Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.49

Timothy S. Johnson, Horace's Iambic Criticism: Casting Blame (iambikê poiêsis). Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 334.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. xii, 314.  ISBN 9789004215238.  $163.00.  

Reviewed by Ian A. Ruffell, University of Glasgow (

Table of Contents

Horace's Epodes have received increasing attention over the past few decades, but the collection remains somewhat puzzling. Johnson's reading of the poems focuses on three elements. First, they make a social and cultural as well as literary contribution; second, Horace's iambic career extends further, into the Odes and even the Ars Poetica; third, Horace finds unity in diversity, both literary and social. Horace's iambic renewal mirrors Rome's cultural reconstruction.

A substantial introduction presents the argument. Horace is developing a more consensual mode of iambic than the hostile and damaging invective of his Greek forebears (pp. 4–6). The Epodes present a progression (pp. 6–7) from a society beset by anger and rage (Epodes 1–7), through a counterpoint or dialogue (Epodes 8– 15) between aggression and non-aggression, or ‘responsion’, towards reconciliation through Epodes 16 and 17. Beyond the Epodes, Horace's iambic poetry shifts towards more social and depoliticised themes. Transgression ultimately points to difference and unity (pp. 9–12). Canidia represents hostility that is transcended (pp. 15–17). Central to this modification are the model and metapoetics of Old Comedy, the ritual associations of iambic, the review of the Epodes in Epistles 1.19 and theories of unity in Ars Poetica.

Chapter 1, ‘Non res et agentia verba Lycamben: on not hunting down Lycambes’ examines the social context of iambic and Horace's claims of originality (via Epistles 1.19.19–34 and Ars Poetica 79–82: p. 37). Horace is not modifying iambic, e.g. as a Callimachean dilution (pp. 40, 63), nor displaying iambic's weakness (pp. 40– 1), but promoting neglected elements in the Archilochean tradition against those influenced by Catullus. A detour through the Fescennine verses in Ars Poetica leads to Old Comedy's role in Horatian metapoetics of satire, emphasizing justice rather than aggression. Co-opted for this broader notion of comedy are Aristotle's Poetics, Plato's Apology, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (67–70), the story of Archilochus and the cow (Mnesiepes inscription, SEG 15.517), and the gephyrismos (pp. 70–1: a source of ‘new insight and understanding’). Carnivalesque inversion is also introduced (73 n.70). Aristotle's remarks about the iambic trimeter provide a basis for the concept of ‘responsion’ (pp. 74–5).

Chapter 2, ‘Society, Iambic Rage and Self-destruction’ examines the pathology of Rome in Epodes 1–7. The first four complicate relationships. In Epode 1, Horace's relationship to Maecenas echoes Maecenas' relationship to Augustus, and Maecenas' success is bound to Horace's success (at singing), with uncertain outcomes. The delayed reveal of the narrator of Epode 2 undercuts the Horace-like idealisation of the countryside. The smell and fart jokes of Epode 3 are Aristophanic and the metapoetics of garlic are a reflection on the dangers of political patronage. Epode 4 is more obviously threatening, but complicated by Horace's own social origins. More indicative of a society infected with rage are Epodes 5 and 6. Canidia's victim is intent on retaliation. The theme of the strong dog/iambist intervening against an aggressor on behalf of the weaker parallels Augustus' own political interventions (cf. Res Gestae 2). By Epode 7, rage has infected the whole of society, breaking down distinctions between victim and spectator. The killing of Remus in Epode 7 parallels the undeserving victims of Epode 6 and casts the Romans as rabid dogs. A final section, Γνῶθι σαυτόν (115–19), reiterates the infection thesis and considers broader frameworks, from Halliwell's notion of ‘institutionalised shamelessness’ (of Old Comedy), to liminality and responsion again (via Plato's Philebos) and back to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Subsequent chapters identify a cure in reciprocal song. Chapter three, ‘Rage, Repression, Rage: Iambic Responsion’ plots emotional movement in 8–15 and a shift towards personal themes. In Epode 8, the joke (via Semonides) is on iambos, but Horace is nonetheless justifying his own poetry, leaving the audience to decide. Epode 9 betrays a ‘sympotic anxiety’ (pp. 133–6), the gap between the shipboard and triumphal drinks full of ominous possibilities. Epode 10 is Horace back on the attack (with metapoetic implications via Catullus 63). Epodes 11 and 15 ironize iambos. The former has Catullus 5 in mind (versiculos in 11.2) and the rejection (11.15–18) of libera bilis nonetheless acknowledges difference. The inadequacy of Horace's anger parallels his performance as a lover. The mutual frustration of Epode 12 opens up other possibie outcomes to the iambic exchange. Epodes 13–14 manage a transition through their sympotic dimensions. Horace's response to Maecenas in 14 is ‘a howler of a joke’ (p. 148) but Horace maintains class distinctions between him and his patron. Overall, these poems cycle through a variety of perspectives and demonstrate ‘the irony of him resisting being soft’ (p. 152).

