Thursday, April 28, 2011


L. B. T. Houghton, Maria Wyke (ed.), Perceptions of Horace: A Roman Poet and His Readers. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 366. ISBN 9780521765084. $99.00.

Reviewed by Jonathan Wallis, University of Tasmania (

Version at BMCR home site


This disparate collection of Horatian essays is very aptly titled. The editors of Perceptions of Horace want to focus our attention on the ways in which the suggestively affable personality of Horace's texts and the differing priorities of his readers over two thousand years have interacted to form often vividly-conceived portraits of the poet behind the poetry, as well as differing contemporary takes on what this figure represents. The collection adopts a traditional starting point in the ways that the Horatian text itself offers up its various personae; but, predominantly, these essays engage with the ways that readers—including Horace himself—have since understood and redeployed these various 'Horaces'. Thus this is essentially a series of studies in Horatian reception, but with emphasis being given to tracing the operation of 'reception' even in the ongoing writing of the poems (where Horace is his own first reader), and to the pervasive feature of Horace's later reception (in common with that of Catullus and Martial), that reading his poetry is regarded especially as an interaction with the poet himself. This sets up what its editors regard as the centralising theme of their wide-ranging collection: 'it is of crucial significance that … who wrote the poetry of Horace depends very largely on where you're looking from' (p. 3). Whence, once again, we gain the collection's title—through these essays we shall engage with perceptions of Horace.

The collection has its origin in a conference held at University College London in July 2007. The scope and amibition of the resulting book is avowedly broad: its introduction promises a focus over seventeen ensuing chapters 'on particular episodes in the life and afterlife of the Horatian corpus, encompassing a range of different media and historical periods' (p. 6). At this level, Perceptions of Horace offers frequent and valuable illumination, especially through contributions from some of the most important names of Horatian and Latin literary scholarship. Within the broad field of reception studies, this collection's focus on perception is useful, too, in reminding readers of the ways in which 'Horace'—in particular—has often been identified as a meaningful individual in the mindsets of those who have engaged with his writing.

I should note, though, that the breadth promised in the editors' introductory sales pitch does prove slightly disingenuous: the coverage within the collection concentrates mostly on the classical period (chs. 1-8) and on the 17th-18th centuries (chs. 10-15), leaving editor Houghton's own contribution on Petrarch (ch. 9) and the closing pieces from Harrison and Talbot on the 19th and 20th centuries respectively feeling, as a result, a little like historical outliers (also refreshing variation!); the editorial gesture towards a range of media really plays out only in Mayer's paper on Otto Vaenius' 1607 pictorial representations of Horatian sententiae (ch. 11). Nevertheless, it is actually the book's own introductory pages—by taking an oddly prominent and defensive stance on the question of coverage (pp. 6-7)—that make this more of an issue than it need be. While there are certainly gaps, the book's coverage didn't strike me as a problem, and it shouldn't detract from the collection's greatest strength: its genuine worth as a frequently insightful series of individual engagements with the central theme of Horatian reception (and I glance at several of the more valuable of the contributions below).

More troublesome for me—when approaching this collection as a book—is its unevenness in tone and scope, and its overlap with two recent publications on Horace, the two Companions produced by Cambridge (2007) and Blackwell (2010). On the question of style, some of the contributions here are presented as fully worked-up articles, while others show more clearly their roots in the oral delivery of the conference format; in addition, particularly early in the collection one encounters several sustained and intricate close readings of individual poems (Gowers' piece on Satires 1 is a stand-out here, in the second chapter); the second half of the collection, however, is marked by broader chapters with an inevitably more general manner, as for instance with Stevenson's 'series of snapshots' (p. 182) of English women's engagement with Horace across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (ch. 10), and Wilson's use of Horace as a test-case in her overview of the practice of writing classical commentaries for a vernacular audience in eighteenth-century England (ch. 15). At the same time, it is these latter, more generalising chapters that share considerable material and purpose with the 'reception' sections of the recent Companions - particularly the Cambridge Companion, whose pieces on reception are also arranged by historical period. I hasten to add that I don't mean to judge these different approaches as intrinsically better or worse in themselves, but rather to point out that across the course of the book a significantly different familiarity with the primary material is assumed in the book's readers—and that this works to complicate the book's having any single purpose. Besides this, the more general observations about the use to which Horace was put in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will already be familiar to many readers.

