Horace (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Horace 65 b.c.-8 b.c.

(Full name Quintus Horatius Flaccus) Roman satirist, lyric poet, literary critic, and essayist. See also See also Horace Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism.

Most well known for his Odes, Epistles, Epodes, and Satires, Horace is thought to be one of the most accomplished lyric poets to have written in Latin. His poetry is important because it provides a glimpse of peacetime in the Roman empire after years of civil war. Horace's poetry is known for its wit, and his Ars Poetica became a style manual for poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was required reading in British schools.

Biographical Information

Horace was born Quintus Horatius Flaccus in southern Italy in 65 b.c., the son of a freedman. Thanks to a father who recognized his talent early, Horace was educated in Rome, studying under Orbilius (a grammarian), and later in Athens where he encountered the Greek poets who profoundly influenced his work.

On the heels of Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 b.c., Horace joined Brutus's forces, traveling to Asia Minor and rising to the rank of tribune despite his humble background. His military exploits were short-lived, however, and he returned to Rome after Brutus's defeat at Philippi in November 42 b.c. Although the move to Rome garnered him a position in the Roman treasury, this was more importantly the time during which he began to write poetry.

The poetry written during this period impressed Virgil and other Roman poets, who eventually introduced Horace to Maecenas, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Between 35 and 30 b.c., Maecenas is thought to have given Horace a small estate in the Sabine Hills. The area is often mentioned in his poetry and he remained there (and in Rome) until his death in November 8 b.c.

Major Works

Horace's life, and hence his works, cover a crucial historical period; his poetry reflects the changing conditions and moods of those times and their events. These works include Satires Books I and II (c. 35 and 30 b.c.), Epodes (c. 29 b.c.), Odes Book I-III and Book IV (c. 23 and 13 b.c.), Epistles Books I and II (c. 20 and 15 b.c.), the Ars Poetica (c. 19 b.c.), and Carmen Saeculare (c. 17 b.c.).

The Odes and Epodes are most indebted to the Greek poets, especially those of the sixth and seventh centuries and those of the Hellenistic period, including Archilochus, Hipponax, Alcaeus, and Pindar. The Odes Books I-III include eighty-eight poems in Greek meter and concern philosophy and personal relationships.

The Epistles, excellent examples of Horace's casual, conversational approach, deal with the poet's concerns with respect to living a moral life. Epistles Book I includes twenty poems and gives the reader a window on Horace the man. One sees the change—a more melancholy mood—that took hold of the poet after the Satires. He is more concerned with finding answers to personal spiritual and moral questions and the ethos is decidedly philosophical. Epistles Book II, although it includes only three poems, is more intricate than Epistles Book I. It is a montage of examples, anecdotes, and vivid imagery that further the reader's understanding of the poet as a man.

The Ars Poetica is perhaps the poet's best-known work. Structured as a conversational collection of thoughts on a number of literary matters, it became a significant influence on a diverse group of authors including Ben Johnson, Dante, St. Augustine, and Alexander Pope.

Critical Reception

Horace's work has gone through periods of interest and neglect. During his lifetime his work was honored and studied at academies, followed by a period of critical neglect and a rebirth of interest during the Renaissance and continuing through the nineteenth century. Current interest unfortunately lies primarily in the academic and scholarly communities, a result of the decrease in Latin courses offered in recent times.

Critical study of Horace has included Horace's use of Greek meter, Horace as a man, comparisons of his work with other poets, studies of his influence on other poets and the poets who influenced his work, his ability to interpret the events of his times, and specific, detailed analysis of his style and technique.

Thayer and Showerman discuss Horace the man—the information we can glean from his writings, his skill at interpreting and reporting the historical events of his life, his commonsense philosophy, and his skill as an observer. Thayer goes on to name several poets who have been influenced by Horace, including Browning, Tennyson, Keats, and Shelley but cautions that “there is no one who is to English letters what Horace is to Roman—nay, to all letters. He is unlike all others.” As a further window on Horace's life, Bowditch investigates the socioeconomic conditions that influenced Horace's work: “social relations of exchange provided more than a context for the production of verse; they also informed a shared system of rhetorical figures through which poets negotiated both their own interests and those of their varied audiences.”

Herrick and Russell address the Ars Poetica. Herrick's basis is that the growth of formal literary criticism began with the principles of Horace's Ars Poetica and Aristotle's Poetics. The author traces translations of these works into other languages and provides evidence of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discussions of these principles and their significant influence on writers of these times. Russell offers an in-depth study of the Ars as “the last of the great innovator's creations.”

Reckford discusses the “Trip to Brunisium,” from the Satires, focusing on three aspects: “the theme of amicitia, private and public; the agon, or insult-match between Sarmentus the scurra and Messius Cicurrus; and the ‘wet dream’ and ‘failed miracle’ sequences toward the end.” Reckford sets the stage for his analysis by developing a hypothetical involving Horace's creation, first reading to friends, and first publication of this work.

