In this poem, Horace pitches the conventional theme of “carpe diem” very much in terms of Epicurean philosophy – living the good life means maintaining a calm and balanced mind. Beyond that, not much comfort is on offer, but despite the sadness, the poem is very beautiful, and its power largely comes from the way in which sound and meaning flow together through each stanza. Dellius seems to be a rich landowner, and Horace labours the point that there are things that money can’t buy.
The three sisters are the fates, the threads they spin are the destinies of men, Inachus was a legendary king, shaking pebbles in an urn until one popped out was an ancient method of drawing lots and the mariner who sails the boat to everlasting exile is Charon, who ferries dead souls across the River Styx to Hades.
See the illustrated blog post here.
If you would like to compare this poem to others on the theme of “carpe diem”, there is a link to a selection here.
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Aequam memento rebus in arduis
servare mentem, non secus in bonis
ab insolenti temperatam
laetitia, moriture Delli,
seu maestus omni tempore vixeris
seu te in remoto gramine per dies
festos reclinatum bearis
interiore nota Falerni.
quo pinus ingens albaque populus
umbram hospitalem consociare amant
ramis? quid obliquo laborat
lympha fugax trepidare rivo?
huc vina et unguenta et nimium breves
flores amoenae ferre iube rosae,
dum res et aetas et sororum
fila trium patiuntur atra.
cedes coemptis saltibus et domo
villaque, flavus quam Tiberis lavit,
cedes, et exstructis in altum
divitiis potietur heres.
divesne prisco natus ab Inacho
nil interest an pauper et infima
de gente sub divo moreris,
victima nil miserantis Orci.
omnes eodem cogimur, omnium
versatur urna serius ocius
sors exitura et nos in aeternum
exilium impositura cumbae.
Remember, keep your state of mind in balance when the going in life gets steep, and hold it back from excessive happiness when things are going well, Dellius, doomed to die,
whether you have lived in sadness for the whole of your time, or whether, reclining through one day of celebration after another on a secluded lawn, you have been blessed with some fine vintage of Falernian from the inner cellar.
Why do the massive pine and the white poplar love to give hospitable shade together from their branches? For what does the fleeing stream strive and bustle its way down its winding bed?
Call for wine, and unguents, and the all-too-brief flowers of the lovely rose, while means and age – and the black thread of the three sisters – allow.
You will leave the farms that you have bought, and your house and your villa by which the yellow Tiber flows, you will leave, and the riches that you have piled so high your heir will take possession of.
Whether you are rich and descended from ancient Inachus, or a pauper of the lowest family and have eked out life with no roof over your head, makes no difference, you victim of pitiless Hades.
The same force drives us all, we all have our lot which is being shaken in the urn and will, sooner or later come out and put us on the boat for everlasting exile.