Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.15


R.O.A.M. Lyne, Horace: Behind the Public Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Pp. viii, 230. $30.00. ISBN 0-300-06322-9.


Reviewed by R.J. Tarrant, Harvard University, tarrant@fas.harvard.edu.

Horace's political poetry has long been a stumbling block for interpreters. The odes in praise of Augustus found a powerful advocate in Eduard Fraenkel (who firmly, if perversely, pronounced 4.5 Diuis orte bonis one of Horace's most perfect poems), but many critics of the last two generations (among them L. P. Wilkinson, Antonio La Penna, Gordon Williams, and Robin Nisbet) have questioned the success of Horace's overtly Augustan compositions. At issue is not Horace's sincerity, which has either been assumed or judged irrelevant, but rather the feasibility of the enterprise. Oliver Lyne now offers a reading of Horace's political poems that aims to show that irony and elusiveness are as much in evidence there as elsewhere in his work. As the book's subtitle suggests, Lyne sees his project as one of uncovering Horace's "real" attitudes by penetrating the masks he so skillfully adopts, above all the mask of the "courteous citizen" behind which Lyne glimpses the outlines of a dissenter and critic (216). This drive to expose Horace's true colors has resulted in a book of rare intensity, but one too single-minded in its aims and too crude in its methods to carry full conviction.

The book comprises twelve chapters framed by brief introductory and concluding sections. The primary focus is on the Odes, which are the subject of seven chapters (4-7, 9, 11-12), including the two longest (6-7), on "Grand Addressees in Odes 1-3." Of the remaining chapters, 1-3 treat Horace's early career, 8 satires and epistles addressed to Maecenas (a continuation of the foregoing discussion of odes to Maecenas), and 10 Epistles 1. (The second book of Epistles is not discussed as such.) Several of the chapters are followed by appendixes on more or less related topics, such as the so-called recusatio, the life of Maecenas, and the Alcaic stanza. In addition, chapter 5, "The Unity of a Horatian Ode" (59-67), is itself more an excursus than an integral part of the argument.

Lyne's approach is overtly biographical: the book's chapters follow the sequence of Horace's life and works, and at all points the discussion presupposes a close link between the poems and their historical circumstances. I therefore begin by drawing together the account of Horace's career as a political poet that emerges from Lyne's treatment, before turning to his discussions of individual poems.

In Lyne's view, Horace was firmly committed to the public role of the poet, but found writing poetry on political themes at all periods either difficult or irksome. At first the difficulty arose from the aftermath of his brief involvement with politics: as a former adherent of Brutus who had accepted the patronage of Maecenas, he steered clear of overt political comment in his earliest works (Satires and most of the Epodes) for fear of being seen as a turncoat. For much of the 30s B.C. another prudential factor kept him from articulating a political viewpoint: he was waiting to see whether Antony or Octavian would prevail. This inhibition was removed by Actium, at which point Horace began to produce openly political poetry in support of Octavian (Epodes 1 and 9). In Odes 1-3 Horace balanced praise for the princeps and the grandees of the new regime with periodic gestures of independence and intimations of a more critical attitude. After 23, however, as Maecenas' influence faded and Augustus assumed a more direct role as a literary patron, Horace found the conditions for writing this form of poetry less congenial, and retreated to the apolitical safety of Epistles 1. He was eventually persuaded by Augustus to resume his public voice, first in the Carmen saeculare of 17 and then in the eulogies of Odes 4; but the task of a court poet could not command his best work, and from time to time he signaled his resentment at the role he was forced to play by a strategy of muted iconoclasm and subversion.

Some of the elements of this account are, of course, traditional: that Augustus pressured an unwilling Horace to return to lyric, for example, is essentially what Suetonius reports in the De poetis. Lyne's most novel claims are also to my mind the least convincing, i. e., the reasons proposed for Horace's allegedly apolitical stance in the 30s and for his shift of genres after the appearance of Odes 1-3. In the first case, if Horace was in fact "sensitive about his republican past and the image he might present in the circle of Maecenas" (27), one might expect that he would be eager to prove his loyalty to his new-found friends. Furthermore, Lyne does not adequately explain how Horace maintained a wait-and-see attitude until Actium without offending Maecenas (and Octavian); neutrality may have been an option for an ex-consul like Pollio, but it would have been far trickier for a minor amicus. Since the Epodes as a collection postdate Actium, Horace may have written partisan poems which he chose not to preserve, either on artistic or diplomatic grounds. (I also think that Lyne underplays the political component of epodes other than 1 and 9.) Secondly, as regards Horace's "abandonment" of his public role after 23: after the lyric tour de force of Odes 1-3, it is hardly surprising that Horace did not immediately continue in this genre; also, unless the sentiments in Epist. 1.19 are seen as not merely exaggerated but entirely fictitious, Horace was stung by what he regarded as the lukewarm reception of Odes 1-3.

