Horace: Contribution as Roman Poet in Latin Literature

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      In that great turning-point of the world's history marked by the establishment of the Roman Empire, the position of Virgil is so unique because he looks almost equally forwards and backwards. His attitude towards his own age is that of one who was in it rather than of it. On the one hand is his intense feeling for antiquity, based on and reinforced by that immense antiquarian knowledge which made him so dear to commentators, and which renders some of his work so difficult to appreciate from our mere want of information; on the other, is that perpetual brooding over futurity which made him, within a comparatively short time after his death, regarded as a prophet and his works as in some sense oracular. The Sortes Vergilianae, if we may believe the confused gossip of the Augustan History, were almost a State institution, while rationalism was still the State creed in ordinary matters. Thus, while, in a way, he represented and, as it were, gave voice to the Rome of Augustus, he did so in a transcendental manner; the Rome which he represents, whether as city or empire, being less a fact than an idea, and already strongly tinged with that mysticism which we regard as essentially mediaeval, and which culminated later without any violent breach of continuity in the conception of a spiritual Rome which was a kingdom of God on earth, and of which the Empire and the Papacy were only two imperfect and mutually complementary phases; quella Roma onde Cristo è Romano, as it was expressed by Dante with his characteristic width and precision.

To this mystical temper the whole mind and art of Virgil's great contemporary stands in the most pointed contrast. More than almost any other poet of equal eminence, Horace lived in the present and actual world; it is only when he turns aside from it that he loses himself. Certain external similarities of method there are between them—above all, in that mastery of verbal technique which made the Latin language something new in the hands of both. Both were laborious and indefatigable artists, and in their earlier acquaintanceship, at all events, were close personal friends. But the five years' difference in their ages represents a much more important interval in their poetical development.
Horace: as Roman Poet

      To this mystical temper the whole mind and art of Virgil's great contemporary stands in the most pointed contrast. More than almost any other poet of equal eminence, Horace lived in the present and actual world; it is only when he turns aside from it that he loses himself. Certain external similarities of method there are between them—above all, in that mastery of verbal technique which made the Latin language something new in the hands of both. Both were laborious and indefatigable artists, and in their earlier acquaintanceship, at all events, were close personal friends. But the five years' difference in their ages represents a much more important interval in their poetical development.

      The earlier work of Horace, in the years when he was intimate with Virgil, is that which least shows the real man or the real poet; it was not till Virgil, sunk in his Aeneid, and living in a somewhat melancholy retirement far away from Rome, was within a few years of his death, that Horace, amid the gaiety and vivid life of the capital, found his true scope, and produced the work that has made him immortal.

      Yet the earlier circumstances of the two poets' lives had been not unlike. Like Virgil, Horace sprang from the ranks of the provincial lower middle class, in whom the virtues of industry, frugality, and sense were generally accompanied by little grace or geniality. But he was exceptionally fortunate in his father. This excellent man, who is always spoken of by his son with a deep respect and affection, was a freedman of Venusia in Southern Italy, who had acquired a small estate by his economies as a collector of taxes in the neighbourhood. Horace must have shown some unusual promise as a boy; yet, according to his own account, it was less from this motive than from a disinterested belief in the value of education that his father resolved to give him, at whatever personal sacrifice, every advantage that was enjoyed by the children of the highest social class. The boy was taken to Rome about the age of twelve—Virgil, a youth of seventeen, came there from Milan about the same time—and given the best education that the capital could provide. Nor did he stop there; at eighteen he proceeded to Athens, the most celebrated university then existing, to spend several years in completing his studies in literature and philosophy. While he was there the assassination of Caesar took place, and the Civil war broke out. Marcus Brutus occupied Macedonia, and swept Greece for recruits. The scarcity of Roman officers was so great in the newly levied legions that the young student, a boy of barely twenty-one, with no birth or connection, no experience, and no military or organising ability, was not only accepted with eagerness, but at once given a high commission. He served in the Republican army till Philippi, apparently without any flagrant discredit; after the defeat, like many of his companions, he gave up the idea of further resistance, and made the best of his way back to Italy. He found his little estate forfeited, but he was not so important a person that he had to fear proscription, and with the strong common sense which he had already developed, he bought or begged himself a small post in the civil service which just enabled him to live. Three years later he was introduced by Virgil to Maecenas, and his uninterrupted prosperity began.

