Horace saved my life

Rudyard Kipling, in his autobiography Something of Myself, says that his Latin teacher at school taught him “to loathe Horace for two years; to forget him for 20, and to love him for the rest of my days and through many sleepless nights.” Something similar happened to me: I struggled with Horace in the classroom, briefly clicked with him when I discovered he was a great wine-lover, then let him lie dormant in my mind for decades. My book Horace and Me is about how I came back to the Roman poet – and to myself at the same time. It tells the story of how the very thing that almost deadened me – that is, classical education and literature epitomised by Horace – turned out to be a secret saviour, a way of orienting myself back to myself, to some kind of sanity.

Not only I was lost. Horace was too – through no fault of his own. He had become lost partly by becoming too successful. For centuries Horace had been the classic of classics – the paragon of sanity, the guru of the golden mean you turned to when you needed advice on how to write or how to live. Profoundly admired by writers as different as Petrarch and Voltaire, Pope and Johnson, Goethe and Nietzsche, Horace had ended up caricatured as a sort of smiling English squire. And when a certain idea of the world and of civilisation came crashing down in 1914, Horace was fingered as one of the culprits.

Few poets have ever stuck the knife in deeper to a fellow poet than Wilfred Owen, writing of the trenches in “Dulce et decorum est”. The poem ends, quoting Horace’s unforgivable line (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”), like this:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the


Come gargling from the froth-

corrupted lungs

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile incurable sores on innocent

tongues, –

My friend, you would not tell with

such high zest

To children ardent for some

desperate glory,

The Old Lie – dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

At a stroke Horace became the smug representative of imperialism, the éminence grise who sent millions of young men to ghastly deaths. For postwar iconoclasts such as Ezra Pound and the members of the Bloomsbury group, Horace was the problem, not the solution. Much more attractive than Horace’s measured, ambivalent support of Augustus’s Pax Romana were romantic young rebels such as Catullus, who said he did not care whether Caesar was pale or swarthy, or Propertius, who daringly looked forward to much later poets such as John Donne by making his mistress, not his emperor, the centre of everything.

But the establishment Horace was a falsification. The real Horace turned out to be an infinitely more complex, poised, critical figure; how else would he have appealed so strongly to so many of the west’s most enlightened and critical spirits, who usually identified him with the struggle for intellectual freedom against all forms of dogmatism?

If I, in common with many writers over the past two millennia, have come to regard Horace as a friend, he is obviously an unlikely one: not so much an imaginary friend as an impossible one. How could anyone who lived more than 2,000 years ago have more than the remotest connection to someone born into the world of jets and phones, of Twitter and Facebook?

Yet this is how he presents himself: Horace is your reliable friend. Whatever the weather he will invite you in. If it is winter, and somehow it often is, there will be a warm fire, logs ablaze. A bottle of wine will be opened, perhaps more than one. And as the wine flows, so will the conversation.

In Book 1 of Horace’s Satires there is a remarkably modern-seeming travelogue in the form of a poem, that tells the story of a journey Horace made in 37BC from Rome to the heel of Italy, complete with country inns, barges, woodsmoke, frogs, and a frustrated erotic encounter. This is Slow Travel avant la lettre.

The best day of the trip, Horace tells us, was when three friends, Plotius and his two fellow poets, Varius and Virgil, met with Horace and his party at a place called Sinuessa. There were so many hugs and rejoicings. I believe Horace really did think friendship was the best thing in the world. There is no prouder boast in his poetry than this one, also from the Satires: “I live in the affection of my friends.” The Latin words vivo carus amicis mean literally “I live dear to my friends.” This wasn’t such a strange view; Aristotle, after all, in the Nicomachean Ethics, had said that friendship was one of the things in the world human beings could least afford to be without.

It is not so surprising for a philosopher to say that friendship is the most important human requirement, but it is more unusual for a poet. We expect something more heated from poetry. When I think about poets’ relationships, I might think about Sappho’s intense yearnings for the women she loved, Catullus’s tortured affair with Clodia, Dante’s love for the unattainable Beatrice, Verlaine and Rimbaud, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. I don’t really think about friendships. Friendships seem more suitable for prose. Even Tennyson’s friendship with Hallam, which produced “In Memoriam”, seems more like a love affair. This deliberate turning down of the heat tends to put young readers off Horace. It put me off. I wanted white-hot passion, so I gravitated toward Catullus. I wanted a poet who could say, like Catullus, “I hate and love.”

The deepest and most complicated friendship in Horace’s poetry is with his patron Maecenas. Maecenas is not just any old friend, he’s the man who has made Horace’s life’s work possible, who has given him his spiritual home, the Sabine Farm. The first book of Odes, the first book of Satires, and the first book of Epistles begin with poems addressed to Maecenas.

Maecenas, we gather from Seneca, suffered from hypochondria. He was a man with much on his shoulders. A writer and poet himself, he cultivated the friendship of poets; that, of course, is what he is remembered for. The closest of these friendships was undoubtedly with Horace, whom on his deathbed he asked the emperor to “take care of, as if he were myself”, who only survived him by 59 days, and who was buried next to him on the Esquiline Hill. Perhaps Horace did not really want to outlive his constant, never-failing supporter, “the half of my soul”.

What could Horace give back to this man who had given him everything? Obviously very little in the material sense. He could share a bottle of his own local wine, not the kind of grand cru Maecenas would be served at official banquets. He could give his friendship.