In the area of analysis, West offers some basic principles for reading Horace, and is particularly concerned with the need to accurately translate the Latin and that the works be viewed with an open mind, unencumbered by prejudices of the reader's time: “So modern tastes do not like blood running in water. This is neither here nor there. What is important is that the Romans were familiar with the notion of sacrificing animals into fountains. … The critic must shed his local prejudices.” West also provides analysis of the Odes, focusing on certain poetic techniques. Williams, Santirocco, and Pucci also provide insight on the Odes. Williams offers ideas as to the Greek poets who may have influenced Horace and discusses the hymn and symposium poem forms and the themes of this collection. Santirocco considers the arrangement of the poems of Odes Books I-III, and Pucci examines Augustine's allusion to Odes 1.3 in his Confessions 4.6 and how the two texts can be compared with respect to the dilemma of writing. Ancona discusses the use of the temporal adverb and Horace's manipulation of time in Odes 1.25, 2.5, and 3.7. Lee considers the use and arrangement of words in Horace's works including the oxymoron, hendiadys, and word association.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Satires Book I c. 35 b.c.

Satires Book II c. 30 b.c.

Epodes c. 29 b.c.

Odes Books I-III c. 23 b.c.

Epistles Book I c. 20 b.c.

Ars Poetica [On the Art of Poetry] c. 19 b.c.

Carmen Saeculare [Secular Hymn] c. 17 b.c.

Epistles Book II c. 15 b.c.

Odes Book IV c. 13 b.c.

Odes and Epodes of Horace (translated by Joseph P. Clancy) 1960

Satires and Epistles of Horace (translated by Smith Palmer Bovie) 1962

Third Book of Horace's Odes (translated by Gordon Williams) 1969

The Odes and Epodes (translated by C. E Bennett) 1991

Satires I (translated by P. Michael Brown) 1993

Epodes (translated by David Mankin) 1995

The Odes of Horace (translated by David Ferry) 1998

The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace (translated by Sidney Alexander) 1999

The Epistles of Horace (translated by David Ferry) 2001

The Satires of Horace (translated by William Matthews) 2002

Mary Rebecca Thayer (essay date 1916)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Thayer, Mary Rebecca. Introduction to The Influence of Horace on the Chief English Poets of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 11-51. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1916.

[In the following essay, Thayer begins by discussing what Horace shares of himself and his work through his poetry, and how he was viewed by his contemporaries. She goes on to suggest poets with whom Horace can reasonably be compared, choosing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, and Browning among others.]

In order properly to discuss the influence of one writer upon another, it is necessary to determine as nearly as may be for what each of them stands; for the measure of real influence is,...

(The entire section is 16831 words.)

Marvin T. Herrick (essay date 1946)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Herrick, Marvin T. Introduction to The Fusion of Horatian and Aristotelian Literary Criticism, 1531-1555, pp. 1-6. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1946.

[In the following essay, Herrick states that literary criticism in western Europe is based on the principles of Horace and Aristotle, respectively from the Ars Poetica and Poetics, citing commentaries on the Ars Poetica from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.]

It is well known that formal literary criticism in western Europe stems from Horace and Aristotle. As Spingarn and others have pointed out, the beginnings of formal criticism in Italy, France, and England fairly coincided...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)

David West (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: West, David. “Some General Principles.” In Reading Horace, pp. 125-41. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, West proposes some general principles for the reading of Horace, including the need to be as true as possible to the Latin in translation and the need to view the text within the framework in which it was written, discarding contemporary prejudices.]

‘Then farewell, Horace, whom I hated so,
Not for thy faults, but mine: It is a curse
To understand, not feel, thy lyric flow,
To comprehend, but never love thy verse.’

Lord Byron Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

In analysing these few...

(The entire section is 4617 words.)

M. Owen Lee (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, M. Owen. “Words.” In Word, Sound, and Image in the Odes of Horace, pp. 7-28. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Lee examines Horace's use and arrangement of words, including the use of the transferred epithet, hendiadys, word association, and oxymoron.]

“Beauty of form has made him immortal, and fully half that beauty lies in the order of his words.”

—Gilbert Murray

Poems Are Made from words. But not quite as walls are made from bricks. Bricks are durable and insensitive. They are, moreover, made for building. But words—some simply do...

(The entire section is 6137 words.)

D. A. Russell (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, D. A. “Ars Poetica.” In Horace, edited by C. D. N. Costa, pp. 113-34. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

[In the following essay, Russell provides an in-depth examination of the Ars Poetica, Horace's poem on poetics.]

Quintilian1 alludes to this poem as ars poetica or liber de arte poetica. The manuscript tradition, instead of associating it with the Epistles, gives it a separate place, in company with the Odes and Epodes. Its differences from the Epistles are in fact more significant for its understanding than its resemblances to them. It is very much ‘a treatise with...

(The entire section is 8248 words.)

