Poetry is itself a crisis. Another vernacular poet, Walt Whitman, places crisis at the heart of his confessional masterpiece, Song of Myself, where “on the verge of a usual mistake,” and imagining his “own crucifixion and / bloody crowning,” he emerges as a new creator: “I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power, one of an average / unending procession” (sections 38, 39).
Horace’s aesthetic anticipates Whitman’s egalitarian spirit, the everlasting yea. For he guides us through his ideas of poetry-as-process, inspiration-as-failure, & creativity-as-failing-better; in the first Epistle he is “a beat-up old timer” who is “giving up my verses and all / Other foolishness of that sort, and now / Devote myself entirely to the study / Of what is genuine and right for me.”* The Latin suggests that the poet replaces one school (ludo) for another. Hence his gladitorial metaphor; but ludi can mean other activities, schools, games, kinds of play, and especially for poets, erotic play. The original Latin, “quid verum atque decens curo et rogo et omnis in hoc sum,” suggests an inquiry of the good (an absolute) a la Socrates, which emphasizes conduct, wisdom (sapientia), knowledge of the fundamental things. The word decens also calls for attention. In Ode XVIII, Horace addresses Bacchus and Venus; the former is called a benign father (“potius, Bacche pater”), and the latter as “decens”––accompanied with the Graces. Decens has three senses: 1. as an adjective morphed into a noun for philosophical purposes, 2. a closer calque of the Greek prepon than decorum, and 3. a gloss of the Panaetian sense of prepon, that which is proper, fitting, appropriate. These are the layers of complexity that Horace wishes to “study,” but what, still, are the gains and losses of public life?
Built into his initial thoughts in the first Epistle are strife, uneasiness, mood-shifting from storm (tempestas) and hedonism to a “champion of virtue.” Where is he? And why is he writing this to his patron?
Part of the consideration comes from the fact that this first epistle was likely written last. Horace hints at this in the first few lines, where Maecenas is the “first to be named in the first / Poem I ever wrote and you’ll be the last I’m ever going to write.” Yet we readers are only at the beginning.
*From David Ferry’s unmatchable rendering of the Epistles (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002).
Emily E. Batinski, “Horace’s Rehabilitation of Bacchus,” The Classical World, 84.5 (May–June, 1991), 361–78.
Roland Mayer, “Horace’s Epistles I and Philosophy,” The American Journal of Philology, 107.1 (Spring, 1986), 55–73.
A. D. Morrison, “Didacticism and Epistolarity in Horace’s Epistles,” Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (2007).