Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

By Horace (65–8 B.C.)

“TAKE care of Horace as you would of me” (“Horatii Flacci ut mei esto memor”). The words of the dying Mæcenas to the Emperor Augustus throw a singularly attractive light over the relations of the three famous men whose names they associate. They show the yearning human affection of the great patron of Roman letters for the man of genius whose best work he had made possible, and who had returned his bounty so nobly. They also disclose that redeeming quality in the not too delicate or scrupulous master of the world, which invited on the part of those whom he personally esteemed a homely and trustful familiarity. There is no reason to doubt that the last wish of Mæcenas would have been abundantly heeded; but as the event proved, there was little further occasion for the imperial patronage. Mæcenas passed away after a lingering illness in the summer of 746 (8 B.C.); Horace died suddenly on the 27th of November in the same year: and the affectionate vow not to linger long in life after his good genius had left it, which the poet had recorded in some of his most exquisite verses nearly seventeen years before, thus received a curious and touching fulfillment. The lines were these:—

  • “Why wilt thou kill me with thy boding fears—
  • Why, O Mæcenas, why?
  • Before thee lies a train of happy years;
  • Yea, nor the gods, nor I
  • Could brook that thou shouldst first be laid in dust:
  • That art my stay, my glory, and my trust!
  • Ah, if untimely Fate should snatch thee hence,
  • Thee, of my soul a part,
  • Why should I linger on with deadened sense
  • And ever-aching heart,
  • A worthless fragment of a fallen shrine?
  • No, no—one day shall see thy death and mine!
  • Think not that I have sworn a bootless oath:
  • Yes, we shall go, shall go
  • Hand linked in hand whene’er thou leadest both
  • The last sad road below!”
  • The outlines of the poet’s rather uneventful history may be given briefly. Quintus Horatius Flaccus was born in the year of the city of Rome 689 (65 B.C.) at Venusia, now Venosa, a small hill town lying about a hundred miles from Naples, eastward toward the Adriatic. His father was a freedman who had acquired a modest competence; and the historic name of Horatius was merely that of the great Latin tribe or gens to which the master of the former slave had belonged. That the elder Horace was also a man of much force and dignity of character, we gather from many passages in the writings of the son: most of all from a peculiarly manly and loyal tribute in the sixth satire of the first book. He would give his only child no less than the best instruction possible in those days. He went with him to Rome, and watched carefully over the boy’s manners and morals during his preliminary studies there; and afterward sent him, where only the sons of noblemen and wealthy knights went usually in those days, to finish his education at Athens. There, while nominally attending lectures in philosophy, Horace must have indulged his natural bent, and simply steeped himself in the lyric poetry of Greece: especially in the iambic satires of Archilochus of Paros, and the odes of Sappho, Alcæus, and Anacreon.

    But this congenial and care-free life at Athens was doomed to receive a rude interruption. Horace had left Rome at about twenty, during the supremacy of Julius Cæsar. A year later, in 44 B.C., the dictator fell, and his assassins took refuge in Athens. The crowd of impressionable young Roman students immediately rallied round Brutus, espoused his cause with the utmost enthusiasm, enlisted in the army he was raising, and worshiped him as a republican hero. In return for their devotion, Brutus, when gathering his forces for the last struggle with Antony, distributed commands among these ardent neophytes, for which they were at best not fitted by previous active service. It was thus that Horace was made military tribune at twenty-two, commanded at the battle of Philippi what would correspond to a regiment in a modern army,—and retreated from that fatal field, leaving, as he afterward quaintly confessed, his buckler behind him, when the day and the cause were finally lost. (Odes, Book II., vii.)

    He returned to Italy to find his good father dead, the little Venusian property confiscated as that of a rebel, and a prospect before him which would have been dismal enough to any but one of his sunny and debonair disposition and happy facility in making friends. He presently secured a small place, as we should say, in the civil service; that of quæstor’s clerk. Suetonius says that he purchased it, after making his submission to the authorities (venia impetrata); but I think we may take it for granted that there was no mean or untimely abjuration of his republican creed on the part of one whom in after years even imperial blandishments failed to shake in his quiet independence of thought and action.

