Springtime and #YOLO

April 7, 2015

In another life of mine— exactly twenty years ago, in fact—I was writing my undergraduate project about Horace. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, aka Horace (aka Horshach), was the top-level boss of Roman lyric poetry. In a genre that was essentially a mashup of Greek forms and Roman function, Horace did his best Girl Talk imitation, melding things that were recognizably Latin and Greek into some potent blend of panty-dropping lyric poetry. Catullus sparked it off, Horace fanned the flames, and Propertius straight-up burned the house down. Much in the way that Beethoven overloaded the arc of Classical composition (breaking it into Romanticism), Propertius went bonkers. Horace, however, was the shining exemplar of its perfection. He wasn’t Elvis or Chuck Berry, who will historically get props for being the first one on the rock and roll bus, but he was the Beatles, the one who took it to the next level.

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From Horace, we get the phrase carpe diem. Yup—he was that guy. You love him, right? We all love him. Without him, we wouldn’t have all those bumper stickers, mugs, t-shirts, or Dead Poets Society. Carpe diem was YOLO before YOLO was YOLO. It’s the old school YOLO. Ye Olde Yolo. I bet you could even conjugate it. Yolo, Yolare, Yolavi, Yolatus. Boom.

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Anyway, I spent the spring of my senior year in college writing about a handful of Horace’s poems, and several of his poems are set in the spring, a conceit which often serves as a starting point for a rumination on death. A.E. Housman once read Ode IV.7 to his university classs, wept, announced to the crowded lecture hall, “That I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” and then walked out. It was 1914, and my man Housman read the poem and then dropped the mic. Boom.


Here’s the poem’s translation by A.S. Kline (it’s not the Latin original, but it’s good enough.

The snow has vanished, already the grass returns to the fields,
and the leaves to the branches:
earth alters its state, and the steadily lessening rivers
slide quietly past their banks:

The Grace, and the Nymphs, with both of her sisters, is daring enough,
leading her dancers, naked.
The year, and the hour that snatches the kindly day away, warn you:
don’t hope for undying things.

Winter gives way to the westerly winds, spring’s trampled to ruin
by summer, and in its turn
fruitful autumn pours out its harvest, barely a moment before
lifeless winter is back again.

Yet swift moons are always repairing celestial losses:
while, when we have descended
to virtuous Aeneas, to rich Tullus and Ancus, our kings,
we’re only dust and shadow.

Who knows whether the gods above will add tomorrow’s hours
to the total of today?
All those you devote to a friendly spirit will escape from
the grasping hands of your heirs.

When once you’re dead, my Torquatus, and Minos pronounces
his splendid judgement on you,
no family, no eloquence, no righteousness even,
can restore you again:

Persephone never frees Hippolytus, chaste as he is,
from the shadow of darkness,
nor has Theseus, for his dear Pirithous, the power to
shatter those Lethean chains.


That spring, I was wrangling with the imagery of that first stanza, in particular the image of the “lessening river” nevermind the transition in the second half to a meditation on the underworld. How do you go from spring-time to “we are only shadow and dust”?

The snow has vanished, already the grass returns to the fields,
and the leaves to the branches:
earth alters its state, and the steadily lessening rivers
slide quietly past their banks:

Many scholars point to the idea of the spring flood subsiding, rivers having been swollen by the melt, but that reading seems unsatisfactory to me. The next stanza moves into talk of the gods, and it’s an invitation to read the poem metaphorically; the Roman gods weren’t as anthropomorphic as they were numinous beings. Why the “lessening river”? I spent days upon days coming back to this question. Standing in line at the cafeteria; walking the trails on campus; sitting on the balcony of my room; I thought about the “lessening river” flowing in spring time, and it didn’t make sense. Rivers flood in the spring, not lessen.

I thought about it so much that, in a random conversation with my dad, I brought it up (my dad who knows nothing about Latin or Greek). I read him my translation of the poem and then read him the first stanza again. “What the hell?” I thought. “Maybe my old man has something to say about the idea of spring time coming back and the imagery of the rivers decreasing in their quiet flow.”

I asked my dad what he thought.

“That’s life.”

“Huh?”

“That’s the problem of life. The seasons come and go, nature moves in a circle. Our lifetime, however, is a line, and it passes through that circle. It creates a strange feeling for us, to think about nature returning, snow thawing, and through the middle of this growing circle, the straight path of our lives.”

Damn. That was it. My dad got it. How? Because he was in 40’s. He was in the midst of contemplating this very thing. Why didn’t I get it? Because I was 20. I was in the midst of trying to get laid, write a thesis, play in a rock band, bring closure to my time at college, connect with anyone in a meaningful way.

I’m 41 now, almost at the age that my father was when he and I had that conversation. And I get it now. I really get it. The cycle can make you psycho; you really do gotta yolo. You do need to carpe diem and then drop the mic; and in the midst of that linear course, everything loops in cycles around you: first days of school, trick or treating, shovelling your driveway, opening presents around the tree, Easter egg hunts, summers on the beach, back to school, raking leaves. Wash, rinse, repeat. The paradox is that in the midst of the repetition of these things, we’re only in this moment once. I know this now so starkly when I see my daughters. They’ll only be this young age once, and it makes me sad if I dwell on it too long. It’s the line that cuts through the circle of the cycle.

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There’s a joky sign that hangs in many tattoo shops. The sign reads: STRAIGHT LINES AND CIRCLES AT YOUR OWN RISK. It’s a tough-in-cheek message not-so-subtly announcing that the tattooer is going to try his or her best, but tattooing is hard, and the tattooer may pull a crooked line or two.

Straight lines and circles at your own risk.

Maybe it’s not just tattooing that’s at your risk. Maybe that’s what Horace was thinking. That’s what my dad was thinking. I watch my daughters stumbling and falling, and that’s what I’m thinking.

Straight lines and circles at your own risk, indeed.

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