David West (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: West, David. “Horace's Poetic Technique in the Odes.” In Horace, edited by C. D. N. Costa, pp. 29-58. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

[In the following essay, West examines the Odes, focusing on a particular, frequently used poetic technique and giving examples to clarify the reader's understanding of the passages where it is used.]

The English-reading student in 1973 is well-placed to study Horace's poetic technique. He might start with the work of Gordon Williams,1 particularly helpful on Horace's originality and the organization of the Odes. He should then move to Nisbet and Hubbard's2 massive commentary...

(The entire section is 10277 words.)

Matthew S. Santirocco (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Santirocco, Matthew S. “Horace's Odes and the Ancient Poetry Book.” In Unity and Design in Horace's “Odes,” pp. 3-13. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986.

[In the following essay, Santirocco considers the arrangement of the poetry in the Odes, Books I through III.]


One of the most important achievements of recent Horatian criticism has been the rediscovery of structure—not the mechanical dissection of poems into component parts, but an awareness of how form is inseparable from content and how unity proceeds from design.1 Although the individual ode has by now received sufficient...

(The entire section is 7612 words.)

Joseph Pucci (essay date fall 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pucci, Joseph. “The Dilemma of Writing: Augustine, Confessions 4.6 and Horace, Odes 1.3.1” In Arethusa 24, no. 2 (fall 1991): 257-79.

[In the following essay, Pucci considers Augustine's allusion to Horace's Odes 1.3 in his Confessions 4.6, beginning with a reading of Odes 1.3, a comparison with Augustine, and an examination of how the texts illustrate the dilemma of writing.]

Mirabar enim ceteros mortales vivere, quia ille, quem quasi non moriturum dilexeram, mortuus erat, et me magis quia ille alter eram, vivere illo mortuo mirabar. Bene quidam dixit de amico suo: dimidium animae...

(The entire section is 9008 words.)

Ronnie Ancona (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ancona, Ronnie. ‘“The Temporal Adverb.” In Time and the Erotic in Horace's “Odes,” pp. 22-43. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Ancona examines the use of the temporal adverb in Odes 1.25, 2.5, and 3.7, and the manner in which Horace causes time to control the erotic situations in his work.]

My discussion of the temporality of love begins at the level of the word, specifically, the temporal adverb. In each of the following poems—Odes 1.25, Odes 2.5, and Odes 3.7—there is a key temporal adverb that plays a central role in establishing the dominance of the theme of temporality in the...

(The entire section is 11468 words.)

Kenneth J. Reckford (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Reckford, Kenneth J. “Only a Wet Dream? Hope and Skepticism in Horace, Satire 1.5.” American Journal of Philology 120, no. 4 (1999): 525-54.

[In the following essay, Reckford considers Horace's Satires 1.5, the “Trip to Brundisium,” focusing on the theme of amicitia, the agon between Sarmentus and Messius Cicirrus, and the “failed miracle sequences” at the end of the work.]

Long enjoyed as an entertainment piece, Horace's “Trip to Brundisium” has continued to baffle its readers by recounting trivialities while ignoring politics. A brief, tactful hint at great affairs is quickly abandoned:

huc venturus...

(The entire section is 11136 words.)

Phebe Lowell Bowditch (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bowditch, Phebe Lowell. “Gladiatorial Imagery: The Rhetoric of Expenditure.” In Horace and the Gift Economy of Patronage, pp. 1-29. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Bowditch draws on principles of cultural anthropology to propose that Horace functioned in a “gift economy,” and that to some extent his poetry allowed him to resist the patronage that supported him]

“The gladiator: crude, loathsome, doomed, lost (importunus, obscaenus, damnatus, perditus) was, throughout the Roman tradition, a man utterly debased by fortune, a slave, a man altogether without worth and dignity (dignitas), almost without...

(The entire section is 14819 words.)

Randall L. B. McNeill (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McNeill, Randall L. B. “The Horaces of Horace.” In Horace: Image, Identity, and Audience, pp. 1-9. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, McNeill examines the history of critical debate on Horace, the man. Although there has been considerable contention in the past with respect to whether the Horace in the poetry is or is not the result of careful self-presentation, McNeill (and other critics cited by him) now focus on the depictions in the poetry rather than the poet.]

Although many ancient authors have suffered through long periods of disfavor and neglect, their literary stars rising and falling according to the...

(The entire section is 5479 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Sedgwick, Henry Dwight. Horace: A Biography. New York: Russell and Russell, 1947, 182 p.

Biography of “the poet of civilized man.”


Bonavia-Hunt, Noel A. Horace the Minstrel: A Practical and Aesthetic Study of His Aeolic Verse. Kineton, Great Britain: Roundwood Press, 1991, 268 p.

Bonavia-Hunt proposes that Horace was an accomplished musician who played the lyre, that the instrument's qualities affected his work, and that he wrote at least some of his verses to be sung rather than read.

Commager, Steele. “The World of Nature: Time and Change.”...

(The entire section is 529 words.)