When we read Horace's erotic poetry, perhaps the first impression we take away is a strange feeling that its light, deft, sardonic and relentlessly ironic tone has reduced all emotion to frivolity in the very genre where we are conditioned to expect personal intensity. The contrast with Sappho or Catullus only heightens our feeling of insincerity, almost of poetic betrayal. This may be the reason why scholars, as David West noted recently, "have not thought highly of Horace's love poetry." The absence of the typical and expected amatory furniture--whether Petrarchan or Romantic--makes it difficult for many to isolate the emotional tone of the erotika. When Wilkinson looked at Epode 15, for example, he saw "an almost Catullian intensity and a touch of imagination." When David Mankin looked at the same poem in his recent edition of the Epodes, he saw an "essentially humorous" poem standing in contrast to the more serious Epodes that precede and follow it. It has even been argued that his "best love poems are those in which he is making fun of himself or somebody else." Were this the case, it would radically simplify our attempt to sort out the representation of love in the erotika. Neither the man (whether as speaker or object) nor the woman would be anything more substantial than rhetorical occasions for a display of wit and playful persiflage.
But I don't think it is the case. Modern readers look for passion and autobiographical narrative; they meet instead a parade of courtesans with Greek names like Lydia, Leuconoe and Tyndaris and an irony that seems to deflate serious emotion. The desire for personal narrative and coherent, unambiguous feeling induces a misreading of irony.
I would like to propose that we view the Horatian irony not as a means to trivialize emotion but as a mode of ethical analysis to grasp and probe the dangerously unpredictable, uncertain or instable. The master of this type of irony is of course Thomas Mann, but many Classicists seem only to know the sarcastic irony that Fraenkel, in a memorable footnote, ridiculed as "the last expedient of a despairing commentator". The apparent triviality of the erotic poetry really only hides much deeper and more precarious emotional currents. The attempt to evade those currents, to deny the complicating shadows in human experience, is equivalent as Mann once said to moral kitsch.
A review of selected odes will show that Horace does not objectify, or poetically reify, women any more than he does men in the course of his ironic elegy on the mutability of love. As a masculine poet, he is not using conventional modes of erotic discourse consistently to dominate either the beloved's situation in time or to commodify her beauty for a privileged consumption by men. Venus may laugh through Horace's ironic paidia, but she is consistently cruel, capricious and destructive to both sexes. Many of the odes contain an implied emotional narrative that extends backward in time from the speaking present and suggests a much more complex erotic drama between men and women. A close analysis of key odes will supply the evidence for this contention: I.xiii, xix, xxv, xxx and xxxiii; II.v and III.xxvii.
In ode I.xiii Horace professes a deep, burning anger at Lydia's praise of a young boy, Telephus, whose inadequate vocabulary finds expression in bites to her lips and whose indulgence in wine bruises her shoulders. The first two stanzas are devoted to the symptoms of the poet's anger, while the third sketches the bodily insignia of Telephus' frenzy. Neither the poet's mind nor his color holds steady in lines 5~9 as he positively seems to burlesque Sappho's intense objectivity in Fragment 31
tunc nec mens mihi nec color
certa sede manet, umor et in genas
furtim, labitur, arguens
quam lentis penitus macerer ignibus.
"Arguens" makes him a spectator at his own burlesque, gesturing as it were to the audience with craftsmanly pride at the cookery involved in the image of his liver stewing--"macerer"--in its own bile. A quarter century has passed since David West first tried to unify Horace's symptoms around his boiling liver. The world wasn't ready for it then, and probably isn't now. But the image, with its ostentatiously unpoetical word, has one distinct purpose that no one has sufficiently appreciated: it distances the ode absolutely from Sappho. The ambiance of the first three stanzas is a fusion of Hellenistic epigram and stock symptoms of love. We might be tempted to read the poem as little more than an exercise in maudlin sentimentality and wit by on a Sapphic topos. But the parody in the second stanza shuts the door on comparisons with Sappho. By taking the catalogue of symptoms to such an absurd length, however, Horace achieves two effects at once: he suggest that Sappho may have shown part but not all of the truth about love and he forestalls any tendency to see his ode as little more than a sentimental imitation of her poem. Another side of love then begins to emerge. The sensuous details of violence to Lydia in the center of the poem_and the center of the odes is often their thematic core, as C. O. Brink has observed_might be taken as a critique of the poet's and Sappho's subjective, withdrawn and indulgent preoccupation with their own feelings. Sappho's poem is limited to a chaos of passion at one particular place; this poem implies an extended emotional drama in the narrative background. Horace's direct response to that background may legitimatize the final moral. At the start of stanza three, Horace still kindles with anger, but his mood imperceptibly changes to solicitude as he describes the wounds that Lydia has clearly received more than once:
Uror, seu tibi candidps
turparunt umeros immodicae mero
rixae, sive puer furens
impressit memorem dente labris notam.
