BMCR 2001.08.26

Horace’s Carmen Saeculare: Ritual Magic and the Poet’s Art

, Horace's Carmen saeculare : ritual magic and the poet's art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (viii, 182 pages). ISBN 9780300130454 $30.00.

Michael Putnam has set the bar high in his latest book. He seeks to make the case that the Carmen Saeculare is an unjustly neglected masterpiece of Latin poetry that has too often been dismissed as mere propaganda or damned with faint praise. The task is a formidable one and in the process Putnam shows once again why he ranks as one of the most powerful and persuasive readers of Latin poetry of the last half century. The entire book to leads up to the final sentence that constitutes his central claim, “The Carmen Saeculare‘s reconciliation of past, present, and future is the vatic poet’s greatest exercise of his charm’s potency, lifting the singularity of a unique public performance to the level of universal work of art.” Many will disagree with this pronouncement and there are points of detail with which this reviewer might quarrel, but few serious students of Latin poetry will not find the journey leading to this conclusion well worth the trip.

Putnam pursues his defense of the Carmen Saeculare in a systematic fashion. Chapter 1 surveys the historical background of the Carmen, notes the lack of recent attempts to vindicate it as a work of art, and makes a first attempt at defending it from the charge of being a piece of political hackwork. Chapter 2 examines Horace’s work in Books 1-3 of the Odes to establish both the poetic context of the Carmen and its specific difference from the lyric form as Horace first conceived it. Chapter 3, the centerpiece of the book, is a close reading of the Carmen. Chapter 4 compares the Carmen to Horace’s other uses of the hymnic form, and chapter 5 explores its Greek antecedents. Chapter 6 looks at the numerous and complex intertextual echoes between the Carmen and previous Latin poetry, paying special attention to Catullus, Vergil, and Tibullus. And Chapter 7 examines the ways in which Horace uses the traditional Roman concept of carmen as song and magic charm to produce the specific poetic effects he achieves in the Carmen Saeculare.

In chapter 1, Putnam states the problem squarely. Modern readers of the Carmen have tended to dismiss it because we know that it was commissioned by Augustus to celebrate the Ludi Saeculares and hence to glorify the principate. It has been read as a genuine expression of the poet’s support for the new regime, a piece of necessary hackwork imposed on the poet by his all-powerful protector, or a blatant and lamentable example of toadying, but in no case has it been read as a powerful work of art in its own right. Putnam justly observes the limitations of such views and argues instead that “the quality of the Carmen itself is evidence enough to disprove [them]” (4). I would go a step further and call into question the very opposition between poetry and politics that underlies such readings. Implicit in them is a notion of poetic purity that would have been all but incomprehensible to any poet before the romantics. Poetry is not only inconceivable outside of ideology, it, like any other speech-act, is constructed from the raw materials of social life itself. The question is not whether poetry is contaminated by ideology but what poetry does with the ideological materials out of which it is rightly and necessarily made.

Chapter 2 makes the argument that in the first three books of the Odes, Horace constructs a world of poetic and imaginative freedom into which Augustus and Maecenas are invited. The power relations in this ideal poetic locus amoenus are the opposite of those in the world at large. Here the poet is shielded from harm and has the power to confer that invulnerability on Caesar and his minister, whereas in the extrapoetic universe it is just the opposite. Horace bids Augustus and Maecenas to enter the kingdom of the muses. This is a realm of freedom and pleasure that exists in dialectical tension with the brutal world of power politics and war that both makes the poet’s autonomy possible and threatens to undermine it. Thus, in the fourth of the “Roman Odes,” we read first of the poet’s special protection by the muses, extending from their miraculous protection of the infant Horace from vipers and bears to their spiriting him away from the battle of Philippi when, like Archilochus before him, he had thrown away his shield. Midway through the poem, we turn to Caesar freshly returned from the Actium campaign and now finally at leisure to attend to the lene consilium of the muses (3.4.41). Horace’s point in juxtaposing these two seemingly opposed images of poet and princeps is to underline the value of poetic reflection even in the realm of political and military struggle. Vis consili expers mole ruit sua [“strength devoid of counsel falls of its own weight”] (3.4.65). In Putnam’s terms, “the ode looks essentially at Horace’s inner life and at how it is of value to those who rule the state, should they be percipient enough to fall under its spell” (38).

