Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.11


Michèle Lowrie, Horace's Narrative Odes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xii, 382. $90.00. ISBN 0-19-815053-9.


Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy, lpearcy@ea.pvt.k12.pa.us.

Michèle Lowrie has written a thought-provoking book on Horace that belongs next to Gregson Davis's Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse (1991) as part of the foregrounding in current Horatian scholarship of what Lowrie (p. 2) calls "the points where lyric begins to turn into something else" -- the intertextuality of genres, if you will. Davis explored Horace's appropriation of rhetorical modes into lyric; Lowrie directs our attention to narrative and to Horace's assimilation of it into his Odes. (There is still room, I think, for a long, hard look at Horace's transformation of philosophy into conversation and lyric: the Satires and Odes I-III can be read as a response to and refutation of Lucretius' Epicurean notion that verse was no more than a vehicle for philosophical doctrine and argument.)

Lowrie's book has three great strengths, and one defect that arises from the first and third of them. First, she recognizes that most of Horace's poetry is metapoetry; or, as I would prefer to say, that for Horace the distinction between talking about poetry and talking about the world did not exist. Second, she never loses sight of Horace's language and of the need to ground all our reading of him in philological understanding. Finally, she is refreshingly undogmatic. Like Horace, she is not committed to any single master, and her readings are always subject to revision, sometimes before our very eyes.

And the defect? Simply that, as she admits (p. 37), metapoetics makes her head spin, and that her struggle with metapoetry's endless regressions into self-referentiality and revision sometimes leads her to get stuck in the quicksand of deconstruction, narratology, the analysis of genre, the theory of speech acts, and so on. She can always pull herself out, however, by grabbing firmly onto a poem and looking hard at the words in it and at the different ways in which they do their work.

In her first chapter, "Lyric Discourses," for example, she draws on Jonathan Culler's analysis of the effect of apostrophe (in The Pursuit of Signs, 1981) to recast the conventional understanding of the problem of unity in an Horatian ode. By pointing out ways in which the presence of an addressee pulls a poem into a lyric present and disrupts our impulse to make statements into stories, Lowrie is able to define lyric as "whatever disrupts narrative coherence" (p. 26). Thus Lowrie turns the old question of unity on its head. The problem for lyric, it seems, is not lack of coherence, but coherence, and the pull of narrative toward it.

Lowrie's extension of Culler's observations is typical of her method. So is what follows: "Let me revise my revision," she writes (p. 26); "narrative itself disrupts coherence.... Inasmuch as Horace's Odes strive toward coherence, they partake of narrative." At this and a few other points in Lowrie's first three chapters, I found myself wanting to rein in, just a little, this theoretical horse before it, like Stephen Leacock's, dashed off in all directions in an endless regress of revised revisions. But Lowrie's gallops are usually productive, and in their refusal to proceed directly to a firm conclusion they imitate the lyric that she describes. Just as Lowrie is not committed to any single theoretical school, so she feels no obligation to make sense where sense cannot be made. Her willingness to admit aporia and to push her observations to, or even a little beyond, the point where they break down is one of the attractive features of her readings. Seldom have I seen a deconstructionist approach put to such effective use.

"Lyric Discourses" is the first of three theoretical chapters in which Lowrie explores the boundaries between narrative and lyric, the role of time in lyric, and the importance of death and mourning as necessary counterpoint to the carpe diem theme. Her basic theoretical matrix is formalist and narratological, but she is not restricted to any single dogma; speech act theory, for example, informs her discussion of the difference between lyric and narrative address, and deconstructionism shapes her entire approach to the indeterminacy of the Odes. Since Horace is an author who seems to elude any theoretical net, Lowrie's eclectic approach serves her well and lets her see more of Horace than would a narrowly focused dogmatism. Again, her method matches her subject.

It is hard to see Horace whole. A book about the Odes almost has to concentrate on a single aspect of these complex poems -- structure and arrangement, theme, genre -- simply to give a reader a point of view. Lowrie's choice of narrative has the merit of opening a way to the collection as a whole, since the term "narrative" can be understood to embrace not only the separate Odes that tell stories, but also "the larger narrative that is Horace's Odes" (p. 3). The second, longer part of Lowrie's book consists of six long chapters offering readings of groups of odes; taken together, the whole comes close to being a reading of Odes I-III in five chapters, with a sixth on Book IV.

In "Programmatic Narrative: Degrees of Relevance" Lowrie takes up the sequence I.6, 7 and 8, and juxtaposes its inset mythological exempla to the self-contained prophecy of I.15. She argues for a dialogue between and among these poems (and others), and for these poems' deliberate refusal to direct a reader to any single method of reading.

