Kenneth Reckford’s Recognizing Persius is an insightful survey of the satires of Persius, in the context of the Roman genre of satire. While Persius works are closely analyzed in their own right, Reckford draws analogies with the works of Lucilius and even more so with those of Horace, and to a lesser degree Juvenal. What began as a series of Martin Classical Lectures at Oberlin College were subsequently developed through a series of lectures elsewhere, and finally materialized as this insightful analysis of the genre. The book is available not only in hard copy but also as an e-book.
In his Prologue, “In Search of Persius,” Reckford draws a valuable comparison with the British poet John Donne: “Persius evidently taught Donne much about concise expression and complexity of syntax, rigorous argumentation…much, in short that readers have associated with Donne in general” (1), as well as “Herbert, and Milton, and Dryden, and Pope…and Hopkins, and Yeats, and Eliot” (10), including in the obscurity of their basic personae. (Some of these comparisons are developed more extensively in the footnotes.)
Reckford explains his own approach to Persius as “not ideological,” but “intuitive and empirical…personal and subjective, a multileveled excavation report that I hope others who come after me will find instructive, and even encouraging”(14). He then proceeds through the poems, analyzing each one, individually and in comparison with earlier and later models. The first chapter, “Performing Privately,” examines “the theme of performance” (17) in Satire 1, recognizing that “satire was usually performed at elite dinner-parties for a sympathetic audience.” Lucilius, he observes, “started the trend of conveying the answers rhetorically as a response, whether to kindly warnings, importunate suggestions, or outright attacks” (19). Just as Horace’s friend Trebatius in Satire 2.1 (“Persius’ chief model,” 19) warns Horace about the danger of satire, Persius’ interlocutor “provokes Persius to say why he writes and for whom” (20), but it turns out that Persius “has virtually no audience left” (20). Reckford then proceeds with an in-depth analysis of Satire 1, including extensive comparisons with both Lucilius and Horace.
The second chapter, “Seeking Integrity,” deals with Satires 2 (“Hypocrisy and Self-Deception”) and 3 (“Called to Virtue”). Persius strikingly “probes beneath the surface of men’s foolish or vicious behavior to their half-unintentional, half-willful confusion about the gods, which leads them to substitute unthinking acts of outward religiosity like ritual purifications and massive animal sacrifices for the piety and inner goodness that nature and nature’s god require” (57). Taking up “where Horace left off” (59) in his Satires and Epistles, Persius attempts, like Socrates, “to expose contradictions in people’s thought and behavior” but his “method is Aristophanic, showing up confusions of old anthropomorphism and new skepticism in a distorting mirror” (60). Satire 3 is examined as “a wake-up call to study philosophy” (63), with particular reference here to Epictetus (further developed in Appendix 3, 96-103), as the act of “eavesdropping on a performance, as a dramatic monologue with internal dialogue…Like Epictetus, Persius moreover implicates himself in his own preaching. He preserves the right order of honesty, first with himself, only then with others. He moves. . . from dialogue to diatribe” (77).
In Chapter 3, “Exploring Freedom,” Reckford weighs the influence of Nero, Persius’ younger contemporary. “Although allusions to Nero and his court have often and easily been suspected in the Satires, starting with King Midas (allegedly removed from this satire by Cornutus)…still, Nero and Neronian politics are mainly conspicuous by their absence” (103). Reckford observes that, like Nero (whose autocratic behavior became more obvious after the death of Persius in 62 A.D.) (102), Persius “fails to give the expected performance. Rather than attack Nero directly or decry the hollowness of contemporary political life, he apparently limits his criticism to stylistic matters. . . . But he gives another strong hint in Satire 1 of the kind of satire that, for many reasons, he can’t and won’t write” (102). The fourth Satire begins with the failure of philosophy, while in Satire 5 the regeneration of Persius is depicted, first as a student guided by Cornutus, and then as a satirist who denounces vice and folly through the Stoic paradox “Only the Wise Man is Free.” (103)
In Chapter 4 Reckford examines the early life of Persius. He compares Persius’ works to those of Horace as he attempts to establish himself as Horace’s heir in Satire 6. Reckford concludes “with a plea for ‘recognizing’ Persius…so he may take his place…in the canon between Horace and Juvenal as a first-rate satirist” (131). Since I have always considered Persius to be in this category, despite his limited output, I am easily persuaded that he belongs there. Reckford, however, not only makes a persuasive case for any who would doubt it, but enriches one’s appreciation for this poet by his insightful analyses.
The study concludes with an “Epilogue” in which K. compares Persius to Juvenal. Like Lucilius and Horace, the satirists all
“justify their choices and proclaim…their choice of genre and their intention to persist, Lucilius…more directly, Horace more ironically, and Persius with a not-quite muted explosiveness that much influenced the rhetorical build-up of Juvenal’s Satire 1….Juvenal redirects the genre into the sweeping attack on vice and folly that we usually expect from satire, reclaiming Lucilius’ aggressiveness. . . admitting only a single compromise: he will not attack the living, only the dead (162).”
Thus Reckford takes his reader through a well-structured overview of the genre, which I believe will be particularly helpful to students just encountering Roman Satire. Because of the scope of this book, therefore, I would strongly recommend it as an introduction not only to Persius but also to the entire genre, for it places Lucilius, Horace, and to some extent Juvenal, in a context that is often elusive, largely because of the very nature of satire.
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: In Search of Persius 1
CHAPTER ONE: Performing Privately 16.”Who’ll read this stuff?” (Satire 1) 17; “In Different Voices” 21; Performing satire (1): Lucilius 25; Performing satire (2): Horace 32; Three Bad Performances 39; Persius’s Return to the Colors 46; Appendix: The Choliambics 52
CHAPTER TWO: Seeking Integrity 56; Hypocrisy and Self-Deception (Satire 2) 57; Called to Virtue (Satire 3) 63; Where Horace Left Off 68; Division Problems 77; Autobiographical Fragments 82; Images of Dissolution 87; Recomposing a Life 91; Appendix: Epictetus, Diatribe, and Persius 96
CHAPTER THREE: Exploring Freedom 102; Shadows of Falsehood (Satire 4) 103; Modes of Disclosure (Satire 5) 108; “Every Fool a Slave” 118; Another Dissident Under Nero 124
CHAPTER FOUR: Life, Death, and Art 130; Between Volterra and Rome 131; The Land, the Sea, and the Heir (Satire 6) 136; Reading the libellus : Children and Grown-ups 144; Recognizing Persius 151
EPILOGUE: From Persius to Juvenal 161
GENERAL INDEX 233
INDEX LOCORUM 237