The Epistles of Horace.
April is National Poetry Month, and I like to spend as much time as I can in April focusing on verse. And yet, I set myself the task this year of reading and writing non-fiction works of biography, autobiography, diary and letters. Well, it turns out, there is a way out. The Roman lyric poet, Horace, wrote two books of verse epistles, so we can look at poetry and letters.
Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BCE) was one of the greatest of Roman poets. In his Odes, he gave some of the more complicated Greek poetic forms a Latin inflection. He wrote his verse during the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and enjoyed the patronage of Augustus' close friend, Gaius Maecenas. He was quite different from his contemporaries, Virgil (70-19 BCE), who had a serious tone and wrote of lofty matters, and Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE), who was most irreverent when being a wise guy was not always the wisest course. Horace struck a middle path. He was quite capable of writing lofty verse on a national theme (the first six poems in his third book of Odes are all about the virtues that made Rome great), but he generally focused on the simple pleasures of life, and life lived according to Epicurean philosophy. In toto, he wrote the Odes (4 books of lyric verse), the Epodes (1 book of lyric verse), the Satires (2 books of amusing observations in verse) and the Epistles (2 books of verse letters to the famous and not so famous).
The Satires were the first verse Horace published, and the title suggests hard-hitting comic verse, but Horace's Satires were gentle observations, some tongue-in-cheek, of life in Rome. The name of satire was given to this collection much later – Horace called them Sermones ("Conversations" or "Chats"), and they have an easy familiar tone to them, rather like the humor columnists one might see in a newspaper today. Horace brings that same tone to his Epistles, which he wrote towards the end of his life.
The Epistles are ostensibly letters written to friends (and the occasional bigwig) at a time when anyone in the public eye would write hundreds of letters annually to friends, to family and to the powerful. I say ostensibly because they may have begun as letters, but the works we have were clearly intended for publication as a collection of occasional and reflective pieces. We have other collections of letters from the Roman world. The great orator, Cicero, has several volumes of letters. Cicero was a great stylist, and his letters reveal his mastery, but Cicero did not compose his letters for publication. His letters were published posthumously by his secretary, Tiro. During the 2nd c. CE, a wealthy gentleman, Pliny the Younger, published a collection of letters in 10 books. This collection is Pliny's entire literary output, and it is clear that he intended the letters to be published. Here we get what Cicero only sometimes gave us – a series of essays in letter form. In a vein similar to Pliny, but in a more limited range, we have the letters of Seneca the Younger, one of Nero's ministers and a Stoic philosopher of some prominence, whose Moral Epistles to Lucilius are essays on Stoicism. The Roman poet, Ovid, perhaps in imitation of Horace, published a collection of verse letters, the Epistulae ex Ponto ("Letters from Pontus"), sorrowful pieces written in exile by an irreverent poet who'd learned the lesson of where wit can get you.
Other than Cicero, whose letters were not intended for publication, and Ovid, who spends a lot of his time begging forgiveness and trying to get his exile rescinded, all of these letter writers published their letters as a series of essays on various topics. And Horace's collection is no exception.
Horace, in this collection, speaks, as he does sometimes in his Odes and sometimes in his Satires, on the need for moderation in one's life, on resisting the allure of wealth, on the joys of the country, on the pleasures of good company and wine, but most of all, on the task of the poet and the importance of creative writers in the world. This final topic -- the duties of the poet and his importance -- is the focus of the three long letters of the 2nd book. One of these letters (Epistle II.3) is sometimes published separately as an essay – the Ars Poetica -- in which Horace lays out the features of various poetic genres, and their pitfalls.
Horace, in his Latin, keeps a rather conversational tone, no mean task in verse written using the epic meter of dactylic hexameter. And yet, he successfully pulls it off, so that you believe he is simply sharing thoughts with friends (Note: this is a carefully crafted poetic illusion – Horace skillfully hides his skill). And the translator who does the best job of capturing that poetic, yet accessible, style is David Ferry. In one passage, Horace opines:
My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if it was as easy as could be
For anybody to do it . . . (Epistle II.3, trans. David Ferry)
That is no mean accomplishment, and it is an accomplishment that Ferry shares with Horace.
If you choose to read this work, don’t expect the gossip or small talk you sometimes find in letters. And there is little in them that seems like what we get in letters today. Rather you’ll get personal essays from one of the great poets: on life, on simplicity, and most importantly, on a subject very dear to Horace, poetry.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.