Sunday, March 06, 2011

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Horace!

Our book today is Archibald Campbell's big fat dense opinionated 1924 volume Horace, which is, pound for pound, my favorite book on Quintus Horatius Flaccus, that most beloved and approachable of Roman poets. So approachable, in fact, that Campbell's book had to win its spot in my heart against some incredibly fierce competition: there have been thousands of good books written about Horace in the last three hundred years, arguing over every single possible aspect of the poet and his work - from the details of his life to the order of his poems to his influence on every poet who's come after him.  W. Y. Sellar, Gil Highet, D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Eduard Fraenkel ... the list of first-rate scholars, writers, and popularizers who've taken Horace as their subject is very long. Campbell himself is alive to this fact (he himself was writing in Sellar's shadow) and fills his donnishly chatty book with reasons why Horace would enjoy such an appeal:
He is certainly a great artist; the purest Roman literature can show us, Virgil having more of genius and inequality. Horace has indeed, as I have remarked already, a strictly limited array of themes; though all are good ones. He has even, if my analysis of his form is not most grossly out - he has even, in by far the greater portion of his maturest and most characteristic work, but one single type of poem! Yet not even by his own custom can his infinite variety be staled. It is what he does that tells, and he hardly ever does the same thing twice. His subjects he repeats innumerably, he almost never repeats himself. What the ancients cared about in poetry was two things: the soul of the poem, and its body; the structure, and the surface; the composition, and the style. His treatment is always unique, his language always individual. He takes over all the conventions that were available for him; but he used them for his own ends; they are but a medium for his meaning. He cannot be translated; metre and language are fused into his work; the effect cannot be extricated from them.

But many writers sing Horace's praises - the fact that Campbell does that isn't the only reason I go back to his book over and over. No, the rest of the reasons are harder to pin down. I like the fact, for instance, that he under-estimates Horace ("Horace's poetry is good for this age; but not sufficient"), as so many scholars tend to do - it makes both him and Horace seem more human; I like the fact that he seems to have discovered the semi-colon about ten minutes before his book went to the printers and over-uses it like a child running wild on Christmas morning; I like the fact that his book is unapologetically soup-to-nuts, giving us Horace's life and times, a complete overview of poetry's place in the ancient world (an excursus he actually tells readers they can skip if they like! Let's hope none of them did!), and a full explication of everything Horace wrote; and I like the old-world certainty with which Campbell assumes his readers already know their Horace. That last one is a pleasure rapidly vanishing from the world of classical studies, if it isn't entirely vanished already: the assumption of classical knowledge on the part of the reader. Writers who make such an assumption might occasionally paraphrase things in French, but they'll feel no obligation to translate anything older:
We see, then, that the standpoint vulgarly known as classical is that which Horace is opposing; and more explicit proof soon follows. Horace, too, in his turn, appeals to the Greeks; but he uses the appeal of antiquity in the right way. In language which ought never to be forgotten he tells his generation that the great classics were in their own day great innovators:

quod si tam Graecis novitas invisa fuisset

quam nobis, quid nunc esset vetus?

That is unanswerable.

The same is true for Campbell's anecdotes (believe it or not - and in the context of the rest of this entry, how on Earth could you? - he's actually quite a funny writer, happily willing to tweak the noses of snobs and dilettantes alike), which gain their maximum punch through the fact that our author doesn't feel the need to stop and annotate them:
There is not getting over the fact that, as Pindar pointed out, Typhon does not like music; and people who do not care for music are generally, I think, not fond of Horace's Odes.

I'm not sure there are 100 readers left in the world today who would smile, as I did, at that reference - who would nod upon seeing it and then keep reading. Probably not everybody in Horace's own reading public got such a reference, but the audience he had always in his mind while he wrote understood him perfectly - or so he hoped.

Campbell goes over every single line of Horace with minute and comprehensive attention, and that, too, is refreshing. Sometimes the raw work of scholarship happening right in front of you is the perfect anecdote for an afternoon spent re-writing textbooks for schoolchildren. As noted, other studies of Horace have come and gone since this one was published ninety years ago, but work and thought and spirit like this are evergreen, or should be.

1 comment:

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Chaucer! | stevereads said...

[...] to bequeath to posterity some of the finest, most enjoyable poetry in the English language. Like Horace (but unlike Shakespeare and Milton, the two titans who were to follow), Chaucer thinks it natural [...]