Noblesse oblige: Two Epigrams by Henrik Harder

Below, please find my first new Henrik Harder translations since February. Unlike in the past, there are not one but two poems in this post, because they form a diptych that is, I hope you will agree, ingenious. I think that the Latin originals are both accomplished epigrams deserving of appreciation in their own right.

The first poem, which begins (Vivamus, socii, dum vivimus) with an evocation of Catullus 5 (Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus), if read in isolation might seem nothing more–and nothing more sinister–than a pleasant piece of Catullan or Horatian carpe diem Epicureanism.[1] Horace has lots of odes like this besides the famous 1.11, and the awfulness of Dead Poets Society can do nothing to diminish their artistry or detract from the allure of the picture they paint.

Harder’s poem, too, is a worthy entry in the genre, which more or less boils down to: “Friends, who knows what the future will bring? Enjoy the present and life’s simple pleasures while they are here, and let tomorrow take care of itself.”

But then Harder pulls out the rug from under you. This isn’t some avuncular Horace on his Sabine farm inviting you to take a load off. No, it’s the rich man from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. The second poem offers a stinging rebuke to the rich man’s heedlessness of the needs of others as he enjoys life’s fleeting good times, and thereby totally reorients the reader’s perspective on the world depicted there.

For that reason, perhaps I was wrong when I said just now that the rich man “isn’t some avuncular Horace.” Perhaps he is: perhaps Harder wants us to feel an indictment of the deceptive charm of the carpe diem literary tradition and, to some extent at least, to call it into question. Indeed, he performs (to use a fashionable word) both the charm and its deceptiveness in the one-two punch of the poems together.

Whatever you make of my interpretation, I hope you enjoy the poems.

The first:


Vivamus, socii, dum vivimus, utitur annis

     Qui sapit et praesens quod sinit hora facit.

Vivamus, vitaque brevis sit norma voluptas,

     Distribuat ludis haec epulisque diem.

Nil animo nil dulce gulae ventrique negemus,

     Dum fortuna nihil divitiaeque negant.

Terreat incerti fatuos formido futuri,

     Qui capit in praesens quod sapit, ille sapit.

“The Rich Playboy”

While we, my friends, live, let us live. The one

     Who savors what the present gives

Is wise. So let us live; let pleasure be

     The norm of our brief life. Let it

Divide the day between entertainment

     And feasts. Let us deny our thought

Or throat no thing our thought or throat finds sweet

     That fortune or our wealth does not 

Deny. Let fools fear future woes. Be wise:

     Savor the present as it flies.

And the second:


Sordida luxuries et inexorabilis aula:

     Sic pateris vanas pauperis ire preces?

Sic pateris, vir dure, graves spernisque querelas?

     Quodque fames optat nostra perire iubes? 

Non epulas, fragmenta peto, fragmenta negantur,

     Frusta precor, frustra: tollere frusta vetas.

At quantum potuere iuvant et putria lambunt

     Ulcera me melius pasta caterva canes.

Aut hominum canibus misereri disce magistris,

     Aut me, ne pigeat pascere, crede canem.

“Poor Lazarus”

Is this, foul luxury, how you allow

     My poor prayers to fly up in vain?

Is this, hard man, how you allow–what’s more,

     Command–my hunger’s wish to die?

I seek not feasts but fragments; fragments are

     Denied. I beg for refuse; you

Refuse. As best they can, the dogs, well fed,

     Give aid and lick my swollen sores.

Learn either from the dogs to treat a man

     With mercy when in misery,

Or, if a man provokes not your largesse,

     Think me a dog; oblige, noblesse!


1 I may have more to say in the future on the phrase vivamus dum vivimus, which sounds classical but, as far as I can tell, isn’t.


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