Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.05


Kirk Freudenberg, The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-691-03166-5.


Reviewed by Michèle Lowrie, New York University.

Readers of Horace tend to divide into partisans of the Odes or the Satires and Epistles, with the Epodes appreciated by both or neither. This division is not simply the result of a taste for a higher or less formal style, for a greater or lesser adherence to decorum, but of a perception -- and I speak as an Odes reader -- brought about by Horace himself that the Satires, and the Epistles with them, are somehow not quite poetry. I was therefore pleased and excited when, in the course of Freudenburg's first chapter, three ideas made me think that this was the book that would unlock the Satires for me. They are: that the diatribe satires parody the character and logical faculties of the street preacher we know from Bion; that Horace manipulates a number of details from the conventions of popular drama, such as the floppy shoe, to undermine the authority of the diatribe speaker; that, as F. goes on to prove in the second chapter, the poet's persona and the kind of jokes he makes are in accord with a unique Horatian theory of satire that combines elements from disparate and contradictory theoretical traditions. Maybe I already knew that an unreliable poetic persona, a heightened awareness of generic convention, and a complex self-reflexive program were consistent features of Horace's poetry across the board, but not in so crystallized a form. Although different strands of F.'s thesis are not new, as his own copious notes demonstrate, their combination into a single interpretation does indeed break new ground. The Walking Muse is learned and smart; what is more, especially for us recalcitrant Odes readers, it proves the Satires to be poetry on both internal and external grounds. F. accounts for contradictions of Horace's own making not as faulty logic but as constituents of his particular definition of the genre and shows how ancient theoretical arguments inform both the program of the Satires and their execution as poetry.

One caveat. This book is not and does not pretend to be a reading of the Satires per se -- though F. does shed light on many individual passages outside of the programmatic satires -- but rather, as its title justly indicates, an exposition of Horace's theory of satire. This means that it does not unlock the Satires in the way I was expecting (by taking us through unified readings of poems); instead it provides something of a prolegomenon to an interpretation of the Satires by showing the rich theoretical background that animates Horace's particular brand of humor, his unique construction of the genre.

F.'s emphasis on ancient literary criticism and Horace's use of it organizes the book around the different schools at issue in the program; the self-reflexive satires, S. 1.4 in particular, appear as recurring points of focus. After the first chapter, which establishes the literary background to the characterization of the persona of the diatribe satires, the remaining chapters are devoted each to a critical issue: (chapter two) the conflict between the Aristotelian theory of the liberal jest and the iambographic tradition as theories of humor; (chapter three) late Republican stylistic theory, especially the debate about word arrangement and its importance for Horace's Musa pedestris; (chapter four) Callimachean aesthetics, where F. brings together critical stylistic terminology with the imagery of mud and flooded streams to show that Horace's moral prescriptions (i.e., why drink from a great river when a little fountain can slake your thirst, S. 1.1.54-60) are in accord with his stylistic prescriptions. What emerges is a sophisticated farrago of critical issues that goes hand in hand with the variety in subject that defines the genre. The Horace of the Satires, like the Horace of the Odes, turns out to be "always writing about writing" (p. 187). After coming back again and again to different aspects of, for instance, S. 1.4, the reader may want a single unifying treatment, but it is exactly such unity that F. teaches us the genre resists.