The two parallel clauses marked by "seu" and "sive" contain just two concrete outrages from a much larger catalogue of outrages that we are invited to project into the part. The depth of Horace's solicitude is indicated by the depth of that prior history. The poet warms Lydia with the informal phrase "si me satis audias," as if he were speaking softly in private, not to expect constancy from one who savagely wounds sweet lips imbued with a fifth part of Venus' nectar. The ode then closes with a power meditation on constancy in love:
felices ter et amplius,
quos inrupta tenet copula nec malis
supreme citius solvet amor die.
The sudden rise into moral sententiousness in the last stanza presents a distinct problem to those who, like Nisbet and Hubbard, see the ode "as a skit on the absurdities of Hellenistic epigram." The implied criticism of such readers is that a Horatian ode should have one, and only one, emotional tone. It must be either this or that, either skit or intense slice of real (presumably autobiographical) life. But the utterly serious intensity of the last stanza makes most sense if we see it against the foil of Lydia's frivolous involvement with a violent boy whose only attributes are his "cervicem roseam" and "cerea bracchia." It is in fact the backdrop of stock amatory themes that enables Horace to highlight an aspect of love ignored (so far as we can tell) by Sappho and certainly by the Hellenistic epigrammatists.
I.xix is another of the erotika that are supposed to have no contact with real life: all is light, detached, charming, deftly ironic. This may be true of the implied love for Glycera, but I am not at all convinced that it applies equally to the trio of powers who order the aged poet to give his heart back to love at the start of the ode:
Mater saeva Cupidinum
Thebanaeque iubet me Semelae puer
et lasciva Licentia
finitis animum reddere amoribus.
The "Mater saeva Cupidinum" is offered a sacrifice in the final stanza in the hope "mactata veniet lenior hostia." Between these two references, what does Horace give us? In the second stanza, he gives us the psychological consequences of gazing on Glycera. The glow ("nitor") of her beauty, the pleasing forwardness ("grata protervitas") of her bearing and the slipperiness of her face ("vultus nimium lubricus aspici") all burn him. It's not just a slippery face, it's an excessively slippery one. "Vultus nimium lubricus aspici" may suggest she is seductive to behold, but one certainly isn't going to keep one's Epicurean balance very easily. The tangled metaphors in the image of a brilliantly slippery face that burns don't bear very close scrutiny, but their ironical import is obvious. We meet Glycera's nitor and protervitas, but with clear negative implications, in the tempting glare of Pyrrha in I.v.13 and the rough hands of Cyrus in I.xvii.24. All three elements of Glycera's attraction are ambiguous, and the anaphora of urit in lines five and seven strengthens rather than reduces their ambiguity. Then in stanza three, he gives us a psychological account of Venus' violent descent:
in me tota ruens Venus
Cyprum deseruit, nec patitur
et versis animosum equis
dicete, nec quae nihil attinent.
Here we have (1) Venus falling on him with the force of a thunderbolt as did Jupiter's thunderbolt in I.xvi.12, (2) Venus forbidding him to write anything martial about Scythians and Parthians and (3) Venus forbidding him to write anything not pertinent to love. ("Nec quae nihil attinent" makes it unnecessary to forbid Scythians and Parthians in the first place.) The effect of stanza three is thus to leave the poet's thematic world starkly bare, divested of everything but love below and fire from the "Mater saeva Cupidinum" above--an erotic fire whose violence points back to the one that destroyed Semele in the first stanza.
