Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.02.20

Niall Rudd, Horace 2000: A Celebration: Essays for the Bimillenium. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. Pp. xii + 150. $34.50. ISBN 0-472-10490-X.

Reviewed by Lowell Edmunds, Rutgers University.

Poetry comes from the soul of the poet. To understand poetry one must fathom the poet's soul, understand his feelings and attitudes, and know his biography. With this knowledge, the scholar can then explain the poet's work. If, as in the case of Horace, the work is almost the only source for the knowledge preliminary to its understanding, the scholar might seem to be trapped in a circular demonstration. The viciousness of this circle is avoided by privilege: some scholars know Horace's work so well that, by a droit du connoisseur, they know Horace! They are the ones who are in a position to cull from the opus the particular lines and phrases that reveal Horace and thus explain his poetry.

Such are the assumptions and procedures underlying most of the essays here under review. Brian Arkins' declaration is characteristic: "Detailed analysis of Horace's love poems must begin by establishing what his overall view of love is" (108). The collection thus has the merit, for younger readers, of giving a sense of what criticism was like a half century ago, before the New Criticism dealt a death blow to the biographical and psychological approach to literature in all fields except Classics.1

It is almost impossible for the present reviewer to discuss these essays on the grounds on which they were written. He might then have decided not to write the review, except that the grounds, which are more complicated than he has so far indicated, themselves might be discussed. The collection is itself a sign that, for classicists at least, they still need discussing. In the course of this review, reference will be made to four of the five papers given at a panel on Horace, organized by Michèle Lowrie, at the Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association on December 28, 1993 in Washington, DC. These papers differed profoundly in spirit and approach from those in Horace 2000.

The first essay is Jasper Griffin's "Horace in the Thirties." Griffin asks "What was he up to? What explains ... the Sermones and the Epodes?" The answer: "The screens which he erected in those early poems" (20) are the result of an anger that he could not with impunity express directly. "At bottom, Horace really was angry" (11). At the time I was reading Griffin, I heard R.O.A.M. Lyne give a lecture at Princeton. His title was: "Prudence, Politics and Image: Horace in the Thirties." Going over the same poems, Lyne spoke of "embarrassment" and of "image-management." Lyne's procedure was fundamentally the same as Griffin's: first we discover what Horace was up to and then we explain the poems, though Lyne's biographical investigation reached somewhat different results. I have already adverted to the circularity of the procedure and to the putative overcoming of the circularity. Putative, because you have to consent to it, you have to suspend disbelief. Who consents? From my point of view, those who consent are what Stanley Fish calls an "interpretive community," one that confers his droit on the connoisseur and sanctions the circularity of his approach. It is a great irony that this community regards itself as engaged in "scholarship," i.e. as producing positive, verifiable or falsifiable results that belong to a history of progressive knowledge, whereas in fact they are only a particular group of readers that do a particular kind of reading.

A cardinal assumption of this biographical approach to the poetry of Horace is that any apparent reference in this poetry to Horace's life, to his attitude toward Augustus, to his philosophic views, etc. is a denotative nugget that can be mined and minted into objective information about Horace. Even Denis Feeney, in one of the more interesting essays in the collection ("Horace and the Greek Lyric Poets"), assumes that there are "open" references in Horace to the Greek lyric poets (cf. 46), i.e. that these poets are not already "figural" (to use the expression of Gregson Davis in his talk at the panel on Horace). But, if any referent at all can be considered primary, which I doubt, it is the poetic tradition of the poem, its generic antecedents and intertexts. Even libertino patre natum (Sat. 1.6.45-46), apparently a precious denotative nugget, refers in the first place to the satirist, to the persona that Horace adopts in this poem and in this collection of poems. He cannot write outside a tradition that, for him as satirist, is governed by Lucilius, and he must therefore show why he, in circumstances vastly different from those of the rich and prominent Lucilius, still has the liberty and the credibility of the earlier satirist. What entitles us to say that the persona of the satirist is the real Horace?

