BMCR 2005.09.12

Verborgene Kunst. Argumentationsstruktur und Buchaufbau in den Satiren des Horaz

, Verborgene Kunst : Argumentationsstruktur und Buchaufbau in den Satiren des Horaz. Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft, Bd. 15. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 2004. x, 277 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3487125390 €34.80.

In this new study of Horace’s Sermones, a revision of his 1999 Göttingen dissertation, Ortwin Knorr makes a convincing case for reading both books of satires as Hellenistic Gedichtbücher. Single poems, Knorr argues, must be read in the order of their arrangement if we are to understand the development of ideas throughout the books. Knorr’s reading supports the long-disputed opinion that book 1 has a triadic structure, and that book 2 is divided into two groups of corresponding poems. Knorr’s analysis of Horace’s “leitmotif technique”, if accepted by the scholarly public, may prove to be an important innovation in the study of Augustan poetry. The book will therefore be useful not only for students of Horace’s satires but also for those interested in Horace’s poetry as a whole; and it may, as a case study, also improve our understanding of Vergil, Propertius, and other Gedichtbuch poets of the Augustan age. In this review, I will begin with a general outline, then point out Knorr’s main achievements, and, finally, discuss possible shortcomings.

Knorr’s aim, as he states in his introduction (p. 3) is to focus on Horace’s hidden artistry, which he finds both in the structure of the argument within the single satires and in the composition of the books as a whole. In order to do this, Knorr divides his argument into three sections. He begins with in-depth readings of the first three sermones, each of which is treated in a separate chapter. Since most of the theoretical groundwork for what is to follow is laid in this part of the book, it takes up about two fifths of the whole. In the book’s second and third parts, Knorr discusses books 1 and 2 of the Sermones, respectively. Finally, there is a summary, an extensive bibliography, and indices of subject matter and quotations.

Knorr’s starting point is his agreement with what we might term “Zetzel’s law”, which he quotes more than once: “The only significant chronology in a liber is that of unrolling the book.”1 This approach has rightly overcome the traditional view that poets like Horace collected the poems they made until they had enough to fill a book, then arranged them in a more or less transparent and entertaining way. The earlier model by necessity prompted the question of internal chronology. Putting this question aside entirely and assuming instead that the work of art under observation is the entire book, Knorr begins with a close reading of sat. 1.1, the — only mildly interesting — goal of which seems to be to prove that the poem makes sense in both rhetorical and philosophical terms and is, in fact, good poetry. The real merit of yet another reading of an already well-worn bit of satire comes to light when Knorr follows it up with his analysis of the second sermo. Inconspicuously, Knorr mentions in his first chapter a leitmotif-like recurrence of ideas (p. 33). This concept comes to bear more extensively when, in the second chapter, he points to the numerous parallels of content and structure between satires 1.1 and 2. Chapter 3 (on sat. 1.3) adds weight to the argument that individual satires are methodically interconnected through verbal and structural allusions, before Knorr exploits it fully with the presentation of entire books.

The observation as such is not completely new: van Rooy, for example, finds phrases and ideas connecting individual satires of different content as early as 1968.2 But Knorr is the first to turn this observation into a guiding principle for understanding Horace’s satires. And since his work can be described as a new reading of both books of Sermones, with all the paraphrasing and summing up this method entails, his careful analysis of cross-references, allusions and leitmotifs must be considered its major achievement. By paying close attention to any significant recurrence of an idea, a phrase, or even a single word, Knorr makes it seem extremely likely that Horace shaped his liber sermonum on the basis of complex and pervasive planning.

This method enables Knorr to come up with attractive new interpretations of single passages like, for example, the cena Cocceiana in sat. 1.5.50-70. Here, Knorr reads the comic verbal fencing between Sarmentus and Messius in the context of sat. 1.4, where Horace presents his concept of satirical humor. According to Knorr, the scurra Sarmentus teases his opponent ineptly and in a manner averse to Horace’s satirical program, which in turn is represented by Messius’s witty retaliation.

Knorr also brings insight into the overarching structures of each of the two books. Regarding book 2, for example, Knorr points out that the dramatic setting of satires 1 and 2 is in the morning, whereas in the final poem, the famous banquet of Nasidienus takes place in the evening: the book thus describes the course of a day. It may be added that the dialogue which frames the account of the banquet would occur early the next day, allowing for a ring composition as well.

Knorr also finds convincing new arguments for the triadic structure of book 1, which has always been in dispute, particularly because the poems of the third triad seem to have little in common. Knorr proposes that the programmatic use of venenum links satires 7 (v. 1) and 8 (v. 19), while Priapus in 1.8 and the satirist (“Horace”) in 1.9 both serve to protect the realm of Maecenas against intruders. I would note, however, that a book of ten poems can, obviously, not be divided neatly into blocks of three; and Knorr himself calls attention to the fact that the beginning of the second half of the book is strongly marked by Horace’s repetition of the dedication to Maecenas in 1.6.1. We should, therefore, not simply reduce the structure of book 1 to the triads which clearly exist, but observe another structural level of book halves, a principle paralleled, for example, by the thirds and halves into which the Aeneid can be divided.