      Did we know more of the history of Horace's life in the interval between his leaving the university and his becoming one of the circle of recognised Augustan poets, much in his poetical development might be less perplexing to us. The effect of these years was apparently to throw him back, to arrest or thwart what would have been his natural growth. No doubt he was one of the men who (like Caesar or Cromwell in other fields of action) develop late; but something more than this seems needed to account for the extraordinary weakness and badness of his first volume of lyrical pieces, published by him when he was thirty-five. In the first book of the Satires, produced about five years earlier, he had shown much of his admirable later qualities—humour, sense, urbanity, perception—but all strangely mingled with a vein of artistic vulgarity (the worst perhaps of all vulgarities) which is totally absent from his matured writing. It is not merely that in this earlier work he is often deliberately coarse—that was a literary tradition, from which it would require more than ordinary originality to break free—but that he again and again allows himself to fall into such absolute flatness as can only be excused on the theory that his artistic sense had been checked or crippled in its growth, and here and there disappeared in his nature altogether. How elaborate and severe the self-education must have been which he undertook and carried through may be guessed from the vast interval that separates the spirit and workmanship of the Odes from that of the Epodes, and can partly be traced step by step in the autobiographic passages of the second book of Satires and the later Epistles. We are ignorant in what circumstances or under what pressure the Epodes were published; it is a plausible conjecture that their faults were just such as would meet the approbation of Maecenas, on whose favour Horace was at the time almost wholly dependent; and Horace may himself have been glad to get rid, as it were, of his own bad immature work by committing it to publicity. The celebrated passage in Keats' preface to Endymion, where he gives his reasons for publishing a poem of whose weakness and faultiness he was himself acutely conscious, is of very wide application; and it is easy to believe that, after the publication of the Epodes, Horace could turn with an easier and less embarrassed mind to the composition of the Odes.

      Meanwhile he was content to be known as a writer of satire, one whose wish it was to bring up to an Augustan polish the literary form already carried to a high degree of success by Lucilius. The second book of Satires was published not long after the Epodes. It shows in every way an enormous advance over the first. He has shaken himself free from the imitation of Lucilius, which alternates in the earliest satires with a rather bitter and self-conscious depreciation of the work of the older poet and his successors. The prosperous turn Horace's own life had taken was ripening him fast, and undoing the bad effects of earlier years. We have passed for good out of the society of Rupilius Rex and Canidia. At one time Horace must have run the risk of turning out a sort of ineffectual François Villon; this, too, is over, and his earlier education bears fruit in a temper of remarkable and delicate gifts.

      This second book of Satires marks in one way the culmination of Horace's powers. The brilliance of the first years of the Empire stimulated the social aptitude and dramatic perception of a poet who lived in the heart of Rome, already free from fear or ambition, but as yet untouched by the melancholy temper which grew on him in later years. He employs the semi-dramatic form of easy dialogue throughout the book with extraordinary lightness and skill. The familiar hexameter, which Lucilius had left still cumbrous and verbose, is like wax in his hands; his perfection in this use of the metre is as complete as that of Virgil in the stately and serious manner. And behind this accomplished literary method lies an unequalled perception of common human nature, a rich vein of serious and quiet humour, and a power of language the more remarkable that it is so unassuming, and always seems as it were to say the right thing by accident. With the free growth of his natural humour he has attained a power of self-appreciation which is unerring. The Satires are full from end to end of himself and his own affairs; but the name of egoism cannot be applied to any self-revelation or self-criticism which is so just and so certain. From the opening lines of the first satire, where he notes the faults of his own earlier work, to the last line of the book, with its Parthian shot at Canidia and the jeunesse orageuse that he had so long left behind, there is not a page which is not full of that self-reference which, in its truth and tact, constantly passes beyond itself and holds up the mirror to universal human nature. In reading the Satires we all read our own minds and hearts.

