Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.02.21

W. R. Johnson, Horace and the Dialectic of Freedom: Readings in Epistles 1. Cornell Studies in Classical Philology vol. 53. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xi + 172. $27.50. ISBN 0-8014-2868-8.

Reviewed by Daniel M. Hooley, University of Missouri.

D. R. Shackleton Bailey's canny observation, "[t]his much can be said for the twentieth century; it is well provided with distinguished anniversaries,"1 carries particular force with respect to 1992, which marked the bimillenium of Horace's death. The event was of course not lost on scholars, conference organizers, and academic publishers who saw fit to celebrate this particular fulfillment of the poet's "non omnis moriar" with a wealth of new, often very good, critical talk and writing. Among conspicuous evidences of that effort are two new collections of explicitly celebratory essays, Horace 2000: A Celebration: Essays for the Bimillenium (Bristol and Ann Arbor, 1993), N. Rudd, ed., and Horace Made New: Horatian Influences on British Writing from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1993), C. Martindale and D. Hopkins, eds. -- as well as this new work by Ralph Johnson. It is not my job to review the first two of these volumes, but I mention them here because all the books have in common at least one, perhaps surprising, element. All explicitly, in one fashion or another, raise the prospect of radical uncertainty about who or what this long-surviving "Horace" is. Which, in one sense, is natural enough. Critical regard cast back over centuries of varied reception and recreation will take note of differences, the pitches and drifts of fortune, and of course the shifting generic identities (Horace of the Ars, of the Odes, of the Satires, ...) of this intrinsically mutable poet. But these works take note too of something deeper and more troubling, as if this last century of Horace's lifetime, burdened as it has been with such inhumanity and dislocation (of sensibility, values, "things"), has cast us just (or more than) a little adrift with respect to someone or some thing we thought we knew quite well. After modernism's disillusionments ("the old lie ..."), the harder edges of post-modernism in its sometimes abrasive critical manners will have taken a further toll on the shape of the old monument that Horace probably never wanted to become in the first place. With the result that we may not know quite what we are looking at anymore, or even how to look, to bring these still supremely wrought words into ourselves and our world.

So it is a big job, not a facile retrospective (and reassuring) glance over the shoulder at the friendly, fat and beery poet, perched at his desk writing familiar things as we at ours dash off another not-quite-transforming reconsideration of this or that aspect of his legacy. One way to begin to take that big job seriously, as Johnson has done here, is to look hard at the places in Horace we thought most comfortable, least politically problematized, most technically assured and ethically mature -- at the Epistles, in short. To reconstrue such settled matter with signficant new insight is perhaps harder than addressing the more volatile and challenging Epodes, say, or the persistently intriguing Odes, but is every bit as crucial to the larger project of identifying the elemental features of the shape or persona he takes on as the poet enters his third millenium. Johnson has, in any case, made Epistles 1 the subject of searching, reconsidering regard in what must have been some stimulating and amusing Townsend Lectures at Cornell, talks now presented to the wider world in this volume.

