The Odes of Horace | Horatian Odes

The Odes of Horace | Horatian Odes
The Odes of Horace

In 19 B.C. Horace produced what may be considered his greatest work, the first three books of his Odes. These poems are perhaps as well known as any poems in the world. Almost every line of them has become proverbial. It is easy to criticize them. It is plain that Horace has not got the fire of Shelley or Catullus, and there was no ‘profuse stain of unpremeditated art’ in him. His love poems do not ring true. Some of them may be translations from the Greek. Yet the value of the Odes is great. For choice language and for clothing commonplace thought in an unforgettable form they are unequalled.

Horace is the poet of those who do not as a rule love poetry. He is a matchless master of language. He is a skilful adapter of Greek metres. In some of his Roman odes, he is even more than this. His love for Rome was even deeper than his love for Chloe, and there is no loftier patriotic poetry in the world than in the opening odes of the third book.

Compared with the odes of Pindar and Catullus, the Horatian odes are calm, restrained, elegant and graceful. Pindar’s odes are dazzling. Image after image is presented by him to our eyes. From this point and from that, and from yet another, light of the brightest is thrown on the point which he wishes to illumine. The ideas and emotions aroused in the audience were satisfactory, but probably not more definite, than those aroused by music.

The two chief qualities of Pindar’s poetry are rapidity and radiance. In his desire to illustrate his thought from every point of view, he not only flashes from the illustration to another before the mind of the hearer has wholly taken in the force of the first; but within a single sentence he fuses two conceptions, whose joint effect is more rapid and more dazzling than that which would be produced by their separate enunciation. As for the radiance of his poetry, it is seen not only in his fondness for epithets of brightness and effulgence, but in the vividness and persistence with which the images of the persons and things described by him remain on the mind’s eye.

Catullus, about whom MacKail said, that he was the third beside Sappho and Shelley”, had the passion and fervour of Sappho. He had also the aerial lightness of Shelley.

Horace has none of the characteristics of Pindar and Catullus. He is essentially a classicist, and does not share with Pindar and Catullus, their gusto and passion, their speed and energy. He has virtuosity rather than exuberance. A poet of reflection and moderation, Horace appeals to our intellect rather than emotion. He initiated a new movement in Roman poetry by reviving the ancient Greek tradition, leaving out the Alexandrian.

In order to appreciate the Odes of Horace, it will be helpful to know his views on poetry, enunciated in his Art of Poetry. He does not like to soar higher still and higher like Shelley. His advice is:

“And I still bid the learned matter look

On life, and manners, and make those in his book”

He does not like a poet who “uses fiction and mingles facts with fancy.” if, however, there is fiction, “should be very near the truth.” Poetry, in his opinion, is not the idle song of an empty day. A true patriot and a seeker of truth, Horace has the missionary zeal of a neophyte. A poet, he maintains, should write poetry that will urge our young men to “be perpetually influenced for good.” “Poets desire either to improve or to please, or to unite the agreeable and the profitable… You will win every vote if you blend what is improving with what pleases, and at once delight and instruct the reader.” Again, he says: “It is not enough for poems to have beauty: they must also be pleasing and lead the listener’s soul whither they will.”

Apart from the function of poetry, Horace has to say something interesting on the language of poetry as well. He is in favour of familiar words. “Your diction will be excellent if a clever combination renders a familiar word original. If supposing, no familiar words can convey the ideas of a poet, he should have recourse to new words. “Words new and lately coined will win credit if they descend from a Greek source slightly modified.”

Let us analyse the Odes of Horace in the light of his own precepts. School boys in England were once thoroughly familiar with the Odes of Horace. The most quoted lines are from his odes, and many Englishmen quote his lines without being absolutely sure of the source. “Unlike the works of Catullus and Lucretius”, says, C. M. Bowra, “they do not overwhelm the young by an irresistible attack, but appeal in a quieter, less disturbing way, which is not quite what youth demands.”

It is Shelley, who once wrote about inspiration in poetry:

“Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the result; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.”

Horace’s odes are not inspired in the sense Shelley’s poems are inspired. We often feel that in his poems we have not the Platonic enthousiasmos. As we read the poems of Catullus, we feel that his heart is on fire. His poems are aglow with love of indignation.

