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From the September/October, 1999
issue of Touchstone

 

Dessert First by Jonathan Carson

Dessert First

How the Modern Version of Carpe Diem Has Seized the Day

by Jonathan Carson

“Life Is Short: Eat Dessert First,” reads a T-shirt popular among college students. “Carpe Diem,” reads another, “Seize the Day,” as the words of Horace are usually translated. The first shirt gives the common understanding of the second. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we are all dead. The authority of the Roman poet is invoked to justify, indeed glorify, adolescent self-indulgence.

Adolescents, especially adolescent boys, need no encouragement, of course, to choose instant gratification. Yet this is what they are getting from their English teachers. Elements of Literature, Sixth Course, a twelfth-grade textbook published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, tells students that “Carpe diem . . . is a literary theme that urges living in the present moment, especially in pleasurable pursuits,” a theme that typically includes “descriptions of all the delights that await a hesitant young woman,” an “old poetic tradition” that extends to today’s music videos and songs on the radio. Carpe diem poems are suitable for “wild Roman parties.” Prentice-Hall says to students, “Many great literary works have been written with the carpe diem theme. All have in common the fact that they urge people to enjoy life in the present, while such enjoyment is possible.” Scott, Foresman says that carpe diem is “a theme frequently found in lyric poetry: enjoy life’s pleasures while you are able.” Harcourt Brace Jovanovich says that in a carpe diem poem, the “speaker tries to persuade an attractive person to take present advantage of youth and good looks and to give in to love [that is, sex] now, before time and age have taken their toll.” Carpe diem poems are “invitations to set aside traditional moral scruples.”

High-school textbook after high-school textbook says the same thing: great poetry teaches “the need to live for the moment,” as McDougal, Littell puts it, to “live for today,” according to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. And living for the moment means pleasure-seeking. Says Holt, Rinehart and Winston, “ Carpe diem is a call to live life to the fullest right now: ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,’ as the Roman poet Horace said.” After all, “even immoral behavior while alive is preferable to being good but dead.” Somehow dangerous drugs, dangerous sex, dangerous levels of blood alcohol, dangerous driving, and dangerous weapons prolong life, and virtuous behavior shortens it. From these premier educational publishers, there is no hint that seizing the day and living life to the fullest right now could mean bold, immediate action to fulfill one’s responsibilities to God and man.

College textbooks are no better and spread the same disinformation: “ Carpe diem poems encourage the snatching of the pleasures of the moment,” says St. Martin’s Press unsaintedly. Living for the moment equals living life to the fullest equals the seeking of pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure. Poets from Horace to Shakespeare and beyond have taught us to eat dessert first.

What people would do had they but a brief time left indicates what is most important to them. That the publishers identify carpe diem with eating, drinking, and being merry indicates that they believe that the most important thing in life is eating, drinking, and being merry. Worse, their assumption that others interpret carpe diem as an invitation to party shows that they cannot imagine people for whom the pursuit of base pleasures is not most important. Yet most people, if told they were going to die tomorrow, would try to put their affairs in order, would say good-bye to their loved ones, and would pray to God for mercy. It’s hard to imagine eating, drinking, and being merry in such a situation.

Now if it were true that Horace and the great poets of the English Renaissance advocated the pursuit of pleasure in response to aging and death, textbook publishers could be reproached with at most a failure to warn students that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, which is the result of virtue. But it is not true. And finding out why it is not true means unlearning much of what we have been taught about English literature and learning how to fill the rest of our lives with glimpses of heaven.

“To the Virgins”

The preeminent example of those “great literary works . . . written with the carpe diem theme” is “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest. Says Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, with the agreement of all the other textbook publishers, “The carpe diem theme is epitomized in a line from Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time’: ‘Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may.’” Because “To the Virgins” is indeed a great poem and one worth careful analysis, here it is in full:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he’s a-getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
And nearer he’s to Setting.