      Nearly ten years elapsed between the publication of the second book of the Satires and that of the first book of the Epistles. Horace had passed meanwhile into later middle life. He had in great measure retired from society, and lived more and more in the quietness of his little estate among the Sabine hills. Life was still full of vivid interest; but books were more than ever a second world to him, and, like Virgil, he was returning with a perpetually increasing absorption to the Greek philosophies, which had been the earliest passion of his youth. Years had brought the philosophic mind; the more so that these years had been filled with the labour of the Odes, a work of the highest and most intricate effort, and involving the constant study of the masterpieces of Greek thought and art. The "monument more imperishable than bronze" had now been completed; its results are marked in the Epistles by a new and admirable maturity and refinement. Good sense, good feeling, good taste—these qualities, latent from the first in Horace, have obtained a final mastery over the coarser strain with which they had at first been mingled; and in their shadow now appear glimpses of an inner nature even more rare, from which only now and then he lifts the veil with a sort of delicate self-depreciation, in an occasional line of sonorous rhythm, or in some light touch by which he gives a glimpse into a more magical view of life and nature: the earliest swallow of spring on the coast, the mellow autumn sunshine on a Sabine coppice, the everlasting sound of a talking brook; or, again, the unforgettable phrases, the fallentis semita vitae, or quod petis hic est, or ire tamen restat, that have, to so many minds in so many ages, been key-words to the whole of life.

      It is in the Epistles that Horace reveals himself most intimately, and perhaps with the most subtle charm. But the great work of his life, for posterity as well as for his own age, was the three books of Odes which were published by him in 23 B.C., at the age of forty-two, and represent the sustained effort of about ten years. This collection of eighty-eight lyrics was at once taken to the heart of the world. Before a volume of which every other line is as familiar as a proverb, which embodies in a quintessential form that imperishable delight of literature to which the great words of Cicero already quoted[7] give such beautiful expression, whose phrases are on all men's lips as those of hardly any other ancient author have been, criticism is almost silenced. In the brief and graceful epilogue, Horace claims for himself, with no uncertainty and with no arrogance, such eternity as earth can give. The claim was completely just. The school-book of the European world, the Odes have been no less for nineteen centuries the companions of mature years and the delight of age—adolescentiam agunt, senectutem oblectant, may be said of them with as much truth as ever now. Yet no analysis will explain their indefinable charm. If the so-called "lyrical cry" be of the essence of a true lyric, they are not true lyrics at all. Few of them are free from a marked artificiality, an almost rigid adherence to canon. Their range of thought is not great; their range of feeling is studiously narrow. Beside the air and fire of a lyric of Catullus, an ode of Horace for the moment grows pale and heavy, cineris specie decoloratur. Beside one of the pathetic half-lines of Virgil, with their broken gleams and murmurs as of another world, a Horatian phrase loses lustre and sound. Yet Horace appeals to a tenfold larger audience than Catullus—to a larger audience, it may even be said, than Virgil. Nor is he a poets' poet: the refined and exquisite technique of the Odes may be only appreciable by a trained artist in language; but it is the untrained mind, on whom other art falls flat, that the art of Horace, by some unique penetrative power, kindles and quickens. His own phrase of "golden mediocrity" expresses with some truth the paradox of his poetry; in no other poet, ancient or modern, has such studied and unintermitted mediocrity been wrought in pure gold. By some tact or instinct—the "felicity," which is half of the famous phrase in which he is characterised by Petronius—he realised that, limited as his own range of emotion was, that of mankind at large was still more so, and that the cardinal matter was to strike in the centre. Wherever he finds himself on the edge of the range in which his touch is certain, he draws back with a smile; and so his concentrated effect, within his limited but central field, is unsurpassed, and perhaps unequalled.

      This may partly explain how it was that with Horace the Latin lyric stops dead. His success was so immediate and so immense that it fixed the limit, so to speak, for future poets within the confined range which he had chosen to adopt; and that range he had filled so perfectly that no room was left for anything but imitation on the one hand, or, on the other, such a painful avoidance of imitation as would be equally disastrous in its results. With the principal lyric metres, too, the sapphic and alcaic, he had done what Virgil had done with the dactylic hexameter, carried them to the highest point of which the foreign Latin tongue was capable. They were naturalised, but remained sterile. When at last Latin lyric poetry took a new development, it was by starting afresh from a wholly different point, and by a reversion to types which, for the culture of the early imperial age, were obsolete and almost non-existent.