Chapter 4, ‘Horace's Lying Lyre: Epodes 16 and 17’ develops this ambivalence. Epode 16's theme of utopian escape would be perceived as an act of treason, and a rejection of citizenship. Other fantastic journeys are compared, not least that of Frogs, although the discussion of Greek utopianism is limited. The counterpoise of adynata in the prayer-curse and the utopian alternative constitutes the ‘metamythic’ replacement of one utopia by another (158). Horace's iambic rage is distinguished from the rage of Rome caught in a cycle of violence, with the mollitia of those who choose to stay parsed as the insistence on being obsessed with rage. Hope for the future suggests the Eleusinian Mysteries and signals social reconstruction. The discussion of Epode 17 centres on whether the duet with Canidia constitutes a positive or negative ending (163–79) and whether Horace is left stronger or weaker. An unsatisfactory or problematic ending is ruled out in favour of ‘responsion’.

Chapter 5, ‘Horace's Iambic to Lyric Re/cantation’ argues that Horace's rejection of Canidian invective is completed in the Odes, especially 1.1, 1.5 and 1.13–17. The first presents a triumph of attractive conviviality (wine-drinking for singing), and improves on Alfius' getaway in Epode 2. Odes 1.5 shows him not rising to provocation. 1.13 leads from bile not to invective but to physical passion (via Catullus 51 and Sappho 31). 1.14 presents a version of the ship of state allegory, brought under the rubric of invective (questionably). There is a broad movement from hostility to concern and sympathy (p. 206). Invective against Paris in 1.15 constitutes mockery as part of iambic polyphony and harmony. 1.16, with its Canidia-like figure, is more explicitly iambic (esp. 1.16.1–4), and in recantatis … opprobriis (1.16.27–8) represents (through re-) a move simultaneously ‘back to’, ‘back again’ and ‘back away from’. Via Plato's Phaedrus and Stesichorus' palinode, Horace suggests that true love resides in mutuality, not wrangling. 1.16 and 1.17 go together, the latter's pastoral scene realistic, not utopian (Sabine, not Arcadian) and its invitation to love transcending divisions. Overall, the thematic back-and-forth and the failures of violence offer a form of katharsis and reflect an archaic ritual paradigm. One learns (p. 230) to appreciate unity through diversity and opposition.

Diversified unity is elaborated in Chapter 6, ‘Critical Pluralities: Iambike Poiesis in the Start and Stop of the Ars Poetica’. The Ars starts and ends with abuse, invective or criticism, of a bad painter and mad poet; the connection resides in the ‘word-picture’ of poetry (metaphor in the main). The artist's misjudgement lies in disregarding his audience; by contrast (pp. 250–1), an audience's response to humour with laughter emphasizes incongruity (104–13), attention paid to age groups (153–7) and engineering audience goodwill (248–50), while flattery of the audience constitutes disregard (p. 252). The implicit connection between painter and poet requires audience co- operation (pp. 253–6). The key message of Ars Poetica is that poetry is a socio-cultural activity and requires co-operation. This does not rule out constructive criticism, represented by Quintilius (Ars Poetica 419–52) and also instantiated in Odes 1.24 on the death of Quintilius Varus (with whom the Varus of Odes 1.18 is identified in n.54) which distances Horace's poetry of real life from Vergilian themes (p. 270), referring also to Odes 1.6. A conclusion concentrates on song's capacity to alleviate suffering (with a nod to Euripides' Helen); Horace's carmen is stronger than Canidia's; ‘recantation’ now means singing backwards and forwards; Horace's criticism has ‘power to model and effect social cohesion’ in a ‘socio-festive space’ (p. 273).

