Wednesday, June 09, 2010

To Torquatus: Practice with Horace

From A.S. Kline's online Horace:

Bk I Ep V:1-31 An invitation to dinner

If you can bear to recline at dinner on a couch
By Archias, and dine off a modest dish of greens,
Torquatus, I’ll expect to see you here at sunset.
You’ll drink wine bottled in Taurus’ second term,
Between marshy Minturnae, and Mount Petrinum 
Near Sinuessa. If you’ve better, have it brought,    
Or obey orders! The hearth’s bright, the furniture’s
Already been straightened. Forget airy hopes, the fight
For wealth, and Moschus’ case: tomorrow, Caesar’s birthday
Gives us a reason for sleeping late: we’re free to spend
A summer’s night in pleasant talk with impunity.
What’s the use of my fortune if I can’t enjoy it?
The man who scrimps and saves on behalf of his heirs,
Too much, is next to mad. I’ll start the drinking, scatter
Flowers, and even allow you to think me indiscreet. 
What can’t drunkenness do? It unlocks secrets, and makes
Secure our hopes, urges the coward on to battle,
Lifts the weight from anxious hearts, teaches new skills.
Whom has the flowing wine-bowl not made eloquent?
Whom constrained by poverty has it not set free?  
Here’s what, willing and able, I commit myself
To provide: no dirty seat-covers, no soiled napkins
To offend your nose, no plate or tankard where you can’t
See yourself, no one to carry abroad what’s spoken
Between good friends, so like may meet and be joined  
To like. I’ll have Butra and Septicius for you,
And Sabinus unless he’s detained by a prior
Engagement, and a prettier girl. There’s room too
For your ‘shadows’: but goatish smells spoil overcrowded
Feasts. You reply with how many you want, then drop 
Your affairs: out the back, evade the client in the hall!  

This letter to Torquatus breathes the urbanity of Horace. At once casual, conversational, and learned, amusing, yet never to be underestimated in terms of his range of reference.

In this brief invitation to a lawyer friend, he downplays his furniture, specifies the wine (with allusions that might relate to the lawyer's family history), freely labels fiscally conservative people as borderline mad (insano), then launches into a vision of how he'll begin drinking and scattering flowers, and even let his legal eagle buddy think him less than entirely discreet (inconsultus).

This leads to the question at the exact midpoint of the poem (Horace is big on centers):

Quid non ebrietas dissignat?
What can intoxication not unseal?

The poem then turns to explore manifold modes of opening that link indiscretion with courage, confidence with confidentiality, empowerment to learn with encouragement to hope, eloquence of tongue with the accession to a kind of freedom from care.

From the promised flow of wine and talk, the poet goes on to talk about his napkins, silverware and who's on the guest list. The thought of close quarters sets up a joke about body odor.

The remarkable fluidity of the poem, its physicality, its playful scamper up and down the tonal gamut, the joy of anticipating an intimate evening with trusted friends, seems effortless -- how could anyone, even a harried lawyer, refuse the enticing summons:

rebus omissis
atria servantem postico falle clientem

                                                       then drop                      
Your affairs: out the back, evade the client in the hall!     

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