Pluck the Day
by Nicole DeMarco
Okay. I’m trying to set the record straight about one of the more hackneyed Latin phrases out there, namely, Carpe Diem. While I’m sure most of you have seen this scrawled across some corny graduation paraphernalia, the origins of the quip are largely unknown. Cue my insatiable urge to inundate you all with some insight.
Carpe Diem is the imperative exhortation in the last line of a Horatian ode addressed to symposium attendee, mistress, and possibly fictitious Leuconoe. It’s not a poem about ambition. Think less Robin Williams in “The Dead Poet’s Society” and more Leonardo ‘To Making It Count’ DiCaprio in “Titanic.”
Horace, in composing this poem, seeks not to lobby for the necessity of future aspirations sine non qua, but to emphasize the transience of life. Given the ephemeral nature of well, everything, one ought to embrace all of life’s pleasures (carnal and otherwise) while he or she still can. Though the urgency of the speaker is in part due to his interest in securing himself a good old-fashioned boudoir romping, his point is tamen* a good one. While it’s great to have goals, the future is elusive, so why wait? (Obvi a rhetorical question, i.e., you shouldn’t!) The point is that we mortal underlings have no concept of what is to come, and moreover, scire nefas.
Quite possibly [read:definitely] one of the greatest Latin words in existence, nefas is busting at the seams with gnarly connotations. This indeclinable noun can most succinctly be defined as “crime,” but it more accurately describes an incorrigible affront to the gods. Scire, “to know,” as an offense to divine will, is indicative of the fact that we, as humans reveling in all our mortality and fallibility, are not privy to info of that sort.
Again, the point is, don’t worry about it, bro, you can’t do anything about it anyway. So, just sit back and enjoy the ride. I’m not (nor is Horace, for that matter) endorsing the abandonment of all your responsibilities for the pursuit of a licentious hedonistic paradise, just don’t get your undies in a bunch about the future. Without quitting your day job, you can (and should!) enjoy yourself.
What I would contend to be the crux of the ode occurs in the antepenultimate line, with the jussive subjunctives,** sapias and liques. The former, meaning both “be wise” and “have taste” thus operates on an intellectual and sensory level. In other words, don’t be foolish; believing that time will slow down or delay is an egregiously naïve conviction. Liques refers to vina, “wines.” By saying “strain the wine” (Romans strained their wine before consumption to rid it of sediment…it’s in the arbiter bibendi job description), the speaker urges Leuconoe to drink up! Saving the wine for a special occasion is nonsense; now is an occasion special enough! And besides, if there’s wine readily available, why wouldn’t you drink it? Do you not like yourself? Are you a masochist? Hangovers be damned, the real tragedy lies in letting the wine go to waste.
Spatio brevi / spem longam reseces offers a further caveat against being too forward thinking. Because “the span of time is brief,” one ought to restrain his or her “long hopes.” The long, yet rapidly Asclepiadean (try saying that five times fast) line in which the poem is written continues to emphasize the celerity with which time proceeds.
It might seem like a downer, but it doesn’t have to be. Horace is not the original Deb, he’s just saying it how it is. While we’re all busting our humps making plans and color-coding our agenda books, time is basically just LOLing at us. Or as Horace more eloquently puts it, Dum loquimur, fugerit invida / aetas. “While we are speaking, envious time will have fled,” so quit yapping, start acting!
Why is time personified as being envious? Well, it may be said that as a third party interloper, time’s jealousy of what the speaker and Leuconoe share is simply a manifestation of this frustration. Moreover, it seems necessary to point out that whether or not Leuconoe is fictitious is of very little consequence. The message endures irrespective of an actual and specific recipient; for it is from its universal applicability that carpe diem derives its appeal.
Lastly, a word about a word. Carpe; it more accurately means “pluck, pick, or crop.” Its agricultural connotations coincide with those of reseces, from resceo, which may be translated as “prune back.” Obviously, “seize” is more appealing contemporarily, but as a Latin major I have afforded myself the right to be a pendant. Additionally, the final –e in carpe is short, so stop saying, “car-PAY” unless you’d like me to carpe your hair from your scalp.
Though by no means an exhaustive account, the preceding analysis was simply meant to dispel some common misconceptions surrounding Carpe Diem, and to help you all keep your Latinist and Classicist pals from rolling their eyes at you.
*Also as a Latin major, I am prone to inserting random Latin conjunctions, interjections, etc. into my daily speech and writing. I have no intention of stopping. Tamen simply means, “nevertheless.”
** I am a grammar junkie. I suspect that most of you are not. Jussive subjunctives are those that are suggestions or commands in the third person.