The sacrifice ordered in the last stanza is surely fictional, but its intent to soften the violence of love is surely emotional fact. Glycera's charms are generic, and they occupy only one stanza in the poem, yet the poetry embodying them has a haunting loveliness that, as Steele Commager noted almost unwillingly, "draws us in as powerfully as the lambent and provocative promises of Glycera herself." Those charms are framed between the hazardous trio of the first stanza and the sacrifice of the last, whose purpose after all is to soften the inevitable coming ("veniet") of Venus. This structure seems to be a brilliant strategy: the generic descriptions of Glycera disarm us, their verbal beauty entrances us almost unawares and the framing scene in the opening and closing stanzas warn us of the destructive energies that lie not very dormant within an apparently trivial erotic farce. As Horace says repeatedly throughout his poetry, the power of Venus is overwhelming, cruel, irrational and completely unpredictable. It is once again the commonplaces of Hellenistic elegy, handled with completely original skill, that magnify the unpredictableness of Venus. Often the small and inconsequential can, as Blake realized, provide the best insight into the great and dangerous.
I have looked at I.xiii and xix in some detail because they are paradigmatic for much of the love poetry. Both have been convicted at various times of casual irony and more seriously of detachment from life. The presence or absence of genuine autobiographical content, as in so many other odes, is undecidable for the obvious reason that Horace has openly declared them to be autobiographical. The open declaration is a direct rhetorical gesture to the reader. This issue is decided, he says, and unless you know my intimate life, don't waste your time on me, look deeper into the private life of the poem.
I.xxv is one of several poems (III.xv, IV.xiii, EpDs. viii and xii) in which Horace plays with the topos of the rejected lover describing and relishing the disdainful beauty's decay into grotesque old age. A feminist interpretation could see the poet appropriating Lydia's beauty, which she did not use for his pleasure, as a way to dominate by temporal defacement. There are several variations on this kind of reading, and given the long life of the topos right up to Yeats' "When you are old and gray and full of sleep," it may contain some truth. But at the heart of this ode, in the angiportus scene, is one of the most ferocious depictions of unbridled passion to be found in western literature. Even Nisbet and Hubbard sense its caustic power. The poem is after all not about love but pure sexual passion: Horace once, as lovers less often now, pelted the shutters of a Lydia who did of course let a considerable number inside but will finally end up outside in an alley that's no longer urban:
invicem moechos anus arrogantes
flebis in solo levis angiportu,
Thracio bacchante magis sub inter-
cum tibi flagrans amor et libido,
quae solet matres furiare equorum,
saeviet circa iecur ulcerosum,
non sine questu
laeta quod pubes hedera virenti
gaudeat pulla magis atque myrto
aridas fondes hiemis sodali
The sheer violence of "Thracio bacchante" shows the work of the "mater saeva Cupidinum," since the wind is clearly a physical analog to Lydia's tormenting passions. Horace also hints that "amor et libido" will afflict the hearts of those moechoi in some more distant future as it is coming to afflict the aged prostitute in some more immediate future. The 'iuvenes protervi" in line 2 become "moechoi arrogantes" in line 9 and finally "pubes" with its strong sexual innuendo in line 17. The ethical distance between Lydia and her clients is not, therefore, so very great. The imagery also follows a precise course from the moonless alley, which seems less an alley than a barren landscape swept by Thracian winds, through raging mares and finally into withered leaves consigned by merry youths, who prefer green ivy to dark myrtle, to the wintry east wind. She is metaphorically blown from the poem into extinction. The consigning hand may be male, but the same passion drives it. The final image of
aridas frondes hiemis sodali
reverts by a typically Horatian word-play to the opening of the poem: the men who will finally throw Lydia's withered body to the winds are now, though ominously less often, throwing pebbles against her second story shutters.
