Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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What Did Horace Say?
Though justice against fate complain,
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 water-cooler village pump conversation, mulling over the recent news. Or, immediately following:

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.

Lovely analysis.

My exhortation yesterday was to have them always remember how Satan, "with necessity, the tyrant's plea, / Excused his devilish deeds."

Milton and Marvell both knew a thing or two about tyrants.

May I offer a reading of the Declaration of Independence that is more in concord with your point? The self-evidence of the rights does not mean they don't have to be fought for. Tyranny is always a danger, something which some of the same people who issued the Declaration went to great lengths to guard against in their Constitution a dozen years later, something which worked pretty well until now.

indeed, declaring that the colonists are going to fight for their rights is what compelled them to issue this Declaration. The self-evidence of the rights is merely what means they don't have to be defended at great length; the bulk of the Declaration is merely a demonstration that the rights have been violated.

I'm sure that you've offered an accurate interpretation of the Declaration.

I'm less sure that I find it personally convincing. It seems to me a rhetorical, even a performative move that does a lot to bring the rights into existence by affirming the need to defend them. Rights as discussed in the Declaration - a kind of personal property that can be bestowed by an endowment and may be threatened with theft, trespass, etc., seems to me a quintessentially social construction. They are the ideology of an aspiring capitalist class if one wants to wax Marxist about it. The (entirely incompatible) rights in Marvell's lines - the rights of absolute monarchy which Charles I aspired to - are an equally human construction, for all that God may be invoked to underwrite them.

What Marvell's lines capture, with brutal clarity, is that these rights are just man-made curbs on human behaviour. I don't know whether Marvell hung out with Hobbes, though they were both abroad during the Civil War - but it seems quite a Hobbist way of thinking about things. The rights are a kind of contract - but if the other party breaks the contract, who you gonna call?

The Founders were Hobbesean enough. Man-made curbs on human behavior is exactly how the US Constitution is designed to work. If your ideas on rights are a Marxist social construct, as you suggest, then you can't expect 18th-century Lockean theorists to agree with that.

As for "Who you gonna call?" heck, the Declaration is itself an answer to that very question.

Indeed it is. And that's what I was trying to get across (courtesy of Marvell): pleading rights is in vain, without action to back it up. Of course, we still need to make the plea to legitimate the action, but shouldn't mistake the plea for the action.

It's so good to open up my reading page and find this! Marvell! That is such a mine-worthy poem - I like your observation about his shifts in tone. (Not sure how much I agree, but I'll enjoy thinking it over.)
Also, very much, thank you for directing my attention to that ode by Horace - wow! I'm still blinking. :)

It's pretty amazing, isn't it? And Horace's Ode was written in the short space between Actium and Octavian's being given the title Augustus, a not dissimilar position to Cromwell's in 1650.

Was there a flood? Or had there been, rather - if not then, in living memory?

I think it's more an evocation of Deucalion and Pyrrha's mythical flood, to indicate a general sense of the world turned upside downness (fish in trees, etc.) and chaos caused by civil war.

Thank you. I loved the fish in trees - it worked wonderfully.

(Somewhat abashed by my own ignorance. But there you are - I'm slightly less ignorant than yesterday! :) )


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