Early in the first book of his odes, this is the place where Horace coins or recalls the phrase “carpe diem” to summarise the idea that time and life itself pass quickly, so it’s best to make the fullest use of them while we can. It’s usually translated as “seize the day”, but it’s a lot more than that: “carpe” could also mean “harvest” the day, or “tease it out” like wool, or “press on” with it like a journey, or “pluck” it like a flower, and contemporaries would have had that richness of meaning in their minds. The importance of the “carpe diem” motif in the culture in which Horace worked, and his own poetry especially, is illustrated by the fact that he has already referred to it in two poems even earlier in Book 1 (1.4 and 1.8).
The metre is unusual: stanzas in this style usually have lines of varying length and rhythm; but the general effect is that the poem keeps getting checked and then moving on regardless, which seems apt to its message.
See the illustrated blog post here.
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Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
Don’t ask – it’s wrong to know – what end the Gods
have given you or me, Leuconoe, and don’t resort to exotic
numerology. How much better bear it, whatever it will be!
Whether Jove has granted many winters, or this is our last,
as even now the Tyrrhenian sea is wearing at the rocks
it faces; be wise, pour the wine, prune back long hope
to brief duration. As we speak, the jealous time is gone:
pluck the day, rely the least you can on the day to come.