Horace: Epistles

June 26, 2019

Epistles
Horace
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; 2001) [20, 10 BC]
xviii + 203 p.

The Epistles of Horace, in two books, are loosely conversational, wide-ranging poems, their artifice subtly submerged beneath a genial surface. Of their epistolary nature there is, however, no subterfuge: each is addressed to a particular recipient, sometimes a friend, sometimes his great patron Maecenas, and sometimes even Augustus himself. The first book, consisting of 20 epistles, was published when Horace was in his mid-40s; the second book, containing just 3 longer epistles, appeared a decade later.

It is difficult to state briefly what sort of thing these poems are. They consist of personal reflections, a good deal of moral counsel, comments on the art of poetry and the life of a poet, short fables, and occasional sallies at mythological subjects, all woven together with an unassuming rhetorical style. We know that there is considerable art here — writing in hexameter, every syllable counts — but the poems feel artless. In the last of these epistles, the most famous one which goes under the title “Ars Poetica”, Horace confirms this impression:

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if it was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to put the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

I have been reading the poems in David Ferry’s translation, and although I was initially a little disappointed with his reliance on blank iambic pentameter, which lacks the obvious poetry of, say, heroic couplets, as I continued to read I came to appreciate the suitability of this style for these poems. Horace, too, does not rhyme; instead, his poetry is in the word choices, and the arrangement of subjects, and in the rhythms of the language. Whether Ferry manages to capture adequately those elements of Horace’s art I cannot judge, but the overall impression is, I think, at least leaning in the right direction.

Horace’s persona in these poems is urbane and rational. There are no passionate outbursts, no hearts on sleeves. He muses, offers advice, and renders judgments, literary and otherwise. He often assumes the mantle of sensible moralist:

If the sickness is in your soul, why put it off?
Get yourself going and you’ll be halfway there;
Dare to be wise; get started. The man who puts off
The time to start living right is like the hayseed
Who wants to cross the river and so he sits there
Waiting for the river to run out of water,
And the river flows by, and it flows on by, forever.
(i, 2)

There is a good deal in these poems about poetry. This is especially true, naturally, of “Ars Poetica”, which is by a comfortable margin the longest of the epistles, but remarks on poems and poets turn up regularly: he considers what makes a literary classic, why we admire the ancient poets but sneer at the modern (the phrase “Homer nods” — dormitat Homerus — in reference to lapses in the quality of the ancient poets comes from these epistles), why people want to write poetry, whether a poet should seek the approval of his audience, how to capture the interest of readers (the description of one tactic, to commence in medias res, is another famous coinage from these poems), the value of Greek models, boundaries of good taste, and the purpose of poetry (again, famously, Horace answered: “to delight and instruct”) are all topics that he treats in one way or another.

As to Horace’s appraisal of the value of his own poetry, he is the master of the graceful sidestep. On one hand, he is self-deprecating, averring (as in the Odes) that his style is not suitable for great matters, and even that his poems will, most likely, be used to wrap fish; but, on the other hand, he advises young poets to carefully revise and polish their poems before making them public, and I think we can assume he followed his own advice. The last poem in Book I, addressed “To His Book”, is especially touching in this respect, as the poet lets his poems go with a benediction before offering a delicate self-portrait:

But when the day is nearly done, and people
Are sitting around you, taking the evening air,
Please tell them who I was: son of a freedman,
In humble circumstances, my wings too strong
For the nest I was born in. What your tale subtracts
Because of my birth may it add because of my merit —
The foremost men of Rome, in peace and war,
Were pleased with me and what I was able to do;
A little man, and prematurely gray,
A lover of the sun; easily angered,
But easily pacified. If anyone asks,
I was forty-four years old in that December
When Lollius chose Lepidus as his partner.
(i, 20)

2 Responses to “Horace: Epistles”

  1. rereverser Says:

    medias, not media

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for catching that; corrected!


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