The theme he takes for this extended meditation -- and there is hardly a better word for the often digressive and meandering narrative, (reminding one just a little of Burton with a wider cultural range) that constitutes this book -- is not new. "Freedom" of one sort or another has long been an element in discussions of the Epistles. But while the poet's fitful pulling away -- from political and personal pressures to "produce" (Maecenas and Augustus), from the claims of competing philosophies (Stoics, Epicureans, Academics, Cynics), even from the old poetry itself (those celebrated Odes) -- is part of the picture of the Epistles as they have come to be understood, the "dialectic of freedom" Johnson here describes is vastly more complex. It entails, Johnson will contend, the realization of "bondage," perhaps precipitated by publication of the Odes, to "power and necessity and, worst of all, to one's own delusions about goodness and happiness and freedom"; it entails "suffering and fear, resentment and anger," of the sort that has its roots in a course of life driven in its early stages by a kindly freedman father's compulsion to make his son "free" in ways he could not be, and continued in later stages, after a brief fling at the real thing (freedom fighting?), in the young poet's again finding that troubling paradox of bondage and freedom in the patronage of Maecenas, and in the yet more unsettling paternalism of his patron; it entails the realization that the prosperity and goods that marked and conditioned the young man's rise to prominence are finally, and in other than obvious ways, incompatible with the things he had been saying all along and thought he believed (about "virtus," for instance, which gets several good pages [p. 49ff.]) and would now seek to rediscover or reinvent in these epistles; it entails sorting through the various "decorums" of philosphical method, at least in the matter of living well, in accord with what is "fitting" (decus), and finding some answering guidance in the honest mutability and healthy acquiescence of the Cyreniac Aristippus; which in turn entails the discovery of a literary genre designed to reflect the very condition of change and taking-exception-to, his irreverent reality beneath the wiser, saner, quieter mask he wears in the letters ("Yes, and we will get to talk about the Name of the Father and Desire and the Other and discords that aren't so very concordant after all, little man. We'll get to explain what happens when the mirror cracks, and we'll get to talk a lot about how we don't want to die and how success is a huge boring lie. We'll get to apprise your patient listeners about bondage and surfeit, about how frightening it feels to be free when one was almost born a slave, when one could have been a slave, of how guilty and anxious one feels, or how weird it is for one to be born free and another to be born a slave." [pp. 115-116]); it entails, finally, hewing a sufficient metaphor for his evolving sense of things out of literary and real experience: his Sabine farm as it is presented in the verse, the garden of language it stands for, its "balance of life and art."

Johnson's manner of delivery in presenting all this is unconventional, as the summary above is meant to suggest. Which means that it is very good at doing certain things, and less good at doing others. It will be best to account for the latter first. Readers should not turn to this book for an introduction to the themes and general characteristics of the Epistles, matter in any case available elsewhere -- in Perret, Reckford, Armstrong, Shackleton Bailey (for all the flak he gets from Johnson here), Preaux, Macleod, McGann, Mayer, Kilpatrick and others. Nor should one look here for a poem by poem explication of the book of Epistles; there are brilliant pieces of analysis in this study, but nothing along these lines that is systematic or exhaustive. In fact a number of the epistles -- 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 1.9 -- receive scanty mention; while others -- 1.1, 1.7, 1.8, 1.16, 1.17, 1.18, 1.19, 1.20, and even 2.2 -- are turned to repeatedly. Nor, again, will one find here a convenient register or index of critical opinion. Nor, and this most especially, will there be found here a careful and cautious weighing of the literary and historical evidence in the service of sane, reliable, close-to-right judgements about these letters. Repeatedly, the text that would have been painstakingly sifted through under the dispensation of the New Criticism or its sundry related descendants becomes the pre-text for extravagant and speculative consideration of very large ideas (the mannerisms of this prose are small-talky, but its matter is big talk, indeed): "Readings in" is a fair subtitle. Nor, finally, will one find here a critic who keeps his horizons straight. The Tao, Cicero, Goethe, Socrates, Lacan, "neocons," Robert Burns, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Mae West (and much else) all play their part in these readings. The medley-effect will unsettle some, and I think that others too, for other reasons, will not like this book, particularly if they come to it for "reliable," easily palatable interpretations or from the tell-me-something-I-didn't-know-about-Horace school or if they have delicate scruples about how much of the poet's psychic life can be fairly determined from these epistolary artefacts. I don't mean to dismiss such concerns: Johnson says things here for which there is sometimes little evidentiary warrant.

There are answers, however, to these objections. Explicit ones, like the epistemological caveat announced at the beginning (p. 3): "Let me say in passing now -- in the hopes that I won't feel constrained to say it again and too often ... -- that I really have no idea whether these poems reflect (record they do not) what really happened in the life or whether the poetry 'only' imagines the sort of thing that might -- or perhaps should -- happen in this or any life; I suppose I have a slight and rather sentimental preference for the first of these alternatives, but that's all it is." And implicit answers, as in: this is a book of lectures whose point is neither to introduce the usual things nor to satisfy conventional expectations. The interpretive audacity of this study is up-front; the limits of its "usefulness" are as clear as the compelling illuminations made possible by its critical liberties.

