BMCR 1998.10.04

Horace: A Life


Shadows of spire and crocket lengthen on the quad, and we file into the common room for dessert. As we settle into the armchairs, one of our senior members begins to talk about one of his favorite poets, whom he has “adored … in the simplest manner” since he was fifteen (p. 3). He is a good talker, a man of wide and curious reading, well-travelled in his time and able to recall Inuit mermaids in the Dominion Gallery in Toronto (p. 156), learned but not especially scholarly, and fond of gossip; he knows that A.S.F. Gow was “an old boyfriend of Housman” (p. 90). He speaks of his long-dead poet as though he was talking about an old friend. Even on this summer evening there is a fire, and it burns lower. The port goes around again.

In the first paragraph of this conversation about Horace, Peter Levi announces his age. If he were American, he could collect Social Security payments, but he does not seem old enough to have written this peculiar, anachronistic, occasionally careless volume. Horace: A Life seems to have come from the pen of “dear old Mr. Mayhew,” the “very old Wykhamist retired from the Indian Education Service” who taught Horace to Levi in the 1940s. It presents a pre-Fraenkel English Horace, not beefy and beery exactly, but one whose morals wear like a suit of good tweed (p.25). The Anglo-American hyper-ironizing metapoet and the Continent’s politicized intellectual make no appearance here. Levi’s Horace is our old friend from Pope and the Sabine Farm, the advocate of moderation, common sense, and good manners.

I have no quarrel with moderation, common sense, and good manners, or with the discovery of them in Horace. His exposition of those virtues and his complex projection of himself as exemplar of them endear him to me. Yet part of reading Horace, it seems to me, must be an awareness that his words not only project multiple selves, but also question the very idea of an authorial self. Perhaps more than any other Latin poet, Horace resists not only univocal readings, but even multiple or polyvalent readings. He compels a struggle with the idea of reading itself, and with the relationship between his poetic and actual personalities. This struggle informs texts like Odes 2.20 and 3.30 and Epistles 1.20 and leads to the complex renunciations of the fourth book of Odes. It prevents any reading of Horace’s authorial personality simply as a record, however nuanced, of Q. Horatius Flaccus the man.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Horace tantalizes his readers by seeming to offer a distinct and tangible authorial personality. Unlike Shakespeare (whose biography Levi has also attempted), Horace often speaks about himself. His genres — verse conversations, letters, and lyric poetry — naturally accommodate first-person utterances and what seem to be self-references. The difficulty comes when we try to assemble these utterances and references into a coherent, narrative account of a poet’s life and opinions.

A biographer of Horace, then, has to be willing to address at some point the distance between text and author, and between poetry and history. Levi addresses the problem by assimilating it to another, even more problematic narrative (p. 7):

… let us suppose that the scenes and characters of Plato’s dialogues were meant to be taken more seriously than teachers of philosophy do take them, and that Horace means what he says to be taken as literally as the dinner-party in the symposium. In that case we have the fullest, the best and most compelling portrait of a poet that the world would see for a long time or had ever seen. Old Mr. Mayhew probably believed that Socrates and Aristophanes once had dinner together and talked about Love, and that Horace’s autobiographical utterances were literally true.

It is hardly possible in practice to distinguish this sturdy belief from Levi’s precarious analogy. Teetering on his circular use of a dubious assumption about one kind of writing to justify an equally dubious and partial reading of another, Levi has written a book that seems to belong in a simpler, happier era, when readers trusted authors and language behaved itself.

