Reality and Justice in a Single Thought, Heaney’s “Horace and The Thunder”

Also for this 9/11, Seamus Heaney’s reading and commentary on “Horace and the Thunder” (approximately 16 minutes and 15 seconds into the audio file of the reading). From the transcript:

After that day [9/11/2001], a poem which I had cherished for different reasons took on new strengths and new strangeness – Horace, a poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Latin poet, of the Augustan age. If anybody’s interested, it’s in Carminum Liber Primus. That’s the first Book of Odes, Number 34. Horace, in this poem, gets a shock. He says, I’m a pretty cool kind of guy. I’m not really gospel greedy. I go with the crowd. But, something happened that really put the wind up me. Oops! And the terms of the poem…it’s really about poetry’s covenant with the irrational, I thought first of all. It’s about thunder in the clear, blue sky. Shock, Jupiter, the thunder god, ba-boom. But some of the terms used were so resonant in a new world of the twenty first century. He talked about (Latin), god certainly has power, he said. (Latin) He can change the highest for the lowest. He can (Latin)…He can bring the unknown forward. And this moment of great danger, great grief, great dread, promised a re-tilting of the world in all kinds of ways. Both the hammer coming down, and, something else, perhaps we’re being shown new…..It required what the poet, W.B. Yeats, said that was required of every kind of mature intellect; it required us to ‘hold in a single thought reality and justice.’ Beautiful to formulate; extremely difficult to manage. But, the danger and menace of this was in the poem for me. So this is called ‘Horace and the Thunder’. Three stanzas of Horace, one stanza of Heaney, but I’ll not tell you which is which. [laughter]

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now,
He galloped his thunder-cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underneath, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest things

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked esteemed. Hooked-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing off
Crests for sport, letting them drop wherever.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid,
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Smoke furl and boiling ashes darken day.