That it is the scope of the book, but this is far from a straightforward read. Its style and argument are at times opaque and it is methodologically problematic. The broad brush-strokes of the argument are set out at length in the introduction, but the integration of the exegesis of individual poems is often quite enigmatic. Individual chapters are not structured argumentatively, but open with pregnant and unexplained quotations (Euripides' Helen in chapter one; prog rock in chapter four), move straight to exegesis, or lack any obvious conclusion (the end of chapter five is a notable exception). The presentation is arch and chatty. All this is a deliberate strategy, modelled on Horace's own practice (p. 34). From similar motivation, an interlocutor turns up from time to time (e.g. p. 94), to emphasize that there are multiple perspectives (pp. 29–30). Repetition of material (notably on Old Comedy and on Canidia) and lengthy, digressive footnotes from half a page to a page in length do not increase the focus. The relationship between iambic and ritual is addressed serially (70 n.74 acknowledges the repetition) and inconsistently. Mostly iambic inherits or constitutes ritual, at other times it is like ritual (p. 122) or represents it or suggests its ambience (p. 118), but objections to iambic as ritual (p. 30) are apparently not rejected.

The argument is introduced as historicist, but in practice the emphasis is less on what the Epodes meant to their audience than on Horace's intentions, derived mainly from Epistles 1.19, whose interpretation is taken as decisive in resolving many issues (e.g. in denying a rejection of iambic in Odes 1.16 [p. 211]). The practice is defended (e.g. pp. 121–2), notwithstanding caution against such ‘one-dimensional’ ahistorical reading (p. 38), warning about Horace's autobiographic manipulations (p. 25) and injunctions to read collections in the manner of their historical audiences (p. 184 and n.7, against Fraenkel). There is a similar ambivalence over unity: attempts to find it in the Epodes are criticised (e.g. structural patterns or progression, pp. 20–1), but their methodologies contribute to Johnson's diversified unity. But why (without the Ars Poetica) look for unity in iambi anyway?

The core contention, that iambic (or comedy) encompasses more than attack, is important, but there is ambivalence in how Roman preconceptions about iambic are handled (see e.g. 26 and n.53) and their openness to Horatian modifications. The justification for discussing the Ars Poetica is its element of attack and criticism (pp. 8, 33), which Horace has supposedly already transcended. Nor does the inspiration from Old Comedy entirely convince, given Horace's own emphasis on its aggression in Sermones 1.4: rooting literary and social unity there is a controversial move which really needs more argument.

There is (self-conscious) theoretical sophistication, but it is disjointed and inconsistent. The introduction opens engagingly with reminiscences of a peripatetic career around the southern United States where memories of civil war remain strong, but this strong personal voice approach is dropped and only returns in an epilogue. The theme of re/cantation leads into a discursus on speech act theory, which is not developed thereafter. Phenomenology is introduced early on (p. 14), but makes no explicit reappearance (closest perhaps is the discussion of the Ars Poetica in chapter five). Also in the mix are the pharmakos and pharmakon (implicating Derrida's essay on ‘Plato's Pharmacy’, p. 15 and n.30), Aristotelian katharsis and some adventurous textual criticism (a scribal error clarifies Epode 2.7–20 on p. 88 n.24).

Others may find the style and argumentative strategies more congenial than I did, but I am left with the conviction that less would have offered a great deal more, at least in terms of focus. The extension of Horace's iambic career beyond the Epodes is a brave move, but the paradoxical appeal to unity in diversity for either the collection or the career seems as problematic in theory as it does in its formal modelling in this volume.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010