 engraving...

...of Mount Soracte, the subject of Horace's ode. And in reading around about the mountain itself, I discovered that there is almost never any snow on its summit.

Global warming?

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