Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Golden Mean

In a recent post I opined that, as one ages, things drop away.  For instance, the daily news of the world gives us plenty to be alarmed and incensed about, but it no longer seems worth the trouble.  The catalogue of horrors and absurdities has ever been thus:  not just last week or last year, but for centuries, millennia.  Why expend energy on it?  Our putative "progress" as a species is a nice fairy tale.  Mind you, this is not an argument for cynicism or misanthropy.  That the world is a madhouse does not relieve us of our duty to behave decently.

And, of course, there is still the matter of getting through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.  Perhaps this is why I have become fonder and fonder of Horace and Robert Herrick in my senescence.  They are both oases of beautifully conveyed good sense.

Wise they, that, with a cautious fear,
Not always thro' the ocean steer,
Nor, whilst they think the winds will roar,
Do thrust too near the rocky shore:
To those that choose the golden mean
The waves are smooth, the skies serene;
They want the baseness of the poor's retreat,
And envy'd houses of the great.
Storms often vex the lofty oak,
High mountains feel the thunder's stroke;
And lofty towers, when winds prevail,
Are ruin'd with a greater fall:
A breast prepar'd in either state
Or fears or hopes a change of Fate;
'Tis Jove the same that winter brings
And melts the frost by pleasing springs:
Tho' Fortune now contracts her brow,
And frowns, yet 'twill not still be so:
Apollo sometimes mirth pursues,
His harp awakes his sleepy muse,
Nor always bends his threatening bow:
When Fortune sends a stormy wind,
Then show a brave and present mind;
And when with too indulgent gales
She swells too much, then furl thy sails.

Horace (translated by Thomas Creech), Odes, Book II, Ode 10, in Thomas Creech, The Odes, Satires, and Epistles of Horace (1684).

"The golden mean."  This sort of thing is regarded as a cliché by soi-disant sophisticated moderns.  Old, unironic, sentimental stuff.  Too obvious to bear repeating.  But would I rather read the poetry of Horace or a contemporary novel?  Next question.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Ramsey Island, Off Pembrokeshire" (1876)

I have also become increasingly fond of sea-faring metaphors for life, which are abundant in Horace and Herrick.  My time on various bodies of water has been limited to rowboats, an occasional canoe, and car ferries, but there is something about the notion of life as a sea-voyage that strikes my fancy.  Perhaps it is the timelessness of the image.  Last year I spent a great deal of time musing over the numerous lovely funereal epigrams for drowned mariners that one finds in The Greek Anthology.  And then there is this sort of thing:  "Run out the boat, my broken comrades . . . Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades . . . Put out to sea, ignoble comrades . . ." (Louis MacNeice, "Thalassa.")


He, who has suffer'd ship-wrack, fears to sail
Upon the seas, though with a gentle gale.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).  This has been identified as a translation of line 8 in Poem 7, Book II, of Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto.  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 685.

                            Safety on the Shore

What though the sea be calm?  Trust to the shore:
Ships have been drown'd, where late they danced before.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides.  It has been suggested that the source of the poem is a passage in Epistle IV of Seneca's Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales: "Do not trust her calm; in a moment the sea is in turmoil.  The same day the ships dance in the games, they are engulfed."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 577.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Falmouth Harbour" (1883)

Not surprisingly, there are echoes of Horace throughout Herrick's poetry. Thus, for example, the following poem by Herrick is reminiscent of the ode by Horace that is set forth above.

      Good Precepts, or Counsel

In all thy need, be thou possest
Still with a well-prepared breast:
Nor let the shackles make thee sad;
Thou canst but have, what others had.
And this for comfort thou must know,
Times that are ill won't still be so.
Clouds will not ever power down rain;
A sullen day will clear again.
First, peals of thunder we must hear,
Then lutes and harps shall stroke the ear.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides.