That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, goe marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

Ostensibly a folk song, the poem is a product of learning, rich in literary and biblical allusions and even dependent upon Latin, employing as it does the origin of “virgins” in virgines, “young women.” So education is masked in this poem by an outward ingenuousness, a fact that argues against hasty judgments of the sort made by the publishers. The poem is at least as “coy” as the virgins.

The reason for hiding the meaning of the poem behind apparent naiveté is the same reason that Christ gave to his disciples for speaking in parables: “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand” (Mark 4:11–12). In the case at hand, as often in medieval and Renaissance poetry, an outward “chaff” protects the “wheat” of the poem from those unworthy to perceive it and understand.

The chaff (or bark of a tree or shell of a nut) corresponds to the “letter” that “killeth” of 2 Corinthians 3:6, and the wheat (or tree or kernel of a nut) corresponds to the “spirit” that “giveth life.” The chaff corresponds also to the visibilia of the world, the wheat also to the invisibilia of God. It is this chaff or bark or shell or letter or visible thing of this world that our publishers, along with the secularized professoriate, explicate, oblivious (sometimes deliberately oblivious) to the wheat or tree or kernel or spirit or invisible thing of God.

The argument of the chaff is that virgins should marry right away (and thus enjoy sex) because soon they will be too old. By extension, we should all take our pleasures now, before it is too late. The argument of the wheat is that we should not wait to “marry” Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church, our “prime,” for if we wait too long, we “may for ever tarry.”

Literally, the poem advocates early marriage. However, since marriage is a sacrament, since a marriage of a man and a woman is an image of the heavenly Marriage of Christ and his Church, the spiritual meaning of the poem is that we should, without delay, “marry” Christ, that is, live together with him in one Body. A marriage entered into solely with a view to satisfying earthly desires, an earthly marriage that does not reflect the heavenly Marriage, is a form of idolatry and the chaff of “To the Virgins.” The wheat is the heavenly Marriage of Christ and his Church.

By hiding the wheat with the chaff, the poem reminds those who perceive the wheat and understand it that to “marry” Christ, they must reject the pursuit of sinful pleasures, including even the pleasures of marriages not oriented to their heavenly model. So the wheat includes a criticism of the chaff, and “To the Virgins” means exactly the opposite of what we have been told. As L. C. Martin, editor of the Oxford University Press edition of Herrick’s poems says, “To the Virgins” is “clearly indebted . . . to the Bible (where the thought of ‘carpe diem’ is introduced in order to be deprecated).”

The Wisdom of Herrick

In our age, many find the idea that sex should be confined to marriage impossibly strict. In Herrick’s age, and even more so in ages before, many were concerned about excessive indulgence in sex even within marriage. Most people today would find the idea that sexual continence is necessary in marriage bizarre. So it is not surprising that most people do not understand—and do not want to understand—“To the Virgins.”

The chaff of Herrick’s poem is taken from the relentless criticism of “seizing the day” in the second chapter of Wisdom.1 The “ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright,” just what we are taught in English class:

Our life is short and tedious, and in the death of a man there is no remedy. . . . Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present: and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth. Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and costly ointments: and let no flower of the spring pass by us: let us crown ourselves with rosebuds[!], before they be withered.

The “wickedness” of these ungodly people “hath blinded them.” They know not “the mysteries of God.”

As Kate Gartner Frost has pointed out to me,2 the virgins who respond to the letter of “To the Virgins” are the foolish virgins of Matthew 25, the virgins who respond to the spirit, the wise ones. Ten virgins went to meet the bridegroom, five of them wise and five foolish. The wise virgins brought oil for their lamps, but the foolish ones did not. When the bridegroom arrived at midnight, the foolish virgins begged the wise ones for oil, but the wise virgins told the foolish ones to go buy oil for themselves. So the foolish virgins left to get oil, and when they returned, the door was shut. “‘Lord, Lord, open to us,’ they cried out. But he answered and said, ‘Verily I say unto you, I know you not.’ Watch therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.” The wise virgins, they that were ready, went in with the bridegroom to the marriage; the foolish virgins, “having lost” their “prime,” will “for ever tarry.”

