BMCR 2005.08.21

Symposion of Praise. Horace Returns to Lyric in Odes IV. Wisconsin Studies in Classics

Timothy S. Johnson, A symposion of praise : Horace returns to lyric in Odes IV. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xxi, 320 pages).. ISBN 9780299207434 $45.00.

For all the daunting vastness of Horatian bibliography, new work on the problematic fourth book of the Odes is still welcome, and Timothy Johnson’s (hereafter J.) book-length study of C.4 discusses each poem in some depth, while offering a reading of the book as a unified whole. J. tackles the standard concern about the effacement of lyric into panegyric in Horace’s last book of odes with an argument which views even the most overtly panegyric of these poems (4.4, 5, 14 and 15) from the perspective of the ‘interpretive dialogue’ (p. xiv) of poet and audience. His two central motifs are the presence of ‘dubia’ — or potential ‘disputes’ — within even the most apparently straightforward poems of praise, and the capacity, associated with this ambiguity, for these poems to provoke interpretive work on the part of the audience or reader: ‘Horace’s lyric praise requires and nurtures a collective interpretive process that transforms panegyric into a vibrant communal activity’ (p. xx). He connects this ‘communal’ element of the public panegyric experience with the communality that he sees expressed, too, in the symposiastic world of the ‘private’ lyrics of the collection (although he wishes to dismantle that public/private distinction). It is stimulating to see the book treated as a unified collection, and although it is not always wholly convincing overall and is dogged by an uneveness of tone, there are valuable connections and interpretations to be found in Symposion of Praise, which should be of interest to any serious student of C. 4.

The book is divided into an introduction and five chapters. Chapter One, ‘Sympotic Horace’, lays out some key ‘sympotic’ themes in the earlier work (the juxtaposition of levis and gravis, the lyric recusatio, a ‘serio-comic’ tone) and their significance in Horace’s generic self-definition. It ends by introducing 4.1. Chapter Two deals with the poems J. terms the ‘Encomia Nobilium’ (poems 1-3 and 6-9). The ‘Encomia Augusti’ (odes 4 and 5, 14 and 15) are dividied between two chapters (Chapter Three for 4 and 5; Chapter Five for 14 and 15). The remaining poems (10-13), dubbed by J. the ‘Songs of Mo(u)rning’ (sic) are dealt with in Chapter Four. There is no separate conclusion. Each of the four substantial chapters on Odes 4 (Chapters 2-5) begins with a very brief introduction, but all are substantially composed of readings of each of the separate odes. Each poem is introduced by the complete Latin text (Shackleton Bailey’s 1985 Teubner edition) followed by a reliable (if not especially elegant) prose translation.

This structure has virtues as well as drawbacks: J.’s treatment is thorough and easy to follow, and it is straightforward to find a discussion of a particular poem. J. is also careful to key each section back into his main theme (of symposiastic community); although his case builds upon itself as the book progresses, even a selective reading of individual sections would furnish a sense of the overall argument. But inevitably there is some degree of repetition and redundancy, especially of key themes and phrases, for the reader who works straight through.

In its format J.’s book is strongly reminiscent of Michael Putnam’s Artifices of Eternity: Horace’s Fourth Book of Odes (Cornell University Press, 1986), a single volume book devoted solely to Odes 4, which treats each ode in depth and presents a text followed by translation. Unlike Putnam, J. does not consider the odes strictly in the order in which they appear, taking odes 4 and 5 out of sequence to form his second chapter (‘Encomia Augusti, “Take One”‘). Although this does I think weaken his reading of the sequence 3-6, his sense of each ode’s role within the larger context of book four is well-established, and I find that his grouping of the odes works better than Putnam’s sequence of five triads. In general, however, this similarity in format between the two books — and the inevitable tendency to compare them — works against J. Despite having the advantage (or burden?) of access to a further 20 years of Horatian bibliography, Symposion of Praise is not I think likely to displace Putnam’s work as the place to start on C. 4.

Despite the sequential reading of a poem at a time, the depth of treatment J. gives to each ode is slightly uneven: although the extra space alotted to the epinikia/hymn pairs of 4.4-5 and 14-15 is justified by their importance to J.’s argument overall, odes 4.1-3 get rather short shrift. I felt this lack in particular in connection with 4.2: J. makes much throughout the book of the centrality of Horace’s recusatio of epic or Pindaric style, but he does not always make it clear enough how he feels these two categories (the epic and the Pindaric) are related in Horace’s absorption, or rejection, of them in C.4. I found the final paragraph of J.’s discussion of 4.2 (pp. 50-51) confusing on this score; a fuller discussion of Pindar’s role in 4.2 might have helped to clarify this aspect. In general, although J. mentions Pindar’s influence at many key points, he does not very often discuss the textual details of this engagement.