      The phrase, verbis felicissime audax, used of Horace as a lyric poet by Quintilian, expresses, with something less than that fine critic's usual accuracy, another quality which goes far to make the merit of the Odes. Horace's use of words is, indeed, remarkably dexterous; but less so from happy daring than from the tact which perpetually poises and balances words, and counts no pains lost to find the word that is exactly right. His audacities—if one cares to call them so—in the use of epithet, in Greek constructions (which he uses rather more freely than any other Latin poet), and in allusive turns of phrase, are all carefully calculated and precisely measured. His unique power of compression is not that of the poet who suddenly flashes out in a golden phrase, but more akin to the art of the distiller who imprisons an essence, or the gem- engraver working by minute touches on a fragment of translucent stone. With very great resources of language at his disposal, he uses them with singular and scrupulous frugality; in his measured epithets, his curious fondness for a number of very simple and abstract words, and the studious simplicity of effect in his most elaborately designed lyrics, he reminds one of the method of Greek has-reliefs, or, still more (after allowing for all the difference made by religious feeling), of the sculptured work of Mino of Fiesole, with its pale colours and carefully ordered outlines. Phrases of ordinary prose, which he uses freely, do not, as in Virgil's hands, turn into poetry by his mere use of them; they give rather than receive dignity in his verses, and only in a few rare instances, like the stately Motum ex Metello consule civicum, are they completely fused into the structure of the poem. So, too, his vivid and clearly-cut descriptions of nature in single lines and phrases stand out by themselves like golden tesserae in a mosaic, each distinct in a glittering atmosphere—qua tumidus rigat arva Nilus; opacam porticus excipiebat Arcton; nec prata canis albicant pruinis—a hundred phrases like these, all exquisitely turned, and all with the same effect of detachment, which makes them akin to sculpture, rather than painting or music. Virgil, as we learn from an interesting fragment of biography, wrote his first drafts swiftly and copiously, and wrought them down by long labour into their final structure; with Horace we may rather imagine that words came to the surface slowly and one by one, and that the Odes grew like the deposit, cell by cell, of the honeycomb to which, in a later poem, he compares his own work. In some passages where the Odes flag, it seems as though material had failed him before the poem was finished, and he had filled in the gaps, not as he wished, but as he could, yet always with the same deliberate gravity of workmanship.

      Horatii curiosa felicitas—this, one of the earliest criticisms made on the Odes, remains the phrase which most completely describes their value. Such minute elaboration, on so narrow a range of subject, and within such confined limits of thought and feeling, could only be redeemed from dulness by the perpetual felicity—something between luck and skill—that was Horace's secret. How far it was happy chance, how far deliberately aimed at and attained, is a question which brings us before one of the insoluble problems of art; we may remind ourselves that, in the words of the Greek dramatist Agathon, which Aristotle was so fond of quoting, skill and chance in all art cling close to one another. "Safe in his golden mediocrity," to use the words of his own counsel to Licinius, Horace has somehow or another taken deep hold of the mind, and even the imagination, of mankind. This very mediocrity, so fine, so chastened, so certain, is in truth as inimitable as any other great artistic quality; we must fall back on the word genius, and remember that genius does not confine itself within the borders of any theory, but works its own will.

      With the publication of the three books of the Odes, and the first book of the Epistles, Horace's finest and maturest work was complete. In the twelve years of his life which were still to run he published but little, nor is there any reason to suppose that he wrote more than he published. In 17 B.C., he composed, by special command, an ode to be sung at the celebration of the Secular Games. The task was one in which he was much hampered by a stringent religious convention, and the result is interesting, but not very happy. We may admire the skill with which formularies of the national worship are moulded into the sapphic stanza, and prescribed language, hardly, if at all, removed from prose, is made to run in stately, though stiff and monotonous, verse; but our admiration is of the ingenuity, not of the poetry. The Jubilee Ode written by Lord Tennyson is curiously like the Carmen Seculare in its metrical ingenuities, and in the way in which the unmistakeable personal note of style sounds through its heavy and formal movement.

