Wordsmiths Needed: Revisiting Horace and Book III, Ode XXIX “To Maecenas”
I have blogged before on Horace’s Ode 3, 29, but upon coming today once again on a cite to John Dryden’s “Happy the Man,” which is based directly on this ode from Horace, it seems a good day to compare the fame of Dryden’s poem with the obscurity of its Epicurean source.
Dryden’s “Happy the Man” is all over the internet:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
With citations such as this: “Happy the Man” by Horace, from Odes, Book III, xxix. Translation by John Dryden.
Sadly, no mention of Epicurus or Epicureanism!
Here’s a narrative version of the full Ode 29, with a highlight to the portion from which Dryden’s poem is a direct takeoff:
O Maecenas, thou progeny of Tuscan kings, there has been a long while for you in my house some mellow wine in an unbroached hogshead, with rose-flowers and expressed essence for your hair.
Disengage yourself from anything that may retard you, nor contemplate the ever marshy Tibur, and the sloping fields of Aesula, and the hills of Telegonus the parricide. Leave abundance, which is the source of daintiness, and yon pile of buildings approaching near the lofty clouds: cease to admire the smoke, and opulence, and noise of flourishing Rome.
A change is frequently agreeable to the rich, and a cleanly meal in the little cottage of the poor has smoothed an anxious brow without carpets or purple.
Now the bright father of Andromeda displays his hidden fire; now Procyon rages, and the constellation of the ravening Lion, as the sun brings round the thirsty season.
Now the weary shepherd with his languid flock seeks the shade, and the river, and the thickets of rough Sylvanus; and the silent bank is free from the wandering winds.
You regard what constitution may suit the state, and are in an anxious dread for Rome, what preparations the Seres and the Bactrians subject to Cyrus, and the factious Tanais are making.
A wise deity shrouds in obscure darkness the events of the time to come, and smiles if a mortal is solicitous beyond the law of nature.
Be mindful to manage duly that which is present.
What remains goes on in the manner of the river, at one time calmly gliding in the middle of its channel to the Tuscan Sea, at another, rolling along corroded stones, and stumps of trees, forced away, and cattle, and houses, not without the noise of mountains and neighboring woods, when the merciless deluge enrages the peaceful waters.
That man is master of himself and shall live happy, who has it in his power to say, “I have lived to-day: to-morrow let the Sire invest the heaven, either with a black cloud, or with clear sunshine; nevertheless, he shall not render ineffectual what is past, nor undo or annihilate what the fleeting hour has once carried off.
Fortune, happy in the execution of her cruel office, and persisting to play her insolent game, changes uncertain honors, indulgent now to me, by and by to another.
I praise her, while she abides by me.
If she moves her fleet wings, I resign what she has bestowed, and wrap myself up in my virtue, and court honest poverty without a portion.
It is no business of mine, if the mast groan with the African storms, to have recourse to piteous prayers, and to make a bargain with my vows, that my Cyprian and Syrian merchandize may not add to the wealth of the insatiable sea.
Then the gale and the twin Pollux will carry me safe in the protection of a skiff with two oars, through the tumultuous Aegean Sea.”
How we very much need modern poets, musicians, and other wordsmiths to help us bring a full picture of the wisdom of Epicurus to the modern world – and to make sure Epicurus gets the credit he deserves!
For additional assistance to any aspiring poets who come across this, here’s a link to a side-by-side English/Latin version.