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Loving Horace

Horace’s Odes by William Morris

I recently finished teaching Horace, Epistles, Book 1, to my fourth-year Latin poetry class. One of the things I like about my current position is that I get to teach texts that have no direct bearing on my research. I research late antique Latin prose letters written by bishops of Rome. The fact that they are letters in Latin is the strongest link these texts have to Horace.

I get to teach literature that I simply like with no wider vision in mind. I even got to choose — Horace’s Epistles, Ovid’s Letters from Pontus, one of Ovid’s Heroides, and some of Ausonius’ verse letters (I couldn’t keep Late Antiquity out!).

Not all of my students enjoy Horace. For some, it’s simply that, compared with Ovid, Heroides 1, Horace’s Epistles are more difficult, both in terms of Latin grammar and vocabulary and in terms of grasping what he means. Horace is harder to interpret, at least here. Some dislike the moralist attitude he often adopts in the Epistles, others aren’t enamoured with his love of the countryside.

I, on the other hand, really enjoy Horace’s Epistles. In fact, I like Horace at large, even with ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland) and ‘odi profanum uulgus et arceo’ (I hate and shun the profane mob). I also have to admit that I don’t always agree with Horace’s philosophy.

The basic principles of Horace’s philosophy as spelled out in the Epistles seem okay to me — live a contented life whatever the circumstances; each man is the measure of his own freedom; indebtedness to others is no true freedom; live in accordance with your own nature, even if that means you differ from other wise men; Homer offers more wisdom than the philosophers.

Nevertheless, his own self gets in the way. Sure — live a contented life wherever you are. But wouldn’t you rather live in the country like me? Isn’t it better to avoid the City (Rome) in August and September? I can see how some people, reading always with suspicion — especially with suspicion of wealthy aristocrats — would dislike Horace for this, let alone his two famous phrases above.

Nonetheless, I did see students coming around. One student loved how beautiful his verse is. This is a statement that cannot be borne out by an English blog post. Read it yourself. It is beautiful. Horace is a consummate poet. We could also balance out some of his hard edges with his fables that always surprise the reader used to different modes of poetic voice — suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he tells the story of the horse and the stag doing battle …

But for an individual reader, balancing the positive and negative will not always work. Can we love Horace without having to like him?

Well, we can theoretically love our neighbours and enemies without always liking them.

Perhaps we begin with the balance — the fables, the beauty, the philosophy, the syntax, the morals. Uneven. Unequal. Human. Rather than trying to allow the good to outweigh the bad, simply acknowledge this situation.

Maybe then seek empathy. His inconsistencies in philosophy, for example, merely make him human, not a bad poet. Consider why he loves the country. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of his philosophical and moral statements. Then read the Latin aloud for its sonorous beauty. Parse a sentence and see his art, grammar, syntax, all at work at once.

Read Horace as high art, beautiful poetry, created by a flawed human, as weak and feeble as all of us.

Maybe then the resistant reader can come to love him.

Finally — loving Horace is different from loving Ovid, and different again from loving Virgil, let alone from loving Shakespeare or T S Eliot. And that’s okay.

But I think you could try this with any author.

Full disclosure: The inspiration for this post was Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.