A short course in how my mind works.
I’ve been a little depressed (who hasn’t lately) and I’d started digging through my inbox, reading some articles about something other than Afghanistan. I noted a couple of them earlier. For the first time in a while, I felt like having a drink. I bought some beer, and started drinking as I watched a great Channel 4 documentary called Behind the Veil, getting really down. I checked the guide, and I noticed that Days of Wine and Roses was playing on Turner Classic Movies right then.
Alcohol, movies about alcoholics, strange coincidence, huh?
Things often work like this for me. When Jack Lemmon died a while ago, I tracked down the poem that was the inspiration for the title of this movie, which in turn was the inspiration for the Dream Syndicate album:
Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
A nice enough poem, perhaps a little hallmarky, but the title bugged me. I took it to the next level tonight.
The title of Dowson’s poem is taken from Horace’s first book of Odes, according to a footnote. It didn’t say which one, so I read them all. I don’t know Latin, so I had to track down translations. The first ones I found were no help, done by Steven Willett a classical scholar that I don’t like much who is on a few mailing lists I’m on. Willett only translated selected poems, and I didn’t even recognize the sentiment when I first read it. While I’m sure it’s probably the most accurate, it’s just so sterile:
Stop these efforts to learn-knowing is banned-what will be my, and your,
final god-given end, Leuconoe, cease Babylonian
divination by stars. Better by far: all that will come, endure!
Whether Jupiter grants many a long winter, or this our last,
which now tires, against pumice-strewn shores lying below us, that
vast Tyrrhenian Sea. Learn to be wise, strain out the wine, and prune
lavish hopes to the quick. While we converse, envious time will have
vanished: harvest Today, placing the least credence on what’s to come.
Horace, Odes 1:11
Yuck. I didn’t even recognize the sentiment when I read it; the search for the Latin phrase was useless since the tenses were changed. But Willet hadn’t translated all of the Odes, so I found another translation from 1882 by John Conington. I started reading them backward, since Willett primarily translated the early ones. Thirty more poems, looking for that same “life is short sentiment,” but the Conington translations were a pleasure. I’m a sucker for that rolling Victorian style. Jackpot! The translation of Horace’s eleventh poem by Conington is beautiful, and much easier to connect with the movie, the record, and life itself:
Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may.
Hard to believe it’s the same thing that Willett was trying to convey! From Steve Wynn, to Jack Lemmon, to Ernest Dowson, to Horace. But the reward, to me at least, is a very timely poem. Right now, facing uncertain days, I find the Horace to be the most comforting of all. Weird how that happens. Get depressed, find a new poem to cheer myself up. Sometimes, it’s all in the translation. Willet just didn’t do the sentiment justice; Conington did.