Magazine article The American Conservative

Drunk on Latin Verse

Magazine article The American Conservative

Drunk on Latin Verse

Article excerpt

Horace and Me: Life Lessons From an Ancient Poet, Harry Eyres, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 234 pages

I've always believed in the principle that literature, broadly construed, is only as good as the readers who read it. For example, Sir Ernest Barker's commentaries on Aristotle and Plato are insightful and engaging precisely because Sir Barker's personal biography was complex and engaging. The principle is even more relevant when a writer examines himself through his reading of a great poet from the past.

In Horace and Me, Harry Eyres--a leisure columnist for the Financial Times and former wine columnist for The Spectator and poetry editor of the Daily Express--juxtaposes his own formative experiences with the life, legacy, and verse of the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC). Among other minor topics, Eyres discusses Horace in relation to wine, Eton College, and the change he underwent in his literary approach to classical texts while attending Cambridge. Haphazardly going from each topic to the next, the assumption behind the author's examination is that his varied experiences help him better interpret Horace's odes--and that he is worthy of Horace's guidance. On both counts, Eyres is not very convincing.

Eyres is the product of the prestigious Farleigh House Preparatory School as well as Eton College and Cambridge University. He acquired a cold, old-school type of classical education that consisted of learning Greek and Latin and to compose verse in Latin hexameters and elegiac couplets and Greek iambics. Eyres was not always a fan of Horace, the "classic of classics," beloved by Petrarch and Voltaire, Pope and Johnson, Goethe and Nietzsche. Early on Eyres was an admirer of the Roman poet Catullus. The young classicist had not yet discovered the non-official Horace. The Horace he was introduced to represented Augustus's cruel imperialism, the Pax Romana. But he soon discovered that the establishment Horace was a falsification. The real one was complex, sensitive and wrote lyric poetry that, if read carefully, resonates with modern sensibilities.

Horace's poetic musings on the power of wine resonated with Eyres. It was this that gave Eyres "the key to the connection between his time and our time and me." Eyres was the son of an independent wine merchant, and his teenage years were spent winetasting throughout Europe with his father, the result of which was the development of a snobbish, academic attitude toward the fermented grape. Horace's poetry provided the corrective to that attitude and brought a change to Eyres's perspective on life. Now wine for Eyres represents both the alcoholic beverage and life's meaningful experiences. He observes that the function of wine in Horace's odes is elemental. It is linked to the cycles of birth and death, friendship, intimacy, inspiration, vulnerability, and catharsis.

Unfortunately, despite Eyres' appreciation of wine beyond its snob appeal, he fails to communicate how precisely Horace's poetry has changed him. His naysaying about the effects of technology on the modern production of wine and the many references to vinum he highlights in Horace's corpus or in classical artwork he describes on location in Greece and Rome seem frenetic and beside the point. Eyres's account of his introduction to the field of classics and Horace at Eton College during the 1970s is interesting, given the cultural conditions of the 1960s. He was a bit of a rebel for being drawn to a subject viewed as "moldy, dusty, dry" The attraction of the dead languages was the sheer vibrancy of Latin words and the lucidity and grace of Attic Greek--sentiments shared by most admirers of classical culture. Like Horace and his harsh teacher Orbilius--also known as "the flogger"--Eyres's schoolmasters were crusty and exacting. They adhered to the old way of teaching classics, parsing words, scanning meter, and construing syntax. …

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