It is the Odes of Horace that have most greatly affected poetry. Horace created his Odes in the middle of his life, while living primarily on a farm in the Sabine hills of Italy. The farm was given to Horace by his friend, Maecenas. Sabine is a beautiful pastoral environment outside of Rome, where Horace lived in virtual solitude, dealing only with a land foreman and eight slaves. The land foreman and slaves kept up the farm, while Horace focused on his poetry. Horace lived in virtual independence, inaccessibility, and invisibility to the state of Rome during his time in Sabine. The inspiration for both the form and content of Horace’s odes were drawn from the pastoral peace of his Sabine farm. The subtlety and patience of the forms of his Odes reflect the subtlety and patience of nature; and the glorification of nature’s beauty in his odes reflect the glory of the natural beauty that was around him. The form and content drawn from his small farm in Sabine, Italy were so beautiful that they have resonated across the entire world for over 2,000 years.
Most of the classical poetry now considered great is in the form of the epic. The epic form is nice to achieve many things – an author can create a storyline from which they can explore many themes. In the Aeneid, Virgil creates a great hero and follows him across seas, into battles, and even into the underworld. Along the way, through his artistic vision, Virgil can deeply explore every scene, piece of human nature, myth, or slice of life that Aeneas encounters. Classic epics like the Aeneid were narratives much like modern novels. Since the invention of the novel as an art form, it is pretty much the sole form in which a long narrative is written. Epic poems have nearly disappeared. There are some exceptions (The Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Faust come to mind), but in general, a gradual split in the written word occurred after the classical time period. That split is now very apparent. On one side of the split there is prose, and on the other, there is poetry. Long narratives that used to be written on the side of poetry are now written on the side of prose, in the art of the novel. Since the split, we primarily find stories like that of Aeneas in the works of novelists like Mann, Joyce, Proust, Twain, and Chabon. In modern languages, novelists dominate the long narrative . Poetry has had to redefine itself. It has done so in a very particular ancient way. Most poetry since the invention of the novel looks shorter, with fewer narratives, many visual juxtapositions, and complex wording. Most poetry since the invention of the novel looks like the Odes Horace wrote on his Sabine farm in Italy over 2,000 years ago.
What a Poem Does…
Epic poems, like novels, follow life. In these art forms we see life taking place through an author’s story; we see the ideas the author sees in life brought out in the author’s story. In Horace’s Odes, and most poetry since the invention of the novel, ideas are the focus. In this art form, we see an idea explored through many varied snapshots of life. This is most clearly seen in Horace’s Carmine 9.
Horace’s Carmine 9 begins with the picture of a heavy snow on a great mountain freezing rivers and trees. The poem moves into a cabin party with wine and fire, where the author conjures up images of the ocean. On the warm winds of the ocean, Horace invites the reader to imagine love and spring. In this warm love, we see a picture of a girl laughing in a corner. Those six images are presented in six stanzas of four lines. This poem ignores any narrative of life and follows a narrative of an idea: the snow is a picture of winter – the death of the year, – it is contrasted with a picture of spring – a reason to resist death and enjoy life, – and it ends with the picture of a girl – enjoyment of love. Horace takes his idea about the worth of life (don’t worry about death, enjoy life, enjoy love) and bends many images of life around it to show the subtle, natural progression of his thoughts. This is the poetic style that has come to dominate poetry since the invention of the novel. We can see it in, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats.
John Keats is arguably the greatest of the romantic poets. Whether or not he was the greatest, his style reflects the whole movement of Romantic Poetry. In Ode to a Grecian Urn, Keats presents us with a beautiful picture of a Grecian Urn; then Keats talks about music, saying that unheard music is better; then we see a beautiful summer scene with ripe apples that cannot fall off their boughs, with Keats saying that life cannot be appreciated without death; then we see a group of people leaving a town to go up a mountain to sacrifice for the dead, with Keats saying the town will never have life again; Keats ends by describing the beauty of the Urn again. We see Keats’ ideas about the importance of beauty in life being defended by various scenes of life in a subtle, natural progression.