This seems to me a very great poem, instinct with much of the grotesque power that Yeats got into his late, and often disturbing, "Crazy Jane" series. The unfolding of this drama can only be properly appreciated by following the structural development of its theme.
In I.xxx, a short two-stanza invocation to Venus using traditional religious formulas, Horace invites the goddess of love to take up permanent residence in the lovely shrine of a hetaera, Glycera once again. It is probably one of the most skipped poems in the Carmina. David West's pithy comment on its shortness is worth remembering: "Short poem, slight poem. A common notion, and false."
In the Chinese and Japanese poetic tradition, shortness is not synonymous with shallowness. A 17-syllable hokku or an 8-line Chinese Lue-shih regulated verse poem can have just as much beauty, depth, suggestiveness and force as a long ode by Pindar. Many scholars have noted a resemblance to fragment 2 of Sappho, with its entrancing Keatsean music, or to a bald epigram from Posidippus (PA 12.131) in which he summons Venus to Callistion:
[Greek text not yet available]
But neither of these models can explain the extreme rhetorical prominence given the name of Mercury, which fills the last line. It has been argued that Mercury is included because, as god of profit, he can serve in the role of divine pimp to Glycera. This is so crude, and so unlikely if Horace's persona is taken to be one of her clients, that is can be rejected out of hand. I am somewhat more inclined, given my own view of Venus in Horace, to accept Fraenkel's interpretation that the poet has tried to bypass centuries of skeptical meditation on the gods and depict a happy parousia. But we are still left with Mercury, who caps a series that begins with the ardent boy of Venus, the Nymphs (here traditionally decollete) and Youth. These provide all the makings for an amatory party with Glycera, and Mercury's gifts to mortals_eloquence, civilization, the lyre, trickery and persuasion_fit those erotic expectations perfectly. In his brilliant exposition of this ode, David West notes that Horace is one of Mercurialum virorum. Faunus saved him, as one of Mercury's poetic makers, from a falling tree trunk in ode II.xvii:
me truncus inlapsus cerebro
sustulerat, nisi Faunus ictum
dextra levasset, Mercurialum
And in II.vii Mercury saved him from death at Philippi.
"Stripped of its theology, that is to say violated and
dimished," West concludes, "1.30 means that Horace wishes to
find Glycera passionate, uninhibited, gracious, and joyous, and
that he himself longs for the return of his vitality, charm, and
The ceremony of petition suggests a long prior history. This is not the first time Horace has invoked Venus, and there is perhaps more than a little playfulness along with humility in it, expectation touched by a very slight penumbra of uncertain irony. Here after all is the same poet summoning Venus who also feared her violent descent in I.xix. And he would hardly urge Venus to transfer her abode from the Greek island to the Roman countryside without expectation of a long relationship with Glycera. so the unstated history of the ode extends from the past into an indefinite future termination lies at the whim of Venus and her secular priestess.
Horace gives us a concentrated history of erotic pursuit and flight in ode I.xxx.iii. He purports to console the elegiac poet Albius Tibullius for the broken faith of Glycera. Horace tells him to stop writing interminable elegies that keep asking
cur tibi iunior
laesa praeniteat fide.
This time it is a younger man's alluring brilliance that attracts a woman in a nearly mirror image of I.v or I.xix. The comfort offered Tibullius in the second stanza is pretty cold: abruptly, without any transition, Horace lists a dove-tailed series of three exempla on the theme of incompatible desire: fair Lycoris of the low forehead pursues Cyrus, but Cyrus inclines to Pholoe and Pholoe will have nothing to do with filthy Cyrus. Once more he presents Venus as she delights saevo cum ioco in the cruel sport of yoking uneven bodies and hearts:
sic visum Veneri, cui placet impares
formas atque animos sub iuga aenea
saevo mittere cum ioco.