Lyne's main concern is with how Horace deals with the role of public poet in the Odes. Since he provides no explicit definition of what constitutes "political" lyric, his conception of it must be inferred from his choice of poems to discuss. He considers most of the odes to or about Augustus, and also poems addressed to political figures even if their content is not overtly political (e.g., 1.4 Soluitur acris hiems, to L. Sestius, or 2.3 Aequam memento, to Q. Dellius), as well as poems to Maecenas. On the other hand, several poems with clear or arguable political relevance are not considered or are discussed only in passing, e.g., 1.14 O nauis and 2.7 O saepe mecum, and while each of the individual "Roman Odes" comes in for comment, the sequence as a whole does not. Furthermore, Lyne scarcely mentions hymnic or religious odes with a political dimension, such as 1.21 Dianam tenerae or 4.6 Diue, quem proles; and nothing of substance is said about the Carmen saeculare. Nor does he discuss the tension some writers have seen between Horace's support for Augustan policies of moral reform and the potentially subversive implications of the lifestyle celebrated in many of his sympotic lyrics.

Readers familiar with Lyne's work on Virgil may wonder if he has ascribed to Horace the same distaste for Augustan propaganda and lack of faith in the Augustan future that he has found in the Aeneid. He has not, or at least not consistently. He identifies several examples in Odes 1-3 of what he regards as successful, un-ironized panegyric, e.g., 1.2, 3.4, and 3.5. These odes share what Lyne calls an "indirect" method, largely coinciding with a Pindaric use of myth as a substitute for overt praise. In discussing these poems, though, Lyne shows a distinct lack of enthusiasm. On 3.4 he comments: "Here Horace trumps Pindar. And it produces great eulogy -- and good literature. Augustus gets a great image; and the policy of association and substitution frees Horace's hand.... Everybody, poet and politicians, should have been happy" (54-55). The last phrase (which appears in varying forms on 56 and 58 as well) sounds somewhat grudging, as though Horace had pulled off an ingenious but slightly underhanded trick. It also implies that somebody might not have been happy; one suspects that the person in question is Lyne himself.

Lyne seems much more in his element when diagnosing signs of self-assertion, criticism, or subversion on Horace's part. Three main techniques for achieving these ends are distinguished: significant placement of poems (dispositio), "designed ineptness" within or across poems, and "sapping" (undermining) of one poem by another. (The last term is not formally introduced until the section on Odes 4 [207], but Lyne employs it periodically earlier as well.) I cite one instance of each: for the first, the honor accorded Sestius and Agrippa of being addressed in odes early in Book 1 (1.4, 1.6) is said to be qualified by each having to follow odes of a non-political nature (1.3 and 1.5, to Virgil and Pyrrha respectively [79-81]); for the second, the lines in 1.37 comparing Octavian in pursuit of Cleopatra to a hunter tracking a hare are given an erotic coloring through an echo of Sat. 1.2.105 f. (182-183); for the third, the melancholy reflections on civil war in the ode to Pollio (2.1) put in question the confidence expressed in 1.2 that Rome's cycle of violence is finally over (92-93). Though each device can be employed separately, their effect is similar, to undercut an overtly laudatory or politically serious impression, and so all three can be at work simultaneously. Thus the moral seriousness of 3.6 is sapped by the designed ineptness of following it with the "wittily cynical" 3.7 (176-178).

Exploring the effects of these techniques accounts for most of the book's original or distinctive interpretations. Some of the results are provocative in the best sense. Lyne's point about the effect produced on 1.2 by 2.1, for example, seems well worth pondering, although rather than seeing 1.2 as "sapped" by the later poem I would prefer to speak of a tension created between them. Likewise the intriguing parallel between C. 1.37.18-20 leporem citus / uenator in campis niualis / Haemoniae and S. 1.2.105 f. leporem uenator ut alta / in niue sectatur, which appreciably heightens the ambiguity critics have seen in the portrayal of Octavian at this point in the poem. (The parallel itself was noted by Kiessling in his 1890 commentary but removed in Heinze's revision; cf. V. Poeschl, Horazische Lyrik [Heidelberg 1970] 88 -- a reference I owe to Michele Lowrie.) More often, however, Lyne's efforts to uncover subversion or criticism produce readings that strike me as overstated or excessively literal-minded. I discuss a few representative examples.