How a Poem Does it…
The most prominent way we see Horace and poets since the invention of the novel achieve such subtle, natural progressions, is by using words very economically. Edgar Allen Poe embodies the writing of his generations. His criticisms have been studied and referenced by almost every great writer since his death. In Poe’s criticism of Poetry, he says that a poem should be short enough to be read entirely in one sitting. This type of economy is very clear in Horace’s Odes. None of Horace’s Odes are longer than 100 lines. This length is very economical word use considering Horace explores some of the most complex ideas and human emotions of all time in his odes. Many of Horace’s Odes make the reader deeply feel his effects in less than 30 lines. Horace’s greatest tools to achieve this are complex line construction and word economy, both of which have been used by many poets since the invention of the novel.
Horace’s Carmina 5, is a great example of Horace’s economy with language. Carmina 5 is only 16 lines long, but in it, Horace presents us with many beautiful images and a very clear idea about love. It begins with a beautiful image of Pyrrah being embraced by a man on a bed of roses. It then moves to the destructive powers of her beauty, displaying dark waters that crashed many ships. In the end, though, Horace puts himself among the men shipwrecked by Pyrrah, and says that he would put up his torn and wet garments to praise her, saying love is worth hardship.
Horace achieves these images and this idea with very few, precisely placed words. The image of Pyrrah with her lover on a bed of roses is presented like this:
Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
Only seven words. The center image is Pyrrah, the female you – “Te.” Surrounding that image, and also, though Horace’s work with the language, that word, is a slender boy – “Gracilis…puer.” Surrounding both of them, both in the image and the wording, are many roses – “Multa……rosa.”
With a skillful economy of the language, Horace achieves an image that most narratives would need to take several sentences to describe in seven words. Most narratives would describe each part of the image, and explain how each image touches the other. Horace does this with the touching of the words themselves. Horace gives us the image more concisely, more meaningfully, and more beautifully than can be attained in a long narrative. Horace’s descriptions are short, natural, and yet perfectly precise. This is the art form most poetry has pursued since the invention of the novel.
Ezra Pound, often called, “The inventor of modern poetry in English,” studied and translated Horace. Many of Pound’s own poems reflect Horace’s economy with language. In just 16 words, Pound’s poem, ALBA, gives the reader a beautiful image of a girl laying beside him. In those same 16 words, Pound takes the image of the girl to the plain of nature’s beauty with a simile to lily pads. It is with careful construction with economical attention to word use that Pound achieves this effect in just 16 words.
T.S. Eliot often employs the tactic that Horace employs in the first line of Carmina 5. In the first line of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot surrounds the names of the character with the words of the scene surrounding them, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…” This is much like how Pyrrha and the slender boy are surrounded by the bed of roses in the first line of Horace’s Carmina 5.
As I have said before, in his Odes, Horace explores some of the deepest ideas and human emotions know to man. However, Horace does not do this within a grand context like the epic poets did. Horace focuses on small parts of life and normal people. This tactic of using normal life to explore large ideas is common in poetry since the invention of the novel.
Horace states his denial of exploring like a philosopher in his poetry in Carmina 7. He begins the Ode with a denunciation of other poets’ styles. Horace says that he does not want to deal with the ennobled Apollo, honorable Juno, nor ever-virgin Pallas. Horace says he is instead charmed by unknown, rich plains and silent groves. This is indicative of what he does in most of his Odes. In Carmina 6, Horace says the songs he wants to sing are of banquets and fierce lovers. Horace’s description of the fierce lover is not simple, though. In his description of lovers, with his complex word structure, he implies that the female lovers have both clipped their nails to look pretty, and to scratch the backs of their male lovers. Horace explores complex ideas through simple situations in many of his Odes, as he does the complexity of chivalry and passionate love in Carmina 6.
Alexander Pope talks about dealing with bringing the large ideas of the world into the small context of everyday life by bringing, “The ways of God to man,” in his poem, “Essay On Man.” In this poem, Pope defines this form of poetry very well, saying, “Say first, of God above, or man below/ What can we reason, but from what we know?” Through the rest of the poem, Pope deals with the actions and reasoning of man to explain god. He takes the biggest concept he could think of (god), and explores it through the comparatively small subject of human actions and reasoning.