    It is plain, at all events, that the freedman’s son never forfeited the place he had won in the best of the young Roman society. Within three years after his return from Greece, we find him upon friendly terms both with Virgil, who was five years his senior, and with the epic poet and tragedian Lucius Varius Rufus. By them he was introduced, at the age of twenty-six, to Mæcenas, the first citizen of Rome at that moment in social and political influence, and the acknowledged arbiter of literary destinies. The poet himself, in the same satire in which he commemorates the fine character and unselfish devotion of his father (Satires, I., vi.), has left us a diverting account of this first momentous interview with Mæcenas—which it pleases him to represent as a conspicuous fiasco. He himself, he says, behaved like an awkward child, while the great man—whom, by the way, he was then addressing—was very distant and awful. But after holding aloof, and considering for a number of months the works and ways of the new candidate for his favor, Mæcenas succumbed without reserve to the young man’s personal fascination, opened wide both his house and his heart, and ended by becoming almost dotingly fond of him. We find Horace in the spring of the next year, 717 (37 B.C.), attached, along with Virgil, to the highly distinguished suite which accompanied Mæcenas on an embassy from Augustus to treat with Antony at Brindisi. About 720—the exact date is nowhere recorded, but it must have been before the close of the civil war in 723—Horace was made independent of the world, and even of any sordid obligation to literature, by the gift of that beautiful little estate among the Sabine Hills which is so closely associated with his name and fame; and where the pilgrim may yet go and pay his vows to that pleasant memory, as at a sweet undesecrated shrine. It was the fittest gift ever made by a liberal man of fortune to a needy man of parts, and both offered and received in the finest spirit. We flatter ourselves in these days that we have reduced charity as well as most other things to a science; but much of the anxious, arbitrary, and over-organized benevolence of modern times, with its disingenuous and dreary subtleties about profusion and pauperization, and its intrinsic selfishness, stands rebuked before the simple and noble give-and-take of these two pagans, which inflicted no hurt upon the dignity of either, while it laid the generations that were to come under endless obligations.

    During his brief period of storm and stress, Horace had already turned his nimble wits to account, and become known to some extent as a satirical poet. “When,” he says (Epistles, II., ii.),—“when I came back with clipped wings from Philippi, poor, insignificant, relieved even of the paternal home and farm, reckless poverty impelled me to verse-making. But now that I am in easy circumstances, you might take it as a symptom of raging fever in me if I could not sleep for the pressure of unwritten poetry!” It is easy to see how this laughing self-depreciation, this resolute refusal to take himself and his brilliant endowments over-seriously, of which across the centuries we can still feel the charm, must have helped to endear Horace to his friends in every grade of life. It was a part of the exquisite savoir-faire which always marked his bearing in the great world; of that innate good sense and invincible good breeding which were as much a gift of heaven to the freedman’s son as his youthful good looks, and no more prejudiced by his rustic boyhood, and his early familiarity with such brave sons of the Italian soil as his father and their racy neighbor at Venusia, the yeoman Ofellus (Satires, II., ii.)

    His unaffected love of nature and a country life was in fact a main safeguard of the poet’s mental health, and the best of all aids to his talent. It breathes in many of the Horatian lines and phrases which linger longest in the memory. Horace never expatiates on his love of natural beauty; rather, it escapes from his verses at intervals, like a hoarded but volatile perfume. Doubtless he was the more reserved, not to say shamefaced, about this deep sentiment of his own, because there was plainly a fashion in the Rome of his day for affecting a rapturous enjoyment of country scenes and pursuits, and affectation of every kind excited his cordial abhorrence. The most detailed and delightful description of rural pleasures which Horace anywhere gives us is to be found in the second Epode: but he has a laugh in the concluding verses at the reader’s expense and his own; and we are bound to take the joke in as good part as the audience probably did when the poem was first read to a distinguished private company. “So spake the money-lender Alphius, all on fire to become a country gentleman; and having called in all the money which fell due upon the Ides, he immediately let it out again upon the Kalends!”

    From the time when he became a landed proprietor, Horace himself passed a considerable part of every year in his country home. The land was more or less impoverished by neglect when he took possession, and the buildings dilapidated. He had the healthful and inexhaustible amusement of repairing, planting, beautifying. Here, under his own vine and fig-tree, he could rest his nerves from city bores, and recuperate his digestion after city banquets. Here he could throw himself into the interests and tickle himself with the humors of his tenants and rustic neighbors, and easily practice the homely hospitality in which his own soul delighted. He by no means renounced the hospitalities of Mæcenas and the gay society of the capital, but he reveled in possessing a safe and convenient retreat from it all. The Sabine property was but thirty miles from Rome. Horace never affected the aristocratic litter, but went and came freely upon his own ambling mule, over one of the most beautiful roads in all the world: southward across the campagna, threading the hoary olives of the first ascent, and passing “many-fountained” Tivoli; then up beside the Anio into the higher hills, until he turned aside upon the left into the sunny silence of a yet more secluded valley,—that of the tributary Digentia, now Licenza.

