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The Laureate of Everyday

By (December 1, 2011) One Comment

Classical poets have always posed a threat to pious schoolmasters, as Byron wittily observes in Don Juan:

Ovid’s a rake, as half his verses show him,
Anacreon’s morals are a still worse sample,
Catullus scarcely has a decent poem.

Byron omits Horace from his catalog of “downright rude” ancient bards, and compared to Catullus, who liked to imagine stuffing radishes up the anus of a hated rival, Horace can seem slightly too well-mannered. But I’d like to say a few words about Horace, if only to question our reigning assumption that great poetry must be disturbing and transgressive. Well yes, it often is, but great poetry can also be worldly and reflective, qualities not to be scorned merely because they issue from establishment insiders like Horace. Catullus publicly accused Julius Caesar (who responded quite forbearingly, under the circumstances) of various syphilitic perversions; Horace, a few years later, greatly appreciated the Emperor Augustus, and the Emperor appreciated him right back. In our disillusioned times we incline more to the outrageous provocations of Catullus than to the gentlemanly meditations of Horace, a point nicely made by W. H. Auden in “The Horatians”: “Enthusiastic / Youth writes you off as cold, who cannot be found on / barricades, and never shoot / either yourselves or your lovers.” But Quintus Horatius Flaccus was a lot more than a state poet for hire, and his Odes show an impressive intellect and appealing personality ranging over the hopes, fears, disappointments, and occasional satisfactions of everyday life. No radishes here. Like George Sanders in All about Eve, Horace maintains his impeccable manners even when he’s being vicious.

In some ways, Horace seems a more recognizable figure than Catullus. However powerful the appeal of Catullus’s emotional nakedness, most of us keep a lid on it. We don’t threaten sexual violence against our enemies, proclaim our most intimate joys and miseries to the world, or call the boss (let alone the emperor) a pervert. More likely, we putter around our country homes, do some gardening, drink a little too much wine, or regret having rashly sent an intemperate letter, all of which commonplace things figure in the Odes. Whatever we may like to imagine about our tempestuous private lives, we’re more Horatian than Catullan.

Some consider it the poet’s obligation to speak truth to power. Since his patron happened to be the most powerful man in the world, Horace had to take a rather different tack. In the Ode to Cleopatra, for example (ii.37), he gloats over the fallen enemy, thereby telling Augustus exactly what he wants to hear, while conceding the full measure of the queen’s mystique, thereby retaining enough creative independence to avoid the appearance of servility. In reconciling these objectives, he not only hits the necessary and expected notes of patriotic celebration but also creates a masterpiece of mixed messages and psychological complexity. The Augustan court was far too sophisticated to countenance Soviet-style propaganda, but the plain fact is that Cleopatra had outwitted the emperor; by dying, she deprived him of his anticipated Triumph, with her as the captive-in-chief. “That besotted queen, / With her vile gang of sick polluted creatures” puts the case rather bluntly (in David Ferry’s superb translation), which is why it’s so moving when the poem abruptly swerves to an apostrophe on Cleopatra’s grandeur:

    She grew more fierce as she beheld her death.
    Bravely, as if unmoved, she looked upon
    The ruins of her palace; bravely reached out,
    And touched the poison snakes, and picked them up,

    And handled them, and held them to her so
    Her heart might drink its fill of their black venom.
    In truth – no abject woman she – she scorned
    In triumph to be brought back in galleys unqueened

    Across the seas to Rome to be a show.

So it seems that this “besotted queen” who is “crazed with hope and drunk with her past successes” is at the same time desirous of “a nobler fate” and fearless of “what it is the dagger does” – a rather more appealing figure, I’d say, than her antagonist. Furthermore, I doubt I’m the only one to find the emperor’s triumph a bit chilling: “Caesar saw to it / That she was restored from madness to a state / of realistic terror.” Yes, Augustus won and Cleopatra lost, but that “state / Of realistic terror” suggests that the cold, passionless, and slightly inhuman Octavius that Shakespeare depicted in Antony and Cleopatra was spot on. Maybe the emperor felt secure enough to allow for some masterful ambiguity at his expense on the part of his court poet. At any rate, Horace got away with it.

