Horace: The Odes
It is not easy to enjoy Horace’s Odes. Not just because they are densely-wrought patterns in a language that few people know, and not just because they employ a meter that I, at any rate, can’t hear (I can hear the difference in quantity between “thunder” and “butter”, but I can’t hear a rhythm based on quantity without being distracted by accents, and it hardly helps to be told that the first syllable of neque is to to be construed as short when in any pronunciation that I have ever heard it is obviously long).
The upshot of this is that a page of Horace’s odes looks distractingly like an opened box of expensive chocolates displayed behind shop-glass. They look great, but you know you can't eat them yourself, and you harbour a strong suspicion that they may not be edible at all.
This could all be explained to me. But a serious attempt to address our antipathy to Horace needs to deal with at least three other things, which are interlinked (they do become less important, however, if you are slightly tipsy).
1. Boredom. 103 odes is at least 50 too many; it’s difficult to concentrate on what is distinctive in a poem that mainly reminds us of poems we’ve just read. We miss variety and, in their more obvious forms, passion, energy, information.
2. Horace’s stasis. Others may go off on sea-voyages, brave the weather, engage in “War’s rattling tumults”, and so on. But all this is undercut by the image of the poet who very characteristically never seems to even stretch his legs. (Hence very little happens to him, except that he is almost killed by a falling tree.) He drinks wine and occasionally sacrifices an animal; which means, I suppose, that he gets a servant to do it. For his servants bustle (IV.11), though Horace himself moves only a finger (IV.6).
3. Advice. Despite the modesty with which he describes his own inactivity Horace is quite free with advice, and we don’t take well to this. He has been hated enough for “Dulce et decorum est”, so much indeed that the energy of that hatred still affects us. The image of the “terrible old clubman” is hard to erase.
These are problems that impede III.V (Caelo tonantem), a poem extravagantly admired by Landor and others, and more arresting in translation than most. The poem speaks out, in a most severe tone, against those soldiers who settled down under Persian rule in 53BCE (when Horace was eight years old). The speaker-out is the heroic Regulus, who sacrifices himself by returning to a hideous death in Carthage, making his departure – according to the last lines of the poem –
quam si clientum longa negotia
diiudicata lite relinqueret
tendens Venafranos in agros
aut Lacedaemonium Tarentum
like a barrister for his week-end in the country. The intention, as we clearly appreciate, is to emphasize Regulus’ stoic manner. But troublesome ironies interfere. Was it not easier for Horace to imagine familiar Venafrum than Carthage? The simile rather tends to ennoble, by association, the Roman gentleman who (like Horace) does go off to Venafrum for the week-end; as if that was itself a rather patriotic act, in marked contrast to the behaviour of those degraded men who took their ease, and raised families, in foreign surroundings.
“Never translate Latin”, says Professor William Harris, whose website you should really visit if you want to get more of an idea of what we’re missing (http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/SubIndex/texts.html). There is no use pretending that “English Horace” is a substitute, even when it produces the fine poems of Dryden and others. Nearly all the poetry of the Odes resides stubbornly in the structure of its original words and meters; and I suspect that the problems might resolve if I understood with more subtlety the differences between Horace’s culture and ours.
The same doubt, of understanding the social context of Latin verses, afflicts Esther Summerson, who makes this aside on the matter of Richard Carstone’s chronic half-heartedness, the cursed legacy of being born into Chancery (Bleak House, Ch XIII):
He had been eight years at a public school, and had learnt, I understood, to make Latin verses of several sorts, in the most admirable manner. But I never heard that it had been anybody’s business to find out what his natural bent was, or where his failings lay, or to adapt any kind of knowledge to him. He had been adapted to the Verses, and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection, that if he had remained at school until he was of age, I suppose he could only have gone on making them over and over again, unless he had enlarged his education by forgetting how to do it. Still, although I had no doubt that they were very beautiful, and very improving, and very sufficient for a great many purposes of life, and always remembered all through life, I did doubt whether Richard would not have profited by some one studying him a little, instead of his studying them quite so much.
To be sure, I knew nothing of the subject, and do not even now know whether the young gentlemen of classic Rome or Greece made verses to the same extent – or whether the young gentlemen of any country ever did.
Dickens, whose own state of ignorance on the subject matched Esther’s, was taking a flyer; he could reasonably expect his audience to give full force to the criticisms that Esther so modestly yet confidently ventures. This kind of attack on a classical education has since become so commonplace and so effective in destroying its enemy, that it no longer commands assent; at least, not from me. It looks, in fact, like an attack on all study. And there is something chilling, now, in the belief that it is the child who should be studied by the teacher, and have knowledge adapted to it.
The passage looks out of place in Bleak House – for nothing leads us to believe that Richard would have been good at composing Latin verses, to which skill, quite as much as to surgery, Mr Jarndyce’s pointed observation would apply: “The course of study and preparation requires to be diligently pursued”.
The true underlying theme of this aside is class, and it will eventually lead its author to the insights of Little Dorrit and Great Expectations.
This, somewhat reworded, was my part of an email exchange on the British-Irish-Poets forum, which started with Tim Allen’s assertion - I agree with him - that class is a central factor in how modern British mainstream poetry is read, interpreted and accepted or rejected.
1. The direct connection between class and reading perhaps has something to do with NOT-READING; the exclusion zones created by interpretive communities.
I have an idea that the limit of your theory might be post-Latin Europe and its offshoots. Horace springs into my mind as a paradigmatic exemplar of bad conscience.
2. Well I'm embarrassed by my rather unthought-out comment but such as it is the thought goes something like this; that Horace really NEEDed a class division to operate poetically - to operate as a human, too, no doubt. He wanted to piss all over the profane, whose opinions were of no account and who wouldn't even understand him, while at the same time indulging his need for humility by grovelling in front of Caesars and Maecenases. CLASS gave him what he needed.
Clipped Horatian tags have been, historically, the classical way in which the Euro/British patrician class identified themselves. Shakespeare wrote his play about the patrician class (Coriolanus) while Jonson was delighting in his discovery of Horace's potential - to praise, not daisies, but parks...
Oh, and then there's the Somme, Pound, Owen... and Horace exemplifying the "terrible old clubmen" in the home counties. These are the admittedly loose connections I'm making...
Obviously I'm not so naive as to suppose that pre-Horatian culture was in any way a golden age (it was the age of SIMPLE slavery; Horace might even register its passing - by developing the idea of "class" as a substitute, finding himself for the first time in Europe in a city culture where there were crowds of free people who needed to be divided from each other...)
Still it seems to me CONCEIVABLE that there could be a poetry and a culture in which class does not have the same centrality that it does for us. There might be societies in which children don't whisper behind their hands. I don't know. Maybe just as being socially "cut" depends on registering one's own blindness ("I can't READ this") , so when I stick a toe outside western culture perhaps I'm just doubly blind and can't even register that the "cut" is taking place.”
3. My last post could more straightforwardly have made these points: 1. that historically there is an almost-too-obvious-to-mention connection between literacy and class 2. In post-Latin culture this was exacerbated by pioneers such as Horace whose conception of poetry in particular was deliberately located in Greek forms, thus removing it from the contemplation of someone who was merely adept in speaking the home-language of their life and business, reserving it for the leisured and those who (in their own conception) could demonstrate their commitment to higher things.”
This is all highly speculative (where it is not merely trite), but I slap it on here as one attempt among many to account for why I have, at present, nothing much else to say about The Odes.