Similarly, J. has very little to say about the closing lines of 4.2 (the unequal sacrifices, Iulus’ ten bulls to the speaker’s calf), except to note in passing their metaliterary resonance (p. 51). I would like to have seen more attention to this final image, as J. seems to me on several occasions (e.g., the closing libation of 4.5) to focus on the ‘symposion’ at the expense of the ‘ritual’ moments in the book. Ritual, especially in the aftermath of the Carmen Saeculare, must be caught up in what J. terms the ‘communal’ nature of praise, but the index includes no entry for either ‘ritual’ or ‘sacrifice’. The breadth and inclusiveness of J.’s sense of the ‘symposiastic’ sometimes seems under-defined.

As intimated by the focus of Chapter 1 upon the connections between Book 4 and the earlier odes, J. is strong on the continuity between Horace’s ‘sympotic persona’ of the earlier work and the odes of the fourth book. I found his reading of 4.11 against the earlier Phyllis ode (2.4), for instance, stimulating, and in general these insights are a strength. His discussions of the relationship between Book 4 and other Roman contemporaries or predecessors (Propertius, Ennius, Catullus) as well as Greek forbears (Homer, the lyricists) is comparatively superficial, with the partial exception of Virgil and Pindar, perhaps because he felt that so many thought-provoking readings along these lines are already presented by Putnam.

J.’s engagement with other recent criticism on Book 4 sometimes seems rather distant. Although the bibliography includes all the obvious names, the arrangement of the notes (as end-notes rather than at the foot of the page) relegates what direct debate there is between Johnson and other scholars very far away from the main text. Equally, on several occasions his own argument could have been effectively fleshed out or compressed by judicious reference to previous detailed discussions. Lowrie’s provocative reading of book four’s progressive lyric retreat in the final chapter of Horace’s Narrative Odes (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997) was notably absent. I noted only two references to it (at pp. xix and 118), both in passing. This is especially striking as J.’s argument, particularly in the final chapter, is at such pains to contest this interpretation (‘There is no withdrawal here’, p. 198; ‘In Horace’s final praise there is certainly no weakening of his lyric expression and principally no change in his manner of panegyric modeled throughout the book’, p. 213).

In general, J.’s longer discussions (for instance of 4.6 and 4.14), seemed to me the most convincing, and he is quite often effective at putting his finger upon the critical question at hand. I appreciated his claim, in his discussion of 4.12 (which addresses a ‘Vergilius’ who may or may not be the poet), that ‘the real problem … is not the identity of Vergilius … but that there has been no explanation for Horace naming and addressing the poet in the manner he does’ (p. 164). Even if we remain unconvinced by his conclusions, this is a useful critical distinction between the identity of the addressee and the tone of that address.

J.’s close reading of the poems is often of interest, although I found his interpretation of the ‘sound effects’ of the poetry often rather weak (for instance at pp. 120-121 on 4.5, where he claims that: ‘the whining of the prominent nasal “m” [in lines 33-40] … clashes with the peasant’s joyous libation’. Of C. 2.4 he states that ‘[t]he last four verses moan with sensual passion (“a, u, au”)’ (p. 152). This is, however, a notoriously subjective area of criticism, and other readers may be more persuaded.

J.’s style is largely clear and very readable, if sometimes repetitious. His use of some key terms (‘panegyric praxis’, ‘panegyric plots’) occasionally seems jargony and his tone is rather uneven: at one moment very straightforward, at another much more self-conscious. I found his use of typographical novelties (‘Émotive’, ‘Songs of Mo(u)rning’) irritating rather than stimulating, although other readers may disagree. There is a tendency to pile up adjectives or uncertain-sounding qualifications which does not serve his case, and the occasional paragraph is overlong and unclear. But for the most part his arguments are carefully paced and not too dense.

To conclude, the reading of these odes as inviting a ‘communal’ response is well-sustained and of interest; the discussions of each individual poem are thoughtful and carefully integrated with each other, and the book as a whole is very readable. It will not for me replace Putnam as a single volume treatment of C. 4, but it deserves to be read and referred to by scholars and students working on Horace’s last book. Although I do not find quite the symposiastic unity in the book that J. does, Symposion of Praise is a worthwhile addition to the bibliography on Odes 4.

I found only a few typographical errors, and the quality of the book as a whole is good.