Honest Eggs?

Profile of Horace

by D.R. Shackleton Bailey
Harvard University Press, 142 pp., $17.50

In 1741 Sir Robert Walpole, defending himself in Parliament against an impeachment proceeding brought by William Pulteney, concluded with the pious hope, drawn from Horace, that he had been guilty of nothing, and need grow pale at no wrongdoing: “Nil conscire sibi nulli pallescere culpae.” Pulteney leapt at once—but to correct the grammar of the Horatian tag: “Your Latin is as bad as your logic: nullA pallescere culpA!” So delicate a textual point—whether Horace had written a dative or an ablative—could not be left unresolved. A guinea was wagered upon it, and the matter was appealed to the clerk of Parliament, who quickly rejected Walpole’s reading in favor of Pulteney’s.1

Such widely shared learning is hard to imagine now, but it would be even harder had it been displayed over the body of any poet other than Horace. The friend of Virgil, Maecenas, and the emperor Augustus, he has commended himself with equal address to generations of Europeans, and to the English in particular. One of Thackeray’s characters was quite content with an education that enabled one to “quote Horace respectably through life.” Nor is it Horace’s words alone that we cherish. We peep and botanize upon his grave, investing him with a kind of posthumous personality. “Fat, beery, beefy Horace” was the image purveyed to schoolchildren, who were encouraged to view him as a kind of superior scout-master, or freshman adviser. His followers seem to agree, archly, even upon the glint in his eye and the likelihood that, given the opportunity, he would have smoked a pipe or a good cigar.

For such admirers Horace has chiefly himself to blame, so amiable is the figure his poems create. Yet the perils of using a poetic text for autobiographical detail are notorious. One of the crasser examples was that of Sir Walter Scott, who took Shakespeare’s plaint that he was “made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite” as gratifying evidence that Shakespeare was crippled, like Scott himself. Such credulous literalism, an extreme form of the “personal heresy,” has largely vanished from English studies, but it continues to bedevil classical ones. Recently, T.P. Wiseman attempted to reconstruct Lucretius’s life from the De Rerum Natura. Apparently persuaded that the poet could write only of matters he had known in a mechanical capacity, Wiseman discovered a Lucretius who was also a part-time pharmacist and bridge builder.2

Such ungenerous estimates of the poetic imagination have been repeatedly protested. For the first time, probably, by Catullus (poem 16), who warned that the poet’s life could be chaste, even though his verses might—and, in fact, should—appeal to a prurient interest (quod pruriat, “that which itches”). Horace (Epistles 1.19) and Martial (11.15) added similar disclaimers, while Ovid characteristically reduced the issue to an epigram: Nec tamen ut testes mes est audire poetas, “Nor is it customary to listen to poets like sworn witnesses” (Amores 3.12). Or in Matthew Prior’s more elaborate version:

To be vexed at a trifle or two that I’ve writ,

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