Horace (65–8 b.c.) may not be the greatest lyric poet of all time, but he is certainly the greatest of the forgotten ones. He used to be the crown of the Latin curriculum when Latin pretty much was the curriculum, and the ability to “turn” a Horatian ode (song) into English was the ultimate proof of learning, taste, and discipline. What a change: Now Sylvia Plath is the only poet you’re expected to know, but really only her biography, and only if you’re a woman.
I’m not going to denounce the eclipse of Horace as the ruin of Western civilization, but I am putting on record that after I studied him, under the guidance of a great scholar (D. R. Shackleton Bailey), I became a pitiless reviewer and a manic reviser of my own work. Literature shouldn’t be merely what turns your crank, but also what takes you down a peg. Whatever her merits, Sylvia Plath isn’t going to do that.
“Lyric” means words sung “to the lyre.” The name adhered to a type of verse distinguished by its musical qualities, even when musical performance became optional or fell away altogether. As in modern songs, the moods and the subject matter of ancient lyric poetry varied considerably, from goofy satire to love in all its registers to philosophical moralizing to tender grief. The meters were as inventive as music itself can be. Though lyric settled into a number of conventions (a certain eleven-syllable line, for example, was associated with invective), the genre continued to have far more dimensions than epic, with its single type of “six-meter” line (originally chanted, not sung as melody), its formulaic repetitions, and its single purpose: story-telling (sometimes extended, as in Hesiod and Lucretius, to epic lecturing).
Six hundred years or so after the Greek poet Archilochus turned singing into writing and ritualistic entertainment into accounts of his own experiences, and a couple of decades after Catullus brashly transplanted Greek lyric meters into Latin, Horace created stanzas so exquisite that they still tease and baffle translators. Technically, an inflected language (one extensively altering the forms of its words according to their use) like Latin or Greek has very flexible word order: “The horse rides Marcus” makes perfect sense in Latin if both the nouns have the right endings. But the shape of sentences nevertheless tended to be conventional. To break the syntax open and cause its contents to fall into new yet lovely shapes took a genius.
You could also say that Horace was gifted in his temperament. This son of a former slave worked his way into literary superstardom when it first existed, during the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (a title-ish designation: The name he brought to the job was Octavian), who cultivated a small group of authors. Vergil and Horace, particularly, were human counterparts of the vast new temples and other public works, and of the lavish festivals. This array was meant to illustrate heaven’s favor toward Rome, and Rome’s right to govern the world and propagate the only viable form of civilization.
Horace, remarkably, kept his head. Aside from some rather frigid court poetry, he gently and humorously celebrates the pleasures of modest prosperity, good company, and solitude, and snorts at trendiness, pretension, and stupidity. In his poetry, routine rituals, such as sacrificing to the gods, appear bathed in contentment. Octavian was fond of him and nicknamed him “the prong that does no wrong”; whatever that’s supposed to mean, it suggests integrity — or else a public and private persona so carefully constructed as to amount to the same thing.
Very much unlike our celebrities, Horace hides behind statements about himself instead of using them for aggrandizement or confession, and that hiding is his quintessence. He writes, for example, that in the Battle of Pharsalus (48 b.c.) — in which he had in fact fought imprudently against Julius Caesar’s faction in the civil wars (Octavian turned out to be Caesar’s legal, military, and political heir) — he ran for it and “left [his] shield behind — not a good move.” At first the line sounds autobiographical, but it was probably only his distant predecessor Archilochus who admitted truly in verse to this archetypal act of cowardice. In Horace, the statement is cleverly joined to his claim that Mercury lofted him away from the battlefield. This must be a burlesque of an already semi-comic Homeric plot device: For example, Aphrodite rescues the impish poltroon Paris from near-certain death at he-man hands and dumps him into his bedroom to do with Helen the only thing he’s good for.
Horace’s words about even his friends, his lovers, his pleasures and irritations and inspirations are tinged with irony, which always at least threatens to dissolve reality into art. His father, shown minding everyone else’s business for the edification of his teenage son, reminds me not of any parent I know but of gossip presented in other literature as “vices to avoid”; at any rate, the purported direct quotations can’t be word for word unless the father spoke in hexameters on the street. Horace calls himself, settled on his smallholding, “greasy and sleek . . . a pig from Epicurus’ herd,” but that’s as good a basis for picturing him slender as for insisting he was corpulent. “Herd” meant philosophical school, and Horace did apparently lean toward Epicureanism, but “pig” was an ignorant slander of the Epicureans’ concern with physical pleasure, which they actually sought to moderate for the sake of a tranquil life. Horace is joking.
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).