The Blagger's Guide To: Horace

All you need to know about the hottest literary topic of the week

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The Independent Culture

Carpe diem ...that was your catchphrase

A new book by Harry Eyres, Horace and Me: Life Lessons From an Ancient Poet is both an Alain de Botton-esque philosophical guide to modern life, and an attempt to rescue the Roman poet from the reputation he has had as a “smug representative of imperialism” ever since his line “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was appropriated by Wilfred Owen. Ovid may be cooler and Catullus ruder, but Eyre believes that Horace is “one of the West's lost prophets”, and even uses “carpe diem” in support of the slow food movement.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus lived from 8 December 65BC to 27 November 8BC in Venusia, southern Italy, the son of a freed slave.

Eyres retranslates Horace's famous line “carpe diem” (Odes 1.11) as “taste the day”. In his translation of the poem, the girl Leuconoe becomes “Prudence”.

Other substitutions that Eyres makes for Horatian references include “Supermac” (Harold Macmillan) instead of Consul Manlius and the war in Iraq instead of uprisings on the border of the Roman Empire.

Anyone slated by Boris Johnson is a friend of the Blagger's, so the chapter about Horace's financial status and his position as a winemaker appeals. In 2005, Johnson wrote in The Spectator of Horace: “No matter how often he tries to tell us that it's really rather modest, that Sabine farm, and that there's nothing he likes better than cheap wine and simple tankards, the truth of his circumstances is inescapable …. He has unlimited supplies of ivy, myrtle, Achaemenian nard and other key sympotic equipment, and far from being content with plonk he is the world's first serious wine snob and goes on about vineyards and vintages in a way that is unmistakably nouveau riche.” Eyres's translation of “Vile Potabis” (“basic plonk”) aims to demonstrate Horace's view that “friendship and warmth count for more, in the end, than the label on the bottle”.

“Sabine, the kind of wine Horace produced on his own farm and not highly prized, was considered ready for drinking after seven to 10 years. Your average Frascati, the modern white wine of the Alban hills, 15 miles or so to the south, is usually past its best by the age of three.”

Among fellow fans of Horace are: Petrarch (“who wrote a long and fulsome letter to him in Latin”), Voltaire, Wordsworth (who expressed “a wish / to meet the shade of Horace ...”), Ben Johnson, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, W H Auden, and Louis MacNeice.

Byron was not a fan, however, writing in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: "Then farewell, Horace, whom I hated so, Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse, To understand, not feel thy lyric flow, To comprehend, but never love thy verse."

Martha Kearney, who presented a Radio 3 documentary about Horace, was taught about the poet at Oxford by “Miss Hubbard” of the translating team Nisbett and Hubbard, the subjects of the rhyme: “This is the Horace of Hubbard and Nisbett's but which bits are her bits and which bits are his bits?”

Horace and Me by Harry Eyes is published on Thursday by Bloomsbury, £16.99