Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.02

Lowell Edmunds, From a Sabine Jar, Reading Horace, Odes 1.9. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 159. ISBN 0-8078-2008-3.

Reviewed by Michèle Lowrie, New York University.

Having read Lowell Edmund's ambitious and evocative libellus, I find myself asking a philological/biographical/historical question of the worst sort: was E. looking for a poem as a test case for a survey of different critical approaches when he came upon Horace C. 1.9, or did grappling with the interpretive problems of this ode generate the idea for the book? E.'s interpretation of C. 1.9 takes us through Jauss's three stages of hermeneutic reading, a critique of philological method, an excursus into and out of deconstruction, with a brief coda suggesting the possibility of a feminist or sexual/political analysis in the vein of Foucault. In a book so critically self-aware, one would like a forthright address of, if not answer to several questions. Why a lyric poem? Why a Latin lyric poem (especially since E. is otherwise known as a Hellenist)? Why Horace? Why this of all Horatian poems? The other way of asking the question is: what makes C. 1.9 paradigmatic for interpretation?

Hans Robert Jauss's analysis of Baudelaire's Spleen II provides the model for E.'s reading, and the emphasis in From a Sabine Jar on recent criticism and its history lies at the heart of the hermeneutic approach.1 I look forward to the day when classicists no longer need to apologize for theory in their prefaces. E.'s book serves the field not only with his thorough reading of a favorite poem but by making us aware of what we do -- or should do -- when we read.

Rezeptionsästhetik, the method of the Konstanz school, falls into two parts. As explained in E.'s preface, successful reading in Jauss's view begins with recognizing the historical separation of reader and text. Jauss articulates this separation with Gadamer's term "horizon." The separate horizons of reader and text determine the questions each tries to answer and their expectations about available answers. The reader's task is to recreate the text's "horizon of expectation," but, unlike the "historical positivism of philology" (p.x), the hermeneutic method insists that we must recognize our own horizon and take into account how intervening horizons have changed the landscape. Hence the role of reception. Aesthetics, the other half of the method, bridges historical distance by confronting us with a text and eliciting a response; in English we call it reader-response criticism.

Following Jauss, E. constructs levels of reading and rereading not in a temporal succession, but in their logical order (Jauss p.148): the first is "aesthetic," the second "interpretive," the third "historical." Even the first reading is a "reconstruction" (p.3) and, since the reader is not naive, but has had experience interpreting poetry and has access to basic tools (dictionary, grammar, commentary), we need not bother with the conundrum of a twentieth-century reader of Latin who has never read Horace C. 1.9.

The first reading is "aesthetic" partially in its etymological sense. The reader perceives the poem as phenomenon and certain givens (form, order, words' literal meaning) determine understanding. "Aesthetic perception is no universal code with timeless validity, but rather -- like all aesthetic experience -- is intertwined with historical experience" (Jauss p.148). Nevertheless this initial aesthetic perception limits "the arbitrariness of readings that are supposedly merely subjective" (Jauss p.141).

E.'s first reading takes us through the text line by line, focusing on the relation of meter to phrasing, of sound to sense, on word order, figures of speech, the implied relation of speaker to addressee, their physical location and the social occasion for the poem. The practical limitations of this procedure make a lyric, i.e., short, poem the object of choice. Scholarly opinion perforce raises its head in the selection of edition etc., but argumentation about these issues belongs to a later stage (pp.3-4). Our post-New Criticism horizon manifests itself in the distinction between levels of communication (Horace and reader, speaker and addressee) but is only formally recognized in the third reading (pp.4 and 44). The perceptions made in this section set the givens for the subsequent readings and raise questions to be answered therein. Established among other things are the poem's allusion to Alcaeus, the evocation of the aftermath of a storm as a mental image, the mixing of Greek and Roman elements (Thaliarchus and the wine jar), the speaker's role as senior symposiast to a younger Thaliarchus and the exhortation this relation entails.

The second reading, or first rereading, looks to the text as an interpretive whole and seeks to answer its "still unfulfilled significance" (E. quotes Jauss, p.23). E. returns to the relationship between speaker and Thaliarchus, the dramatic situation of the symposium, and the question of place (a "strict unity" by the fireside, p.24). Answers can be sought externally, by comparison with other Horatian odes and even other Latin poets. An example: E. looks outside the poem for Roman attitudes toward mountains (quoting L. Friedlaender's charming marginal heading "Kein Verständnis für die Schönheit der Gebirgnatur," p.25 n.4) and for Soracte's cultic identity. He thereby determines the awe-inspiring effect of the wintry scene and the comfort of turning indoors. Another: Epicurean commonplaces underlie the speaker's advice and reverse the age-youth hierarchy; the older speaker has authority, but youth is more desirable. Internal consistency helps explicate the temporal relation of the final stanza to the dramatic situation: while the scene belongs to Thaliarchus' hypothetical future, the speaker evokes it out of past experience, and this peculiar "future past" (p.36) stands as the present recommended to Thaliarchus. This imagined scene brings us back to the imagined winter landscape and to the speaker's control of the addressee's -- and the reader's -- imagination. The speaker is transformed from an authoritative archaic Greek symposiast to an Epicurean whose "present" encompasses past and future.