In a number of cases Lyne focuses on an aspect of a poem and inflates its significance to the point of distortion. It is true, for example, that Horace varies the odes to public men that open Book 1 with contrasting poems, but it seems both oversubtle and simplistic to read the sequence in terms of "promoting" Virgil over Sestius or "demoting" Agrippa by placing his ode after the Pyrrha poem (81; Lyne's speculations on how Agrippa and Sestius might have felt about their placement are one of the book's lowest points). Lyne attaches similar import to Maecenas' appearance in the penultimate rather than the final poems of Odes 3 and Epistles 1; while we are surely meant to notice that Horace rather than his patron occupies the closing position, a calculated snub to Maecenas does not seem likely. Lyne describes 3.7 as "a poem that treats a woman's potential unchastity with urbane and cynical amusement" (178). Horace does indeed handle the theme of sexual fidelity in an ironic manner that contrasts sharply with the urgent gloom of 3.6; but the lighter poem still endorses and prescribes fidelity, and it takes considerable effort to see it as a precursor of the Ars Amatoria.

In 2.18, where Lyne wants the biting depiction of luxury and exploitation in lines 17 ff. to be directed at Maecenas, he even overrides the literal sense of the Latin to achieve his reading. "Although the reference at this point is in the third person, potens amicus [12] surely puts the identity of tu in line 17 beyond reasonable doubt" (128). On the contrary, the structure and rhetoric of the poem rule out any connection between the two. Although the object of Horace's criticism is not explicitly introduced until 17, the opening description of Horace's simple life is as much addressed to him as the latter section: "I live a modest life, whereas you ...." Thus the "powerful friend" (i.e., Maecenas) referred to in the third person in the opening section must be distinct from the tu of lines 17 ff. It is precisely by including Maecenas in the poem, but in a way that carefully separates him from this ruthless amasser of wealth, that Horace can denounce a figure who might to unfriendly eyes seem to resemble his patron. (Indeed, another result of Horace's strategy is to compliment Maecenas for being the best sort of diues and potens amicus, i.e., one with the good judgement to support an upright character such as Horace.)

In other places Lyne uses a strangely literal-minded approach to secure his points, in particular to produce evidence of "sapping." This style of reading ignores questions of context or genre, and treats statements anywhere in Horace's work as if they were parts of a single discourse; any discrepancies thus revealed become examples of planned contradiction. Of this kind are the two main specimens of "sapping" that Lyne adduces from Odes 4: (a) in 4.8.25 ff. Horace implies that the divine status of Hercules and Bacchus (which in 3.3.9 ff. parallels the future divinity of Augustus) is the product of poetic praise, and therefore not "real"; (b) in 4.9.29 f. celata uirtus (i.e., virtue not lauded in poetry) is said to be little distant from sepulta inertia, whereas in 3.2.17-24 Horace had spoken of uirtus as self-sufficient and as itself conferring immortality. Lyne concludes that "4.9 cynically saps 3.2, as 4.8 sapped 3.3" (214), but another view is possible. For one thing, these differences are more readily apparent in modern editions, where the poems in question are set out as part of a connected series of Odes and are separated by a mere fifty pages of text, than they would have been to contemporary readers of Odes 4, for whom Odes 3 lay ten years in the past. For another, granting that the differences are real and significant, they can be read in a forward rather than a backward direction: instead of Horace subverting his earlier statements, we can see him as boldly heightening the claims he makes for poetry. If Horace was in fact prevailed on to compose the eulogies of Odes 4, he left no doubt as to the value of the praise he had consented to bestow.

In his dealings with other scholars Lyne displays a pronounced local bias. The views of Fraenkel, Nisbet-Hubbard, Syme, and Lyne's Balliol colleagues Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray receive careful and usually respectful attention (one essay by Nisbet scores two "excellent" marks and one "good" in two pages [40-41]), while American critics are cited comparatively rarely and, at times, dismissively (e.g., 88 n. 85 where Commager's view of 1.38 is quoted with the scornful comment "extraordinary"; the interpretation is indeed eccentric and probably misguided, but Commager was not a reader of Horace to whom Lyne can afford to condescend). Two notable omissions are Michael Putnam's book on Odes 4, which is not in the bibliography, and Matthew Santirocco's Unity and Design in Horace's Odes (Chapel Hill, 1986), which to my knowledge Lyne cites only in connection with 3.7 (177). One might have expected a fuller engagement with Santirocco in particular, since in his chapter on Odes 3, subtitled "Public and Private Voices," and in his treatment of the odes to Maecenas, Santirocco has anticipated some aspects of Lyne's discussion in a more fully worked-out form.