The argument of the chaff of the third stanza of “To the Virgins” is that only in hot-blooded youth can we enjoy sex, and time’s a-wasting. Herrick, however, as in the rest of the poem, has cleverly written the third stanza so that both the wise and the foolish virgins among us can interpret it accordingly. “That Age” means youth to the foolish virgins. To the wise ones, it means the youth of mankind. Herrick has melded the classical conception that the world is degenerating (the men of Homer’s time being taller, stronger, and braver than the men of Virgil’s; Silver Age succeeding Gold, Bronze succeeding Silver, and so on) with the widespread belief of the people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that they were living in the Last Times of a decaying world, a theme especially important to Herrick’s predecessors Edmund Spenser and John Donne. And since we know not at what hour our Lord will come, since the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, all should come to repentance. Our foolish virgins reason among themselves, but not aright, that they are rapidly aging and may even die soon, so they must have sex, drugs, and rock and roll now; the wise virgins among us reason aright that their deaths or the end of the world must not catch them sinning or unrepentant.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, roses had one symbolic meaning appropriate to the foolish virgins of English departments and the publishers, and another appropriate to wise virgins. Because of Wisdom 2, roses were often associated with cupiditas. On the other hand, roses also symbolized martyrdom (including the martyrdom of Christ), the Virgin Mary, and caritas. Foolish virgins interpret “Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may” as license for their own cupidity, while wise virgins interpret the line as an exhortation to charity.

The publishers buttress their misreading of “To the Virgins” with a fictional biography of Robert Herrick. They make him into one of the favorite stock characters of foolish modern virgins: a randy priest. Students could suspect that Herrick might not, in the end, be an advocate of living for the promiscuous moment, a suspicion easy to form since the poem does not say, “go to bed with me this instant,” but says instead, “goe marry,” which already implies a certain delay of gratification and curbing of desire, even if the marriage be but to a husband and not to Christ. So the publishers suggest to students that Herrick was a lecher (lechery being a good thing in their eyes, at least in a priest) and by implication incapable of writing a chaste poem. They have no actual evidence of this alleged lechery, but they interpret his poems as lecherous, build a biography out of this interpretation, and then use the biography to justify the interpretation out of which they spun the biography.

The Herrick of history was an Anglican priest of royalist sympathies. In the English Civil War, he was ousted from his parish in Devonshire by the parliamentarians, who, according to Holt, Rinehart and Winston, “substituted in his place a clergyman of a more puritanical stripe. (It would not be easy to find a less puritanical priest than Herrick.)” Holt, Rinehart and Winston thus conflates Puritans, whom Herrick opposed on theological grounds, with puritanical priests. Since Calvinists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, despite their continent-rending wars, were fully agreed that sex outside of marriage is sinful and that even sex inside marriage is a sin if not properly governed, whether or not Herrick was a Puritan is irrelevant to whether or not Herrick was a practitioner or advocate of instant sexual gratification.

Only a puritanical priest would oppose sexual license, think the dessert-firsters, and since Herrick was not a Puritan, “To the Virgins” must encourage sex without delay. Quod erat demonstrandum. Such is the logic of our schools, which pay McDougal, Littell to say that Herrick was a “fashionable poet,” presumably wearing the seventeenth-century equivalent of baggy pants, reversed baseball cap, and eyebrow rings, who wrote “sensual” poems—in modern parlance a euphemism for “sexual” poems—and which pay Holt, Rinehart and Winston to rationalize Herrick’s piety by saying that “less than a fourth of the poems fit into the ‘divine’ category, and these are mainly witty verses on Biblical characters and events,” using ironic quotation marks and making it seem as if Herrick were making fun of the Bible, wit consisting of scoffing at Christianity or anything else wholesome.