These lines surely make light fun of Tibullus and his poetry, but they also have a strong rhetorical edge to them. Each of the two Asclepidean lines uses the normal caesura after the sixth foot to structure the verse in distinct stages that march inevitably to the conclusion of the Glyconic: the first caesura in line 10 sets the decree of Venus against her delight in yoking unequal bodies and hearts, while the second in line 12 sets those "impares/formas atque animos"--reinforced by the strong enjambent--against the brazen yoke that binds them. The ode could easily have ended with "saevo mittere cum ioco," which has the form of a strong summative closure. But Horace denies the expectation of closure and expands the narrative back in time through the revelation of his own tempestuous affair with the freedwoman Myrtale, for whom he gave up a better love:
ipsum me melior cum peteret Venus,
grata detinuit compede Myrtale,
libertina fretis acrior Hadriae
curvantis Calabros sinus.
The personal note in the final statement qualifies the ironic detachment of the opening. This sort of circularity was noted by Brink as a feature of the love poetry. It is not only consoling in a negative sort of way, it introduces a note of personal experience that is foregrounded by the false climax in the previous stanza. The effect is rather like the false climax of a Beethoven symphony, which serves to heighten the final crescendo when it does come. By this means, Horace shows himself involved in the emotional stakes of the poem after all.
II.v is probably, but not certainly, what we now call an interior monologue in which a middle-aged poet well past his prime contemplates a young girl he would like to have as a companion but cannot because she is now too immature. Horace draws on Anacreon for the extended metaphor of the young girl as a carefree heifer cavorting in the verdant groves with her companions, not yet ready (he says with considerable brutality) for the weight of a raging bull. The first two stanzas develop this metaphor, which then seems to collide fatally in the next stanza with the metaphor of the girl as a grape soon to start ripening for the poet:
immitis uvae: iam tibi lividos
distinguet autumnus racemos
purpureo varius colore.
iam te sequetor (currit enim ferox
aetas, et illi, quos tibi dempserit,
apponet annos), iam proterva
fronte petet Lalage maritum.
The grape will not only ripen, it will seek proterva fronte for a passive Horace as mate. That clash of metaphors ought, however, to give us pause in an artist like Horace. It's certainly possible to see a kind of natural reification of women in the animal and plant imagery, but he is after all waiting restrainedly and patiently for Lalage to bring her animal spirits and mature sweetness to him. The metaphors may clash, but their tenor perfectly suits the situation. Near the center of the poem, in the fourth stanza, he emphasizes the price of waiting by noting his own middle age and decline. Time is running out even as he waits, and the time that has run out was wasted in former love for Pholoe, Chloris and Gyges. This is I think the correct explanation for the strange inclusion of three former lovers in the last two stanzas. They provide the outline of an amatory background whose unsatisfactoriness makes him willing, at his age, to wait patiently for Lalage:
dilecta, quantum non Pholoe fugax,The tricolon in the last two stanzas assigns one word to Pholoe, a couple of lines to Chloris and a whole stanza to Gyges. The expansion of the tricolon, far from being mere ornament, seems to carry us back far into time, as the mythic reference to Odysseus' discovery of Achilles indicates. The beauty of these three, captured in verbal music of the highest order, now looks ironically worthless against the wasting power of time. On this beauty, Horace says, I invested far too much of my emotional life; in pursuit of these loves, I squandered too much time. The remaining time is now just redeemable.
non Choloris, albo sic umero nitens,
ut pura nocturno renidet
luna mari Cnidiusve Gyges,
quem si puellarum insereres choro,
mire sagaces falleret hospites
discrimen obscurum solutis
crinibus ambiguoque vultu.
I would like to make a brief comment about III.x before turning to my last ode. Using the topos of the paraklausithuron, Horace draws a picture of feminine power in the wolf-like Lyce who is no Penelope (and her husband not faithful in way that might incline her to be). The bantering, epigrammatic tone takes on an edge in the key medial stanza of the poem: the image of the windlass rope suddenly running back through the sheaves implies disaster if she anger Venus. It stands there at the heart of what looks like a juego de palabra with a hardness, and concreteness, that suggests danger. It's almost as though Lyce is being told to become the sexual predator her name implies and to seize the speaker as her "victim."