Thus far I have concentrated on the book's arguments, but something should be said about its style. It would be unreasonable to expect a writer on Horace to match his subject's skill with language, but even by the more modest standards of academic prose Lyne's writing is noticeably lax. Jarring colloquialisms and other informal touches are frequent, e.g., 24 n. 12 "Maecenas and co." (sim. 211 "Hercules and co."); 28 "Horace going political in the thirties"; 40 "Horace breaks cover"; 77 "Horace ... considers himself simply too arty for the desired epic on Agrippa" (sim. 101); 109 "Maecenas and Horace are sufficiently on a level to be drinking buddies"; 118 n. 61 "a sardonically humorous argument pro the Epicurean view"; 137 n. 11 "no surprise that we are getting a classic Sallustian snap biography cum character sketch"; 155-6 "Maecenas, unlike other clods, can understand Horace's poetic greatness." Vocabulary and syntax are sometimes ungainly, e.g., "pleasured description" (20); "elegiacness" (38) and "Alcaicness" (95), "underlinement" (72) and "securement" (172), "emotionalize" (194); "Quinctius ...is attributed with an interest"; "Maecenas' fear, says Horace, terrifies him, such, we infer, is his devotion, to such an extent can Maecenas' anxiety infect him" (117). Words, phrases, and entire sentences are obtrusively repeated, e.g., "cynical" (seven times on 176-178), "insistent" and cognates (four times on 15-16), "he is no Vedius Pollio in the making ... he is no budding Vedius Pollio ... Horace is no political advisor in the making" (all from 19). The statement "when [Horace] got tired, displeased, or embarrassed by a public and political role, or its prospect, the excuse lay to hand: my lyra is naturally iocosa ..., my lyrics merely ludicra" takes on a quasi-formulaic character in its five appearances (78, 88, 97, 103, 178).

It is hard to believe that a critic of Lyne's caliber (even one given to a conversational style) would write this artlessly without a purpose. One is tempted to detect -- a favorite Lyne term -- a strategy, and to see this choice of style as part of a process of unmasking. If Horace is "a slippery poet" (172 n. 38), with various "tricks up his sleeve" (197), who produces "pretty skilful stuff" (198), one way for the critic to evade his artifice is to stick to plain talk, to resist being seduced by the poet's exquisite polish. In short, to be as un-Horatian as possible.

Whatever the motive, the effect (on me, at least) is to lessen Lyne's persuasiveness as a reader; nor do I find that what Lyne tells us four, five, or seven times sounds truer as a result. An even odder aspect of Lyne's writing is the way that it saps its own argument through qualification: so "subversion" is qualified by "benign" (183) or "discreet" (168), "indiscreet" by "sweetly" (183), "cynical" or "resentment" by "slight(ly)" (212, 214). This downplaying rhetoric once nearly reaches self-parody: "the occasional gesture of political independence which in the discreetest possible way may convey a kind of benign subversion" (158). The uncertainty implied by "may" is at times more openly admitted: "to call this poem benignly subversive is perhaps an overstatement, but it is tempting" (163); "an assertion of independence, or an assertion of some sort. To get a slightly closer idea of what sort of 'assertion' it is ('assertion' is perhaps too strong a word) ..." (88) . The disconcerting impression is of a critic thinking out loud, and transcribing the results with little or no revision.

Since much of this review has been critical, I would like to end on a more positive note. As is evident from the foregoing pages, Lyne is an acute reader, and a number of his specific observations strike me as helpful and enlightening. I am attracted by his view that 1.4 has an imagined sympotic setting that is revealed only in the closing lines (65-67); this reading gives point to 19 nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere (i.e., as you are doing now) and draws the poem more tightly together (although I find Lyne's broader claims about "unity of occasion" in the Odes too sweeping). On the same poem Lyne also makes the interesting suggestion (73-75) that Horace addresses the suffect consul Sestius (rather than Cn. Calpurnius Piso, the consul ordinarius) as an indirect compliment to Augustus for stepping down as consul in mid-year. In 2.7 Lyne plausibly sees a political subtext in Horace's fanciful image of being rescued at Philippi by Mercury (120 n. 70, with reference to 1.2.43 f. and the connection made there between Mercury and Octavian). In addition, many of Lyne's readings, even if not persuasive, point to genuine interpretative difficulties and should stimulate further attempts at explanation. Most generally, Lyne has performed a valuable service in showing that Horace's political poems are more complex and interesting than either critics or apologists have often allowed.

In his Introduction, Lyne notes that his is a topic on which "critics find it especially difficult to exclude the prejudices of their own personalities and their own historical circumstances"; he nonetheless thinks it is possible to "penetrate to the man in all his reality" (vii-viii), and would claim to have done so. For me, however, Lyne's benignly subversive, sweetly indiscreet cynic is less the "real" Horace than an addition to the gallery of portraits (and self-portraits) that critics have drawn in their efforts to define this ostensibly most self-revealing of poets.