For someone whose dad, according to Auden, “wiped his nose on his forearm,” Horace rose spectacularly high. How many people can afford to decline an emperor’s offer to serve as his secretary? Respected but not rich, and content in the modest country villa given to him by his mighty patron Maecenas, he continually reminded his wealthy and powerful friends that their money and worldly success availed them nothing in the end, that as far as the gods of the underworld were concerned, Dellius, Sestius, and the other potentates of Augustan Rome were no better or worse than the dullest plebian. To some degree this emphasis on the vanity of human wishes corresponded with Augustus’s crackdown on the decadence and depravity that have made ancient Rome so irresistible to moviemakers and historical novelists. But it’s also the true Horatian note. He enjoys nothing more than telling his friends and patrons (and us) how arbitrary it all is and how we’re all going to end up in the same charnel house of eternal darkness sooner rather than later. Sounds pretty bleak, but there’s hardly a trace of morbidity in his many iterations of what is, after all, the plain truth. That youth and beauty fade, that human life passes like the seasons, that our time is merely borrowed, and that there’s nothing to be done to forestall our annihilation – these truisms were not news in Horace’s day, probably not even in the Neolithic period, when our ancestors grew wistful after the mastodon hunt. It’s all in the telling.

One of the proper functions of poetry is to remind us of what we already know. When Horace urges us to seize the day because it may be our last, we pay attention (usually, being human, without modifying our behavior in the least) because he states the case with such a precise balance of steely stoicism and flexible epicureanism; we couldn’t bear the stoicism without the epicureanism, we wouldn’t believe the epicureanism without the stoicism. He renders us the ultimate service of helping us make friends with death.

“You so beautiful but you gonna die someday,” the great bluesmen sang. Horace puts it no less unblinkingly in Ode ii.14:

    How the years go by, alas how the years go by.
    Behaving well can do nothing at all about it.
    Wrinkles will come, old age will come, and death,
    Indomitable. Nothing at all will work. . . .

    Each one of us must leave the earth he loves
    And leave his home and leave his tender wife,
    And leave the trees he planted and took good care of.
    Only the cypress grows along those banks.

Curiously, the one person (other than the emperor) that Horace exempts from the claim of universal annihilation is himself. This might seem like a pardonable vanity, except that it’s true. I don’t say that at this moment he’s sipping some choice Falernian wine in the Elysian Fields with other lucky immortals, or that he had any such illusions about his fate. But he did get the other sort of immortality, the one that leaves for the ages a testament of transcendent art or achievement while leaving for the worms something to chew on. I’d rather have the first kind of immortality too, but I’d settle for the incorporeal kind that Horace justifiably boasts of in iii.30, the Ode that was meant to conclude the entire work, until he added an even better Book iv:

    Today I have finished a work outlasting bronze
    And the pyramids of ancient royal kings.
    The North Wind raging cannot scatter it
    Nor can the rain obliterate this work,
    Nor can the years, nor can the ages passing.
    Some part of me will live and not be given
    Over into the hands of the death goddess.
    I will go on and on, kept ever young
    By the praise in times to come for what I have done.

Though far too discrete to be arrogant, Horace erects a monument to himself before posterity even has the chance. The monument still stands — he bet on himself and won. As majestic as iii.30 is, I prefer the prideful little vignette in the Ode to the Muse Melpomene (iv.3), in which the great poet and modest man owns up to the pleasure of being a minor celebrity:

     It is entirely by
    Your favoring gift that others,
     Seeing me on the street,
    Point me out as he
     Who plays the Roman lute.

I can never quite decide whether Horace believed in Melpomene and Jupiter and all that other mythological frou-frou. I suppose all that matters is that he got some mileage out of it. For the most part the Odes seem determinedly secular. Apart from its mystery cults, Roman religion rarely strayed too far from the here and now; it certainly didn’t offer much in the way of consoling fantasies about the afterlife. Cruel and barbarous as it often was (in this point strangely resembling the great and hallowed monotheisms of today), it had a matter-of-factness about primal realities that tended to discourage zealotry. Which is why Horace could use those stories about all-too-human deities in poems of emphatic everydayness. More than anything, I think, it’s this everydayness that distinguishes him from other great poets – certainly from Catullus, whose treatment of frenzied cult worship in the narrative of the deluded acolyte Attis offers a detailed account of self-castration and psychology in extremis impossible to imagine in the work of the younger poet.

Far from being embarrassed by the unheroic circumstances of his settled life (although I wouldn’t call surviving the battle of Philippi as a young soldier exactly unheroic), Horace had the confidence and self-awareness to embrace them, if at times with quizzical humor. “His great gift was to make the commonplace notable, even luminous, not to be discarded as part of the small change of existence,” writes Donald Carne-Ross in his introduction to Ferry’s translation (The Odes of Horace, Noonday Press, 1997). Although he was obviously more ambitious and savvy than his fictive self-portraits — as a harmless old bachelor half hoping for one last fling or as an ordinary citizen proud of his distinguished friends but unashamed of his humble origins — there’s something genuinely democratic about his conception of the self. He was a poetic master and he knew it, but he kept his pride and humility in perfect equipoise. Perhaps only a writer of classical distinction could compose something as enchantingly unclassical as the conclusion to Ode i.6:

    It falls to me to make up easygoing

    Songs about such battlefields as parties,
    Epic encounters between young men and women.
    Sometimes I write them because I’ve fallen in love.
    Sometimes I write them just for the fun of it.

