Weekend Poem: To Sestius by Horace

It is finally March. In most northern parts of the Western hemisphere, winter hasn’t quite turned her back on us but we are eager for the promise of spring. We look forward to those heady first few days when the air begins to get lighter and warmer, filling our very beings. We start to get restless and begin toying with new plans that, somehow, did not even seem to be worth thinking about during the dead of winter. Of course, our daily cares don’t just melt away like the winter snow. Concerns about finances, love, our very place in the social / worldly order of things — these aren’t so easily shed as the seasons, are they? Yet, spring is when, if we close our eyes and really listen, we can hear the world around us coming back to life ever so gently and softly. And, in all that irrepressible rebirthing, certain of our own hopes and joys cannot help bursting into blossom again too.

Today’s poem, by lyric poet, Horace, of ancient Rome, is an ode to his friend, Sestius. And, while it celebrates the coming of Spring with its vivid imagery, it also calls Sestius’ attention to the things in life that really matter. More than 2000 years old, the poem still speaks charmingly to us today — with its pleasing invocation of the awakening of Spring, eloquent references to Greco-Roman mythology and, finally, compassionate counsel of a loving friend to enjoy and accept life in the here and now.

A quick introduction to the poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, most popularly known as Horace. He lived during some of the most momentous times in Rome, fighting the wars in the age of Augustus, just after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Rome was changing from a Republic to an Empire and Horace himself changed allegiance from the Republican army to the new world order. Based on some of Horace’s autobiographical writings, it is understood that his father had been a slave and, eventually, bought his freedom through hard work. This father made sure that the son got the education that he’d never had. Horace even traveled to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy. This was also where he studied and came to love ancient Greek lyric poetry.

In addition to his popular odes, he also wrote satires and epodes (basically, poems that were intended to shame the average citizen into knowing, accepting and acting on their social obligations). His epistles were innovative for their time – philosophical verses addressed as letters to individuals. My personal favorite is his ‘Ars Poetica‘, which I revisit often and recommend highly to all writers, not just poets. For example:

You who write, choose a subject that’s matched by
Your powers, consider deeply what your shoulders
Can and cannot bear. Whoever chooses rightly
Eloquence, and clear construction, won’t fail him.
Charm and excellence in construction, if I’m right,
Is to say here and now, what’s to be said here and now,
Retaining, and omitting, much, for the present.

Horace counted, among his friends, famous poets of the time like Virgil. And, he is held in the same regard today as the latter and others like Catullus and Ovid. Over the centuries, he has continued to influence countless Western poets but, of course, gone in and out of fashion along with poetic styles.

Let us now turn to the person that this poem is addressed to. He belonged to the Sestii, an important and rich Roman family which shows up in many ancient Greek and Roman writings. This particular man, Lucius Sestius Quirinalis Albinianus, fought with Horace against Brutus, Julius Caesar’s assassin at the 42 BC Battle of Philippi, when they were both still supporters of the Republic. Brutus was defeated and killed by Mark Antony. Lucius and Horace had their property confiscated for being treasonous in that civil war. Of course, they both knew what was good for them and switched sides to support the Empire and gain respectable positions at Court and in Roman society.

Horace’s odes, originally published as 4 book collections (Books 1-3 in 23 BC and Book 4 in 13 BC) of Latin lyric poems, were fashioned after the Greek poetry that he was so fond of. Scholars and academics still continue to debate whether they were composed as purely literary works or as performance art — like most poetry was then — to be sung or recited, often with musical accompaniment. The original ode was called ‘Solvitur acris hems’ or ‘A Hymn to Springtime’ and written in epistolary form to Sestius. This particular translation is ode number 14 from an excellent book, ‘The Odes of Horace‘, by David Ferry, an award-winning American poet, translator, scholar and retired professor.

Let us now turn to the poem. It starts with an announcement of the end of winter and the coming of spring. Horace contrasts the brittle burden of winter with the light and warmth of spring winds. He describes how everyone is beginning to venture outdoors or getting restless to do so — fishermen setting out to sea, cattle wanting out of their stables and farmers wanting to get back to their fields. A time to be up and about one’s business.

Then, the poem draws on even more ethereal spring images. As the frost disappears, the beauties come out to dance – nymphs, the Graces. In Greek and Roman mythology, nymphs were divine spirits who personified the creative and regenerative aspects of nature. So, they inhabited and animated nature — in mountains, valleys, water, forests, trees, etc. They were depicted as beautiful, young, dancing maidens who never grew old or sick, although they could die of other means. The Graces personified beauty, joy and happiness. There were usually three: Aglaea (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer).

Even the Gods and Goddesses were not immune to the charms of such a season. Horace describes how even Venus, the Roman Goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility and prosperity, also dances with her coterie in the moonlight somewhere.

All of this to signify the awakening of various positive emotions, moods and appetites among beings everywhere — human and divine alike — with the increasing anticipation of Spring.

Spring, of course, heralds summer. And, so, Horace next invokes the image of Vulcan, the Roman God of fire, thunder and lightning, as getting ready for his usual summer shenanigans. In ancient Rome, Vulcan was both feared and welcomed as fire has both cleansing/fertilizing and destroying effects. Mid-summer, there would be festivals and celebrations to placate this God with small animal sacrifices so that he would not destroy their hard-earned food harvests.

Yet, Horace urges his friend, Sestius, to be present in the here and now. He tells him that it is time to be happy, to adorn his hair with flowers and perfumes. Another Roman God is invoked — Faunus, the horned God of the Forest (similar to the more well-known Greek counterpart, Pan). In Springtime, sacrifices were made to this God in forest groves everywhere so that he would protect domesticated cattle from wild animals. Horace tells his friend to do just this as a way of getting back into the various rites and rituals of this wonderful season.

The ode takes a somber turn in the next few lines as Horace reminds his friend that, even with Spring and all the gaiety and fun it brings, Death continues to stalk us all — rich or poor — and we will never know when it will knock on our doors. So, he tells his friend (I love this address, “O good-looking, fortunate Sestius”, don’t you?) to not worry too much about such a future, where the only certainty, no matter how much money you have, is that final abode, “Pluto’s shadowy house”.  And, when that time comes upon us, none of the usual cares or blessings of this world will matter. In Sestius’ case, it appears that these cares, in addition to the financial ones Horace referred to earlier, have taken the form of whether he will be made Lord of a particular feast (which, in those times, signified one’s place in society) or whether he will find love with the right woman.

Simple as the message of this poem may be, it is how Horace delivers it that captivates and enthralls us. If you’d like to learn more about Horace, in addition to this excellent book by David Ferry, I recommend highly a bibliomemoir called ‘Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet‘ by Harry Eyres (see here for a micro-review).

To Sestius

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,
This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?

~ Horace (trans. David Ferry) from ‘The Odes of Horace

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2 thoughts on “Weekend Poem: To Sestius by Horace

  1. Borrowing your enthusiasm for Horace I’ll take it on faith that …Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing… even if that could only be in a time zone far, far away (from the east coast of the USA)!

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    1. Hazel – yes, you folks on the East Coast are continuing to have a rather rough winter. Still, just picture those images from this poem and, hopefully, they’ll cheer you up a bit. 🙂

      It is a lovely poem, though, right? Every time I read it, I see the scenes almost cinematically in my head.

      Like

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