Today I was reminded of this passage from Nicholson Baker’s wonderful book, The Anthologist:
But here’s the thing. Horace didn’t say that. “Carpe diem” doesn’t mean seize the day–it means something gentler and more sensible. “Carpe diem” means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be “cape diem,” if my school Latin serves. No R. Very different piece of advice.
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 how 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 your 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 freaking 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.
If you look that passage up online, the ending thought is usually left out (even I forgot this part):
And yet if it hadn’t been wrongly translated as “seize” would we remember that line now? Probably not. “Pluck the day free”? No way. And would we have remembered “gather ye rosebuds” without the odd mistake of the “ye”? Probably not. It’s their wrongness that kept these ideas alive.