In addition to these examples of Knorr’s contributions to our understanding of the poems, one felicitous innovation of terminology should not go unmentioned. Knorr differentiates between what he calls the static structure of the book, which he defines as the correspondences and allusive links between poems — e.g. the way Maecenas is addressed in the beginnings of sat. 1.1 and 6 —, and the dynamic structure, through which the development of motifs and themes is advanced (p. 94 n. 17) — e.g. the way we see the concept of vitium represented in different aspects and finally transferred from the ethical to the literary sphere as we progress from the first to the fourth satire of the first book. This is a useful distinction for the analysis of unity and argument in a Gedichtbuch.

This praise, however, is also a starting point for a few objections. First of all, theory is not the book’s strong point. If such extensive use is to be made of a method based on the idea of leitmotifs in a Gedichtbuch, I would have expected a discussion of what basis we have for postulating that such a structural technique existed at all in classical and particularly Hellenistic literature. Is there (perhaps in poetological metaphors of weaving) a Greek or Latin vocabulary that can describe what Horace does? Do we have evidence of the same technique in other books, other authors? Knorr seems to use a technical term taken from Wagnerian opera to denote Horatian technique quite innocently, showing no awareness that this kind of anachronism needs to be justified. The term is not even included in the index rerum, which makes it hard for the reader to check how consistently Knorr employs it.

Since a theoretical discussion of the problem is missing, Knorr does not follow through sufficiently the implications of the leitmotif technique. The concept of dynamic structure works on the assumption that we can observe a gradual and linear development of ideas throughout the book. Depending on how a literary leitmotif (as opposed to a musical one) is defined, however, it can be understood, from its second occurrence onwards, to reflect back on earlier instances, inviting comparison and investing them with added layers of meaning.

For example, the term vitiosus is used to criticize the quality of literature (Lucilian satire, in this case) in 1.4.9 — at this point a surprising application of vitium, which, as a moral category, has been the main topic of the preceding satire. Line 101 of the fourth satire amalgamates both understandings of vitium, when Horace says a treacherous, even poisonous way of referring to friends ( aerugo mera; cf. Porfyrio a.l.) must not enter into his poetry, which he intends to be free from fault both in ethical terms and in terms of literary craftsmanship. A reader finding the concept of vitium widened to include a new meaning may start to wonder whether Horace was not also speaking of a particular problem of writing poetry wherever vitia have been mentioned before — as in the second satire of the first book ( dum vitant stulti vitia, in contraria currunt, v. 24), which Horace quotes in the fourth satire to exemplify his method as a satiric writer (1.4.92, cf. 2.27). The reader is thus invited to go back in his mind (or by rewinding the scroll) and check whether he missed anything when hearing (or reading) sat. 1.2 for the first time.

In this way, a leitmotif can be the key to different levels of meaning underlying the obvious message of a given poem. This is why, since a great number of frequently employed words or phrases in the satires are used by Horace in the context of metaliterary discussions, it makes sense to ask whether Horace does not refer to poetological problems ubiquitously. In this respect Knorr seems too tied up by his concept of dynamic structure. Particularly in his otherwise admirable reading of 1.2, he fails to see that Horace is at least as much concerned with literature as he is with sex. This is the satire in which we find the most passages translated from Greek poetry; and while Knorr is quite right in stating that the advice against affairs with married women addresses young men, he overlooks the fact that the archetypal young man Horace conjures through allusive writing is the persona of Catullus’s love lyrics. The lines hiscine versiculis (with a “neoteric” diminutive) speras tibi posse dolores / atque aestus curasque gravis e pectore pelli (1.2.109 f.) draw directly on Cat. 2. So the point of sat. 1.2 seems to be not only the somewhat lame adhortation to revert to prostitutes, but also a dismissal of the Catullan mode of poetry.

Also missing from Knorr’s book is an awareness of the political dimension of the satires. The striking correspondence between 1.1.114-6, and Verg. georg. 1.512-4 makes it extremely likely that Horace’s words against avarice refer to the reasons for the civil war. And it is strangely disappointing that so subtle a reader as Knorr should take at face value Horace’s assertions that his relationship with Maecenas is devoid of a political agenda.3

To sum up, Knorr’s book is a valuable contribution to the study of Horace’s satires. In its fruitful analysis of recurrent leitmotif-like phrases and ideas it is a pioneer effort. It therefore shows some of the deficiencies pioneers cannot hope to escape. It would, of course, be possible to quibble with details of interpretation and questions of form and style for a few more paragraphs, but these do not detract from the overall contribution of the book.

For readers who publish in German, however, it may be interesting to find an opinion here on the question of orthography. To my mind, even philologists should by the year 2005 get around to implementing the rules of the 1996 reform of orthography taught in all German-speaking schools. I realize how much resentment this reform has caused, and many of the new rules do not make any sense to me. But the same can be said about many of the old rules, and any standard for communication is a cultural achievement not to be neglected. I hope, therefore, that Knorr’s will be the last new dissertation I have to read that is still written according to the obsolete standard.


1. James E.G. Zetzel. “Horace’s Liber Sermonum. The Structure of Ambiguity.” Arethusa 13 (1980), 59-77.

2. C.A. van Rooy. “Arrangement and Structure of Satires in Horace, Sermones Book 1.” Acta Classica 11-15 (1968-1972).

3. DuQuesnay is still practically the only one who has taken the satirical Horace seriously as a political writer: Ian M. LeM. DuQuesnay. “Horace and Maecenas. The Propaganda Value of Sermones I.” In: Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus. Ed. by A. Woodman and D. West. Cambridge 1984.