little spring musing

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o’er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.

Horace, Ode 4.7. The great English poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman thought this poem the greatest in all of ancient literature. This is his excellent translation. It’s an amazing poem in how quickly Horace takes it from a meditation on the rebirth inherent in Spring to the inevitability of death. But that was Horace. He had an eye for decay. He looked at nature and he saw the mask of death.

Sometimes the early days of Spring are the most death-like. In New York City, just as the newest buds are sprouting a period of grayness sets in. Always. Days of gray and a cold wind coming from who-knows-where. It’s a reminder of that transience whereby Spring already slips into Summer and Summer into Autumn. Horace’s Latin bumps along here, driving the words forward with the time. A brief reflection on the advent of Spring is already a glimpse at winter, “when nothing stirs.”

Horace can barely think on this one moment of Spring without time tumbling out in front of him, running away with the world. And so it does. About this, Horace was always unforgiving. You cannot escape the brute reality of nature, which is death. To be human, is to be an animal, is to die. Horace will have no other reality, above or below us. He flattens the cosmos into one terrestrial reality, that of the infinite pointless cycle of living. No Gods, no demons, will disrupt it.

Upon this bleak plain Horace builds his modest ethics. Housman translates it as a simple four-word phrase, “Feast then thy heart” (the Latin does not specifically refer to feasts but the gist is there). Under the eyes of death, living is a temporary feasting. But more than that. The feasting is what it is because it is under the eyes of death. That is to say, what makes our feast, what gives it its specific tension, is recognizing that it is acted out in the face of oblivion, in spite of and because of that oblivion. We are meant to know that we will die and in that knowing, to have added some urgency to our feasting.

A melancholy feast, perhaps. But Horace refuses to extricate melancholy from joy. That’s the essential genius of his poetry. Joy is a worldly thing for him, an earthly thing, a thing of dirt and food and bodies. The early days of Spring are thus particularly Horacian. The hovering zone between life and death that holds the two together. Fragile green sprouts on otherwise dead branches. A cold wind cuts an otherwise sunny day in half.