Poetry & Prose    Books / People

“We are but dust and shadow.”

Horace (65–8 B.C.E.) lived and wrote under the Emperor Augustus. He was one of the greatest poets of his age and is one of the most quoted of any age. This is he: Carpe diem, nil desperandum, nunc est bibendum.

In Our Time
The life and work of Horace is discussed in this BBC Radio 4 podcast.
Horace was the son of a freedman from southern Italy and, thanks to his talent, achieved high status in Rome despite fighting on the losing side in the civil wars. His Odes are widely thought his most enduring works, yet he also wrote his scurrilous Epodes, some philosophical Epistles and broad Satires. He’s influenced poets ever since, including those such as Wilfred Owen who rejected his line: ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’

No Fear No Favour

“Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.”

With regards to this poem:

Ode I, 5: To Pyrrha

What slender youth, bedew’d with liquid odors,
Courts thee on roses in some pleasant cave,
Pyrrha? For whom bind’st thou
In wreaths thy golden hair,
Plain in thy neatness? O how oft shall he
Of faith and changed gods complain, and seas
Rough with black winds, and storms
Unwonted shall admire!
Who now enjoys thee credulous, all gold,
Who, always vacant, always amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindful. Hapless they
To whom thou untried seem’st fair. Me, in my vow’d
Picture, the sacred wall declares t’have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern god of sea.

— Translated by John Milton

Elizabeth McCauley (2008) argues that Pyrrha is represented not as a fully realised woman but through the eyes of her former lover as passion personified, a force of nature, the stereotypical deceptive seductress. It is unclear whether she received her name (a feminine derivative of the Greek word for fire) for the color of her hair or for her violent temperament (like Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and the Greek king and general Pyrrhus who threatened Roman expansion in South Italy in 280 BCE). Her non-Roman name and her intimacies with men suggest that she was neither ingenua nor exactly libera, but rather some form of hetaira, an elegant meretrix who was free to choose where and on what basis to bestow her favours.

Pyrrha is the addressee of the poem, knowingly spoken to, while her current hopeful lover and his adulation is indulgently described. Unlike the typically jealous lover of elegiac love poetry, the poet seems to view his replacement in Pyrrha’s affections indulgently (puer), perhaps as a young and inexperienced version of himself in former times. This arrangement allows him to explore the duality of the male experience of the female:

Like the rose her beauty captivates while covering the thorns, like the sea she glistens while turbulence awaits below.

In the spirit of ironic playfulness for which the love poetry of Horace and Ovid are famous, the poet closes his poem with the humorous representation of himself as the sailor who has survived the “storm” of Pyrrha and joyfully dedicates his sodden clothes to the gods in thanksgiving. Horace employs a light meter for his subject, the 4th Asclepiadean: in each of the four four-line stanzas the first two lines are in 1st Asclepiadean meter, the third line is Pherecratean, the final line is Glyconic.

According to Micah Towery (2011) the most difficult and revealing line in the poem, is: “Cui flavam religas comam // simplex munditiis?” is not only a perfect expression of the whole poem’s art, but an emotional depth charge that reveals the feeling which animates the drama of the poem’s language. Despite the poem’s claim that Horace has “survived” the shipwreck of Pyrrha’s love, despite the staid language and reserved descriptions, the poet writhes underneath the poise of this poem. In Towery’s view, Pyrrha is the archetypal “fickle woman” who fills men with passion and lust as well as self-loathing at their inability to control themselves. As an image, the singular, simple description of Pyrrha’s hair creates an emotional history that founds the whole poem. It’s the perfect example of how the choice and rendering of even a single detail can realize a whole world.