True, Horace, a widely read man must have been thoroughly familiar with the works of Sappho, Catullus, or even Alcaeus. And yet their influence upon him is negligible. His debt to them consists in metres and themes, and not spirit. He is deeply indebted to Lucilius, because the latter is the friend of virtue. Common readers feel interested in poetry, when there is enough of lilt and passion, vim and verve in it. For these qualities Sappho and Catullus are almost incomparable. Horace does not have these qualities, at least not much of them. But to say that Horace does not believe in poetic inspiration at all would be a travesty of truth. In the Ode to Bacchus, he writes:

“I have seen Bacchus as he taught his rhymes

On lonely crags, and the nymphs listening,

Believe me, o ye folk of future times,

And pricked-eared, goat-foot satyrs heard him sing.”

However practical Horace may be, his world is not altogether free from nymphs and satyrs. He is, like Wordsworth, true to the kindred points of heaven and home. He does not say that a poem is born. Poetry should come, says Keats, as “naturally as the leaves of a tree.” Horace does not subscribe to this view. That is why he sings:

“I, as the bee that feeds upon

Matinus’ banks of thyme

 With labour of a busy throng,

Make humbly my laborious song

Of groves and wet banks that belong

To Tibur.”

Horace once used a phrase – aurea Mediocritas, i.e. golden mean, and it is this phrase, which, we suppose, sums up his poetical character. He is a great lyric poet, for odes are lyrics, and yet he restrained his emotional range. With a modest fund of ideas, he has achieved remarkable greatness, so much so that his poems have been the school-book of Europe, and generations of readers have feasted upon him.

Pindar, we have already pointed out, is not his model. His remarks about him are not disparaging. They, however, show that there should be a breaking of ways:

“Who would compete with Pindar tries

On wings of Daedelus to rise,

Iulus, naming when he dies

Some smooth and shining sea.

A river pouring down amain,

Swollen above its banks by rain,

He rages boundless through the plain,

Sure of the laurel he,

Whether he roll down daring lines

Composed of words in new designs

On rhythms that no law confines,

Rushing along in Spate.”

Horace’s ways are different. He restricts himself in short stanzas. His metrical variations are also limited Music and the lilt of the verse are the special appeal of the odes. “It may often have taken Horace”, says C. M. Bowra, “long to find the perfect word, but when it came, it did much more than carry its own burden of meaning in its own place. It is enthralling, uplifting, entirely satisfying, To secure this result Horace shaped his vocabulary to be not indeed so delicate or so subtle as that of Catullus, but more emphatic and more masculine and closer to that rhetoric into which Italians so often fall when their emotions are aroused. Less experimental than Virgil, who hardly ever says a plain thing in a plain way. Horace is still adventurous enough in his attempts to find a new liveliness through combinations and figures of speech.”

Horace is always a conscious artist. He chooses his words with meticulous care. To him, words are almost living entities. And, therefore, he has no difficulty in exploring the possibilities of the words, he presents, as it, a rich gallery not of pictures but of words. “By separating his adjectives from their nouns, by placing the subject of a sentence not necessarily at the start but in some emphatic position where it will be more effective, by finding the right place for each word according to its relative importance, by weighing the worth of sounds and combining them in happy harmonies, Horace gives a new dimension to his poetry.”

While Alcaeus, Sappho, and Anacreon, with whose poems, Horace is thoroughly familiar, develop a single mood in each of their poems, Horace uses varying moods in his odes. A lyric poem is a moment’s monument, and usually does not permit shifting of moods. Horace makes a significant departure and loads every rift with shifting lores. He knows that the human mind is rich and complex, and the moods are variable. He, therefore, does not develop a single mood, but has recourse to the variation of moods. From this point of view he breaks with the lyric tradition.

Some of the odes of Horace have a symbolic character. And this heightens the sense of mystery of the poems. One symbol may be referred to Paris had an illegitimate relation with Helen, and that brought about the downfall of Troy. In almost similar circumstances, Antony had affairs with Cleopatra, for whom he lost his empire and was content to lose it. Paris and Helen, therefore, were used symbolically to present a lurid picture of the political crisis that Rome was passing through.

