Academic journal article Akroterion

Horace: The Misunderstood Lover? Views on Horace's Approach to Lyric Love Poetry in His Odes

Academic journal article Akroterion

Horace: The Misunderstood Lover? Views on Horace's Approach to Lyric Love Poetry in His Odes

Article excerpt


Horace is often placed at the opposite end of the spectrum to Catullus in discussions on Latin lyric love poetry. In this oversimplified view, the poets represent vastly different interpretations of love and the poetic process, Catullus being the prototype Sturm und Drang poet while Horace embodies calm and self-detachment. This essay explores contemporary views on Horace's approach to writing about love, and proposes that an over-emphasis on Horace's political views and interest in public matters has led to a disregard for his views on love. It is further argued that a comparison between Horace's love poetry and that of Catullus is an unjust categorisation which does little to acknowledge Horace's versatile and developmental approach to lyric poetry. Finally, Horace's self-detachment is seen to be the most effective means through which he succeeds in connecting with the experiences of his reader.

A South African interpretation

South African poet Charl-Pierre Naude, in his poem Classical Dialogue, posits a conversation between Horace and Catullus in modern times. At one point Catullus, apparently having suffered memory loss, asks Horace, 'Who are we?' Horace responds: 'The poets of old Rome, the archetypes. You're the poet of love and restless youth. Et moi? The poet of bucolic peace' (Naude 2007:113). The two figures continue to debate the supremacy of their respective 'poetic ideals' (Murray 2012:29). Horace advocates balance, serenity and calm. Catullus considers this a bore and prefers melancholy, burning and agitation--'the lyric of anguish' (Odendaal 2008:191).

At first glance it seems as though Naude is alluding to that common, oversimplified interpretation of Horace, evident when scholars often ascribe to him qualities such as serenity and control, and adversity towards emotional display. However, in a closer reading, it is revealed that Naude is oversimplifying the complex literary relationship between Catullus and Horace for his own purposes, in order to illustrate the chosen perspective of the poet to be either pro-state and order (as Horace is depicted to be) or anti-state and per implication pro chaos, as Catullus seems to be. In a later discussion Naude relates this to the choice before South African poets in a post-Apartheid dispensation to either support and 'build' the State, or criticise it. The choice, he claims, is not as 'obvious' as it was in the previous era (Odendaal 2008:192).

The question of whether Horace was pro-state and pro-order is an entirely different matter to whether he was an intellectual love poet bereft of passion. The interplay between the two questions is significant, however, considering that the perceived focus on Horace as a 'committed public poet' has resulted in a comparative lack of interest in his views on love. This is evident in the views of Lyne (1980:203), who considers that Horace wrote love poetry 'for the occasion', although never affording themes of love disproportionate attention compared to the 'more important' matters in life. Ancona (1999:63) argues that the scholarly neglect for Horace's love poems is evident from the fact that Fraenkel, whom she considers 'one of the most influential Horatian scholars of this century', paid so little attention to these poems, despite themes of love, erotica and desire comprising 'more than a quarter' of Horace's odes. In short, Horace's true regard for love has been largely overshadowed by a fascination with his political views.

Problematic interpretations of Horace and the State

Horace's orientation towards Augustus and the Roman State has captivated scholars since time immemorial. Thom (2004:67) summarises existing literature on Horace's position on Augustus, and finds mainly two positions emerging: those who believe Horace to be generally in support of Augustus (among them West 2002:23), and those who find him to be both more independent from and less supportive of the State (such as Santirocco 1995:225). …

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