Chapter 1: "Horatian Satire and the Conventions of Popular Drama." F. carefully draws a line between the biographical poet and the speaking persona, especially as manifested in the diatribe satires, and gives an exposition of the comic techniques Horace employs to mock the speaker. The two dominant models for the "inept" satirist are the Cynic moralizer and the bumpkin or buffoon of New Comedy, as evidenced by both external (e.g., floppy shoe) and internal details (e.g., conflation of two separate topics, mempsimoiria and avarice, in S. 1). The result is that we are to read the "diatribe satires not as true ethical treatises but as fiction, complex works of art intended as art" (14). So far, so good, and F. proves the point which will be important later, that Horace uses comic techniques beyond positing comedy explicitly as a generic forebear. The parody of the speaker, however, does not mean we are to throw the moral precepts, however conventional, however ironized, out with the bath water. At a later point, when F. shows that Horace's moral precepts are laced with stylistic ones, he states that "the real sophistication of this piece [S. 1.1] ... consists not in the moral lessons themselves, but the clever manner in which Horace manipulates these lessons to serve aesthetic aims without ridiculing or subverting their moral intent." I would not mind more exposition about how this works, how the precepts stick even though we laugh at the preceptor. This laughter is the cookie that gets us to learn our moral ABC's, but how does our sense of complicity with the poet against his persona teach as well as delight? A similar question can be asked about the persona of the programmatic Satires. The speaker who lists his friends and desired audience at the end of S. 1.10 bears a strong resemblance to the biographical poet, but, as F. demonstrates in his third chapter, much of what Horace says even about his own poetry likewise serves as parody. How do we understand the literary criticism through the mask, what are the limits to the parodied persona?

Chapter 2: "Aristotle and the Iambographic Tradition: The Theoretical Precedents of Horace's Satiric Program." Here F. brings head to head two contradictory ancient theories of humor, Aristotle's theory of the liberal jest, wherein the free man attains the mean between the humorless boor and the buffoon by refraining from humor that really hurts, and the iambographic tradition, represented generically by Old Comedy, iambic invective, and Lucilius, and ideologically by the principal of PARRHSI/A or libertas, the freedom to censure moral wrongs however heinous. At issue is the very notion of freedom, both political and poetic. Against the trend of scholarship since Hendrickson, F. aims to show, with the support of R. L. Hunter and M. Dickie, that for Horace the Aristotelian theory has real competition from a different tradition, that the citation of Lucilius and Old Comedy as models is not disingenuous. "Horace wants it all: as a theorist, he combines the best features of two otherwise hostile traditions to create his own unique perception of satiric humor; and as an artist, he writes in the best traditions of ancient comedy, both Old and New" (p. 54). In trying to make the theory match the practice, however, F. falls to some extent into the same trap as those who argue that Horace is not serious about positing the genuine libertas of Lucilius and Old Comedy as models. F. does show that Horace is serious about respecting the comic freedom to censure, but he also shows that when it comes to Horace's own poetry, not only his actual models (pp. 92-96) but his claims about his targets (p.100) shift away from Old Comedy and invective to the less harsh New Comedy, that Horace's argument about Lucilius in both S. 1.4 and 1.10 shifts from one of subject matter to one of style. The question is how we are to resolve the disparity between Horace's inclusion on a theoretical level of comic freedom with his actual practice, which falls more in line with Aristotle's advocation of gentility. F. is at his strongest when he says that these two traditions "simply will not mix. Yet this is exactly what Horace has done" (107); he could add that Horace recuperates on the level of theory the libertas his times were making increasingly impossible in practice.

Chapter 3: "The Satires in the Context of Late Republican Stylistic Theory." F. here addresses the aspect of Horace's Satires that has always bothered me most: the poet's claim not to write poetry at S. 1.4.38-62. Although it is clear that in some sense Horace is being disingenuous, F. pinpoints exactly how Horace mocks his speaker's critical ineptitude by situating the argument, which pits diction (E)KLOGH/) against arrangement (SY/NQESIS), within the history of the debate about what constitutes poetry. Several things are important: the adherence of Horace's literary rivals in the first four satires to the Stoic school; the seriousness of Stoic rhetoric as a competing theory to the Peripatetic and Epicurean theories, a combination of which emerge as Horace's own; the distorted depiction of Horace's critics -- entirely fair game within the iambographic tradition. The libertas Horace advocates against moral turpitude is displaced onto his attack of his literary rivals, not murderers but "poemicides" (p. 109), so that it is again within the realm of theory that he works out his genuine censure.