We see this attitude also in the very personal poetry of Dylan Thomas. We see this form of poetry very clearly in Thomas’ great poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The poem opens with the fact that it will be dealing with the complicated issue of old age and dying. Instead of approaching the rest of the poem with a philosophical air, Thomas talks about the acts of four different dying men. Thomas talks about the dying men’s inner-passions and outward fighting. Thomas deals with the grand issue of death through personal, human experience.
Nature was the most common subject that Horace used to explore his ideas. In many of his Odes, Horace would relate the actions of man to the natural world. He saw the human function as an extension of the order he saw in Nature. Nature, and man’s relationship to nature, has become a major subject of poetry since the invention of the novel.
The great analogy Horace gives that shows his love for the natural order of nature is by comparing his art, with the art of Pindar. According to Horace, Pindar was a great poet of triumphs. In Horace’s view, Pindar was like a great swan soaring over the world, effortlessly conquering the higher air in his art. Horace, in his art, wanted to be like the bee. The bee flies also, but much closer to the ground than the swan. The bee moves from flower to flower, carefully examining each, instead of looking at the whole at once. We see this small scale examination in other aspects of Horace’s Odes that I have discussed: Horace bends many small images of life around his ideas, and he denounces focusing on the large, lofty ideas of the upper-air. Horace looks at man as an organic extension of nature, and explores nature’s functions to explain man’s functions.
This has become common in poetry since the invention of the novel. In almost all of Robert Frost’s poems, we see Frost comparing the actions of man with the actions of nature. In, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost explores the idea of death. A weary traveler stops on a snowy meadow, and thinks about giving up his travels. His horse, one of nature’s steadiest creatures, insists that his master and he keep moving. In the end, the traveler goes on because he has miles to go from the same perspective of the horse, and from a second, deeper perspective. In, “Fire and Ice,” Frost explores the idea of human passion through the natural action of fire, and the natural action of ice. Ice melts, and fire consumes, passion can go either way, says Frost. Again, in, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Frost explores a human emotion through nature. He compares man’s loss of innocence to the natural progression of flowers fading.
Another poet who used nature as one of their main subjects was Wallace Stevens. Stevens also uses nature as a tool with which to explore the natural actions of man. In his great poem, “Sunday Morning,” Stevens sustains the image of a woman calmly thinking about religion through a nature scene on a Sunday morning. What the woman sees in nature reflects her thinking, and the natural actions of birds prove to be the natural order of man’s thinking.
Horace’s great work (The Odes), are much different from most classical poets’ great works. Most classical poets explored their themes through long narrative poems called epics. In their epics, these classical poets mostly followed a narrator through a natural series of events, elaborately describing the journey. The epic poets often charted the large ideas of the gods, and watched as their heroes moved across the natural world. Horace, on the other hand, took many different images of the world that may seem unconnected, and pulled them together around his theme. Horace was sparse with his words, making sure every one was placed perfectly for deliberate exactitude and effect. Horace focused on men, and the natural world from which they came. The natural beauty of the Sabine farm shows through Horace’s Odes.
With the invention of the novel, the long narratives of epic poetry began to be written in the prose art of the novel. The type of poetry Horace was writing while other poets were writing epics looks much like the poetry written since the invention of the novel. I have shown how many poets since the invention of the novel have written poetry much like Horace’s poetry. I have only explored English poetry, as it is the only language I can read, but I have spanned many generations and styles of poetry through the poets I compared with Horace. These poets are not minor poets. Most of them epitomize a style of poetry or started a school of poetry. Horace’s influence can be seen far beyond the specific poets I discussed.
With this essay, I am not attempting to draw a direct line between Horace and every poet since the invention of the novel. A long research piece could be written on Horace’s direct influence on other poets (Auden, Pound, and Keats discuss him thoroughly in their memoirs). In this essay, I am merely pointing out some connections between Horace’s 2,000 year old art, and the art of many poets since the invention of the novel. It is a beautiful art. Horace epitomizes it. His poems capture the beauty of life he saw on his Sabine farm. His poems captured beauty. That is why his methods have been used for centuries, and will probably be used for centuries to come. People all over the world always want to capture magnificence in life as great as the magnificence Horace captured on his Sabine farm. The resonance of Horace’s craft in poetry hence, is a testament to his mastery of his art.