"Times that are ill won't still be so" (line 6) may have its source in Horace's lines translated by Creech as:  "Tho' Fortune now contracts her brow,/And frowns, yet 'twill not still be so."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 706.  "First, peals of thunder we must hear,/Then lutes and harps shall stroke the ear" (lines 9 and 10) may show the influence of Horace's "Apollo sometimes mirth pursues,/His harp awakes his sleepy muse,/Nor always bends his threatening bow."  Ibid.

Charles Parsons Knight, "Cawsand Bay" (1877)

Finally, out of nowhere comes this:

         Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

I suppose that pursuing the golden mean is to a great degree a matter of waiting.

"Everything which seems to perish merely changes.  Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind.  Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course; you will see that no star in our firmament is extinguished, but that they all set and rise in alternation.  Summer has gone, but another year will bring it again; winter lies low, but will be restored by its own proper months; night has overwhelmed the sun, but day will soon rout the night again.  The wandering stars retrace their former courses; a part of the sky is rising unceasingly, and a part is sinking."

Seneca (translated by Richard Gummere), Epistle XXXVI, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales.

Charles Parsons Knight, "The Kyles of Bute" (1893)


Fred said...


Several themes seem intertwined to some extent here: the Golden Mean or neither too much or too little, etc. is one. Another seems to be the inevitability of change which would advise patience for if times are bad, they will improve. The corollary? (never sure about the usage here) is not mentioned though--one should be alert for if it's good times now, they will become worse.

I love that Hardy poem--another one I hadn't read.

George said...

When I think of the golden mean in relation to poetry, I think of Robert Graves's "All priests despise her and all sober men/Vowed to the Lord Apollo's golden mean." (Quoted from memory since I can't just now find the Collected Poems on my shelves.) Graves did not blame the golden mean as sentimental, did he?

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Your points are good ones. I've been reading Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus recently, and, as you suggest, the themes you mention do overlap a great deal. I think that Horace's ode quoted in the post encompasses them all. My original thought for the title of the post was "Prudence," which perhaps covers everything. I appreciate your tying them together.

I'm pleased you liked "Waiting Both." It is one of my favorites. Whenever I return to Hardy, I make it a point to read it. I think it encapsulates Hardy's world-view quite well.

It's good to hear from you again. I suppose it's starting to heat up down there. As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Your memory is excellent. I did not know the lines, but some Internet sleuthing led me to the opening lines of "The White Goddess" (the poem, not the book): "All saints revile her, and all sober men/Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean --/
In scorn of which we sailed to find her/In distant regions likeliest to hold her/Whom we desired above all things to know,/Sister of the mirage and echo." (The first of three stanzas.)

My reading may be wrong, but I think that Graves -- no surprise here -- is expressing a preference for his fabled White Goddess over "saints" and "all sober men ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean." I am fond of a great deal of Graves's poetry, but I confess that he loses me with his obsession with the White Goddess. But perhaps I'm missing something he saw.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Fred said...


Yes, it's been between 105 and 110 for several days now. Time to stay cool and drink lots of iced fluids.

I've really read very little of Graves' works, prose or poetry. What I'm most familiar with of his is that great TV adaptation of _I Claudius_. I should move beyond that one of these days (OOTD).

Anonymous said...

My Friend, The Things That Do Attain

MY friend, the things that do attain
The happy life be these, I find:
The riches left, not got with pain;
The fruitful ground; the quiet mind;
The equal friend; no grudge; no strife;
No charge of rule, nor governance;
Without disease, the healthy life;
The household of continuance;
The mean diet, no dainty fare;
Wisdom joined with simpleness;
The night discharged of all care,
Where wine the wit may not oppress:
The faithful wife, without debate;
Such sleeps as may beguile the night;
Content thyself with thine estate,
Neither wish death, nor fear his might.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Whew, that's too hot for me. And you are only just beginning. But I suppose it's like the rain up here: you get used to it.

Regarding Graves: I've looked into his poetry off and on over the years (which I like), but I haven't read any of his historical novels. He is pretty eccentric, and, as I say, his obsession with "The White Goddess" business is something I just don't get (and, unfortunately, it gets into his poetry quite a bit as well).