Horace, much less grand than Maecenas by birth, social position and wealth, was also less hemmed in by the cares of state, the whole immense task of running an empire. The Latin word cura means “care” and “anxiety.” In one of his greatest and bleakest images Horace writes “behind the horseman’s back sits Black Anxiety.” No translation can fully catch the force of the Latin words post equitem sedet atra cura: an eques is both a horseman, a knight, and a member of the equestrian order, the Roman aristocracy. Atra cura, “black care”, encompasses worry, anxiety, depression: a horrible, dark personification of the negative forces that feed on life and destroy the possibility of enjoyment. However hard the horseman spurs his horse, however fast the horse gallops, he will never outrun the black care that sits behind him. The only way is to turn around and face it.

So at least I found, when a love crisis in my thirties brought me black terror, a dark cycle of anxiety and sleeplessness I could not break. I felt hounded. Something was on my track, call it black care or the black dog, and I could not shake it off. It was time to go into therapy, to sit in a room with a stranger and let the “lion griefs,” as WH Auden called them, emerge from the shade.

Years passed. I competed with my therapist, tried to understand psychoanalysis, phenomenology, existentialism, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas. But of course that was not really the point. This was not another intellectual puzzle to be mastered. This was something else, a relationship in which patterns played out in previous relationships might be recognised. What would happen if the familiar pattern was not repeated, if the old record was not endlessly replayed?

I started to have dreams about fishermen, ship captains (I was on my own, in a lifeboat, surrounded by sharks). Might these dream figures have anything to do with him, my therapist gently asked? At first I was sceptical. Why should they have anything to do with him?

But over time there came an acknowledgment. I felt I had been something like a yeti, an abominable snowman, inhabiting a cold, inhospitable realm that needed to be traversed alone. The template for this was Farleigh House Preparatory School, where glasses of water froze overnight in the dormitories, where we froze watching rugby in shorts on winter afternoons. From that point on I had never trusted my feelings to anyone. Much fear needed to be overcome. Surely no normal, warm-blooded human being would want to come into contact with an abominable snowman. Wouldn’t he freeze the life out of whoever came too close?

But as the therapy proceeded, I experienced a general thawing of relationships, a lowering of defences. Perhaps for the first time in my life I was able to enjoy a relatively open, unguarded friendship. Even more important, I was able to begin to learn what Horace left as one of his last lessons, in the conclusion of Epistles 1.18, “how to return you as a friend to yourself.”

Therapy is a kind of litmus test or sifter of words, sorting out the chaff and the chatter – the words designed to keep the other person off the track, to numb or befuddle – from those which ring true, which sound out from the heart. Such words never exist in isolation. They are always answering words. It is when you hear the words that show someone else has answered to your experience, that you in turn can speak with what Lacan called “full” rather than “empty” speech. In that sense, poetry, therapy, and friendship are all related.

Is it anachronistic to suggest that Horace, the poet-friend of Maecenas, was offering his patron a kind of therapy? I don’t think so, especially be­cause of what Horace’s philosophical mentor, Epicurus, had to say about suffering and the soul. Maecenas un­doubtedly suffered more than his share of atra cura. Time and again Horace seems to be trying to lift the overburdened statesman’s mood. Strangely, the son of a freed slave, the man who has given up the sword he left ignobly behind on the battlefield for the pen, can offer the world statesman a balm he will not find anywhere else.

Horace’s friendship with Maecenas was undoubtedly complicated by the fact that Maecenas was also his patron; they were not equals. But what are the Odes, if not an assertion of the power of the apparently small and modest in the face of overweening pride and grandeur?

From “To Maecenas” (Odes 3.29):

I say this: happy is she or he

Who can tell you, “Today I’ve lived”;

The storm may come tomorrow or

the sun

At noon; there’s nothing any power

can do

To unweave that thread, erase the

living trace –

No fate undoes the living that

we’ve done,

Although we cannot hold the hour,

the day,

Which flows and having flown

will not return.

An edited extract from ‘Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet’ by Harry Eyres, published by Bloomsbury on July 4 (RRP£16.99).

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

Statue of Horace

The life and times of Horace

65BC Horace is born Quintus Horatius Flaccus in Venosa, in southern Italy. The son of a freed slave, he is educated in Rome and then studies in Athens, where he joins the army of Brutus.

42BC Horace fights as a young officer in the Battle of Philippi. After Brutus and Cassius are defeated, he flees back to Italy. Some years later, via an introduction from his friend and fellow poet Virgil, he meets Maecenas, right-hand man to the emperor Augustus. Maecenas’s friendship and patronage changes his life, bringing him material comfort, the gift of his beloved farm in the Sabine Hills, and the freedom to dedicate his life to poetry.

30sBC Horace works on his first book of Satires, gentler and more conversational in tone than the satires of Juvenal. Around 30BC, he publishes his Epodes in iambic metres.

23BC The first three books of Horace’s lyrical Odes in Greek metres are published. A celebration of friendship, conviviality, wine and the pleasures, rather than the religion of love, the Odes would come to be seen as his greatest achievement. In the concluding poem of Book 3, Horace exults in having completed a “monument more lasting than bronze”.

14BC to 20BC The Epistles, or verse letters, are published; their tone and content is more philosophical than earlier work.

8BC Horace dies, just 59 days after his friend Maecenas. He leaves his farm to the emperor.

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