"History and Epic: Civil War" presents a strong, tightly focused reading of three consecutive poems at the junction of Book One and Book Two: I.37 and 38 and II.1. For me, Lowrie's pages on the Cleopatra Ode renewed the poem, which had become a little stale through the familiarity brought on by too-frequent teaching. Lowrie breaks away from the tired dichotomy of the Augustan question -- sympathy for Cleopatra, or glorification of Caesar -- and its conventional resolutions. She demonstrates multiple resonances between the spoken, lyric occasion of the poem and the narrative that hovers around it: an unspoken, and unspeakable, narrative of civil war, the defeat of Antony, and Caesarian triumph. "Cleopatra," Lowrie concludes, "stands in for the unspeakable opponent of civil war, the poem for the triumph Caesar held over her only in effigy" (p. 163). Just as the programmatic poems refused to prescribe any single method of reading lyric, so the poems of civil war refuse to authorize any single stance toward Augustus. Every moment of certainty is undermined by a further revision as narrative continually disrupts lyric's coherence.

"Personal Narrative and the Fantastic, or, the Poet Out of Bounds" explores the poems in which Horace establishes what Lowrie calls his Personal Myth: I.22, II.7, 13, and 19, and III.4. In these poems the intruding narrative takes the form of an autobiographical narrative marked by recurring formal elements: the poet exhibits a state of controlled madness, he wanders outside the bounds of his estate, where he experiences marvels and encounters dangerous wild animals, he is under divine protection, and so on. (Lowrie provides a full catalog on pp. 216-217 as part of her discussion of Odes III.4.) This personal story, as Lowrie remarks (p. 187), has more to do with poetic persona than with the anything that actually happened in the life of Q. Horatius Flaccus. Instead of exploring the Personal Myth as a unified autobiographical statement, she examines it as a narrative running from Integer vitae through Descende caelo which records the development from sympotic lyricist to political poet and parallels the development of Horace's persona from Book One to Book Three.

In "History and Epic: The Roman Odes" Lowrie takes up this challenging sequence and concentrates on the three in which narrative, in each case introduced by reference to Augustus, plays a large part: III.3, 4, and 5. For Lowrie Horace's juxtaposition of Rome's ruler and mythological or historical exempla raises the Augustan question in an especially urgent form: "whether the struggle between lyric and narrative authority fragments the coherence of any possible praise-making" (p. 224). The specifically lyric elements in which Horace casts his mythological and historical exempla, Lowrie suggests, prevent praise from lapsing into panegyric. The sheer difficulty of these poems, their allusiveness, the gaps between what is said and what seems to be meant, all attract interpretation and, by frustrating it, guarantee a reader's continual return and the poems' continued existence in the present of lyric occasion.

Lowrie sees the Roman Odes as the culmination of the collection of 23 B.C. In the poems that follow, Horace returns to non-political concerns: poetics, death, seduction, writing, and song. "Narrative Seduction" explores three odes (III.7, 11, and 27) from the end of Book Three that have to do with women and love. In all three, narrative plays a role in seduction. Lowrie demonstrates that all three poems comment on earlier poetic traditions, in particular those of elegy. The elegiac lover complains about what his beloved has done. His failure to be united with her gives rise to his lament. Horace, Lowrie argues, distinguishes his seductions from the elegiac lover's complaints about the past by choosing "a moment of anticipation to arrest in the lyric present" (p. 296). But Lowrie goes on, as she has on other occasions, to show how the poet's frustrated desire elides into the reader's. As he did in the Roman Odes, Horace in his final erotic poems creates a desire for coherence that remains eternally unfulfilled.

"Although I would have liked," says Lowrie (p. 317), "to end this book with the questions posed of narrative interpretability in C. 3.27, Horace will not let us do so." That sentence, with its elision from "I" to "us" and its placing of Horace in a position of authority over an uneasy reader, reveals an uneasiness that runs through Lowrie's final chapter, "Praising Caesar." She begins with a look back to III.25 before going on to discuss IV.4, 5, and 6 and IV.14 and 15. These poems make her uncomfortable. One of them makes her skin crawl (p. 351). Why this discomfort? Lowrie recognizes that in his second lyric collection Horace, who had kept narrative's demand for absolute coherence at bay throughout Odes I-III, threatens to make, not absolute sense, but sense out of absolutism. He begins to incorporate into his lyric present what Lowrie calls (p. 345) "the master narrative of the age," the res gestae divi Augusti. In so doing, Horace proclaims the end of history, and with it the end of art. In Lowrie's reading, the ultimate failure of art in the face of power may be, if we see it as a deliberate event staged by the author, the ironic triumph of art. But she cannot be sure. "We face a choice between irony and the sublime" (p. 352). At the end of Book IV she, and perhaps we, cannot make that choice, and yet it must be made. Aporia may have given way, Lowrie feels, to something nastier: the declaration of art's failure to emerge from its encounter with ideology.

In theory (so to speak) one should not be able to learn anything from a reading of the Odes that deconstructs their oppositions to reveal the mise en abyme of signifiers that lies beyond irony or ambiguity. Neither Lowrie nor anyone else, of course, can succeed in entirely deconstructing the coherence of a text; meaning and the inner void of the text continue their uneasy dance. I have read Horace's Narrative Odes twice, learning each time, and I expect to learn more from a third consultation. At their best, in fact, Lowrie's postmodernist readings do what sensitive readings like those of Commager or Putnam have always done: enrich our reading by bringing out new possibilities in the text. As Terry Eagleton has observed (Literary Theory: An Introduction, 1996, p.126), the old New Criticism and the new Postmodernism are not so very unlike one another after all.