      Four years later a fourth book of Odes was published, the greater part of which consists of poems less distinctly official than the Secular Hymn, but written with reference to public affairs by the direct command of the Emperor, some in celebration of the victories of Drusus and Tiberius on the north-eastern frontier, and others in more general praise of the peace and external prosperity established throughout Italy under the new government. Together with these official pieces he included some others: an early sketch for the Carmen Seculare, a curious fragment of literary criticism in the form of an ode addressed to one of the young aristocrats who followed the fashion of the Augustan age in studying and writing poetry, and eight pieces of the same kind as his earlier odes, written at various times within the ten years which had now passed since the publication of the first three books. An introductory poem, of graceful but half-ironical lamentation over the passing of youth, seems placed at the head of the little collection in studious depreciation of its importance. Had it not been for the necessity of publishing the official odes, it is probable enough that Horace would have left these few later lyrics ungathered. They show the same care and finish in workmanship as the rest, but there is a certain loss of brilliance; except one ode of mellow and refined beauty, the famous Diffugere nives, they hardly reach the old level. The creative impulse in Horace had never been very powerful or copious; with growing years he became less interested in the achievement of literary artifice, and turned more completely to his other great field, the criticism of life and literature. To the concluding years of his life belong the three delightful essays in verse which complete the list of his works. Two of these, which are placed together as a second book of Epistles, seem to have been published at about the same time as the fourth book of the Odes. The first, addressed to the Emperor, contains the most matured and complete expression of his views on Latin poetry, and is in great measure a vindication of the poetry of his own age against the school which, partly from literary and partly from political motives, persisted in giving a preference to that of the earlier Republic. In the second, inscribed to one of his younger friends belonging to the circle of Tiberius, he reviews his own life as one who was now done with literature and literary fame, and was giving himself up to the pursuit of wisdom. The melancholy of temperament and advancing age is subtly interwoven in his final words with the urbane humour and strong sense that had been his companions through life:—

Lusisti satis, edisti satis atque bibisti, Tempus abire tibi est, ne potum largius acquo Rideat et pulset lasciva decentius aetas.

      A new generation, clever, audacious, and corrupt, had silently been growing up under the Empire. Ovid was thirty, and had published his Amores. The death of Virgil had left the field of serious poetry to little men. The younger race had learned only too well the lesson of minute care and formal polish so elaborately taught them by the earlier Augustan poets, and had caught the ear of the town with work of superficial but, for the time, captivating brilliance. Gloom was already beginning to gather round the Imperial household; the influence of Maecenas, the great support of letters for the last twenty years, was fast on the wane. In the words just quoted, with their half-sad and half- mocking echo of the famous passage of Lucretius, Horace bids farewell to poetry.

      But literary criticism, in which he had so fine a taste, and on which he was a recognised authority, continued to interest him; and the more seriously minded of the younger poets turned to him for advice, which he was always willing to give. The Epistle to the Pisos, known more generally under the name of the Art of Poetry, seems to have been composed at intervals during these later years, and was, perhaps, not published till after his death in the year 8 B.C. It is a discussion of dramatic poetry, largely based on Greek textbooks, but full of Horace's own experience and of his own good sense. Young aspirants to poetical fame regularly began with tragedies; and Horace, accepting this as an actual fact, discusses the rules of tragedy with as much gravity as if he were dealing with some really living and national form of poetry. This discursive and fragmentary essay was taken in later ages as an authoritative treatise; and the views expressed by Horace on a form of poetical art with which he had little practical acquaintance had, at the revival of literature, and even down to last century, an immense influence over the structure and development of the drama. Just as modern comedy based itself on imitation of Plautus and Terence, and as the earliest attempts at tragedy followed haltingly in the steps of Seneca, so as regards the theory of both, Horace, and not the Greeks, was the guiding influence.

      Among the many amazing achievements of the Greek genius in the field of human thought were a lyrical poetry of unexampled beauty, a refined critical faculty, and, later than the great thinkers and outside of the strict schools, a temperate philosophy of life such as we see afterwards in the beautiful personality of Plutarch. In all these three Horace interpreted Greece to the world, while adding that peculiarly Roman urbanity—the spirit at once of the grown man as distinguished from children, of the man of the world, and of the gentleman—which up till now has been a dominant ideal over the thought and life of Europe.

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