“I sat a long while up among the olive yards to-day at a favourite corner, where one has a fair view down the valley and on to the blue floor of the sea. I had a Horace with me, and read a little; but Horace, when you try to read him fairly under the open heaven, sounds urban, and you find something of the escaped townsman in his descriptions of the country. . .”
I like the old-fashioned way people said “a Horace,” meaning a volume by Horace. I’m not sure that idiom ever caught on in the U.S., or if it remains current in the U.K. Good books are companionable, after all, and we befriend them. Robert Louis Stevenson needed friends. He turned twenty-three on Nov. 13, 1873, the day he arrived in Menton on the French Riviera, near the Italian border. Yeats died there in 1939. Stevenson had been “Ordered South” (Virginibus Puerisque, 1881) by his doctor in London. All his life he was sickly, and scholars believe he suffered not from tuberculosis but bronchiectasis, the disease that killed him in 1894. On this date, Nov. 23, in 1873, Stevenson was writing from Menton to his flirtatious friend Fanny Sitwell (not to be confused with his American-born wife Frances “Fanny” Van de grift Osbourne, whom he married in 1880). The olive trees, Horace and the nearby Mediterranean move Stevenson to write:
“I tried for long to hit upon some language that might catch ever so faintly the indefinable shifting colour of olive leaves; and, above all, the changes and little silverings that pass over them, like blushes over a face, when the wind tosses great branches to and fro; but the Muse was not favourable.”
Stevenson’s meditations remind me of “A Winter Stroll Pondering the Poetry of Horace” from Montreal Before Spring (trans. Donald McGrath, Biblioasis, 2015) by the Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon. Here is another poet who admires Horace’s lines, wishes to emulate them, but resigns himself to the modesty of his gift:
“I don’t know for whom I write, or why.
I will never say those lines so full
of a fair pride to which I have no right
that closed your first three books of odes.
And in these streets abandoned to the snow
(as if to the world’s end) that will bury all,
I understand without feeling any pain
that it doesn’t matter. Otium divos rogo.”
Horace shows up again in Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013):
“. . . so much prose and poetry
that a blissful eternity would not suffice
for us to read it all, from Lucretius and Horace
“to Saint-Denys Garneau, Borges and Montale,
from Aulus Gellius to Joubert, to Cioran, to Léautaud.
One could just as well say Seneca, and Ponge, and Leopardi,
“Petrarch, Pessoa, Montaigne . . . one recites these names
and those of Sbarbaro, Erasmus, or Martineau, giddy
at having inhaled the inexhaustible catalogue.”
For readers and writers, the catalogue is a vast consolation. We need never be friendless. Melançon wrote to me on Tuesday from his home outside Montreal: “Today we had the first real snow. I was happy as a child this morning, opening the curtains and looking at such light.”