Robin Seager, in "Horace and Augustan Policy," follows the same culling procedure as Griffin in an attempt to answer the question: did Horace's views coincide with or differ from Augustus'? The answer is divided into three chronological sections, the first covering the Satires and Epodes, the second the "honeymoon period" of 31-23 (the first three books of Odes), and the third Augustus' second decade of power (the Epistles, the Carmen Saeculare, and the fourth book of Odes). The chronological beginning not surprisingly produces a chronological result: Horace is "increasingly discontented and disillusioned" etc. (38). Seager has one moment of doubt about his procedure: when he discusses C. 3.11, he says: "any serious intention is undermined by the poem's place in the collection .... " (28). Might not the same be true of all the other poems, and might it not be true of any one poem, as Nellie Olliensis has shown in the case of C. 1.37, "the Cleopatra ode," (paper at the Horace panel) that it already invites various contradictory readings (Augustan, Catonian, and Antonian, on Olliensis' view)?

I have already mentioned Denis Feeney's contribution to the collection. On the matter of the relative weight of archaic and Hellenistic inheritances in Horace, it is an excellent statement of the status quaestionis. The comments on the differing notions of time as between Romans and Greeks are also excellent. Feeney is with the others in the collection only in his obstinate notion of development in the Odes, a notion curiously at odds with the spirit of everything else in his essay ("continuing from 1.32 his process of" [49] "will be announced only at the end of this book" [50]; "only coming late, in Book 4" [53]). Feeney was the respondent to the papers at the Horace panel, and, from his essay, one might have predicted that he would be sympathetic, as for the most part he was.

Niall Rudd, in "Horace as Moralist," says that there is no "clear development in Horace's ethical views" (66) but proceeds to "map those [ethical] ideas on a broadly chronological basis" (72). A readable essay, but I had to ask myself: isn't it time to reconceptualize the whole question of Horace's ethical views? Perhaps the various ethical ideas to be found in Horace could best be coordinated not on a chronological basis and not in terms of adherence to or disapproval of one philosophical doctrine or another but as symptoms of what Foucault in his writings on the history of sexuality calls "relation to self." Foucault's distinction between codified rules of conduct and "practice of the self," which looks to the use of pleasure in terms of appropriate style, might be useful.

Oswyn Murray's "Symposium and Genre in the Poetry of Horace" is reprinted with slight revisions from JRS 75 (1985) 39-50. Starting with the relation of Horace's sympotic poetry to the convivium in Roman life, this cultural-historical essay promises to be the cuckoo's egg in the nest. But the question of the performance of Horace's sympotic poetry at convivia only takes us back to the poetry, which provides no easy answer. "[T]he question of actual performance is subordinate to the deliberate intent to evoke the image of sympotic performance" (94). Focusing on sympotic poems that "specifically evoke a Roman context or display the name of a patron" (95), Murray looks for changes in the sympotic "genres" in "response to the differences between Greek and Roman styles of life" (95). The plural "genres" catches one's attention. What are the genres? Murray never says exactly but he apparently regards the invitation poem as a separate one (96). He refers to the invitation in Hellenistic poetry but cites no examples, unless Philodemus 33 Gow-Page counts as one. In my opinion, all the elements of the Roman invitation poem correspond to Roman social practices.2 Contrary to what Murray suggests, the motif of simple, inexpensive food in the invitation poem is not primarily a reflex of the rich patron-poor client relationship. It is more pervasive and has to do with broader cultural attitudes toward food, of which the sumptuary laws of 181 B.C. are an earlier symptom. Nepos' laudatory comment on Atticus' expenditure for food is indicative: despite Atticus' vast wealth and hospitality, he spent only 3000 a month on entertainment (Att. 13).

Drinking and entertainment after dinner were normal parts of the cena and are referred to in the standard Roman invitation, but an invitation to a drinking party, without mention of food, is another matter. Do Horace's invitations to the latter kind of occasion correspond to the "sympotic life style" that became dominant only in the "last generation of the Republic and the age of Augustus" (93)? One would like to know more about the different kinds of occasion (cf. the phrase omnia cenarum genera conviviorumque in Cic. Pis. 65, quoted by Murray). While cena and convivium are synonymous (Cic. Fam. 9.24.3), they can also be used in the same context to distinguish eating from drinking (Cato Agr. 156; Cic. Sen. 44; Liv. 33.48.6-7). What is the historical convivial occasion to which Horace's sympotic poems seem to look? It remains vague in Murray's presentation.

