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Carpe Diem

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying.
. . .
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.

Previously I wrote about harvest, and traced the modern English word back to the Proto Indo-European root *kerp-. I noted that the same root gives us Modern English excerpt and scarce, both from Latin carpere, "to pluck." The verb carpere is mostly used in Latin to refer to plucking or picking objects like fruit or flowers. The Latin commonplace carpe diem uses the verb carpere in the imperative as part of an admonition to, as the AHD puts it, "seize the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future."

In the most literal translation, carpe diem means "seize the day." The phrase was popularized by the Latin poet Horace who lived from 65 B.C.E. to 8 B.C.E., and used the phrase in his "Ode 11," from his first book of odes. Horace's own title for the work we call Odes Book 1 was Carmina, or "Songs." Here is Horace';s "Ode 1.11," in Latin and English:

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi Leuconoe, don’t ask — it’s a sin to know—
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios what end the gods will give me or you. Don’t play with Babylonian
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati. fortune-telling either. It is better to endure whatever will be.
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam, Whether Jupiter has allotted to you many more winters or this final one
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian sea on the rocks placed opposite
Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi — be smart, drink your wine. Scale back your long hopes
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled
aetas: carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.

Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.
Horace's context for the phrase is "Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero," or "Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future." Horace's poem was published in 23 B.C.E., some 2044 years ago, but it's just as human and true now as it was then. We still find ourselves attracted to the idea of "seizing the day," or living today, because tomorrow is uncertain. (A more rural version of the commonplace is "Make hay while the sun shines.") Other poets utilized the concept of carpe diem, if not the commonplace. The best known of these later poets is likely Andrew Marvell in "To His Coy Mistress,"; and Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time," with which I opened this post. (Herrick is also inspired by the line "collige, virgo, rosas" or "gather, girl, the roses") from the end of a poem "De rosis nascentibus" attributed to Ausonius or Virgil.) Herrick's poem motivates and inspires iRobin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society (1989). Steve Martin also riffs on carpe diem in the 1987 film Roxanne.


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