The Loving Study of Horace

“Many readers remember what old Rogers, the poet, said: ‘When I hear a new book talked about or have it pressed upon me, I read an old one.’ Happy the man who finds his rest in the pages of some favorite classic! I know no reader more to be envied than that friend of mine who for many years has given his days and nights to the loving study of Horace. After a certain period in life, it is always with an effort that we admit a new author into the inner circle of our intimates. The Parisian omnibuses, as I remember them half a century ago, — they may still keep to the same habit, for aught that I know, — used to put up the sign ‘Complet‘ as soon as they were full. Our public conveyances are never full until the natural atmospheric pressure of sixteen pounds to the square inch is doubled, in the close packing of the human sardines that fill the all-accommodating vehicles. A new-comer, however well mannered and well dressed, is not very welcome under these circumstances. In the same way, our tables are full of books half read and books we feel that we must read. And here come in two thick volumes, with uncut leaves, in small type, with many pages, and many lines to a page, — a book that must be read and ought to be read at once. What a relief to hand it over to the lovely keeper of your literary conscience, who will tell you all that you will most care to know about it, and leave you free to plunge into your beloved volume, in which you are ever finding new beauties, and from which you rise refreshed, as if you had just come from the cool waters of Hippocrene! The stream of modern literature represented by the books and periodicals on the crowded counters is a turbulent and clamorous torrent, dashing along among the rocks of criticism, over the pebbles of the world’s daily events; trying to make itself seen and heard amidst the hoarse cries of the politicians and the rumbling wheels of traffic. The classic is a still lakelet, a mountain tarn, fed by springs that never fail, its surface never ruffled by storms, — always the same, always smiling a welcome to its visitor. Such is Horace to my friend. To his eye ‘Lydia, dic per omnes’ is as familiar as ‘Pater noster qui es in caelis’ to that of a pious Catholic. ‘Integer vitae’, which he has put into manly English, his Horace opens to as Watt’s hymn-book opens to ‘From all that dwell below the skies.’ The more he reads, the more he studies his author, the richer are the treasures he finds. And what Horace is to him, Homer, or Virgil, or Dante is to many a quiet reader, sick to death of the unending train of bookmakers.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes sr., Over the Teacups, 1890)