One of the chief characteristics of the odes is genuine sincerity. He has passed through the vicissitudes of fortune. He has seen life in all its beauty and in all its hideousness. All these varied experiences are writ large in his odes. Some critics have complained that in some of his odes there is not much consistency. Their complaint is just. The reason for such inconsistency may be accounted for. Horace is not an uncommon man. Moreover, he is honest and sincere. Common men are often inconsistent and hold contradictory views. That explains why Horace has paid tributes to Stoicism and Epicureanism at the same time, although the two schools of philosophy are poles apart. Once Horace thought of love as a mere passion, and encouraged promiscuousness in matters of sex. But that very Horace was a warm advocate of Augustus, who sought to bridle sexual laxity. These contradictions bring us closer to Horace, who never speaks er-cathedra, or delivers sermons with pontifical solemnity.

Along with sincerity, there is also the breadth of range in the odes. Catullus chose to deal with a heart on fire. His themes, therefore, were extremely limited. Horace, on the other hand, chooses a wide variety of subjects, which we shall discuss at length in a subsequent chapter. His odes deal with Love, Friendship, wine, patriotism, politics, mythology, religion, morality, life and conduct, Italian countryside, society, and what not.

To the width of range may be added the seriousness of Horace’s character. We must not judge Horace by his poems on Love and Wine, although even in the poems on Love there are occasional touches of seriousness. In the political poems in which the welfare of Rome is his supreme concern, Horace has completely shed his laxity and lightheartedness. These poems are his forum, and he gives a clarion call to the Romans to live a life of sacrifice, patriotism, simplicity, and devotion to duty. Here there is no characteristical Horatian gaiety. “In these almost epigrammatic statements”, says C. M. Bowra, “experience is refined and epitomized, and the marmoreal words reflect the Roman temper in its pride and its restraint, its self-confidence and its self-sacrifice. Emotion is kept under strict discipline, but is none the less powerfully at work.”

Horace is involved in politics, and can also rise above politics. He is, in fact, interested in the super-politics of the life and welfare of Rome. He is the index to the people, manners, and ideas of Rome. To study the odes is to have an idea of the extraordinary variety of figures, who stalked Rome. “There are nobles and parvenus, misers and spendthrifts, philosophers and singing-girls, and other types innumerable.”

Horace is not a citizen of the world. Like Virgil, he is essentially a Roman. He cannot love the nations that have invaded Rome from time to time. He has not the jingoism or chauvinism of a Rudyard Kipling. And yet he loves Rome deeply and passionately.

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Not a distinguished poet of Love, Horace has nevertheless written a few odes about love, which have not the passion of Sappho and Catullus, but they are certainly well worth considering. In a sense some of these odes may be called the elegies of love. Nothing is permanent in this world. The bloom of youth and beauty is also evanescent.

“Where is that hue, that beauty? Where

That gait? What trace of her, of her

Whose breath was love, who stole

From me my very soul?”

Let us illustrate this point by referring to Pyrrha, who with all her physical beauty is a phantom, always eluding the grasp of her lover. The poet is feeling relieved that he has succeeded in escaping from her clutches. He compares Pyrrha to a sea-storm, and compares his own escape from her fatal charms to a sailor’s escape from a devastating shipwreck:

“But, for myself, the temple wall has shown

By votive tablet, and drenched clothes suspended

To the sea’s god, my travelling is ended.”

His poems on love are not the songs of innocence, but songs of experience. Whenever he feels that he is getting emotionally involved with a girl, he is conscious that this love, if you call it so, will end in disaster. That is why he says:

“But we no woman pleases now

Nor boy, nor hope of mutual trust,

Nor to bind roses on my brow

Where wine and women are discussed.”

Evanescence of youth and beauty is not the sad lot of women alone. Man is its victim. Horace addressed a man named Ligurnus:

“O cruel yet, with gifts of Venus bright,

When thy pride passes in unlooked for flight,

And when the locks shall fall which now are light

Upon thy shoulders, when thy tint of rose,

All changed, into a shaggy visage grows,

Seeing a strange face mirrored, thou shalt say

‘Why were my thoughts when young not as today

Or why comes not my youth to me as they?”

The decay of youth leads to death. One of the principal themes of the odes is death. And yet we must not call him a poet of macabre. Death is the inevitable end of life. Let us recall the ode-To Postumus, and we shall realise the vanity of vanities.

Horace in his odes as elsewhere is one who has made a critical evaluation of life- life which, though full of sound and fury, signifies nothing.

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