BMCR 1991.07.02

Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse

, Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991. xi, 282 pages. ISBN 0520070771.

Gregson Davis’ important book goes a long way toward filling a gap in Horatian scholarship. In the nearly thirty years that have passed since Bundy’s rhetorical reading of Pindar, it is surprising that he is the first to do Horace a similar service. D[avis]’s rhetorical emphasis rightly targets the construction of individual poems as “lyric arguments” (p. 2) that convey a message, whether overt or implicit; the emphasis on discourse highlights the importance of the communication of this message, often to a specific addressee, always to a more generalized reader. In his own words, “The building-blocks of these arguments consist of motifs, topoi, recurrent metaphors, and rhetorical conventions that, for the most part, are set forth paratactically” (p. 3). Beyond tracing recurrent themes, D. always integrates the image or topos into a larger rhetorical context within the particular ode. He is particularly successful at elucidating the underlying links between parts of odes whose surface connections are obscure precisely because parataxis necessarily omits discursive argumentation (e.g. his treatment of the Soracte ode). Like Bundy’s contribution to understanding Pindar, D.’s synoptic approach to Horace’s rhetorical strategies illuminates the common thread between many odes. The construction of a “lyric argument” transcends the individual poem to the construction throughout the Odes of a lyric world view that privileges the symposium as the locus of a mature attitude to life, love, death and poetry. But D. avoids the reductive trap of Bundyism by focusing on the unity achieved within the scope of each poem; D.’s Horace does not simply reiterate the lyric message, he reconstructs it anew in each poem.

This book contains many new and convincing readings that are stimulating to the professional without being inaccessible to a general literary reader. D.’s writing is stylish and concise with no loss of clarity; his translations display a fine sense of both Latin and English. Many of the topics addressed are familiar to students of Horace, but D. has a knack for making them fresh, particularly with the emblems of lyric and the symposium.

In choosing his subject matter D. follows a principle of selection that is unfortunately rare among Horatians. Between the extremes of the close reading possible in an article and the general interpretation of the Odes as a whole we find in most full-scale books on Horace, D. strikes the golden mean: he gives readings for the most part of entire poems—with an eye always on the rest of the lyric corpus—but reads only those poems that fall within the purview of his topic. While analysis of “the rhetoric of Horatian lyric discourse” could presumably open new interpretive venues to all the odes or epodes, D. concentrates on four Horatian rhetorical strategies he calls modes, “assimilation,” “authentication,” “consolation,” “praise and dispraise,” one chapter for each mode, each mode divided into subcategories. Davis recognizes the legitimacy—even the necessity—of critical perspectives besides his own (p. 243), but there is a sense in which his approach is prior. Without understanding the conventional function of a topos, it will be impossible to understand, for instance, what this topos contributes to the poet’s social relation to the addressee.

“Modes of Assimilation” addresses Horace’s techniques for expanding the generic scope of lyric to include and subsume material conventionally associated with other genres, whether on a scale grander (epic) or less grand (elegy and iambi) than lyric itself. D. focuses on the ploy that informs the recusatio and compares it to the figure of praeteritio: “the speaker disingenuously seeks to include material and styles that he ostensibly precludes” (p. 11). D.’s term “generic disavowal” helps pinpoint the parodoxical nature of “having one’s cake and eating it too”—a phrase D. uses in several contexts.

Within the broader topic of generic assimilation, D. isolates a number of techniques. The grander genres are treated first. “Generic remodeling” pertains to Epode 13, C. 1.7 and 2.4, where Horace draws figures from epic into the world of lyric, largely by means of the symposium. A less radical version of the same technique is “Generic Pseudo-Imitation,” whereby an epic topic which already shares ground with lyric concerns is treated on the grand scale, but from a different world view. The poem in question is C. 1.15. Although D. does not intend to treat all instances of every technique (p. 77), I cannot help being curious about whether he would include the three grand mythic / historical narratives in Roman Odes 3, 4 and 5 under this heading. I would be particularly interested to know what D. makes of the paradoxical ending of C. 3.3, where the poet reasserts his lyric voice and retreats from the grand manner after an epic digression occupying most of the poem. “Assimilation by Trope” refers to the device best exemplified by “proelia virginum” at C. 1.6.17. After disavowing martial proelia, the poet concedes that he will treat battles but by specifying those of maidens, he turns epic on its ear. The disavowed returns, but transformed. C. 1.6 also illustrates “Assimilation by Parody.” Although it is well known that Horace botches his summaries of the Iliad and Odyssey (the translation of Achilles’ menis as stomachus and Odysseus’ epithet polytropos as duplex subverts their epic dignity), D.’s category helps understand the double nature of Horace’s gesture. Epic themes are not simply rejected but assimilated under a different guise.