Chapter 3 is the book’s centerpiece. The close reading of the Carmen Saeculare undertaken in this chapter demonstrates why Putnam is one of the masters of this genre of criticism. His line by line attention to detail brings out every nuance in the poem and yields many unexpected riches from a poem that has often seemed a drab affair. I suspect this chapter will function as the standard commentary on this text for some time to come. Exemplary of this style of reading is Putnam’s extended meditation on Horace’s choice of the phrase septem …colles to describe the eternal city in the Carmen‘s second stanza. Putnam observes that Horace is the first recorded author to have spoken of the seven “hills” of Rome. Varro talks of “seven mountains embraced by a wall”; Virgil in the Georgics writes of “seven citadels surrounded by a wall”; and Ovid later speaks of “seven hills” that became “massive walls.” Horace’s choice of colles, however, “not only moderates the imposing eminences that the word montes suggests but deliberately lacks the militaristic implications that the ‘hills’ receive in Varro and Virgil and which they are actually made by mutation to adopt at Ovid’s hands” (56-58).

Putnam concludes this chapter by noting that Horace does not end the poem as most hymns do, with a request to the gods. Rather the final portion of the poem is a series of statements in the indicative depicting the gods’ favor toward Rome. The hymn thus portrays itself as already effective in bringing about the blessings of the gods it seeks in the first half. The poem concludes with an affirmation not of Augustus’ power but of that of the poet himself:

Haec Iovem sentire deosque cunctos spem bonam certamque domum reporto, doctus et Phoebi chorus et Dianae dicere laudes.

[I assure that Jupiter and the other gods grant these things: hope for the future and a secure home. I make these claims as a member of a chorus taught to speak the praises of Phoebus and Diana.]

The oscillation of the final first person singular subject between the collective “I” of the chorus and the individual vaunt of the poet who taught it is indicative of the tension between public and private that Putnam had noted in the earlier odes. Yet, here the valences have been reversed. Rather than the poet inviting the public realm into his private locus amoenus, here the poet recreates the public realm as his own. The individual subject’s theater of representation becomes the public space in which Rome itself is performed.

Chapter 4 expands on earlier observations regarding the unique structure of the Carmen Saeculare among the hymns in Horace’s lyric corpus. In large part, the uniqueness of the Carmen can be accounted for by the fact that it alone of Horace’s hymns was intended for choral performance. The others were mere fictions of performance. Hence, poems such as Odes 1.21 instruct a chorus on what to say, but the Carmen presents the speech act itself. It enacts its own fulfillment.

In its emphasis on the performative, the Carmen approaches the lost world of Greek oral lyric that formed the background to Horace’s Odes. This is the topic of exploration in chapter 5. Here, Putnam notes that not only does Horace approach the works of Alcaeus and Pindar in the Carmen Saeculare, but he also presents something truly unique: a poem that was meant for public choral performance and that was also immediately published in a form intended to be read by the discriminating connoisseur in the privacy of his or her home. In fact, as Putnam demonstrates, the Carmen is a poem rich in intertextual allusions that would have been clear only to the careful student and not to the first time hearer. It was consciously and deliberately intended for two parallel modes of reception.

Chapter 6 unravels the deep intertextual weave that ties the Carmen to the Latin poetic tradition as a whole. Of particular interest is Putnam’s reading of the way Horace in lines 25-28 and again in 56-60 alludes to Virgil’s fourth eclogue. The passages from the fourth eclogue in turn allude to the song of the Fates in Catullus 64. Horace’s diction clearly recognizes the Catullan undercurrents in his Virgilian subtext. Nonetheless, where Catullus’ song of the Fates predicts the birth of Achilles from the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, as well as the death and destruction that birth would cause, and where even Virgil’s announcement of a new Golden Age acknowledges that he will also see a new Argo, a new Achilles and new wars, Horace rewrites his predecessors in an optimistic major key. “The appetitiveness for which the Argo stands and Achillean violence can have no part in the new Augustan dispensation” (122). Horace thus produces a revisionist literary history that can in no way be separated from the political but is no less impressive for its subtlety, sophistication, and tact.

The final chapter examines the concept of carmen in Latin literature. A carmen was originally any kind of poem or verse that could be ritually chanted. Its power was performative. It brought to pass that which it spoke. Such is the magic of poetry, and, as Putnam notes, such too is the primary claim to fame of the Carmen Saeculare. In its diction, its structure, its shift from prayerful request in the imperative and the subjunctive to declarative statement in the indicative, it speaks a world into existence. This is a utopian world. The princeps is both its sponsor and a creature of the vatic imagination that creates it. As Putnam says, his status is conditional. He is the glorious founder of the new age, provided that this age conforms to its magical evocation in the poet’s theater of representation. Of course, the very possibility of that age and of the poet’s evocation of it also necessarily assumes the priority of the political, of the object of representation. In the end, the imaginative and ideological are not so much opposed as dialectically co-constitutive, a fact which the greatest politicians, poets, and, yes, even critics have always recognized. This is perhaps the greatest lesson of Putnam’s finely wrought book.