Guyon, the Knight of Temperance

In the background of “To the Virgins” is the twelfth canto of Book Two of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. Guyon, who figures Temperance, is on a quest to defeat the witch Acrasia (from the Greek for “incontinence”) and to destroy her Bower of Bliss, “Where Pleasure dwelles in sensuall delights,” the ideal place, in other words, to “seize the day.” Approaching Acrasia, Guyon hears a “louely lay” much like “To the Virgins”:

Ah see the Virgin Rose, how sweetly shee
Doth first peepe forth with bashfull modestee,
That fairer seemes, the lesse ye see her may;
Lo see soone after, how more bold and free
Her bared bosome she doth broad display;
Loe see soone after, how she fades, and falles away.

So passeth, in the passing of a day,
Of mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flowre,
Ne more doth flourish after first decay,
That earst was sought to decke both bed and bowre,
Of many a Ladie, and many a Paramowre:
Gather therefore the Rose, whilest yet is prime,
For soone comes age, that will her pride deflowre:
Gather the Rose of loue, whilest yet is time.

The good knight Guyon does not stop to listen to the deceitful song but rushes forward to capture the “faire Enchauntresse” Acrasia, and with “rigour pitillesse” he breaks down the “pleasant bowers,” “groues,” “gardins,” and “arbers” of the Bower of Bliss, repeating the destruction by Josiah of the “high places . . . which were on the mount of corruption,” the ancient Bower of Bliss, “which Solomon the king of Israel had builded for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of the Moabites, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon.” With pitiless rigor, Josiah “brake in pieces the images, and cut down the groves.”

As Guyon leads Acrasia away in chains, he is attacked by wild beasts that seek to rescue their “mistresse.” Guyon’s companion, the faithful Palmer, explains that these beasts are Acrasia’s lovers, whom she has transformed “into figures hideous, / According to their mindes like monstruous.” The Palmer strikes them with his miraculous staff, converting them back to men, but some are angry to see Acrasia captive, and one, who has been a pig, is unhappy to be a man again.

So Spenser, whom John Milton called “a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas” and of whom John Dryden said that “no Man was ever Born with a greater Genius or had more Knowledge to support it,” sends his Christian soldier out to destroy the artful and luxurious palace of seizing the day, disconcerting centuries of academic dessert-firsters, among them A. C. Hamilton , editor of The Spenser Encyclopedia, who finds Guyon’s actions “deeply disturbing” and Harriet Hawkins, who, writing in Publications of the Modern Language Association, calls Guyon, and by implication Spenser, “a self-righteous prig.” Next they’ll take the side of the poor pig, turned back into a man without even the recompense of the kiss a frog prince enjoys.

Venus & Adonis

Also in the background of “To the Virgins” is Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare, whose works are as misrepresented today as Herrick’s masterpiece, and in much the same way, both having bawdy and popular chaff and neglected Christian wheat. The goddess Venus falls in love with Adonis, a “Rose-cheeked” and “tender boy” uninterested in love or sex. Adonis rejects the advances of the Goddess of Love, here the Goddess of Pederasty, but finally promises to kiss her if she will say goodnight and go away. With the kiss, “careless lust stirs up a desperate courage” in Venus, and she commits what, were roles reversed, we would today call date rape.

Afterward, Venus asks Adonis whether she might see him again the next day, but he says that he wants to go hunting instead and runs away into the darkness. Venus spends an unhappy night alone and in the morning finds Adonis slain by a wild boar, a symbol of lust. The disconsolate goddess prophesies that with the death of Adonis, “Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend,” and transforms him into a purple-and-white flower that resembles his pale face covered with blood. She picks the flower, places it in her bosom, and flies off.

In her attempted seduction of Adonis, Venus tells Adonis to eat dessert first:

Make use of time, let not advantage slip;
Beauty within itself should not be wasted.
Fair flowers that are not gath’red in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time.

Adonis, who has but a “tender spring” upon his lip and a “hairless face,” argues that it is not yet time for dessert: “Who plucks the bud before one leaf put forth?” The carpe diem theme of publisher and pederast is an “idle theme,” he says, “bootless chat.” “The mellow plum doth fall, the green sticks fast, / Or being early plucked is sour to taste.”

Adonis also makes the elementary distinction between love and lust forgotten by the textbook publishers:

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun.
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forgèd lies.

