Horace’s Ship of State
The great lyric poet was the antithesis of today’s celebrities.


But this I can write with a certain amount of confidence: You wouldn’t have noticed Horace in a crowd; and he was eloquent only as a hermetic, often grudging slogger: At a party you would have pleaded your empty glass after a five-minute conversation with him. But (at least after a couple of thousand years) there is something wonderful about a frankly ordinary self with extraordinary talent. (Was there in fact ever a sublime character with a sublime artistic gift? Who knows? You can judge a gift only by its full development, and Albert Schweitzer stunted his music and St. Francis his writing in the interest of purer aspirations.) Free from the limits of Horace’s self, which was unentrancing even to him, the poetry is wonderfully about things; his mind goes out and looks at the world, meets other minds, brings him back news. Feature for feature, his work is the opposite of the emptiness (because the self-referential self has no resources) parodied in Jack Butler’s “Attack of the Zombie Poets”:

      “What’s the strangest thing you can think  of?” they said. 
      “Let’s listen to the silence, loosen the knots 
      that hold the night together, pretend we’re dead.”
      They reviewed each other’s books by carload lots. . . .

Here is Odes 1.14, the Ship of State poem — but that’s a later identification. Greek and Roman poems never had formulaic titles tacked on by their authors: Their essence was the lines themselves, not some advertisement or direction, as if they were fabric softeners and not — if successful — integral to readers’ lives, with no more explanation needed than for why we played Kick the Can as children.

But of course some context for the ship is needed, after all this time. Besides Octavian’s stormy voyage home from the decisive Battle of Actium in 31 b.c. to a frighteningly undecided Roman future, there is the nature of ancient seafaring to consider. For centuries, the endangered ship had been an extended metaphor (or conceit or allegory) for political instability — though the concept of shipping could stand for a whole range of pre-Christian gloom: about commerce, civilization, human destiny, you name it. The Phoenicians, a proto-Greek people, had been the first really skillful seafarers, and they used their skill to slaughter and plunder all over the Mediterranean, as well as to trade. The technology of shipping, starting from the shipbuilder’s ax that felled a tree (perhaps containing the soul of a nymph), was a source of mythic shudders, and the many dangers and hardships of a voyage were a confirmation that, hey, we really shouldn’t be out here. Ships were the computers of the ancient world, necessary because of the inexorable push of competition, tantalizing in their offer of an easier life, but mysterious, threatening, even monstrous.

They made excellent symbols of complex, participatory states: You had to have one because your neighbors had them and (as Plato explains) would dependably use a better version than yours to come after you. (And right he was: I never read of any part of a Greek or Roman regime working better than its army.) But even the most carefully designed, best balanced ship you could come up with would prove helpless against nature at her worst — as states always proved helpless against the worst of human nature.

But Horace had a genius’s gift for proposing, “Look again.” His language about the ship is both ironic and erotic — and then simply trails off. If he is implying anything about the hostile meeting of nature and culture, it might be that he believes everything will be all right in the end. It’s easier, anyway, for someone who’s leaving society a great gift to think that.

Look at you, a ship swept to the open sea by these fresh-surging
Storms. What do you think you’re doing? With all that’s in you,
Make for the harbor. Don’t you see
Your stripped and oarless flank,

The mast maimed by the tearing wind from Africa?
The yardarm groans, the rest of you is groaning.
Such insolent water is almost
Too much for a hull that’s lost its tackle

To stand. You have no canvas left untattered, no holy images
In reserve — who would you call on, pinned by a second assault?
You are Pontic pine, the daughter
Of a famous woodland family;

You fling your name around, and your useless bloodline. Well, a painted
Stern’s not what a frightened sailor trusts. Maybe
It’s your fate to be the wind’s joke –
Still, look out, I tell you.

A little while ago, I was sick with worry, and sick of you –
Now it’s my longing and no light love you carry.
Only keep clear of the surface pouring
Between the glistening Cyclades.


— Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar at Wesleyan and Brown Universities. Her most recent book is a translation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius (Yale University Press, 2012).