The final ode I would like to consider, III.xxvii, is not strictly speaking an erotic poem. The brilliant, impressionistic, at times cinematic, retelling of the Europa's voyage over the sea to Crete stands in sharp contrast to the strange, zig-zagging course of her self-recriminations. Horace is of course mocking her gently, but why? The answer lies in the sudden appearance of Venus "perfidum ridens," who tells her to cease from her hot (exaggerated) passion. If Gordon Williams' interpretation is correct, and Europa has in fact no good reason to deny the words she puts into her father's mouth due to her mental confusion, the perfidy of Venus stands out in even greater contrast --- perfidy because she has taken light pleasure in leading the poor girl this far before telling her that Jupiter is her husband. The human confusion of reality and dream throws Venus' power into greater prominence. The myth of Europa is introduced by a brief frame narrative in which the poet bids farewell to Galatea, presumably his ex-lover now, as she departs on a dangerous ocean voyage. Is there any deeper connection between frame narrative and myth than this external parallel? There is if one realizes that Galatea has begun a voyage that terminates an unnarrated history of erotic engagement with Horace, while the myth gives the inception of a violent and morally ambiguous erotic history whose end lies in the unnarrated future. The reciprocal relationship of frame narrative and myth seems to project the passions and moral confusions of the latter back into the former. Europa's experiences are then an index of the poet's.
Part of the confusion in reading Horace's love poetry, as I hope these examples have shown, stems from his handling of irony. It is not simply a univalent technique for light humor. Horatian irony is a habitual technique that permits him to approach dangerous complexities or instabilities obliquely without resorting to emotional excess. Part of the confusion also comes from the complex projection of implied narrative histories into the past or the future. These add an emotional depth that is easy to overlook. And part of the confusion, perhaps the greatest part, comes from his reticence about the direct expression of feeling. This is usually taken as an absence of feeling, real life or involvement. He is, I would suggest to the contrary, intuitively practicing a mode of presentation common to Classical Chinese and Japanese poetry but rare in the West. Wei T'ai put it best in the 11th century when he said that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling, and should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. Poets who directly present feelings that overwhelm them, as if they also wished to overwhelm us, keep nothing back to linger as an aftertaste and will, therefore, only stir us superficially. This is what Horace, the subtlest of all Classical poets, does in so many of his poems, especially the very erotic poems where we expect passion and not precision about the thing. We misread him as post-Romantics who unconsciously look for the poet to be excessive about the feeling and reticent about the thing.
Horace is always precise about the thing: the setting, addressee, socio-political relationship, imagery, ritual, literary antecedent and mythic reference. His precision allows multiple meanings to unfold beyond words. This creates the kind of concealed beauty that the great T'ang Chinese critic Liu Xie prized so highly: "The nature of concealed beauty lies in the fact that meaning is born beyond words: secret echoes resonate on all sides, and hidden colors issue forth from their submergence."
I'd like to illustrate concealed beauty, with your indulgence, with a couple of examples. The first two are by the Japanese poet Issa, who lived from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. These two love poems use animal imagery to express his deep love for his wife Kiku, whom he married late in his 50s:
Even for a man
who's about fifty,
The love of deer!
shika no koi.
Feet for a pillow
arms for a pillow
The tenderness of deer!
te makura shika no
The second example is from the 9th century T'ang poet Li Shang-yin, whose love poetry is among the best from China. Here he expresses his hopeless passion for a court lady:
The doorknockers with tags of old brocade can be lightly pulled,
The jade key does not turn, the side door is locked.
Who is it that lies asleep inside the crytal curtain,
Her hair piled up like red peonies at high noon?
The floating fragrance ascends the clouds to complain to heaven in spring,
But oh, the twelve cloud-stairs and the ninefold gates!
What hope is there for one who takes life lightly?
The white moth dies stiff upon the folding screen.
Li is known for his ambiguity, complexity, depth, passion and striking imagery. Where, one might ask, is the passion here? It lies in precision of the thing, which opens up the concealed beauty that is the deepest of all beauties.
This paper was first read at the 1996 Kentucky Foreign Language
Conference, and is reproduced here in Diotima with permission
(Friday, May 31, 1996). Use the back button on your browser to return from the
following endnotes to your place in the text.