Horace Ode 3.30: On Immortality
Words Outlive Us -- Or Will They?
One of the first things people wrote about, when they learned to write, was the almost magical immortality this art bestowed.
Horace, a Roman poet favored by emperor Augustus Caesar, was not the first poet to note words' power to preserve transient speech. Yet his Ode 3.30 is one of the most famous expressions of the sentiment.
Digging through my notes, I just came across my translation of Horace Odes 3.30 (despite my handle, I studied Latin for many more years than Greek).
I'd like to share it. I think it has something to tell us about the web, Twitter, and this strange new world of words we live in today.
Above: Romanian postage stamp celebrating Quintus Horatius Flaccus. (See copyright info).
Horace Odes 3.30 (excerpt)
Translation by Ellen Brundige
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam: usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
I have finished a monument more eternal than bronze
and taller than the kingly site of the pyramids,
which no gnawing rain, no fierce North wind
can destroy, nor countless ranks of years
nor the flight of ages.
Not entirely shall I die; and a great part of me
will evade Lady Death; ever after I
shall arise, renewed by praise,
so long as the Pontifex ascends the Capitoline
accompanied by the silent Virgin...
(Note: this is only the first half of the poem; the second half shifts themes slightly, boasting of Horace's literary credentials and humble roots.)
The poem is fairly self-explanatory until Horace starts name-dropping. The Pontifex was the high priest of Rome long before the Pope borrowed the title, and the virgin is one of Rome's sacred Vestal Virgins, the ancient equivalent of nuns. Despite Horace's prediction, his words have survived more than 1500 years longer than those officials.
Words Fix Fleeting Speech
How Can You "Catch" a Sound With a Symbol?
The Egyptians, one of the earliest cultures to develop writing, considered hieroglyphs ("sacred writing", a modern term) to be highly magical. Without writing, what you say exists only in the moment you speak something. Speech is transitory, as mortal as a Mayfly. As Emily Dickinson put it:
A Word is dead
When it is said
It just begins to live
Writing preserves the spoken word by a spell, spelling it out: albeit imperfectly since the written word cannot capture the full flavor, tone and personality of conversation. A strange alchemy: audible sound is transformed into visible signs which seem to speak in our minds.
The written word outlasts the speaker, even the scribe. Writing on portable surfaces allows it to travel far and be read by people at a distance, widely separated by space or even time. They can even write an answer without having to speak face-to-face. We forget what profound magic writing is.
It sounds like the web, doesn't it?
Words, Words, Words: So What?
Why It Matters
Horace's immortality rested on the most feeble of foundations: countless strangers had to find his words worth preserving, recopying, recopying again as parchment wore out. Anonymous medieval monks honored him with the labor of their hands, not just a retweet.
Nowadays, more people achieve Horace's form of immortality than ever before, although the education and technology needed for writing are not available everywhere.
People post, Tweet, text, email, instant message. All our words may be read and searched by people around the world. Anything we've ever committed to writing is captured and preserved by numerous sites and archives like Google, the Wayback Machine. Now, not only gifted poets have the gift of immortality and/or infamy. Anyone with the tools of the trade can carve a "lasting monument." Or can we?
How long can a hard drive last before it degrades or wears out? Centuries, like paper? Or decades, like magnetic tape?
How long will the technology to share and read these words, these files, remain the same?
When will people choose to purge words that don't matter anymore? How will they decide?
What if catastrophe strikes, like solar flares which could wipe out hard drives, computer memory around the globe?
Will people 500 years ago look back at the desert of disks and dead drives and wonder what words they once contained, or how to access the mysteries that may yet be stored on them?
Image Credit: Herman Zapf, Wikimedia Commons, (CC). Movable type for a printing press.
The Web is Our Immortality
A Tweet Could Be Your "Famous Last Words"
There are no answers. But it is something to think about, as we entrust more and more of our words-- our immortality-- solely to digital format.
I do not say that printouts or diaries are the solution; there are no permanent media, and scribes no longer exist. Also, frankly, only a few of our words are worth saving for all time. The scribes of the future will be those who are moved to convert old files to newer formats so they can be saved for posterity.
Just remember, many of the words you post on the web will outlast you. They're your monument, the part of you that will live on... in this world, anyway.
Poll: What's Your Monument?
Here's an interesting exercise. Google your name. Are you satisfied with the first words that turn up about you?
© 2011 Ellen Brundige