    The early satires of Horace are plainly an outcome of the studies of Archilochus which he had made at Athens; but he adopts the measure and professes himself rather the disciple of Lucilius, the rude forefather of the Latin satire. Of those first off-hand squibs and sketches,—which he intimates in a passage already quoted that he wrote for immediate pay,—it is uncertain how many he cared afterward to include in his collected writings. The seventh satire of the first book bears marks of having been written very early,—perhaps while he was still playing the soldier in Greece. The third, fourth, and tenth of the first book are in the main apologetic. They defend the satire as the readiest and most efficient weapon of the moralist, and as a wholesome check upon the follies and excesses of men. They also proclaim his own resolve never to abuse the censor’s privilege; and to indulge in no personal criticisms inconsistent with the code of social honor of his age, and with a generally kindly and tolerant view of the infirmities of humankind. The first satire of the second book is one of the most dramatic and amusing of the whole series. It is in the form of a dialogue with one Trebatius,—a rich and famous old lawyer, on the best of terms with the powers that then were, who good-humoredly advises the poet to give up altogether the ticklish trade of a satirist, and when he finds himself growing dangerously hot over the follies of the day, to reduce his temperature by a bath in the Tiber! Great interest attaches to the name of Horace’s supposed interlocutor in this witty piece, for he is the selfsame Trebatius for whom Cicero twenty-five years before had procured a place on the staff of Cæsar in Gaul; who had loathed the hardships of that country, and adroitly avoided following the conqueror to Britain; and in whose beautiful villa at Reggio, Cicero had found refuge ten years later, when he was himself a fugitive from Rome after the death of Cæsar. Trebatius was never the man to have lost his head through any romantic adhesion to a fallen cause; and it is positively startling to see how he preserves his identity across a complete gap of so many years in our knowledge of him.

    All the eighteen satires of the two books, as well as most of the Epodes, were apparently given to the world under the patronage of Mæcenas, during the ten years or so which intervened between the poet’s introduction to that dignitary and the close of the weary civil war by the victory of Actium. In them we find faithfully reflected the daily life of the Roman streets, as well as the fashion of the moment in what claimed to be the most exclusive circles of the capital. The earlier the composition, as a rule, the coarser the language and the more caustic the tone. We fancy that we can see the writer’s expression becoming ever more suave and genial as his temper mellowed with his days of modest prosperity, and his easy and indulgent though never unmanly or ignoble philosophy of life took shape and became a consciously accepted creed. He was never, either in theory or practice, a very rigid moralist. He lashed men’s follies lightly and forgave their lapses freely. Himself, as judged by the standards of the time, a clean and quiet liver, he was content to hold up to ridicule, rather than to stern reprobation, the vices of other men—

  • “Telling a tale not too importunate
  • To those who in the sleepy region stay,
  • Lulled by the singer of an empty day.”
  • We have plenty of proof that there were moments when the gay and facile Horace felt, no less keenly than the pensive and clairvoyant Virgil habitually felt, the essential “emptiness,” for a Roman of that day, which followed the extinction of his civic personality. More and more, as the years of his outwardly successful and brilliant middle life slipped away, the patriotism of Horace became a resolutely smothered regret; while his loves, which can never have been very absorbing or impassioned, resolved themselves into the half amused, half wistful recollection of transient affairs with women who had had many lovers. It is only when he sings of friendship, of honor and gratitude, of faith and charity between man and man, that this convinced Epicurean strikes a deeper note. The brevity of life and the vacuity of death were ever present in the background of his thought; but all the more was he minded to enjoy, to the full, the sunshine of the passing day. Moderation in all things, content with the present, courage in view of an absolutely uncertain future,—these things, in so far as Horace aspires to be didactic, constitute the sum and substance of his teaching.

    It was inevitable that such a man, already fast bound by the warmest of private ties to the first minister of Cæsar Octavianus, should have accepted frankly the changed order of things when the latter returned to Rome in 725, after the battle of Actium and the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, to assume the sceptre of a pacified world. Liberty was past, and it behooved men to be thankful for peace, and poets to praise it; believing if they could that it implied the beginning of another age of gold. A good many of the more respectable and better disposed Romans of that period did probably believe this, after a fashion. The tragic note of covert warning discernible in the ode addressed by Horace (Odes, II., x.) to his ill-fated friend Licinius Murena, the brother-in-law of Mæcenas, who was condemned and executed a few years later for conspiring against the new government, shows how utterly wild and wanton that enterprise must have appeared at the time. Sixty or seventy years were to pass before the mystery of iniquity was ripe and all the vices inherent in the imperial system became fully apparent; before the next great Roman satirist, Persius, gave vent in mordant and melancholy verse to the smothered rage of the best of the patrician remnant, against the degrading “regiment” of their parvenu sovereigns.