Thanks for the follow-up.

Fred said...


Actually it's the hottest part of the year now, at least usually. The monsoons start in a few weeks, around the 4th of July, and while that does lower the temps a bit, the humidity goes up which really increases the discomfort level.

I have read Graves' _I Claudius_ and will get around to the second book OOTD. As I haven't read any of his poetry, that I remember, or any other prose work by him, I haven't encountered the White Goddess. Is there a typical poem I could that would give me the flavor of his White Goddess preoccupation?

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the poem by Henry Howard, which I am very fond of. It goes very well here.

It is also apt given that Howard (as you probably know) translated Horace's Ode 10 into English. It has been asserted (although I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the assertion) that Howard's version is the first translation of Horace into English. In any event, Howard's version concludes:

[I]n strait estate appear thou stout;
And so wisely, when lucky gale of wind
All thy puffed sails shall fill, look well about;
Take in a reef: haste is waste, proof doth find.

The translation begins: "Of thy life, Thomas, this compass well mark." It has been suggested that "Thomas" refers to his son or to Thomas Wyatt (or to both).

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I didn't realize you had a "monsoon" season coming up soon: I've only been there in spring and autumn. Interesting.

As you might expect, the poem titled "The White Goddess" is the place to start. No other "typical" poem about her comes to mind: the concept is usually implied in many of his love poems, in which he praises whichever woman he was enthralled with at the time! Of course, his prose book of the same title goes into great detail.

Thank you for the follow-up thoughts.

Fred said...


OK, thanks for the recommendation. I will take a look at "The White Goddess."

I found a book in the library titled "The WHite Goddess. It appears to be a prose work dealing with the White Goddess in myths. Are you familiar with this?

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: That's correct. The full title is: The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. Mind you, I've only dipped into it -- I can't say that it is the sort of thing that grabs me. A (the?) key element (as far as I can tell) is that she functions as the Muse of poetry. Graves tended to view each of his romantic partners as his Muse, and as a sort of incarnation of the White Goddess. Although I am no doubt over-simplifying things.

Thanks for the follow-up.

Unknown said...

I was led by Google to your blog because of your entry on Horace's The Golden Mean. My first name, Horace, found a place in the family three generations ago, when "Horace" was one of the most common names given to male children. Years ago, I struggled to translate this ode in high school Latin, an undertaking that did not produce much comprehension of its sentiment. The Creech translation of the ode is an excellent choice for your blog, in part because of the parallels between the historical times in which Creech and Horace lived.

The Golden Mean came recently to mind as I have been reflecting on social science research over the last decade linking political temperments to genetic variation. From its title, one might expect the Ode to be a celebration of political moderation. On rereading the Ode in Creech's excellent translation, I was instead struck that the Ode is more pertinent as a reflection on survival in challenging times rather than as a celebration of a moderate temperment.

For Horace, Caesar Agustus's victory over the Republic establishes the historic context for Horace's career, and Creech's birth shortly following Oliver Cromwell's death in England's Commonwealth period and the continuing tensions in the Restoration Period establishes the context for his translation. Considering those historical contexts, the literary parallel and wisdom instinct that seems most apposite is the path of the "Superior Man" in the I Ching, which in its totality commends a path that Horace and Creech both would recognize and regard as sound.

Your blog is beautifully formatted and your reflections are interesting. A great discovery!

Stephen Pentz said...

Unknown: I apologize profusely for the long delay in posting, and responding to, your comment.

I agree with you about the Creech translation: it is excellentl, isn't it? Personally, I tend to favor older translations (particularly from the 18th or 17th centuries) of the Greek and Roman classics, simply because I like the style of those times. Thank you very much for your interesting and thought-provoking observations about the ode, and about the historical context of both the original and Creech's translation. And the reference to the I Ching is wonderful.

Thank you very much as well for your kind words about the blog. I'm happy you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Again, I apologize for the inexcusable delay in posting, and responding to, your comment.