Venus and Adonis is a humorous etiological myth explaining the troubles of love, prominent among which is that it has a “sweet beginning, but unsavory end,” in other words, that it is transient, that, like life, as the dessert-firsters remind us at length, it is short. Venus has seized the day, raped the child, and gathered the rosebud; Adonis is dead, and we are left subject to heartbreak.

Venus and Adonis presents a reversed, through-the-looking-glass world. A female rapes a male. A goddess worships a human. An immortal goddess champions nature (by “law of nature,” she claims, Adonis should have sex with her) and temporality ( carpe diem). An earthly boy lectures the Goddess of Love on heavenly love. The boy, whom she has praised with images reminiscent of Christ, dies and is not reborn except as a flower immediately picked. The goddess, reversing Isaiah, prophesies, not of peace, but of dissension and war. And here, in the midst of this satire, we find, fifty-five years before the publication of “To the Virgins,” what is taken as Herrick’s advice to young women. Shakespeare and his audience considered stupid and clichéd what we teach our children more than four hundred years later.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston says that Shakespeare “became famous as the author of a best-seller, an erotic narrative poem called Venus and Adonis.” No great artist, it seems, can escape being turned into a deviant. Love the sin; hate the sinner.

First, the publisher quotes Ben Jonson’s statement that Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time.” Next, it says that Shakespeare became famous by writing erotic poetry. Then, it says that Shakespeare was “a great genius whose lofty imagination is matched by his sympathy for all kinds of human behavior,” which would presumably include sex with and among children. Finally, the same school boards that purchase, at great expense, Holt, Rinehart and Winston textbooks pretend to be shocked when the children entrusted to them have sex.

In the “Argument” prefacing Hesperides, the collection of his poems containing “To the Virgins,” Herrick says, “I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall) / Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.” So enough of taxpayer-financed lies and to those glimpses of heaven. . . .

The Seizing of Time

Ancius Manlius Sevirinus Boethius (A.D. 480–524), “the last of the Roman philosophers and the first of the scholastic theologians,” according to H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand, defined “eternity” once and for all in his Consolation of Philosophy, a book that should be taught in every college and many high schools: Eternity is “interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio,” the total, simultaneous, and perfect possession of unending life, “cui neque futuri quidquam absit,” to which neither is anything future absent, “nec praeteriti fluxerit,” nor anything past flowed away. “[I]nfinitus ille temporalium rerum motus,” the infinite movement of temporal things, that is, time, imitates eternity, “alligans se ad qualemcumque praesentiam huius exigui volucrisque momenti,” binding itself to whatever is present in a thin and fleeting moment, forming “manentis illius praesentiae . . . imaginem,” an image of the lasting Presence of eternity.3

Time binds itself to whatever is present in a thin and fleeting moment to form an image of the lasting Presence of eternity. This image is the chaff, bark, shell, letter, or visible thing of this world that our publishers take for the entirety of “To the Virgins.” The wheat, wood, kernel, spirit, or invisible thing of God resident in the poem is the lasting Presence of eternity. As Christ is both man and God, both temporal and eternal, the poem presents both whatever is present in a thin and fleeting moment and whatever it can of the lasting Presence of eternity. A foolish virgin seizes the day, seizes whatever is present in a thin and fleeting moment. A wise virgin also seizes the day, seizes whatever there is of the lasting Presence of eternity in a thin and fleeting moment. A foolish virgin eats dessert first. A wise virgin looks first for Dessert.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis, informed by his study of medieval and Renaissance poetry, explains the wise virgins’ Dessert-first attitude toward time. The devil Screwtape says to his subaltern Wormwood,

[H]umans live in time but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

Attending to the present does not mean idly eating dessert first. It does not mean an end to industry, thrift, or thinking ahead: “To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too—just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present.”

But how does a poet bring the lasting Presence of eternity into a poem? In A Preface to Chaucer, D. W. Robertson, Jr., explains that medieval aesthetics depend upon the Augustinian distinction between the use of the things of this world and the abuse of them. To use a beautiful object is to see in it a reflection of the beauty of God; to abuse it is to enjoy its beauty for its own sake, without reference to God.

Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Herrick, and other poets of the English Renaissance preserved this distinction in a giddy and paranoid age. Thus, Shakespeare has Venus say to Adonis, “Make use of time,” and Herrick says, “use your time.” Venus tells Adonis to make use of time when she really means for him to make abuse of time. Foolish virgins find in Herrick’s poem a justification for their abuse of time; wise virgins are reminded to use their time well. Foolish virgins abuse temporal objects by employing them for their own sake; wise virgins use temporal objects by referring their useful qualities to God.

Redeeming Horace

As for poor Horace, I hesitate to speak. Horace is a cagey poet who makes his tone difficult to judge, which is perhaps one reason he appealed to the cagey Herrick. I do not believe, however, that he thought self-indulgence the cure for aging and death. The shortness of life is not an argument for wasting what little we have of it, and Horace did not waste his life.

Here is the prose translation by C. E. Bennett of Ode xi of Book I of The Odes of Horace, a short poem on which the dessert-firsters have long relied:

Ask not, Leuconoë (we cannot know), what end the gods have set for me, for thee, nor make trial of the Babylonian tables! How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter allots us added winters or whether this is last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Show wisdom! Busy thyself with household tasks; and since life is brief, cut short far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious Time has sped. Reap the harvest of today [carpe diem], putting as little trust as may be in the morrow!

Surely, this is a call for philosophical resignation, a call that Horace made again and again. In Ode iii of Book II, he says, “Remember, when life’s path is steep, to keep an even mind, and likewise, in prosperity, a spirit restrained from over-weening joy,” a sentiment repeated in Ode x of Book II: “Hopeful in adversity, anxious in prosperity, is the heart that is well prepared for weal or woe.”

In Satire vi of Book II of his Satires, Horace makes fun of advocates of “seizing the day” by putting their arguments in the mouth of a mouse! A country mouse entertains his old friend from the city. Host provides guest with all the best that the country can afford: vetch, oats, a raisin, bacon only half-eaten by the master of the house, a warm bed of straw. But the city mouse longs for the luxuries of his home and, in an attempt to lure the country mouse there, waxes philosophical. “Take to the road ( carpe viam) with me,” he says. “All creatures of the earth are mortal. Since life is short, and from death there is no escape, fill your days with pleasure.” So the mice set out for civilization and right away enter a wealthy palace, recline on ivory couches upholstered in scarlet, and feast on the remains of a sumptuous banquet—when suddenly doors bang, Molossian hounds bark, and the chastened country mouse calls out for the simple security of his rural home.

But what of Horace’s undoubted fondness for wine? In Ode xviii of Book I, he says that no one should “pass the bounds of moderation in enjoying Liber’s gifts,” the Golden Mean being a favorite theme of his.

Horace was a hilarious critic of all sorts of human foibles, especially the affectations that appeal to our dessert-firsters. In Arts Poetica he makes fun of poets who believe that furor poeticus is essential to their craft. Because they believe that poetic inspiration is a form of divine madness, they cultivate madness so that people will think them poets. They refuse to trim their nails, cut their beards, or bathe. Children tease them, and sane people run away. Undaunted, they walk off with their eyes on the sky, spouting verses, and fall into wells. People then hesitate to help them get out, and if someone did decide to throw a rope down to one of them, Horace says that he would rush up shouting, “How do you know that he didn’t throw himself in on purpose?” If the poet should escape, people would flee the “scourge of his recitals” because if he catches anyone, he will grab him and recite his poetry until his captive dies of bad poetry. No, I would not rely on Horace to justify my foolishness.

The eternity of poetry is not that it will last forever, though Horace will be read until the end of the world, but that it is written out of an understanding of eternity, and some understanding of eternity is available without benefit of revelation. It was Plato who said that time is a moving image of eternity. Unfortunately for the ancients, Plato’s is a sterile, desiccated eternity lacking the vigor of Boethius’s, lacking the total, simultaneous, and perfect possession of unending life. Plato’s essences are dead, or at least death-like; Boethius’s God is alive.

