Horace Essay - Critical Essays


The body of work published by Horace is rather small, reflecting the author’s belief that a poem that is tightly crafted and highly polished is superior to a work that is longer and less refined. For this reason, Horace’s models were not the ponderous Saturnian lines of Andronicus or the lengthy satires of Lucilius. Rather, Horace turned for inspiration to the Greek poetry of Archilochus, Sappho, and Alcaeus, imitating both their meters and their style in Latin verse.

Horace claims to have been the first Latin poet to have adopted Archilochus’s iambic meter and to have introduced the style of Alcaeus to a Roman audience. The influence of these Greek predecessors is already apparent in Horace’s earliest published works, the seventeen iambic (or iambic-dactylic) poems known as the Epodes. A number of the Epodes reflect a satirical approach intentionally reminiscent of Archilochus; this humorous style was to be repeated in the Satires and the Epistles, as well. Not even Horace’s patron, Maecenas, is spared, bearing the (admittedly rather gentle) brunt of Horace’s satire in Epode 3.

Even in these early and derivative works, however, something of Horace’s originality may be seen. For example, apart from his closest friends, Horace rarely mentions specific individuals in these poems. In fact, the object of Horace’s satire is frequently not an individual at all, but a general type of character or a particular human flaw. Satire 1.1 thus criticizes the human inability to be contented with one’s lot in life, Satire 1.3 ridicules intolerance, and Satire 1.9 presents Horace’s encounter with a persistent, but unnamed, bore.

In this way, Horatian satire lacks the topicality of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes or the bitter invective of the Roman satirist Juvenal. Horace’s satirical tone tends to be one of bemused ridicule of common human faults, tempered always with tolerance and the poet’s awareness of his own imperfections. To some extent, Horace’s unwillingness to criticize individuals is a reflection of the political turmoil that occurred during his youth—it would not have been prudent for a former partisan of Brutus to ridicule political figures who had sided with the victorious Octavian—but it may be attributed to Horace’s own personality. Throughout his works, Horace appears to be a genuinely amiable human being who disliked conflict and who was willing to adapt to a changing political climate.

Horace’s preference for dealing with general literary types rather than specific individuals may be seen even in his greatest literary works, the Odes. For example, the women to whom Horace addresses his odes of love tend to be imaginary female “types” rather than identifiable women of his own day. Their names are usually drawn from Greek lyric or elegiac poetry and are indicative of their appearance or character. Thus, Odes 1.5 is addressed to Pyrrha (Greek for “blonde”), Odes 1.22 speaks of Lalage (“chatterbox”), and Odes 1.23 mentions Chloe (“fresh young thing”). The presence of these type characters makes Horace’s love poetry quite different from that of his contemporary Catullus, whose passionate love affair with Lesbia (an actual Roman woman, whose real name was probably Clodia) may be charted in his poetry from first infatuation to final, bitter rejection.

Horace’s love poetry thus lacks, at times, the passion and intensity of Catullus’s lyrics. Horace’s poems tend to be highly polished and charming, even studied, rather than realistic depictions of a young man in love. Yet what Horatian love poetry may miss in spirit, it more than compensates for in the perfection of its language. Not a word is out of place in one of Horace’s Odes, and these works have no parallel in Roman poetry for the beauty of their imagery or allusions.

Horace composed 103 Odes in all, arranged in four books published at various periods of his life. Their meters were borrowed from Greek lyric poetry and are amazingly diverse. Indeed, each of the first nine poems in Horace’s first book of Odes is composed in a different meter. Each of the odes usually has an addressee (such as Augustus, Maecenas, Pyrrha, or some other person, real or imaginary) and an occasion that, at least as a literary device, prompts the composition of the ode. Within this general framework, Horace mixes traditional Greek themes such as the pleasures of love and drink with more familiar Roman concerns such as the greatness of the state, the nature of the ideal citizen, and the need to preserve one’s integrity in a chaotic society. Satirical themes, such as the notion that one’s heirs will only waste tomorrow the wealth that one hoards today, familiar from the Satires and Epistles, also sometimes appear.

One of the innovative features of the Odes is Horace’s ability to combine these traditional themes in new and unexpected ways. A drinking song, for example, may unexpectedly include patriotic themes, or a poem on the passing of the seasons may suddenly draw a parallel to the ages of a person’s life. The freshness of the Odes is attributable, in large part, to the novel way in which these poems recombine traditional literary themes.

Certain phrases introduced by Horace in the Odes have become so famous that they are commonplaces in the Western literary tradition. These phrases include nil desperandum (“never despair”), carpe diem (usually translated as “seize the day,” but a more accurate rendering would be “pluck the day like a flower”), integer vitae (“the man whose life is pure”), auream mediocritatem (“golden moderation”) and “Eheu fugaces” (“Alas the fleeing” years slip away).

Satire 1.9

First published: 35 b.c.e. (collected in Satires, 35 b.c.e.; English translation, 1567)

Type of work: Poem

While strolling along the Sacred Way, Horace encounters a bore, who persists in accompanying him despite his hints that he would prefer to be alone.

Horace’s description in Satire 1.9 of his encounter with a bore is an excellent example of his satirical style. The bore is never named, and though several critics have attempted to identify him with the poet Sextus Propertius, Horace provides no clues as to his identity. The reason is that Horace does not wish to create a poem filled with invective against a particular individual. Rather, Horace’s intention is to satirize dullness in general. Humor in the poem is derived from the reader’s identification with Horace’s predicament. Everyone can recall an incident in which an annoying individual would not leave despite numerous hints. In this way, Horace criticizes the behavior of the bore and of others like him rather than attacking the person by name.

During their (rather one-sided) conversation, the bore reveals that he is a poet and is hoping that Horace will introduce him to Gaius Maecenas (Horace’s wealthy patron). In so doing, the bore alienates Horace still further by completely misunderstanding the relationship that poets such as Horace have with their patron, by stressing his ability to write quickly...

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