Redefining Carpe Diem

by   |  10.12.09  |  221-Early Modern

    Professor John Keating reintroduced the phrase carpe diem into American vernacular in 1989 when he told the newest members of the Dead Poet’s Society to “seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.” For all his passion and charisma, Professor Keating was perhaps misleading his young charges by recommending a thinly veiled hedonism cloaked in a catchy Latin title. The ancient originator of the phrase, the Roman poet Horace, admonished his readers “to seize the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future” (American Heritage Dictionary). A more familiar translation of the idea first appeared in William Tyndale’s 1525 New Testament as “Eat, drink, and be merry, tomorrow we shall die” (Luke 12:19, I Corinthians 15:32).

    In the film, one of Keating’s favorite examples comes from Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”:

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old time is still a-flying:
    And this same flower that smiles today
    To-morrow will be dying.
    (Norton 1659)

    But even Herrick’s quotable carpe diem poem is misleading, ending with a concession to traditional morality in marriage (see last stanza). A better example of the undiluted carpe diem tradition can be found in an edgy, contemporary lyric, stolen from antiquity by the band Cake:

    Now, I just want to play on my panpipes.
    I just want to drink me some wine.
    As soon as you’re born, you start dying,
    So you might as well have a good time.
    (“Sheep Go to Heaven”)

    Admittedly this is dangerous advice. Perhaps Professor Keating was justly discharged, but in spite of the best efforts of ministers, parents, and educators, the carpe diem spirit is alive and well in American culture. The reading today represents the attempts of three dead poets to seize some inspiration from the past, reviving and refining as they did the carpe diem tradition. As you read, or reread, these poems, consider what elements each poet draws from this classical tradition. What other elements, old and new, does each contribute to develop his own unique voice?

Remixing Horace Exercise

    Carpe Diem is everywhere in the poetry of popular music. KISS electrified a generation with their anthem “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day” while The Chili Peppers’ “One Hot Minute” offers a more restrained vision:

    She said all we have is this,
    We just had to stop and share a kiss . . .
    Just a few minutes spun, spun around the sun,
    A couple more or less and then we’re done.

    Before we begin, try to think of 2 or 3 recent songs that echo the twin themes of the carpe diem tradition, seizing the pleasures of the present before the imminent approach of a dark future. Contemporary music shares at least one aim with Renaissance lyric poetry in recording the energy of youth before it fades, leaving only an affinity for Easy Listening stations and National Public Radio. Consider how 1 or 2 recent artists have reworked timeless themes such as youthful beauty, fleshly or spiritual love, the passage of time, or the approach of old age or death to give them a new relevance to the MP3 generation.

    Choose your favorite and write a short paragraph that describes what you like about the band and considers carpe diem elements in specific lyrics. Post your response to the Remixing Horace thread in the main Class Commons forum.

Seize the Moment Lecture

    As we have seen, the focus of the Middle Ages was fixed firmly on the world to come. With the Renaissance this focus shifts more immediately to the experience of this world, an impression confirmed by its renewed interest in translating and adapting classical forms like the pastoral or Italian stanzas like the sonnet. Where medieval theologians had been content to divorce the body from the soul, Renaissance humanists followed their interests in reconciling the truths of classical philosophy with the Truth of Christian scripture with attempts to reunite body and mind. Poets from Shakespeare to Marvel illustrate the age’s obsession with love as a subject of the flesh and the spirit, body and mind.

    The carpe diem falls squarely in this tradition. It enacts the timeless drama of courtship as its protagonists carefully approach one another with appeals for love, or more immediate pleasures, and coy resistance. Youthful energy and allurement is cautiously balanced by intellectual argument and persuasion. Herrick’s famous example “Corinna’s Going A-Maying” opens each stanza with insistent invitations to “Get up,” “Rise,” and enjoy the pleasures of May Day morning; however, when all other arguments fail, Corinna is reminded of the dark ending of the invitation to “eat, drink, and be merry”:

    Come, let us go, while we are in our prime,
    And take the harmless folly of the time.
    We shall grow old apace, and die
    Before we know our liberty.
    Our life is short, and our days run
    As fast away as does the sun;
    And as a vapor or a drop of rain,
    Once lost, can ne’er be found again,
    So when or you or I are made
    A fable, song, or fleeting shade,
    All love, all liking, all delight
    Lies drowned with us in endless night.
    Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
    Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying.
    (Norton 1659, lines 57-70)