Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.12

David West (ed.), Horace Odes II: Vatis Amici.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  Pp. xxiii + 156.  ISBN 0-19-872162-5.  $55.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-19-872163-3.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jeanne Neumann O'Neill, Davidson College (
Word count: 1991 words

In the preface to Horace Odes II: Vatis Amici, West reiterates the aim proposed in Horace Odes I: Carpe Diem (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) of making Horace's lyric greatness accessible to non-Latinists and to "young people who have to study the poems" (v). As he did in Carpe Diem, West also means to challenge current readings. Vatis Amici follows the format of Carpe Diem, presenting the Latin text (with six variations from Wickham's OCT) with West's English translation ("slightly adjusted," v, from his Complete Odes and Epodes of Horace. Oxford, 1997) and a commentary accompanying each poem "to describe how the poetry works" (v). The preface is followed by an introduction with sections devoted to Horace's life (3 pg.), the odes of Book II (6.5 pg.), and a brief (4.5 pg.) discussion of the music of the poems. The introduction offers a clear and concise overview of West's reading of the book (and students should perhaps consult the paragraph pertinent to each poem before they tackle the commentary proper); he groups the poems according to Horatian themes (with some poems belonging to more than one category) of politics, love, friendship, carpe diem, ethics, and poetry. A list of works cited, a catalogue briefly identifying authors named in the commentary, and an index of topics close the volume.

Although West does not offer a sustained discussion of the methods or goals he applied in translating, the translations themselves testify that he has chosen fidelity to Horace's words rather than a free rendering of Horace's sense, as Ferry's recent translation (1997) or imitation of the meter, as in Lee's 1998 rendition. The translations at times read like well-rendered and precise prose divided into verses; for example, Od. 2.5 opens thus:

She's not broken in yet and her neck hasn't the strength
To bear the yoke. She can't share duties
    With a partner yet or bear the weight
    Of a bull plunging into love.
In his discussion of Od. 2.12 lines 25-28, West confirms the evidence from the translations. The final stanza runs as follows:
cum flagrantia detorquet ad oscula
cervicem aut facili saevitia negat,
quae poscente magis gaudeat eripi,
    interdum rapere occupet?
West translates:
when she bends down her neck to burning kisses,
or cruelly teases by refusing them, though she enjoys
stolen kisses more than the one who asks for them,
    and sometimes is quick to steal them herself.

He calls his own translation "labored" and compares it with that of Shepherd (1983), which he judges "accurate, but not a pleasure to read," and with Mitchie's (1964), which he says is "a joy to read, and close to the Latin, but not close enough for a reader who wants to know what Horace has said" (87).

In the course of the book West offers his readers a wealth of information on each poem and addresses topics important to understanding Horace's poetry. Observations on what makes a particular poem "Horatian" are interwoven with his analyses in such a way that particular details add to West's presentation of the overall texture of the corpus. The commentary often notes genre (e.g., recusatio, 80, curse poetry, 91, hymnic style, 59) and literary devices (e.g., schema Horatianum, 24) and is enriched by frequent discussions of context, language, imagery, metaphor, sound. References -- ranging from brief citations to relatively lengthy discussions -- to Horace's Greek predecessors, to Lucretius, Virgil, and Catullus (among others) as well as to other poems in the Horatian corpus lend perspective. Citations from Greek authors are presented in English translation; the Latin verses accompany translated citations from Latin authors. Lucretius's influence on Horace is treated with particular care and skill. Synopses of the work of other scholars are sometimes invoked as background for West's own readings.

In explicating structure, West's is especially attentive to "characteristic Horatian modulations from topic to topic and tone to tone" (xvii). At times these modulations of tone are pressed into service to explain difficult poems, with Horace's sense of humor accounting for some poems often deemed odd or difficult. Od. 2.19, for example, is by turns burlesque, serious, then burlesque again: "If these comments are right, the first and last stanza of this poem are irreverent, and the second stanza is a serious statement of the role of the divine in the composition of poetry. This is an extraordinary suggestion, but then Horace is an extraordinary poet" (140). A similar mixture of humor and gravity explains Od. 2.20, where self-deprecating wit softens Horace's proclamations of his success (145).

Abounding good humor exonerates Horace from charges of being crude, morose, or insensitive. In his portrait of an amorous and dancing Licymnia in Od. 2.12, Horace good-naturedly jokes about his patron's notorious love for his wife" (86). Od. 2.14 is not gloomy, as many critics hold, but "on close study ... turns out to have a lightness of tone and to be full of humor" (98). Against critics who argue that Od. 2.17 depicts Maecenas as "a morbid hypochondriac" (120), West presents the poem as a lighthearted encouragement to a recovering Maecenas not to worry about his health; it expresses "pure friendship, totally innocent of criticism or displeasure" (127). West's exploration of Horace's jocularity in these poems is so pervasive that under "humor" in the Index of Topics is written simply "passim." The readings which follow from West's presentation of the rich vein of Horatian humor are both valuable in themselves and likely to commend the poems to fledgling Horatians, who often find the Odes humorless and confusing.