The first two readings are more intimately connected than the third, and while I appreciate the separation into reading and rereading, I am not sure the division between the first two has more than heuristic value. It requires many rereadings to reach the kind of interpretation E. offers and for practical criticism I prefer a blending of aesthetic and interpretive readings, so long as we recognize the distinction. Likewise with the analysis of the text's horizon, the first stage of the historical reading. When the historical reading steps away from the text to its reception, then even practical criticism should observe the break.

The distance of classical texts from the present necessitates a greater distance likewise from the Jaussian model in the third chapter. Given the unavailability of contemporary reactions, E. uses C. 1.9's placement within the Odes and intertextuality as windows onto the poem's horizon. The counterpoint of the themes of symposium and love as traced by E. through the Parade Odes gives greater emphasis to love in C. 1.9, the climactic ode in the sequence, than appears from reading the poem in isolation. Similarly an intertextual comparison with passages from Lucretius, Petronius, the Copa and Propertius reveals death as a conventional sympotic theme. I part company with E. in his refusal to use other Horatian poems at this point to draw out the undercurrent of death and in his removing convention from the analysis of the poem's horizon to an extra-hermeneutic, in this case deconstructive reading. E. already takes some account of convention through Epicurean commonplaces in the second reading (where comparison with other poems is allowed) and observes in his concluding chapter that Horatian conventions are available to "any reader, ancient or modern" (p.130). They are excluded from this level on the grounds that they are not allusions, but E.'s so-called intertextual examples in the third reading are not allusions either. The rhetorical analysis of convention is one of the most effective tools for the fusion of horizons and belongs within hermeneutics.

The history of C. 1.9's reception and the history of scholarship in the fourth chapter are the most engaging parts of the book. E.'s analysis of ancient and modern titles and of four modern translations in succession (Rider, Dryden, Cowper, Conington) makes real the metaphor of unfolding horizons as we see how Horace became progressively unreadable approaching romanticism. I admit to a certain wistfulness at having to give up the modern nickname, "The Soracte Ode." In contrast to the ancient use of first lines as titles and the rhetorical motivation of the scholiasts' title, "ad Thaliarchum," we privilege the mountain. In Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage the presence of Mt. Soracte inspires the speaker -- and the author too, as Byron's footnote reveals -- to regret his inability to feel or love, as opposed to understand and comprehend Horace's verse. The mountain landscape moves the romantic, not the poetry made tedious by the wearisome task of language acquisition (pp.71-4). We should remember the contrast between Byron's present mountain and Horace's imagined but absent mountain when we reach deconstruction.

The hero of the chapter "Scholarship" is August Boeckh. His division of unity, philology's central aesthetic concern, into objective (unity of object represented) and subjective (unity of thought) is the cornerstone of subsequent philological inquiry into C. 1.9 (pp.94-5). E. takes us through the philological highlights of the study of C. 1.9 and sets them into their own historical context. C. 1.9 is paradigmatic for tracing the historical understanding of unity; the poem's unity is not so much questioned, as continually defended. From the hermeneutic point of view, philology approaches its object backwards, putting historical context before the interpretation of a text as an aesthetic whole (pp.93- 4). Boeckh is instrumental for turning this around: in placing hermeneutics (the understanding of the individual as an absolute) before criticism (the understanding of things in relation) he likewise puts the object before its context. That is the place to start (p.110).

The "Fourth Reading" unites philology and hermeneutics (both formalistic, both historically minded) against deconstruction. The premise of this reading is that something has been left out of the others; this something is convention. E. uses Epode 13 to discover that death is conventional to the symposium (without mentioning in his otherwise extensive bibliography J. V. Muir's comparison of these poems, "Two Poems of Horace," Latomus 40 [1981] 322-31). Since non-Horatian poems resupplied death to this poem in the third reading, returning to convention here seems arbitrary. There are better ways into deconstruction. It is true that carpe diem poems privilege an "ethics of presence" and that in our day this "inevitably" reminds us of Derrida's critique of the "metaphysics of presence" (p.116). E. later remarks that his reminiscence of Derrida was "hardly necessary" (p.131). I find this remark disturbing. If the deconstructive reading is not necessary, Horatian convention is left with no place within E.'s interpretive scheme, E. violates the hermeneutic need to confront our own horizon, and he sneakily plays the deconstructive game. The extra-hermeneutic reading becomes "supplementary," and with this gesture E. can have his cake and eat it too. Philologists will be happy with relegating deconstruction to the unnecessary and deconstructionists will know in their irony that the unnecessary is inevitable.

