Friday, June 14, 2013

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 ( 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.


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At 5:01 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Your lit-crit bits, dear Michael, are such works of substance that I send them to my Kindle, to be digested more comfortably than at my desk; referred to at leisure, and read more than once.

And they prove to be worthy patches upon one's incomplete education, for they have about them something definitive. I shall now forever think well of Catullus, whilst brooding upon the best translation, for I shall not spend my declining years improving upon a Latin education truncated at the age of 12, when I had got into Caesar's Gallic Wars, broached the Aeneid and been promised Livy as a treat to follow.

I'm certain I should prefer Lee to Petrucci, if life is not too short to bother with either; though still not quite clear whose translation is which in the matter of pedicabo ego uos et irrumabo. In such matters I agree that sociolinguistic tone is everything, and is best preserved in the original Latin.

In the matter of Horace, I think you have it in a nutshell: a paradigmatic exemplar of bad conscience. Your piece did not enlighten me as to the actual content of his poems, so I looked up some internet free translation (free of charge, I've no idea how faithful it was). It did not enlighten me as to the content either. Never mind 50 out of the 103 odes being too many. Fifty lines was way too many. I had to stop before the boredom became malevolent & started dissolving my brain.

But even with your Horace piece, there was some positive angle to the enlightenment imparted. It strengthened a view I've vaguely held for a while, based upon my own irregular private schooling and deep analysis of Lindsay Anderson's If....: that the Classics served in our public schools as a counter-weight to the wishy-washy piety of the C of E, helping produce a balanced breed of men who could become officers and gentlemen in every far-flung corner of Empire, without being too weighed down by Christian principles.

At 12:17 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Thank you for the encouragement, Vincent... I'm haunted by an anecdote I read somewhere (I can't remember where), of two strangers encountering each other on an alp and finding they couldn't speak each other's language, but instantly bonding as gentlemen by quoting Horace to each other.

At 2:45 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Now you’ve got me haunted too, and seeking the odd chance that it may have been written in a book by my great-grandfather, the Rev J Sanger-Davies (“Queens College Oxford; member of the Alpine Club”), who in 1894 published Dolomite Strongholds in a handsome edition with his own drawings and watercolour reproductions. It’s still respected in climbing circles (and actually in print). It’s written in the modest-superman style of climbing literature, as perhaps parodied in A. A. Milne’s short piece “Climbing Napes Needle” and satirized in Stephen Potter’s Oneupmanship books”.

There are no Latin epigraphs, let alone any from Horace. But one can well imagine that your anecdote was passed round to reinforce a sense of superiority captured well in this excerpt from Sanger-Davies:

“Knowing that nine out of ten mountain accidents occur in the descent, I thought it wise to suggest caution by every means I knew, and every proverb I could quote in Italian. The result was rather to unnerve the guides than to stimulate their caution; and I have since formed the opinion that with people of their race and training, the best plan is to leave them mentally undisturbed. A call for extra care, if it make any impression at all, tends to produce panic. And I have been assured that few races possess the calmness which can strain every nerve to make things ‘dead sure’ and remain unperturbed as can the Anglo-Saxon.”

At 3:52 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

That's wonderful, I shall certainly look out for Sanger-Davies! (He's quite right too, about the danger of warnings, though I don't think Ango-Saxons are exempt any more, if they ever were). I tried to find my anecdote - I felt sure it had a Swedish connection - in Axel Munthe's best-selling Story of San Michele, but it wasn't there. Perhaps I read it in the memoirs of Gunnar Hagglof, a Swedish diplomat.

At 3:57 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

By George I think I’ve got it.

By entering the keywords “horace odes anecdote gentlemen alps” into Google, I was quickly directed to this article in Wikipedia:

What other Englishman could it have been but that author, scholar and swashbuckling soldier, Patrick Leigh Fermor?

At 9:49 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Tremendous! This must surely be it, though my faulty memory has made some changes. For the benefit of anyone crazy enough to follow our conversation, here's what Wikipedia says: 'The route took them over Mount Ida, in Greek mythology the birthplace of Zeus, where Kreipe is said to have recited the first line of Horace's "ode Ad Thaliarchum" (in Latin) on seeing the white peak: "Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte" ("You see how [Mount] Soracte stands white with deep snow") at which point Leigh Fermor, a keen reader of Horace, recited the rest of the poem. Leigh Fermor later recounted that each had realised they had "drunk at the same fountains" of learning.'


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