Classifying 13 of the 20 poems as "ad hominem poetry" (4), West identifies, where possible, the addressee as fully as evidence allows. Septimius (Od. 2.7) and Grosphus (Od. 2.16) are exceptions; West does not mention Epist. 1.9, Epist. 1.12, or Nisbet and Hubbard's researches into the Grosphi. From the historical evidence West interprets the poems according to an analysis of contemporary events, culture and the character of the recipient and/or poet. Occasionally he wants to have it both ways: the poems represent "real life" (68) except when real life gets in the way of his portrait of Horace. So, for example, West attacks Davis's (1991) reading of Od. 1.38 as a metaphor for literary composition (65-67) as a prelude to his own reading of Od. 2.9 as completely literary: "The difference between 1.38 and 2.9 is that 1.38 works superbly as a poem taken to mean what it says, but if we take 2.9 to mean that Horace is telling Valgius to stop mourning his beloved, and write a panegyric of Augustus instead, it is crass, insensitive, nauseating, and therefore we are wrong" (67).

West paints a traditional portrait of Horace as a man of personal and political astuteness devoted to friendship (Od. 2.7, 2.6, 2.17, 2.12), to ethical thought in general (Od. 2.16, 2.18) and especially to living in the present (Od. 2.11, 2.3, 2.14), and to his art (Od. 2.9, 2.13, 2.19, 2.20). West's Horace is also an unquestioning and untroubled supporter of Augustus. Six odes are categorized as primarily political (Od. 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.7, 2.10, 2.15). Horace is termed "an Augustan court poet" and "among other things, a praise poet [whose] patron was Maecenas" (xii). Against those who find criticisms of Maecenas beneath the surface of the poems, West affirms the abiding affection of poet and patron: "patronage and friendship can subsist together and great art is sometimes financially rewarded" (xv). Questions as to whether the poetry criticizes Augustus "could be debated, but they are all superficial and insensitive" (12).

West's Horace is pretty emphatically not a lover. Lyric demands love; as an Augustan poet filling a "gap in the Augustan renaissance," Horace writes only as "an amused observer of the experiences of others" (xv). He himself, as West concludes in the introduction's brief discussion of Od. 2.4, "of course, is past all that ... he is over 40" (xiv). The poet does indeed end his poem to Xanthias by saying at over 40 he is past falling in love, but even if we take this statement as sincere (how then to explain, for example, Od. 4.1?) and not part of Horace's lyric argument, surely we should not assume all the love odes were written when Horace was past 40, past falling in love? Again in Od. 2.5 West offers us a "cool, detached, sophisticated, ironic" (39) Horace who plays the role of praeceptor amoris, discouraging an overly amorous lover from a premature lust.

Generally West is quite reticent about sex in the odes. In translating Horace's impatient summons to Lyde in Od. 2.11, West omits scortum, transferring the epithet devium to her house instead (quis devium scortum eliciet domo Lyden? becomes "Won't someone tempt Lyde/ from her secluded home," 74-75). West comments "Lyde is no lady of the street, but ... was so prosperous that she could afford to live in a secluded area of Rome" (76) -- the Latin-less reader is left to scratch her head and wonder what is going on. West is generally alert to Horace's sense of humor; it's too bad he passed by the wit of the paradoxical devium scortum.

West bristles at what he sees as overly erotic interpretations of Od. 2.5: "it is absurd to press all these metaphorical details into sexual service" (36). If the images of poem have been overly "milked for their sexual application" (36), West seems to go too far in the other direction. In Od. 2.8, he clearly enjoys setting the record straight on the role of smell in sexuality (tua ne retardet aura maritos, 24). We need not share the offence taken by some scholars, however, since the whole thing is a joke, a literary inversion of the motif of the betrayed woman, and anyway "Horace did not say these things to any woman. Barine is not a credible person, but a poetic creation. She never existed" (60). Well, maybe, but how does West know this?

Vatis Amici, unlike Carpe Diem, addresses literary theory, categorized as "worse than a waste of words": "My own theory is that the duty of those who write about literature is to point out what is there and, where necessary, explain it historically. The target is to understand the texts as they were understood by contemporary readers" (v). Nisbet and Hubbard's commentary, cited on virtually every poem, is held up as a foil to literary theory. Under specific attack are metapoetry (65-67) and intertextuality (44-49). The polemic on intertextuality seems particularly out of place and of little profit to the proposed audience. Better, it seems to me, to persuade on the strength of one's own readings rather than to vituperate the approaches of others, especially in a book aimed at the general reader.

West's objective in Vatis Amici -- introducing Horace to the uninitiated while disputing current interpretations -- demands a book clear and elementary enough to be read by high-school students, yet sophisticated enough to challenge scholarly opinion -- a formidable task. At times I got the feeling that I was listening to an undergraduate lecture to which visiting scholars had been invited. I was happy to be in the audience -- West's command the poems themselves and their cultural and historical context is truly impressive, his readings of the poems thought-provoking, the narrative tight and well written. On occasion I got the feeling he was talking to the invited eavesdroppers more than his stated audience and I fretted a bit about students and general readers getting mired down by some comments -- particularly polemical ones. The challenge will be, nonetheless, profitably accepted, and Horatii studiosi will be much enriched by West's contribution.


Davis, G. (1991). Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse. Berkeley.

Ferry, D. (1997). The Odes of Horace. New York.

Lee, G. (1998). Horace Odes and Carmen Saeculare. Bristol.

Mitchie, J. (1964). The Odes of Horace. London.

Shepherd, W.G. (1983). Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes with the Centenial Hymn. London.

West, D. (1995). Horace Odes I: Carpe Diem. Oxford.

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