Horace (65–8 b.c.) may not be the greatest lyric poet of all time, but he is certainly the greatest of the forgotten ones. He used to be the crown of the Latin curriculum when Latin pretty much was the curriculum, and the ability to “turn” a Horatian ode (song) into English was the ultimate proof of learning, taste, and discipline. What a change: Now Sylvia Plath is the only poet you’re expected to know, but really only her biography, and only if you’re a woman.
I’m not going to denounce the eclipse of Horace as the ruin of Western civilization, but I am putting on record that after I studied him, under the guidance of a great scholar (D. R. Shackleton Bailey), I became a pitiless reviewer and a manic reviser of my own work. Literature shouldn’t be merely what turns your crank, but also what takes you down a peg. Whatever her merits, Sylvia Plath isn’t going to do that.
“Lyric” means words sung “to the lyre.” The name adhered to a type of verse distinguished by its musical qualities, even when musical performance became optional or fell away altogether. As in modern songs, the moods and the subject matter of ancient lyric poetry varied considerably, from goofy satire to love in all its registers to philosophical moralizing to tender grief. The meters were as inventive as music itself can be. Though lyric settled into a number of conventions (a certain eleven-syllable line, for example, was associated with invective), the genre continued to have far more dimensions than epic, with its single type of “six-meter” line (originally chanted, not sung as melody), its formulaic repetitions, and its single purpose: story-telling (sometimes extended, as in Hesiod and Lucretius, to epic lecturing).
Six hundred years or so after the Greek poet Archilochus turned singing into writing and ritualistic entertainment into accounts of his own experiences, and a couple of decades after Catullus brashly transplanted Greek lyric meters into Latin, Horace created stanzas so exquisite that they still tease and baffle translators. Technically, an inflected language (one extensively altering the forms of its words according to their use) like Latin or Greek has very flexible word order: “The horse rides Marcus” makes perfect sense in Latin if both the nouns have the right endings. But the shape of sentences nevertheless tended to be conventional. To break the syntax open and cause its contents to fall into new yet lovely shapes took a genius.
You could also say that Horace was gifted in his temperament. This son of a former slave worked his way into literary superstardom when it first existed, during the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (a title-ish designation: The name he brought to the job was Octavian), who cultivated a small group of authors. Vergil and Horace, particularly, were human counterparts of the vast new temples and other public works, and of the lavish festivals. This array was meant to illustrate heaven’s favor toward Rome, and Rome’s right to govern the world and propagate the only viable form of civilization.
Horace, remarkably, kept his head. Aside from some rather frigid court poetry, he gently and humorously celebrates the pleasures of modest prosperity, good company, and solitude, and snorts at trendiness, pretension, and stupidity. In his poetry, routine rituals, such as sacrificing to the gods, appear bathed in contentment. Octavian was fond of him and nicknamed him “the prong that does no wrong”; whatever that’s supposed to mean, it suggests integrity — or else a public and private persona so carefully constructed as to amount to the same thing.
Very much unlike our celebrities, Horace hides behind statements about himself instead of using them for aggrandizement or confession, and that hiding is his quintessence. He writes, for example, that in the Battle of Pharsalus (48 b.c.) — in which he had in fact fought imprudently against Julius Caesar’s faction in the civil wars (Octavian turned out to be Caesar’s legal, military, and political heir) — he ran for it and “left [his] shield behind — not a good move.” At first the line sounds autobiographical, but it was probably only his distant predecessor Archilochus who admitted truly in verse to this archetypal act of cowardice. In Horace, the statement is cleverly joined to his claim that Mercury lofted him away from the battlefield. This must be a burlesque of an already semi-comic Homeric plot device: For example, Aphrodite rescues the impish poltroon Paris from near-certain death at he-man hands and dumps him into his bedroom to do with Helen the only thing he’s good for.
Horace’s words about even his friends, his lovers, his pleasures and irritations and inspirations are tinged with irony, which always at least threatens to dissolve reality into art. His father, shown minding everyone else’s business for the edification of his teenage son, reminds me not of any parent I know but of gossip presented in other literature as “vices to avoid”; at any rate, the purported direct quotations can’t be word for word unless the father spoke in hexameters on the street. Horace calls himself, settled on his smallholding, “greasy and sleek . . . a pig from Epicurus’ herd,” but that’s as good a basis for picturing him slender as for insisting he was corpulent. “Herd” meant philosophical school, and Horace did apparently lean toward Epicureanism, but “pig” was an ignorant slander of the Epicureans’ concern with physical pleasure, which they actually sought to moderate for the sake of a tranquil life. Horace is joking.