My critique of E. implies a defense of deconstruction -- but I do so only by taking E. seriously and subordinating it to hermeneutics. The question is whether we must come to terms with all critical stances. E. takes de Man to task for substituting in his introduction to Jauss a new kind of determinism called "poetic analysis" for the old forms of historical determinism (pp.131-2). De Man invokes the inevitability of poetic analysis to deconstruct Jauss's reading of Baudelaire and E. objects that this kind of analysis is parasitic on a previous analysis. In this way deconstruction turns out to have a similar structure as philology, which also always starts from somewhere else besides the text (p.131). But I am not at all sure that de Man is wrong about poetic analysis. Is it not what keeps open the debate and allows our horizons to shift?

Deconstruction can contribute to the hermeneutic task by in fact taking into account aspects not covered by E.'s various readings. But I differ from E. in what has been left out. Horace's poetic irony has nowhere come into play. The "ethics of presence" of carpe diem poems conflicts with their historical distance and with our perception of these poems both as written and as past. We can counter the derridean accusation of logocentrism (p.117) with the ode's transgression of the decorum of unity. Time and space are at issue: the present dissolves into a simultaneous past and future (to use E.'s second reading); winter yields to spring; the single interior dramatic space of the ode encompasses both a vast uncontainable landscape and a paradoxically interior space within the exterior Campus Martius. Horace's mountain, like death, is markedly absent. Yes, "his own speech creates the present" (p .117), but E. misses the irony of Horace's pretense to vatic speaking/singing within poetry that otherwise heavily bears the marks of writing. The allusion to Alcaeus inscribes the distance between the archaic poet's singing and the written poet's looking back. E. engages in some amusing deconstructive word-play. Shortly after defining the "trace" (the German "Spur") as the "reference ... by which each signifier is related to the others from which it is absent," E. says, "Death is the chief threat and spur to the enjoyment of life" (p.122). This is then translated: "... even if death is absent, it is the trace that these commonplaces necessarily bear." The point is the presence of death, like Soracte, despite its absence. But if we reassign convention, the means by which death asserts its presence/absence, to the text's horizon as an object of the historical hermeneutic reading, this deconstructive point loses its supplementary status. Deconstruction's preoccupation with "logocentrism" lets us see Horace's claims to immortality in a certain light. It is his writing that reenacts speech and the lost present. These considerations and their ilk belong partially with reading the poem as an interpretive whole, partially with reading the other poems in the collection as consititutive of its own horizon, partially with reading our own horizon. E. makes deconstruction structurally parallel to philology; philological considerations and method manifest themselves with the first rereading. Although deconstruction is not a tool, like philology, the thoughts it provokes likewise span the hermeneutic levels of reading. In resisting deconstruction, E. paradoxically leaves it the preeminence it claims -- a monotheism that cannot be assimilated.

To return to some of my initial questions, a parallelism obtains between Jauss's choice of Baudelaire and E.'s choice of Horace. The French poet, as demonstrated by Jauss, was reacting against romanticism; the Latin poet had become unreadable to romantics. Both are antithetical to Erlebnislyrik (Jauss p.174) and both let the weight of tradition show. Spleen II can be understood as a poem about poetic memory and the list of comparisons opening the poem, one of which entails a pyramid (C. 3.30), the use of snow as a metaphor for age and the passage of time (Soracte), and the first line "J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans" (literally true of lyric memory), make me wonder if Horace is not an object of Spleen's poetic recollection. Does the possibility of redefining our own horizon over against romanticism make these poems especially attractive? C. 1.9 has already been used as a test poem for establishing the border between hermeneutics and philology (S. Kresic, ed., Contemporary Literary Hermeneutics and Interpretation of Classical Texts, Ottowa 1981), but the papers on C. 1.9 in that collection are more position papers on interpretation than readings of the ode; E.'s hermeneutics are truly literary.

I end where E. does, looking forward to a sexual/political reading of this poem and of Horace. Where E. sees the impetus for this reading in the implied machismo of Thaliarchus toward the girl, we could also return to some observations E. made earlier about how the homosexual eroticism of Alcaeus is transformed and displaced onto a heterosexual eroticism (pp.55-6). Does allusion work like repression and always return? Is the grecizing homo/hetero-eroticism we find in Horace a kind of cultural cross-dressing? This next horizon is already here, but, as in the case of deconstruction, I think this kind of reading should be assimilated within the general scheme of hermeneutics.

I tip my hat to From a Sabine Jar and thank E. for making us think, not just about Horace C. 1.9, but about the questions we ask of it.


  • [1] "The Poetic Text within the Change of Horizons of Reading: The Example of Baudelaire's 'Spleen II'," in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, a collection of essays translated by Timothy Bahti, Minneapolis 1982, henceforth referred to as Jauss. The essay originally appeared in Romantische Zeitschrift für Literaturgeschichte, 2/3 (1980).