Contrary to the strategy of cutting epic down to scale, Horace’s disavowal of elegy and iambi serves rather to prove the maturity of lyric. Elegy is criticized for its intransigent sameness: Valgius always (semper) laments (C. 2.9) and his genre can be summed up in catch phrases (flebiles modi 9 and molles querelae 17-8). But just as Horace truly does engage in the high style, so do elegiac elements return. Under “Subverted Disavowals of Erotic Lyric,” D. treats the failure of elegiac disavowal to keep erotic desire at bay (C. 1.19, 3.26, 4.1). Since desire falls as much under the purview of lyric as it does of elegy, even here lyric emerges as supreme. Horace certainly privileges his own genre over others, and since D.’s topic is Horace’s rhetorical strategies for incorporating other genres within lyric without losing generic control, he does not discuss the possibility that Horace might make forays into other genres without disavowal. One wonders whether D. thinks this possible and what the rhetorical effect of not marking the generic intrusion would be.

“Modes of Authentication” refers to the way the lyric voice establishes its own authority. In this chapter the influence of Pindaric criticism is especially strong. Under “Autobiographical Mythos” D. analyzes the way Horace presents his life qua lyric poet. The question of the literal veracity of the events of the poet’s life is suspended in the face of their emblematic value for the lyric genre. D’s analysis of C. 2.13 as the poet’s passage from iambic to lyric poet is particularly satisfying; the invective against the planter of the infamous tree yields to an epiphany of lyric predecessors. The poet’s escape from the tree and from war (as in C. 2.7) symbolizes throughout the Odes the divine sanction of his poetry. The identity of the particular god who saved him or to whom he gives thanks is secondary to the inevitable poetic associations of the various gods credited (p. 88). A high concentration of authenticating gestures invests the poet with the authority for his epic departure into Gigantomachy in C. 3.4. Similar excursions into the grand style are marked by a strategy diametrically opposed to disavowal. In C. 2.19 and 3.25 the poet avows his aptitude for high themes by the language of ritual possession; ekstasis justifies the departure from the genus tenue, but the need for some apology underscores the norm. Further authentication is brought about by what D. calls the “‘objectification’ of the work of art through recourse to prestigious lyric emblems,” namely the wreath, the fountain, and the sacrificial victim. In C. 1.26, 1.38, 3.13, and 4.2 the emblem(s) stand for the poems themselves.

The chapters “Modes of Consolation: convivium and carpe diem,” and “Modes of Praise and Dispraise” are devoted to the symposium. D. rescues what he calls CD (carpe diem) poetry from the trivialization that often afflicts it by elucidating the nexus of ideas that underlies this poetic response. The first of these two chapters traces motifs throughout a number of poems resulting in a more comparatist reading than elsewhere in the book. In the section entitled “The Carpe diem Ode: Rhetorical Schema,” Epode 13 serves as the paradigm poem for a sequence of thoughts common to this subgenre: a scene (description of nature) engenders a response in which an insight gives rise to a prescription (p. 146, italicized terms are used technically). C. 1.9, 4.7, 1.11 in particular exemplify the irreconcilable juxtaposition of two types of temporality, the cyclical belonging to nature and the linear to mankind. Any time of year is a sufficient reminder of this contrast and it is consequently mistaken to call such poems “spring poems.” “Forms of Indirect Prescription” considers less obvious instances of poems conveying the CD “message” (C. 2.14, 1.4, 2.10, 3.29, 4.12). D. uses “illocutionary force” from the language of speech act theory to show how a statement (“Your more deserving heir will drink up the Caecuban vintage” C. 2.14.25) can function as an exhortation (“Consume your vintage wine now before it is too late,” p. 160-1).

The final chapter, “Modes of Praise and Dispraise,” looks at how sympotic motifs confer praise on the poet himself or his friends, who are either already part of or invited into the lyric world (C. 1.7, 1.17, 2.16), or conversely blame those who resist the lyric agenda (Grosphus in C. 2.16, Lydia in C. 1.25, the puer in C. 1.5).

D. invents the useful, although admittedly cumbersome, “detractor” and “detractandus” as analogous terms for laudator and laudandus in the field of blame poetry (p. 216). It is in these poems that we see the necessity of pinning down every sympotic motif in the previous chapter. Each topos or emblem can stand as short-hand for a series of related ideas. To fail in perceiving the topos is to miss the poem’s essential message. In the last poem analyzed at length (C. 1.37) Cleopatra undergoes a surprising metamorphosis from detractanda to laudanda. This conversion glorifies Caesar, who is the agent of her change. The terms of both the blame and the praise are those of the symposium: the poet’s positive symposium in celebration of victory contrasts with the negative symposium Cleopatra engages in before she understands the nature of her situation. Her elevation to heroic status via the Homeric simile which implicitly compares her with Hector and her courage in facing death (lyric sapientia) further glorify her defeat.

My schematic summary of D.’s arguments cannot convey the real strength of the book, which lies in the detailed analyses. Some of D.’s significant contributions, however, also cut across the board.

He isolates several poetic techniques that have not been recognized widely enough in Horace. The “complementary” (better known as “merism” or “universalizing doublet”) emerges in numerous passages.