I have already quoted a sentence from Arkins' "The Cruel Joke of Venus: Horace as Love Poet." In spite of his procedure, he has time for readings of C. 1.9 and 1.23 as wholes (110-111), which made me wish for more of the same and less of "the poet's personal involvement with Lyce" (112), "Ten years or more after C. 2.5 the problem for Horace is different" (114), etc. There is, however, in the end something amusing about a chronological survey like the one Arkins conducts. You imagine a long, ideal soap opera in which all or most of the characters, unlike those who populate our soaps, are intelligent, witty, and charming, as well as good-looking, rich, and leisured. The essay concludes with a neat synkrisis of Propertius and Horace as love-poets.

Philip Hardie, in "Ut pictura poesis? Horace and the Visual Arts," speaks of "the type of biographical criticism that seeks to excavate the impenetrable ground of the poet's life and thoughts that lies beneath the text" (125), but is not so distant from this approach as he seems to think he is. Why are the visual arts absent from Horace? "The subjective view-point of the lyric singer never gives the poet time to let his eye dwell on the exterior of a scene or work of art" (122) But cause and effect are here reversed. One could more plausibly say that the absence of pictorial description belongs to the representation of the "subjective." Likewise, the poem as monument, to which Hardie devotes a section of his essay, is a representation or fiction, oddly in contradiction to another fiction (about which Michèle Lowrie spoke at the panel on Horace), that the poems of Horace are sung, performed, not written. Hardie is well aware of the contradiction but believes that it can be resolved in favor of song ("The implication [of C. 4.8] is that in truth it is songs, rather than statues, that have the magic power to bring the dead back to life" [134]). On the contrary, as Lowrie showed, Horatian lyric may stop at a reflection on its own fictions, its own product ion as lyric, radically questioning its fiction of song (which is of course prima facie the claim to participate in the performance tradition of Greek lyric). Indeed, any kind of Horatian poem may do so, even an apparently topical and autobiographical satire, as Mary Jaeger showed in her paper on Sat. 1.6 (again the panel on Horace).

In short, the Horatian poem thus risks betraying its ostensible claim to say whatever it may seem primarily to be saying and instead descanting on "the supreme theme of Art and Song" (Yeats). As I understand it, this notion does not preclude the possibility of historical and philological research on Horace; it would only redirect that research to the reading of individual poems, which would begin with extreme caution concerning the denotative value of apparently autobiographical material. "Horace's self-revelation is often illusory."3 In this way, it would be possible to celebrate Horace the poet. The collection of essays here reviewed celebrates the historical person, not the poet. On the dust jacket, there is a representation of a stone on which is carved "NON OMNIS MORIAR MULTAQUE PARS MEI VITABIT LIBITINAM." This collection focuses on the part that did not escape Libitina, trying to bring it back to life.

I conclude with three observations on current research on Horace. First, the discussion following the papers at the Horace panel ended with agreement that there ought to be some way to read Horace that would do justice both to the self-referring and to the topical, historical aspects of the poems. As it happens, this problem is under discussion in other areas of the humanities, and there is a chance for cooperation. My hunch is that a poem can be self-referring and context-bound at the same time. We need a strategy, which may or may not require a theory, for this kind of reading. Second, fascination with the "inscribed," to use the fashionable word, conditions of a poem's production may entail concern, already orthodox, with intertextuality but necessarily goes beyond it. Allusion is only one of the conditions for the existence of a poem and belongs to a larger scheme of self-consciousness that includes the marks of enunciation, tropes, etc. Third, take heart, attention to self-reflexivity is not deconstruction. One or two of the papers at the Horace panel verged on "American deconstruction," in which an undecidability is discovered but is also shown or assumed to be under the control of a text that remains available for sanctioned discursive and institutional practices. There'll be an APA meeting again in 1994.


  • [1] See René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1949, first edition), pp. 67-74.
  • [2] "The Roman Invitation Poem: What is it? Where did it come from?" AJP 103 (1982) 184-188.
  • [3] Gordon Williams, s.v. "Horace," OCD, 2nd ed., p. 528/1.