Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.02


Ronnie Ancona, Time and the Erotic in Horace's Odes. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 186. $39.95. ISBN 0-8223-1476-2.


Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy (LTPearcy@aol.com).

Beauty is momentary in the mind --
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Wallace Stevens' paradoxical reversal of the familiar, Platonic and Christian polarity that sets eternal ideas against time-bound flesh might serve as epigraph for Ronnie Ancona's contrarian reading of Horace's erotic odes. Like Stevens, Ancona wants us to think about the assumptions that often govern our understanding of loving, being loved, and time, and also of poetry about these phenomena. Her reading, informed by feminist theory and traditional philology, thoughtfully challenges commonly accepted, arguably masculine ways of reading Horace's Odes.

Ancona uses Judith Fetterley's concept of the "resisting reader" (The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, Bloomington 1978) to read some of Horace's erotic odes as attempts to dominate the beloved by defining, controlling, and unsuccessfully resisting the beloved's situation in time. Far from being universal meditations on the transience of mortal existence, she argues, these odes express an essentially masculine objectification of the beloved. Conventionally, the male lover's voice in poetry praises the one he loves by declaring that she, or his love for her, is exempt from time's changes. This male voice insults ex-lovers or those who have refused to love by calling attention to the ravages that time has wrought upon them. It suggests, as the speaker of I.23 does to Chloe, that time's pressing urgencies are analogous to the male lover's own. All these conventional modes of erotic discourse, Ancona declares, in fact oppress the beloved by refusing to recognize that she shares in the temporal plight of her lover. Masculine construction of the relation between time and eros makes the feminine beloved an object, not a partner.

Ancona's rigorous, often elegant reading of particular odes has not been well served by her equally rigorous concentration on maintaining this resistant stance, for if ever a poetic persona was crafted to be elusive, polymorphous, and resistant to any single theory, it is Horace's in his Odes. The resisting reader has a better chance against Catullus, who does give us everything from a single, egocentric perspective. In Horace, the erotic comes too close to the ironic for a resisting reader's comfort. What seems to be an impersonal, dominating voice turns out, when a reader listens carefully, to have subtle vulnerabilities and almost inaudible variations of tone.

Tone is a difficult matter in poetry, and it is difficult for a reviewer to take an author to task for missing the tone of a poem. Accounts of different readings too easily degenerate into assertions of rival subjectivities. Time after time, however, Ancona does seem to me to miss something crucial in the tone of an ode. If "tone" seems too naive or imprecise a term, then say that she underemphasizes or fails to delineate specific, important aspects of the poetic persona in Horace's erotic odes.

All these qualities -- use of a feminist stance as resisting reader to illuminate neglected aspects of a poem; close, philological reading; and in the end, failure to catch what the poem sounds like -- appear with particular clarity in Ancona's reading of Odes II.8, the Barine ode. By directing attention to Barine and the way in which the poem frames her within Roman social, erotic, and literary expectations, Ancona configures Odes II.8 as a public poem, in which "what is at issue is the positioning of female sexuality" (84). By reading the poem in this way, Ancona is able to shed new light on the parodic relationship between the last stanza of II.8 and Catullus 61,51-55 (first noticed by E. Ensor, Hermathena 28 [1902], 105-10). Horace, she demonstrates, presents Barine as a kind of anti-bride who challenges Roman temporal and sexual norms, just as Odes II.8 itself challenges Catullus' epithalamium.

Here and throughout her book, Ancona builds her feminist enlargement of our reading of the Odes by wielding the familiar tools of philology, especially grammatical analysis. "The pluperfect subjunctive of the past contrary-to-fact protasis (nocuisset)," she informs us (78), "extends Barine's perfidy into the distant past while the contrary-to-fact statement itself brings her immunity from punishment up to the present." There is more in this vein, and it is welcome. Discussing temporality without discussing tense and mood would be rather like discussing pitching without referring to ERA or innings pitched. You can say some interesting things, but you will never know what any particular pitch means.

When Ancona tries to move away from this kind of close, philological analysis, her commitment to standing her ground as resistant reader often keeps her from moving to a position from which she might get a better view of an ode. In discussing the Barine ode, for example, she readily notices how Barine's time-resistant eroticism poses a "disturbing threat" (77) to the order encoded in society's expectations about times and forms of loving. Barine is "an alarming violation of the natural process of experience"; she "stands eerily outside anything that might help the speaker to limit her force"; her untrustworthiness has "an unearthly power." Emphasizing this aspect of II.8 allows Ancona to conclude, in accordance with her theoretical position, that Barine's position outside the temporal norms of erotic life forms part of Horace's general strategy to remove the female objects of his desire from the world in which he and his readers operate.

