Carpe diem—pluck the day.

My wife and I had a nice conversation around the dinner table last night about the inappropriateness of the prevailing translation of the famous phrase from Horace (Odes 1.11.8): “Carpe diem.” Normally, “seize the day” is passed off as the meaning of the phrase as a disembodied maxim, while many translators of the poem have used the word “seize” or something like it, viz.

“Clutch today”

—William Sinclair Marris (1873–1945)

“Seize the day”

—Edward Arlington Robinson (1869–1935)

“Seize the present”

—John Conington (1825–1869)

The problem is that the Latin verb carpere does not mean seize. carpere is not what you do to a spear or the moveable wealth of a stormed city. It’s not an act of violence, or, if it is, it’s a kind of force enfolded in the natural order, like Hesiod’s birds of the air, who eat one another, “because there is no δίκη in them.” Vergil has grazing animals doing it.

It is what you and I would do to a flower. More poets American and English, who were more faithful to this image:

“Use today”

—Thomas Charles Baring (1831–1891)

“Catch the blossom of To-day”

—Charles Stuart Calverley (1831–1884)

“Make harvest of to-day”

—William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898)*

Isn’t that charming? Catch the blossom of To-day. It’s not about forcing a square peg into a round hole. It’s not about getting into a hack-and-slash, desperate, high pitch count and fouling everything off until the pitcher, out of fatigue, hangs one up in the strike zone for you. The pitcher does not get tired. It’s about knowing that this is your pitch and swinging at it.

You can not be anything you want to be. But you can be great.

The best thing I read today is again from Sophocles’ Trachiniae, again from Dejaneira:

…ὧν δ’ ἀφαρπάζειν φιλεῖ

ὀφθαλμὸς ἄνθος, τῶνδ’ ὑπεκτρέπει πόδα.

whose blossom the eye loves to pluck,

from these in time it turns the foot away.

Desperate words in the context.


*Thanks to Michael Gilleland, who has put together various translations of this Ode of Horace on one of his websites. His blog, Laudator Temporis Acti, especially his post on “Maxims for Philologists”, has been an inspiration to me.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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