C. 1.7.19-21 “seu te fulgentia signis / castra tenent seu densa tenebit / Tiburis umbra tui” conveys the complementary conventionally expressed in Latin by domi / militiae (p. 197). D. could have added that the contrast of the present with the future tenses here universalizes in time as well as space, and that the dazzling lights of the campaign over against the deep shade of Tibur reinforces the public / private dimension of domi militiaeque. A similar technique is Horace’s use of the concrete for the abstract and it is precisely this poetic gesture that often hides the underlying structure of argumentation. D. refers to Horace’s “common practice of using proper names as tokens for ideas” (“Salian” connotes sumptuousness, p. 235). As one would expect of someone influenced by Bundy, D. uses the logic of the priamel to good effect, particularly in the case of C. 2.13, where Horace defeats our expectation that a list of vocations will be capped by “me,” and instead interposes portraits of Sappho and Alcaeus (p. 84). Other Pindaric traits are the “voluntative” future and the “self-fulfilling prophecy” (pp. 116-7).

In general D. overstates the case for unity. Since there is a great need to recognize unity in Horace, this is hardly a sin. While D.’s readings are convincing, I am not sure that a unified structure on a deep level always completely erases or compensates for surface discrepancies. D. treats the two sections of C. 1.7, a poem traditionally accused of disunity, in different parts of the book, and then brings the parts together after the fact. “Though a superficial reading of the ode might suggest a contradiction between the speaker’s attachment to a unique place (Tibur) and Teucer’s radical dislocation, the contradiction dissolves when we are made to realize that the convivium, as emblem of a mental outlook, is inherently mobile; the lyric sapiens may put his principles into practice wherever fortune places him” (199). A good poem can contain contradictions; they do not need to “dissolve.” Each section of this poem offers a progressively more complex notion of place, culminating in the paradoxical exemplum of Teucer, who finds his home abroad. To that extent the ending deepens the beginning, if it does not correct it outright. It is the very tension between the apparent contradiction on the surface and the underlying unity of purpose that in my view constitutes the poem’s appeal. I am similarly wary of seeing Horace’s generic appropriation of alien material as complete. Although Horace takes pains, as D. well shows, to assert the superiority of his genre, these other genres do keep breaking in. We should not lose sight of the degree to which the alien material transforms lyric, just as lyric transforms it in making it its own. But I am arguing as one already converted. It is D.’s elucidation of Horace’s paradoxes that lets us add another twist.

Some quibbles. D. could strengthen his argument about the association of perpetual lament with the genus tenue in his discussion of C. 2.9 (p. 50ff.). Horace looks back beyond Vergil by alluding to Vergil’s source for G. 4.456-66, Cinna’s Zmyrna M 6: “te matutinus flentem conspexit Eous / et flentem paulo vidit post Hesperus idem.” Horace caps Vergil by reincluding the proper name of the star “Vespero” (10). Although Myrrha is not singing, her lament and the epyllion in which it is found belong to the same semantic range as elegy. Since Vergil is also looking to epyllion at the end of the Georgics, this only strengthens D.’s argument. Horace displays interest in this genre in his own pseudo-epyllion on Europa, C. 3.27, with allusions to Catullus 64 and “querenti” (66), one of the catch-words for elegiac excess. Since D. makes much of the Georgics background to C. 2.9 and of Orpheus in particular, I am puzzled by his not mentioning C. 1.24, where Horace advises Vergil against excessive mourning by reminding him that not even Orpheus could bring back the dead.

On C. 4.1 (p. 69) D. ingeniously links Cinara’s name, which is Greek for artichoke, to the symposium. He cites Alcaeus 347 LP as a source for the appropriateness of drinking wine when the artichoke is in bloom. The different plant name in this passage is irrelevant—Galen lists skolymos and kinara together under the general category of edible pricklies ( de alimentorum facultatibus 2.50-51) and Pliny confused the two branches of thistles ( NH 20.262 with J. Andre’s note [Bude 1965] informing us that the modern artichoke results from the efforts of 15th c. Italian horticulturalists). D. might have cited Pliny NH 22.86 for the aphrodisiac effects of the comestible thistle when eaten with wine; the reign of Cinara was erotic as well as sympotic. I am less convinced by his associating Ligurinus’ name with ligur(r)io, to lick. The “gastronomic bagatelle” in Cinara’s case is subordinate to her function as a generic marker. Rather than dwelling on gastronomy, Horace follows up the poetic imagery. Ligurinus likewise evokes Greek: ligyros, shrill, high-pitched. The passage Alcaeus 347 LP was imitating is Hesiod Op. 582-4: hhmos de *skolumos* t’ anthei kai hcheta tettix / dendrewi ephezomenos *ligurhn* katacheut’ aoidhn / puknon hypo pterugwn. Hesiod and Alcaeus continue with references to female lustiness and lack-luster male performance; the latter, as well as the paradoxically strong song that accompanies such a situation, is surely relevant to C. 4.1. The dog-star in the Greek passages may even give a reason besides euphony for the switch from skolymos to cinara; Galen records that people of refinement pronounced the latter kunara.

All in all D. does a great service to Horace, who emerges as a clearer author than he is often credited. Although D. emphasizes the rhetorical structure underlying many poems, he is just as good at explicating the poetic techniques that obscure the “philosophical” message. D. also does a service to Horatian criticism. I expect that many will follow in his footsteps and fill out the picture for the poems he does not discuss.