The Poetry of Horace Critical Essays


Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Born two years before the Emperor Augustus, Horace, the son of a freed slave, was sent to Rome for the education he could not get in Venusia, Italy. In 44 b.c.e. he went to Athens for further study. There he met Brutus, after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and was appointed an officer in the republican army routed at Philippi in 42 b.c.e. Back in Rome, disillusioned, with his possessions confiscated and his father dead, he began verse writing. Vergil, attracted by his poetry, presented the country boy to Augustus’ cultured minister, Maecenas.

Horace had the good taste to destroy his early angry poetry. His first published poems were his SATIRES in 35 b.c.e., followed by his EPODES. Then, still more mellow, he published three books of ODES in 23 b.c.e.. During the last years of his life, Horace wrote his EPISTLES. In one ode, III, xvii, having heard of Maecenas’ illness, he wrote: “If any untimely stroke snatches you away, you the half of my life . . . that day shall bring the end of us both.” His wish was granted. He died in 8 b.c.e., only a few weeks after his protector, and their ashes were buried on the Esquiline hillside.

The early poetry of Horace betrays lack of self-confidence, as in his references to his “pedestrian Muse.” But the publication of his ODES gave him assurance, and after the death of Vergil, in 19 b.c.e., he was commissioned by the emperor to compose and read an ode for the imperial secular games. Later Augustus demanded odes to celebrate the military victories of his stepsons, Drusus and Tiberius.

In his poetry, especially in his SATIRES, Horace re-creates his era with tolerance and good humor. He attacks the vanity of human desires, yet stresses the need to enjoy the pleasures of the world. While professing the epicurean philosophy, he generally practiced stoicism. Though praising the pleasures of wine, his health was too delicate to let him drink deeply. And his poems to women were just as conventional. For only one woman, Cinara, did he show real feeling. His affection was reserved for the men he knew; and his sincerity and ability to project himself beyond the lines of his poems have won him innumerable friends through the centuries.

The poetic satire was the invention of the Roman Lucilius, “untouched by the Greeks,” as Horace declared, with its name derived from a dish composed of a variety of ingredients. Horace composed eighteen satires, in two volumes, but he made them more a friendly conversation than the bitter lampooning of his predecessor.

Book I, containing ten satires presented in no chronological order, was completed between his introduction to Maecenas in 38 b.c.e. and their appearance three years later. Number I, appropriately addressed to his patron, deals with Horace’s favorite theme, the folly of the discontented man who wants something he does not have: “Oh, happy trader!” cries the soldier, while the trader, in his ship belabored by the south winds, envies the soldier. The poet follows this craving to its most...

(The entire section is 1347 words.)