    Virtually, therefore, though not officially, Horace became the poet laureate of the court which formed itself about the ruler who presently assumed the name of Augustus. All the great odes of the four books belong to the next fifteen years; and of these, all the statelier and more impersonal were written under imperial inspiration, and some few, like the ‘Carmen Sæculare,’ and the fourth ode of the fourth book,—which celebrates the German victories of Drusus,—in response to direct imperial request. Yet Horace always managed to preserve his personal freedom, and to avoid even the suspicion of servility. He sang the triumphs of Augustus in golden numbers, but he declined with respectful thanks the post of his private secretary. Nor would he write an ode, to order, on the achievements of Agrippa; but politely, if a little ironically, excused himself on the ground that his light muse was unequal to so serious a theme (Odes, I., vi.).

    The first book of the Epistles appeared about 731; probably between the second and third books of the Odes. The second, comprising the unfinished essay on the ‘Art of Poetry,’ was Horace’s last work, produced after he was fifty years old. His health was no longer what it had been, and even the air of the dear valley overlooked by “pleasant Lucretilis” was becoming a trifle too brisk and bracing for his nerves. Tibur (Tivoli) he thought suited him better, and he prepared for himself a little installation there; but confesses in one of his letters (Epistles, I., viii.) that he was restless as the wind:—“When I am in Rome I am in love with Tibur, and when at Tibur, with Rome.” Sometimes he longed for yet softer skies; and the nook of earth which smiled upon him above all others—“Ille terrarum mihi præter omnes Angulus ridet”—was sunny Tarentum, with its long spring and its gentle winter, which produced better honey than Hymettus, better olives than leafy Venafrum, and better grapes than Falernum itself (Odes, II., vi.). The end came when the poet lacked only a few days of having completed his fifty-seventh year; and by order of the Emperor he was laid beside Mæcenas, somewhere in the great gardens which the latter had planted upon the redeemed Esquiline hill.

    It is in the Odes that the genius of Horace finds its most perfect expression, and through them he lives in the memory of mankind. In them he shows himself so consummate an artist in words that he can impart distinction even to the commonplaces of thought and sentiment through the mere perfection of their form. His diction is distilled to such crystalline clearness, he says what he has to say so unapproachably and incredibly well, that his thought would be wronged and obscured by the attempt to express it in any other words than his own. Hence, of all poets ancient or modern, Shakespeare alone excepted, he is perhaps most frequently quoted. The phrase “curious felicity,” applied in the age succeeding the Augustan by Petronius to the style of Horace, is very apt; yet it seems to emphasize just a little too strongly the notion of research. For Horace’s manner is after all so simple and seemingly spontaneous, and his matter of such universal interest, that he has the effect of addressing each reader confidentially, and making a special appeal to him. And this air of exquisite familiarity and naturalness is the more remarkable, because it pleased the accomplished singer of the Odes to discard for the most part the simple iambics and hexameters of his previous compositions, and to employ the most elaborate of Greek lyric measures; molding in a truly miraculous manner the stiff Latin syllables into harmony with the graces of an alien rhythm, and now and again simply paraphrasing from the Greek. The éclat of this feat has helped no doubt to render the adventure of translating Horace more enticing; but he has never been adequately translated, and it is safe to prophesy that he never will be. His qualities are combined in too rare and subtle proportions.

    The first printed edition, with date, of the works of Quintus Horatius Flaccus appeared in Milan in 1474; and almost every year in the four hundred odd that have elapsed since then has added one more to the devoted critics and commentators of his text. The endless procession of his poetical translators comprises, in English only, and within our own time, such names as those of Bulwer-Lytton, Conington, Gladstone, Sir Theodore Martin, and Sir Stephen de Vere; while the lively paraphrases of the brothers Field and of F. P. Adams, perhaps for the very reason that they deal with Horace so nearly in the spirit in which he dealt with his Grecian models, appear to come nearer, sometimes, than all the laborious efforts of more exact scholars to catching the tone of the inimitable original.

    The subjoined English versions are nearly all selected from these more modern renderings, for the reason that they are upon the whole both the most scholarly and the most successful; and an effort has been made to present a fair idea of their comparative merits.