And plead the ancient rights in vain;
But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak.
There was a catch in my voice as I read these lines to a hall of first-year students yesterday, in the course of a lecture comparing Marvell's "Horatian Ode" with Horace's Ode 1.2 (in translation, naturally). I'd been asked to give a couple of lectures on rewritings, and this was the first: next week, The Owl Service and "Math ap Mathonwy"!
If there's one thing you take away from this lecture, I said, or words to that effect, remember those words and take them to heart. Rights aren't out there sitting immutably in some Platonic realm: they're human creations, and have to be protected by humans. (Pace the Declaration of Independence, there's nothing self-evident or innate about them.)
A little off-topic, perhaps, but it was hard to avoid the contemporary resonances of both poems at a time when Europe and America appear to be in the process of being "cast... into another mould". Not that either Trump or Farage (or any of the various continental Faragistes) has a scintilla of the genius of Octavian or Cromwell, but I fear that in today's world they don't need it.
On a side note, though, I noticed for the first time that this poem does the same thing that Trump does in his speeches, shifting register and providing self-translation or additional comment as if for his deaf granny. The long couplets tend to use an elevated register, full of abstracts, personifications and Latinate words, which is supplemented by a demotic, everyday, occasionally cynical register in the short couplets. You can see it clearly in the lines quote above, but they're not unique. Take, for example:
’Tis madness to resist or blame
The force of angry Heaven’s flame;
And, if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,
The first two lines are elevated, the second a kind of
Who from his private gardens where
He liv’d reserved and austere,
As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,
The first two lines are serious, the second two parenthetical whimsy. In a more muted form we find the same contrast here:
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try;
Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head
Down as upon a bed.
Elevated language in the long lines, with the short lines devoted to a) a piece of witty black humour, or b) a homely simile, in both cases free of non-English words. Well, that's by the by, but I record it here as an aide-memoire.