Horace our contemporary? Not quite. Even without the radical differences between his culture and ours, he would seem more like a man of the 1950s, an Eisenhower Republican perhaps – hardly complacent but a touch too comfortable with his position and his place. Much the same was said of Auden during the 1960s, when his intricate meters and polished diction seemed somewhat out of date. Yet giving us The World in the guise of skeptical and elegant reflections upon it, as both poets did, can never be merely anachronistic. What is anachronistic about Horace, I’m afraid, is his occasionally leering misogyny, those moments when he seems the Roman equivalent of a lounge lizard in the era of Dean Martin. (By contrast, Catullus takes for granted Lesbia’s right to be a bitch; he just wishes she would confine herself to humiliating her husband.) What’s worse, some of his most distasteful Odes happen to be masterpieces of schadenfreude. I relish the plea he addresses to Venus in iii.26, which delicately and humorously undercuts his self-presentation as a former combatant in the wars of love standing serenely above the fray:

    O goddess, queen of Cyprus,
    Queen of sunny Memphis,
    Far from the snows of Thrace,
    All I ask of you
    Is one punishing flick
    Of your uplifted lash
    To sting arrogant Chloë.

Arrogant Chloë (if she existed) might have deserved it, but we are free to imagine Horace making an ass of himself over her. The Ode to Lycia, on the other hand, excuses the poet from the indignities of aging that, logically, he would suffer no less than she:

    Where has your beauty gone, where has it gone,
    Where is your fair complexion, where, alas,
    The grace with which you walked? Lycia, you,
    Whose breath was the very breath of love itself,

    Who stole me from myself, oh, Lycia, you
    Who exulted so when beautiful Cynara died,
    Leaving your beauty unrivaled, where has it gone,
    What is there left? When Cynara died young

    The gods gave early death to her as a gift,
    And, Lycia, they gave all your years to you
    To give the young men something for them to laugh at,
    Old crow, old torch burned out, fallen away to ashes. (iv.13)

Although of a piece with the overarching themes of the fleetingness of time and the moral obligation of self-knowledge, Ode iv.13 is still a nasty piece of work. In general, however, the Odes are inclusive rather than exclusive — meaning that no one, except maybe Augustus, gets off the hook. Horace is too much a poet not to exploit the possibilities of pathos. Lydia in i.25 may be an “Old crone in the nighttime alley weeping, weeping / Over [her] faithless boyfriends,” but her plight is introduced with a poignancy that tempers the misogynistic gloating to come. It might be any of us up there against the shuttered windows:

    It happens less and less often, now, that you
    Wake up to hear the sound of the gravel thrown

    Against your shuttered windows in the night.
    It’s very seldom, now, that you can’t sleep

    The whole night through. There used to be a time
    The hinges of the door to your house moved ever so

    Easily back and forth. Not anymore.
    It’s very seldom, Lydia, now, that you

    Can hear a lover out in the dark complain:
    “O Lydia, Lydia, why are you sound asleep

    While all night long I suffer in the alley?”

Mind you, I’m speaking exclusively of the Odes. We haven’t even considered the Epistles and the Satires, but as Horace reminds us again and again, our time is limited. It may well be that, as he tells Leuconoë in i.11, “This winter that’s coming soon, / Eating away the cliffs / Along the Tyrrhenian Sea / Is going to be the final / Winter of alI.” One of the lessons Horace teaches me is that I am in fact going to die. Useful to get that learnt. Still, at least I have the consolation of knowing that in living with his flowing, meditative, and supremely unillusioned Odes, I haven’t entirely wasted such time as I have. It’s this Ode, by the way, that contains the famous words “carpe diem” — seize the day — but I think an even better Horatian maxim occurs in the preceding line: “Be mindful.”

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

One Comment »

  • Roger Lathbury says:

    There is more penetration, complexity and common sense in this succinct and profoundly right appraisal of Horace by Stephen Akey than in volumes of pedantic exegesis. Horace is exactly the poet Akey says he is (the later Auden is another suchlike, if there aren’t enough odes for you). This triumph of acuity and concision and should be the introduction to Horace for everyone who is beginning to read Horace and everyone who loves that poet.

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