The Influence of Horace on the Chief English Poets of the Nineteenth Century

By Mary Rebecca Thayer | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In order properly to discuss the influence of one writer upon another, it is necessary to determine as nearly as may be for what each of them stands; for the measure of real influence is, after all, the amount of sympathy which exists between the two. Therefore, prior to taking up the relation of Horace to nineteenth-century English poetry, we must endeavor to obtain a true idea of him as he shows himself to us.

The attempt to discover a man in his poems is always fascinating, but also to a greater or less extent dangerous. The reason for this is twofold: first, most poets have the faculty of merging their own identity from time to time in the imaginary men and women of whom they write, so that it is indeed Oedipus, or Francesca, or Lady Macbeth, or Paracelsus, whom we hear speaking; secondly, the eager interpreter is all too apt to forget the 'infinite variety' which goes to make up every human being, and, dwelling on certain poems, while disregarding others, to construct therefrom a caricature which the poet himself would be the last to recognize as his portrait.

From the first of these dangers Horace is not so likely to suffer; for it is true that some poets commit more of themselves to their verse than do other, and he belongs to the former class. So careful a student as the late Professor Sellar finds him one of the most self-revealing of poets; and Professor J. Wight Duff, the able historian of Latin literature, says of him: 'No Roman-author except Cicero has left anything like so complete a self-revelation as Horace.1

It is well for us that this is true, since there is no record of him except the brief life by Suetonius, which furnishes a mere biographical outline, but not the vastly more important details of the poet's personality. Concerning Horace there has come down to us none of the contemporary appreciation which helps us to realize even so inscrutable a figure as 'gentle Shakespeare.' It is from Horace alone that we may hope to know Horace--the friend of Virgil, the favorite of Maecenas, the protégé of Augustus, the poet of us all.

From the second danger, however, Horace suffers much. Critic after critic has taken the lighter odes, the vers de société which the poet

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1
A Literary History of Rome, p.496.

-11-

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