Levi’s book is anachronistic in its assumptions about the relationship between a poet’s life and work, but its anachronism is not without a certain vintage charm. In its treatment and use of recent scholarship, however, it is seriously flawed. Levi admits (pp. 2-3) that he does not like or enjoy recent Horatian scholarship, and he gives the usual reasons: it seems deliberately to make the poet difficult, it is part of an academic industry antagonistic to humane letters, and it leaves a poet “to wither in the serpentine manacles of theorists.” These are, I think, defensible positions, although they cannot be defended without recourse to a kind of empirical and historical theory. It is probably unreasonable to expect Levi to have consulted “What Is an Author?” before attempting to answer Foucault’s question, although he might have found his position enhanced by the effort to answer Foucault’s challenge. Horace, also, is an author who, or whose text, subverts theory as rapidly as theory subverts him, or it. Theory, at least of the kind practiced in some academic circles, may not be much help to a reader of Horace.

Much recent scholarship, however, will. By “recent” I mean since Fraenkel’s Horace of 1957. That book represents for Levi a watershed in Horatian studies, and hardly anything written since, with the possible exceptions of Colin MacLeod’s translation of the Epistles and Shackleton Bailey’s Profile of Horace, approaches its value (p. 3). Even Commager’s The Odes of Horace (1962) goes unmentioned. Although Levi’s Horace is primarily a philosopher and moralist, Levi has no interest in the recent work that has transformed our understanding of Hellenistic philosophy (p. 169). But Levi’s decision to ignore the productions of academic critics and scholars often forces him to give incomplete accounts of Horace’s poetry and to lose opportunities to advance his own biographical agenda.

In a perfunctory discussion of Odes I.14, for example, Levi states baldly that the poem “is an allegory about the state” (p. 100). He does not mention or seem to know W. S. Anderson’s fundamental article from CPh 61(1966), pp. 84-98, which brought to modern readers’ attention the possibility that the allegory is not political, but erotic. If Levi had fed Anderson’s observations into his interpretation, he might have been able to suggest to his readers that the ode exploits multiple strands of imagery to enact a complex attitude toward contemporary politics; as it is, all Levi can do is admit perplexity and leave the ode to flounder in cross-currents of metaphor: “it has wandered away on its own and one cannot date the crisis … the obscurity envelops it like a sea-mist” (p. 101). Waffle like this will not encourage readers who love poetry and have not yet met Horace to take him up, nor will loose writing like “as an image for the girl I feel more at home among the cattle” (p. 119).

Levi, who is a deeply cultured man, has read widely outside the confines of technical Horatian scholarship, and traces of his reading account for much of this book’s charm. It is thus unfortunate that he occasionally gets things wrong or misremembers what he has read. It was the captured General Kreipe, not his captor Patrick Leigh Fermor, who murmured the first line of the Soracte Ode while gazing on the White Mountains of Crete (p. 2; cf. A Time of Gifts [Penguin, 1979], p. 86). Catullus was not the first poet to use stanza form in Latin (p.5). Whoever built the Villa of the Papyri, if that is what “a very grand house at Herculaneum” means on p. 67, he did not build or buy it for Philodemus. A look at Galen, De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis ac facultatibus Kühn XII.291 might have made Levi’s mind boggle a bit less at Roman acne medication (p. 59). Pliny HN 26.2 makes mentagra sound a bit more serious, and less widespread, than Levi implies on p. 160.

None of these or additional errors and wobbles gravely disables Horace: A Life. There are enough of them, though, to distract a reader. Taken together, and along with this book’s theoretical naivete and neglect of a generation of Horatian scholarship, they make it difficult to see the virtues that are there. Interesting suggestions or speculations, like the idea that Odes 3.1 is “addressed to Maecenas” (p. 135) or that “Bacchus” in 3.16 is more than metonymy, disappear — to use one of Levi’s metaphors — in mist and fog. Very fine translations, like that of the Soracte Ode on p. 97, shine in the gloom. Levi is at his best when he applies his knowledge of how poetry works to Horace, as in his treatment of Odes 1.4 on p. 64. Perceptive digressions, like that on Housman’s “Soldier from the wars returning” (p. 133), follow on the heels of post-Romantic gush about Horace. The port has gone round for the last time, mist rises in the quad, and the common-room fire is out.