Here we are with a Living God in our midst, and we allow our children to be taught and ourselves to believe that we should commit sins that Horace knew were wrong. Horace is stuck in Dante’s Limbo, while we are walking free, living with the possibility of a perfect freedom that Horace could not know, and we blame our sins on him. I find it hard to begrudge him a drink.

Passing Off Great Literature

Do not think that students who do not know the difference between a participle and a pancreas fail to learn what they are told about Renaissance poetry. Metallica has a song called “Carpe Diem Baby” that translates carpe diem as “suck the day.” And Joe Knap of Bay High School in Bay Village, Ohio, has offered to the world, on one of the 18,753 and counting carpe diem web sites, a lesson plan that teaches that “Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ illustrates the carpe diem theme and can be used either as an individual work or as a companion piece to other literary works containing the same theme.” According to Knap, the “impact of the carpe diem theme is strengthened in the final stanza” of Pink Floyd’s song, “where the songwriter acknowledges his own mortality.” Pink Floyd is famous for its hit song “We Don’t Want No Education,” but somehow the band has learned that rock stars eventually die.

When I was teaching English, one of my students (this was a college student, mind you) wrote a “research paper” in which he claimed that the Indians of North America were so environmentally conscious that when they became hungry, the buffalo would sense their need for food and would walk into the village and lie down to be eaten. The student did not provide a source for this startling information, so I wrote a note on his paper asking for the reference and telling him to rewrite the paper. So he rewrote the paper, this time claiming that the Indians of North America were so environmentally conscious that when they became hungry, the buffalo would sense their need for food and would walk into the village and lie down to be eaten, and right there, in perfect MLA style, was the name of the author and the page number of the book in which this information could be found!

So in an English class world of Latin American Communists and buffalo sacrificing themselves to the gods of environmentalist Indianism, it might seem that a misreading of “To the Virgins” is of insignificant importance. But worse than passing off politically correct diatribes as great literature is passing off great literature as the Culture of Death.

Now even educated, conservative, Christian adults believe that Chaucer was important because he wrote about people from all stations of life, not because he showed how a Christian could poke fun at human weakness and stupidity while loving the people who furnish him the occasion for such merriment. They believe that if Chaucer loved the Wife of Bath, he must share her blasphemous sentiments. They know that Christ became incarnate in this world, know that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, know that God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him; but they nevertheless think of heaven and eternity as a flight from this world, not an embrace of it, so it does not occur to them that an earthy Chaucer could also be a Christian.

Even educated, conservative, Christian adults believe that Romeo and Juliet was a romance instead of a tragedy, that Romeo and Juliet are to be admired for the strength of their love, as witnessed by their suicides, rather than to be taken as negative examples of the consequences of their impetuosity, or, as we might put it, their living for the moment. No matter how many times we have been told that we should love our neighbors as ourselves and forgive those who trespass against us, we get the idea from English class that if Shakespeare presents Romeo and Juliet in such a way that we love them, then we must also admire their sinful behavior, that though we lament their deaths, we must nonsensically approve of the sins that caused them. And, yes, even educated, conservative, Christian adults believe that the sonnets teach us to eat dessert first.  

Notes:

1. Some people might wonder why the Protestant Herrick would allude to Wisdom, but the original King James Bible included the Apocrypha, as did the Geneva Bible of the Calvinists. Most modern editions of the King James Version of the Bible foolishly omit this, perhaps the sunniest book of the Bible—and also one of the most important books for understanding medieval and Renaissance poetry.

2. Her Holy Delight is the most accurate book on Renaissance poetry I have been able to find.

3. Boethius’s definition was taken over by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, First Part, Question Ten, Article Five).

Jonathan Carson, a Roman Catholic, is a technical writer residing in Austin, Texas. He received a Ph.D. in Renaissance English from the University of Texas in May 1997.

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“Dessert First” first appeared in the September/October 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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