“Seize the Day” Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Does

A while back a wonderful movie came out starring Robin Williams entitled “Dead Poet’s Society,” where Williams played an English teacher named John Keating who attempted to get his class of young boys interested in poetry. And in the movie, he does a pretty good job.

He showed them that poetry is about gods and women and life and death and all the big questions in life that prose has a hard time grappling with. And I think just about every pastor alive today has used the film clip where Robin Williams takes the boys to the trophy case and shows them pictures of generations past and whispers, “Carpe diem.” Williams is actually driving home a point made by a Greek poet named Horace in a Latin ode. Williams’ character offers commentary, something to the effect, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. For tomorrow you will be food for worms.”

Seize the day! Do something extraordinary with your lives! Good words. But Williams got something crucially wrong with the translation. The original poem was written to a woman warning her that the future is uncertain. Listen to the rest of the ode.

“Don’t ask (it’s forbidden to know) what final fate the gods have
given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don’t consult Babylonian
horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be,
whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the
last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the
facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within
short limits. While we’re talking, grudging time will already
have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.”

(trans. Michael Gilliland, http://www.merriampark.com/horcarm111.htm)

Now, granted, the popular translation is correct, “Seize the Day.” But here’s the problem. The Latin, “carpe diem” doesn’t mean “seize the day.” “Capio” or “Cape Deim” means to seize the day. “Carpe means to “to pluck” or “to pull off.” [Cassell’s Latin Dictionary]

I love the way Nicholson Baker explains this in his novel, The Anthologist,

“What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows not to not crush easily crushed things—so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in our hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant—pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t frickin’ grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it. That’s not the kind of man that Horace was.” P. 127

This brings a completely different tone to the imperative. Because to “seize” is like conquering or manhandling. But the truth is, there are certain things you really shouldn’t try to do this with, and there are other things you couldn’t do this with even if you tried.

You can seize a skunk. But seriously, should you?

If you seize a snowflake, you’ll just destroy it.

And don’t even think about seizing a woman (or a man, for that matter).

And no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to seize the wind, or a wave, or a beam of light, or time. But you can harvest them. Reap them. Even relish them.

Which for some things, like a day, is really the best approach.

Photo credit: chrisparkeruk on Visualhunt / CC BY

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