F. argues that Horace demonstrates his speaker's incompetence and the inadequacy of Stoic rhetorical theory, which advocated natural word order and located the poetic in diction and vehemence (vis), by having him botch the argument from metathesis. When Horace claims that if you rearranged the line from Ennius ("postquam Discordia taetra / Belli ferratos postis portasque refregit" S. 1.4. 60-61) into prose, you could still find "etiam disiecti membra poetae" (S. 1.4.62), he uses the argument exactly the wrong way around. This argument was traditionally used to prove in fact that if you resolved poetry into prose word order, you would destroy what is poetic about it, and Horace's mimetic word order in the passage similarly belies the point. In "quod prius ordine verbum est / posterius facias, praeponens ultima primis" (S. 1.4.58-59), at first the words for "earlier" and "later" come up in their proper order, then, with the metathesis, they switch positions (p. 147). Similarly, "disiecti membra poetae" makes a play on membra, which means not only parts, but, like the Greek KW=LA and ME/RH, also refers to limbs; the implication is that destroying word arrangement butchers a living creature (poetae, not poematis), a metaphor for a well-ordered composition that goes back to Aristotle (pp. 148-149). F. takes us through Aristotle, Cicero, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus' On Word Arrangement on the one hand, Lucretius and Philodemus on the other, to show the history of the argument about word order. Horace's own Ars Poetica (46-49) also supports the sympathetic view of the importance of arrangement, though in light of B. Frischer's recent interpretation of the Ars as a parody of literary criticism, we must again confront the problem of Horatian irony.

F. further situates the debate about Lucilius and poetic composition within the literary criticism of the late Republic by arguing that the critics in S. 1.4 and S. 1.10 are not the same, that the former are Stoics, proponents of Republican libertas who despise refinement, the latter are Neoterics like Valerius Cato for whom Lucilius was a model stylist with some minor flaws. Horace locates variety, satire's cardinal virtue, not in, e.g., the mixture of Greek and Latin, but in the more subtle "variation of periods, clauses, words set side by side, and even individual sounds" (p. 183), that is, in the technicalities of word arrangement. What is important for the definition of the genre is that these technicalities, learned from rhetorical prose theory, apply just as well, or even more so, to the verse of the kind written here. F. makes a significant contribution in showing the relevance of prose theory for a genre that sits on the edge of the distinction between prose and verse (Musa pedestris).

Chapter 4: "Callimachean Aesthetics." The ideas in this chapter go far beyond the aesthetics associated with Callimachus, even when most broadly understood. F. shows the stylistic and theoretical subtext of much of Horace's "moral" imagery. Beyond the familiar muddy rivers and clear streams, F. points out the stylistic relevance of sexual preferences (Horace is a leg man, with a special concern for "feet," S. 1.2.93, 101-2), of horse-riding versus going on foot (Horace's riding a gelded mule emerges as a compromise between verse and prose, S. 1.6.104-6), of hunger, thirst, cold, and so on. This congruence of moral and poetic aims finds its most central manifestation in the poet's persona. F. links the consistent degradation of the speaking voice with Saturnalian exposure: "Playing the Cynic, bumpkin, parasite, or slave, the satirist cannot assert his own superiority over those whom he lampoons. His secret is not that he is superior to those whom he lampoons but that they are his equals" (pp. 215-16). Bakhtin is cited as an important theoretical influence here: comic laughter exposes us, with the poet first among equals, as incomplete, in the process of becoming, subject to death. F. could make greater use of Bakhtin to answer my question about how we learn in the face of parody. The "dialogic" relationship (= conversation = sermo) between the poet and the persona addresses moral and theoretical issues in a way that is serious and parodic at the same time. This approach proves more effective than simple preaching because it raises questions rather than dictating answers.

I said above that The Walking Muse does not claim to be a reading of the Satires, but of Horace's theory of satire. One could make an argument from the success of this book that in fact Horace's theory is his satire; what makes Horatian satire what it is and not something else is the place that the theory has at the very heart of the poetry. Paradoxically theory and practice emerge as one through the very variety that constitutes the genre. F. does not make this argument; it would leave out too much. In refraining from doing so, F. shows that he, like Horace, knows when enough is enough.