Here’s a more contemporary and colloquial version of the poem:

Ode I, 5: To Pyrrha

What simple boy, having doused himself in perfume,
hems you in on a bed of roses under cover of a pleasant
cave? For whom do you, Pyrrha, simple in your
elegance, arrange your golden locks?
Ah, how many times will that boy cry over fickle
faith and fickle fortunes and, in his insolence,
will stand aghast at the oceans made rough by
black storms;
That trusting boy, who now enjoys
you in all your magnificence and who always hopes you
are available and always hopes you are loveable,
is ignorant of your false charms.
Wretched are those to whom you appear glamorous
without knowing your true self. A sacred wall shows that
I have suspended my wet clothes there as a votive
prayer for the powerful god of the sea.

— Translated by Melissa Beck (or her muse)

In the view of Melissa Beck (2018), a note of jealousy over a woman and a love that has eluded the poet can be clearly detected. Horace — or the narrator of the poem — has put aside his relationship with the woman who is now engaging in a tryst with a man referred to, rather condescendingly, as gracilis puer (simple boy.) The poem’s narrator then accuses Pyrrha of being vain and shallow and believes that only those who truly know her realise that her beauty is skin deep. However, and here is the killer point,:

If [the poet] does not care for [Pyrrha] anymore, if he’s so relieved to be free of her, then why protest so much? Why insult her so blisteringly?

Neptune (sea god)
Neptune (Latin: Neptūnus) was the god of the sea in ancient Roman mythology. He is the counterpart of the Greek god Poseidon. In the Greek-influenced tradition, Neptune is the brother of Jupiter and Pluto; the brothers preside over the realms of Heaven, the earthly world, and the Underworld.


The English language
“Elizabethan era” / “Love letters”
French in English / Latin in English
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Phrases & idioms (with their etymologies)
Literary criticism: analysing poetry & prose
Glossary of works, writers and literary devices:
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Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was a French writer, philosopher and political activist. She is known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism.
The Second Sex
Delta of Venus
Delta of Venus
A Room of one's own
A Room of One’s Own
War and Peace is the 1869 novel by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. It is regarded as a classic of world literature. (The novel chronicles the French invasion of Russia and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the stories of five Russian aristocratic families.) Tolstoy said War and Peace is "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle." Tolstoy regarded Anna Karenina as his first true novel.
War and Peace
The Trial, by Franz Kafka (1914 [1925]) -- A terrifying psychological trip into the life of one Joseph K., an ordinary man who wakes up one day to find himself accused of a crime he did not commit, a crime whose nature is never revealed to him. Once arrested, he is released, but must report to court on a regular basis--an event that proves maddening, as nothing is ever resolved. As he grows more uncertain of his fate, his personal life--including work at a bank and his relations with his landlady and a young woman who lives next door--becomes increasingly unpredictable. As K. tries to gain control, he succeeds only in accelerating his own excruciating downward spiral.
The Trial
Brave New World (1932) is a dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. Set in a futuristic World State, whose citizens are environmentally engineered into an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates huge scientific advancements in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning that are combined to make a dystopian society which is challenged by only a single individual: the story's protagonist (one Bernard Marx). In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Brave New World at number five on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th c.
Brave New World
Beloved is a 1987 novel by the late American writer Toni Morrison. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and, in a survey of writers and literary critics compiled by The New York Times, it was ranked the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006. The work, set after the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an African American who escaped slavery by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio, a free state. Garner was subsequently captured and decided to kill her infant daughter rather than have her taken into slavery.
The Grapes of Wrath

The Prophet is a book of 26 prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. The Prophet has been translated into over 100 different languages, making it one of the most translated books in history. Moreover, it has never been out of print.The Prophet
“If you love somebody, let them go, if they don’t return, they were never yours.”
The Essential Rumi, by Rumi ~ e.g. ~ 'Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along.'The Essential Rumi
“Lovers do not finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”
Ways of Escape, a journey of sorts -- 'I was dead, deader than dead because, I was still alive.'Ways of Escape:
a journey of sorts

A short excerpt from the book: “I was dead, deader than dead because, I was still alive.”
The Significance of Literature, the podcast series.The Significance of

A podcast series that chronologically charts the key works of poetry and prose.
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