Odes II.8, however, resists Ancona's resistant reading, and she is too good a reader not to perceive the possibility, at least, of a reading that might undermine or complicate her theoretical position. Her reluctant acknowledgement of the ode's own resistance comes out in her discussion of features that she characterizes as ironic. Discussing crederem in line 5 of the ode, for example, she describes it as "an ironic one-word apodosis ... whose laconic nature seems designed to emphasize the speaker's present disbelief" (78). She does not ask, however, what the speaker might disbelieve or mistrust. The answer is clear from her own translation of the first five lines (76): "If any punishment for an oath falsely sworn, Barine, had ever harmed you, if you were becoming uglier by one black tooth or nail, I would believe you" (emphasis mine). Crederem establishes a relationship between the speaker and Barine which colors the speaker's statements in the rest of the ode.

Because her theoretical stance directs attention to ways in which the personal is political and in so doing privileges the politics of erotic discourse over its personal aspects, Ancona underemphasizes this personal coloring and the rhetoric of private intercourse in Odes II.8. In effect, she reads the ode as though it was about Barine instead of addressed to her. Ancona thus can offer only a partial account of the third stanza and fails to catch the continuity of tone between it and the fourth. The third stanza's suggestion that false swearing profits (expedit) Barine, she writes, "is undoubtedly intended ironically by the speaker, but the irony in fact turns against him, since there is at this point no normal social world to set against the presumed absurdity of Barine's appeal to nonhuman forces" (80). "Undoubtedly" and "in fact," to say nothing of her odd lapse into the language of intention, seem to declare Ancona's own uneasy suspicion that she may have missed something at this point in the poem. She has, I think, overlooked the hint of hyperbolic irony conveyed by the epithets of the stanza: Barine perjures herself not merely on her mother's ashes, but on her buried (opertos) ashes; not merely on the night sky, but on the whole sky (toto ... cum caelo, with hyperbaton reinforcing the exaggeration); death, predictably, is cold (gelida). The speaker, like Inspector Renault in Casablanca, is shocked, shocked -- and not entirely serious. The emphatic anaphora of ridet ... Venus ipsa, rident simplices Nymphae opening the next stanza does not mark, as Ancona supposes, a point when "the speaker's irony disappears and is replaced by something approaching wonder" (80); instead, it reinforces the speaker's ironic contrast between Barine's behavior and social and personal expectations. For divine observers as well as human participants, Barine's defiance of convention becomes, though in different senses, comedy. Ancona chooses not to take notice of the anaphora, and in her translation she elides it and makes inquam the main verb rather than a parenthetical, ironizing reminder of the speaker's voice (77): "I say Venus herself laughs at this and the artless Nymphs and wild Cupid ..."

What I have said about Ancona's reading of Odes II.8 applies also to her readings of most of the other odes that she considers (I.4, I.9, I.13, I.22, I.23, I.25, II.5, II.9, III.7, III.9, IV.1, IV.7, and IV.13). Her grounding in feminist theory enables her to bring out often neglected nuances in familiar poems and to expose "the constructions of desire that underlie our critical practice" (143), yet this same powerful theory often limits and constrains her reading. It allows her to see important aspects of Horace's persona only when they can be presented in terms of her theory's questioning of the privileged, male voice which expresses "the poet/lover's desire to dominate the temporality of the beloved" (1). Because Odes IV.1 is about this masculine poet/lover, the ironies and humor that eluded or baffled her when she examined II.8 become plain in her reading of the later poem. She catches perfectly the tone, "almost charming in its poignance" (87), of the lover's temporal plight; at the same time, her desire to contrast IV.1 with II.8 forces her to present IV.1, which begins with bella, ends on the Campus Martius, and speaks of love as regnum, as a poem focused entirely on private realms of time and desire.

Time and the Erotic is not a book to guide someone coming to Horace for the first time. For experienced readers of the Odes it offers insights into some aspects of Horace's presentation of the relationship between time and desire as well as interesting observations on Horace's language in word, phrase, and figure. These same readers will find that even while Ancona's book is deaf to important tonalities in the erotic odes, it raises important questions about the relationship between theory and practice in the present state of literary studies.

"Reading with suspicion," as David Konstan described the entire constellation of post-modernist alternatives to traditional philology, may have reached the point of creating its own orthodoxies, no less rigid and vulnerable than those it challenges. Theory can liberate by making us aware of the epistemological conditions under which we read. That same theory, if we are not prepared to question and discard it at every moment of use, can imprison our readings in an unseen maze of deluding expectations. Reading Horace, like the poet's own Venus as Kenneth Reckford sees her, can be "very funny -- and very cruel" (34). Ancona alerts us to the cruelty in Horace's vision of time and the erotic. Its humor escapes her theory, even as Peter Connor's valuable 1987 Ramus monograph, Horace's Lyric Poetry: The Force of Humour, escapes her bibliography.