How well does it do, then, what it sets out to? To such a question there can be no categorical answer, except that the poems seem to yield up a density of suggestion that is in my experience of them unprecedented. Certainly this is true of his description (pp. 75-83) of the multiply-textured conflicts within the apparently easy romanticism of 1.10 (a romanticism Wordsworth captured fetchingly enough in "Musings near Aquapendente" while overlooking the messiness beneath). True as well of Johnson's revelation in 1.18 and elsewhere of a Horace who triumphs over the anodyne ethical cliches usually seen as his metier, and curse -- in just making apparent the sweat and heartache it takes to get to the privileged and transient moments of "stillness" from which he utters those now familiar things about means and middles. I have not seen, either, a more convincing defence of that pragmatic speech of Aristippus in 1.17 (pp. 100-109), and hence a more satisfactory reading of a poem I, at least, had thought a little shallow. Or, to take a poem no one thinks shallow, a more insightful setting out (passim) of the reasons behind the "fury" of 1.19. Finally, I have not read a more revealing consideration (again, throughout the volume) of the remarkable and multiple tensions that color the other letters to Maecenas, 1.1 and 1.7.

But the virtues of this book are larger than the sum of fine individual readings and perceptions. It is perhaps best seen as an exercise in how to read Horace, in a day when the "old" Horace, read in old ways, was wearing thin. So, structurally, instead of linear or bracketed arrangements of poems we have here shifting gyres of related groups held by the mind's eye in kinetic patterns, "vibrating back and forth, through each other ... 'looking for' a repose they cannot achieve" (p. 67). Methodologically, there is Johnson's "narratizing" historical and personal circumstance along with the literary evidence (pp. 33ff.), fashioning plausible (though of course perhaps not "true") pictures, scenarios, accountings for the poetry. Through all of which, as part of an evolving psychic portrait, we come across Horace as Taoist, accepting and part of "the 10,000 things in their constant permutations" (p. 131). Or as Montaigne who discovers the self in myriad representations of self, "fixing" it in the very unfixedness of language (p. 124f.). Which I think is not to say that this "is" Horace, any more than he is the modernist poet with postmodernist's edge that lurks here too, less explicitly, or the fierce anti-dogmatist that doesn't lurk at all. It is to say rather that Horace can and should be brought into relation with all these things, that that relationship is part of the sense he makes. This aspect of Johnson's discussion is not least important in that it points ahead, to yet further Horaces we haven't seen, and now are more likely to look for. Yet novelty is not everything, and the most crucial, as I see it, of the personae that Johnson discovers is not entirely unfamiliar. In a breathless, restorative description of the powers and values of the much maligned sophist, we discover the figure that comes to stand for what Horace does with language: "there is always, coexisting with Protagoras's tough yet evenhanded skepticism, a profound belief -- no, it is a genuine faith -- in the powers of language to help make human life livable, a faith that remains hale and vital only if it is always tested and thereby always renewed, only if, that is, it remains as flexible as the world it attempts to perceive and, ideally, as varied and as changing as the experiences that are registered behind the eye that attempts to perceive those experiences through the filter of language" (p. 146). This is a distant relative of our old friend the wordsmith but is a good deal more vigorously of the world, less certain about "it all," a better asker of questions, and is still at the awfully difficult business of making poems (that) matter, with a conviction and heart many of us will not have seen before.

This is a fresh and compelling book, whose argument never lapses into predictability and whose restless prose has about it a concentrated energy and atmosphere of liberating experiment that makes it not a far cry from, or unworthy response to, its subject.


  • [1] Profile of Horace (London: Duckworth, 1982), p. 104.