The first eight chapters of Perceptions of Horace are located in classical home-territory, with investigations of the figure 'Horace' in the Latin texts of classical authors, including the texts of Horace himself. In several cases, the individual contributors have made very productive use of the collection's focalising theme. Martin Dinter (ch. 5) offers the provocative approach of reading 'Horace' as the collocation of his poetic sententiae, as abstracted from their various generic contexts, a poetic ideology thus laid bare by stripping away surrounding narrative—'Horace's sententiae, when pieced together, serve to convey a sense of an author' (p. 106); though, perhaps, Dinter offers a suggestive methodology rather than a discussion of the consequence of reading Horace in this way. Barbara Graziosi (ch. 8) introduces the attractive possibility that Horace's conspicious efforts to construct his own poetic persona borrow from the conventions of the Hellenistic biographical tradition and the related cultic worship of Greek poets as miraculous figures rooted in a local landscape (though, by contrast, Graziozi perhaps goes too far in suggesting that Horace was thus guarding against future misappropriation of his own persona by providing his proto-cultic readers with an authorised 'biography' as he went along). But, to my eyes, three chapters from this section of the book stand out in particular. Denis Feeney (ch. 1) opens the collection with one of the more important contributions to the ensuing discussions of Horatian reception by positioning Horace himself as his own first reader, as well as in a position where his own reception by other readers (staged, or 'real') actually becomes one of the themes of the poetry, in the guise of a tension between a creative artist and his jealous audience. Jennifer Ingleheart's excellent piece (ch. 7) reads Tristia 2 for Ovidian engagement with Horatian engagement with the imperial system, and with the authority of Augustus in particular; Ingleheart makes much of Ovid's differences from his model, whereby Ovidian self-construction occurs via ironic contrast with the outwardly more 'successful' career of Horace, vis-a-vis the emperor. And Emily Gowers (ch. 2) provides one of the real treats of the collection, a delightfully subtle reading of Horatian play with the multivalency of the term finis during the quasi-philosophical journey of Satires 1—simultaneously a temporal marker, a boundary or terminus, a moral goal, and a symbol of literary closure.

Luke Houghton's ninth chapter on Petrarch, Andrew Lang and Horatian epistolary precedent intercedes between the classical perceptions of Horace, and the seventeenth and eighteenth century incarnations which dominate the second half of the book. Houghton also introduces a theme of readerly reflexivity which recurs regularly across these latter chapters. When discussing Petrarch's verse epistle Ad Horatium Flaccum, Houghton offers the important observation that Horace's personality as it emerges in Petrarch's letter bears remarkable similarity to Petrarch's own persona as found elsewhere in his vernacular lyric verse; as part of a programme to eradicate distance between him and his classical predecessor, it seems not so much that Petrarch has recognised Horace in himself, but rather that he has recognised Petrarch in Horace (the case of Lang seems the exception among the book's later engagements with Horace for its emphasis on distance and difference, as Houghton goes on to discuss). Yet, in ways similar to the Petrarchan epistle, the various Horaces of the remaining chapters are not, in each instance, a classical figure necessarily translated for a contemporary setting, but are rather comfortingly familiar figures, invoked as already representing (or being perceived to represent) values held dear by—or deemed appropriate for—their later readership. Thus Jane Stevenson (ch. 10) links the unusually high use of Horace by educated female readers and writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with an appreciation of Horace's simple, rural character as 'extremely compatible with the posture of refined retirement suitable for an aristocratic woman' (p. 184); in the same vein, Stephen Harrison (ch. 16) offers a window into his ongoing work on Horace's impact in the Victorian era with a lucid discussion in which '[o]nce again we find Horace the honorary Victorian gentleman' (p. 295); while Roland Mayer (ch. 11)—the one chapter which engages a non-textual perception of Horace—pleasantly portrays the pictorial Horatian Emblemata of Otto Vaenius as a contemporary exercise in humanist morality where 'the reader or viewer is meant to see that the moral lesson of the [Horatian] motto applies to him or her here and now' (p. 202). But the inevitable consequence of using Horace in this way is that, in the end, perceptions of Horace soon give way to the self-perceptions of Horace's readers. This gradual effacement of a classical Horace as the book progresses reaches its ironic conclusion in John Talbot's wonderful final paper (ch. 17) on the fashionability of writing English Alcaics in the mid-twentieth century. It was Auden, consciously aligning himself with Horace, who did most to embed Alcaics in English verse; but Talbot points out here, in wry tones, that Auden's great influence gave immense popularity to the Alcaic stanza 'among those writing without Horace in mind, and even in some cases without any knowledge of Horace at all' (p. 317).

This is a constructive, thoughtful and often entertaining series of essays which, as a collection, adopts a nuanced approach within the busy field of Horatian reception. The scope and manner of the individual contributions vary across the course of the book, but every Horatian scholar will find many points of value and illumination in this significant collection.

Table of Contents:

1. Becoming an authority: a Roman poet and his readers (Denis Feeney)
2. The ends of the beginning: Horace, Satires 1 (Emily Gowers)
3. Horace's Bacchic Poetics (Alessandro Schiesaro)
4. Horace: critics, canons and canonicity (J. S. C. Eidenow)
5. Laying down the law: Horace's reflection in his sententiae (Martin Dinter)
6. Social status and the authorial personae of Horace and Vitruvius (Marden Nichols)
7. Writing to the emperor: Horace's presence in Ovid's Tristia 2 (Jennifer Ingleheart)
8. Horace, Suetonius, and the Lives of the Greek poets (Barbara Graziosi)
9. Two Letters to Horace: Petrarch and Andrew Lang (L. B. T. Houghton)
10. Horace and Learned Ladies (Jane Stevenson)
11. Vivere secundum Horatium: Otto Vaenius' Emblemata Horatiana (Roland Mayer)
12. The poet's voice: allusive dialogue in Ben Jonson's Horatian poetry (V. A. Moul)
13. Theme and variation: Horace in Pope's correspondence (Niall Rudd)
14. Appropriating Horace in eighteenth-century France (Russell Goulbourne)
15. Horace and eighteenth-century commentary (Penelope Wilson)
16. Horace and the Victorians (Stephen Harrison)
17. A late flowering of English Alcaics (John Talbot)

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