A very late Victorian
HORACE: A LIFE by Peter Levi
Duckworth, £25, pp. 270 he British have always felt that they had a special affinity with the great lyric and conversational poet of Augustan Rome. He has been given an anglicised name: not Quintus Horatius Flaccus but Horace. It comes as quite a surprise to find that many Germans, many Italians, and many Frenchmen have had just the same feeling about themselves and their tradi- tion (and have known the poet as Horaz, and Orazio, and Horace). That is no acci- dent. Horace expressed, with extraordinary elegance and concision, some of the time- less attitudes of the man of the world; and he also constructed, with care and consis- tency, a picture of himself — smooth, rounded, urbane — which has convinced generations of his readers that they truly knew the man.
Peter Levi, poet and man of letters, has written an account of Horace and his work which 'is meant for readers with little or no Latin, but with some interest in poetry, and some curiosity about history'. It is absolute in its opposition to modern literary theory ('the serpentine manacles of theorists'), and it displays a genial scorn for profes- sional scholars, except for the late Profes- sor Eduard Fraenkel: we read of 'judicious professors', with their mission to 'make Horace hard work'; 'scholars, not untypi- cally, are content' with some foolish pedantry or other; 'scholars are obstinate, in their shambling way'; and so on.
The professional, thus provoked, mumbles a few tiresome corrections of fact. The chariot of the goddess Venus is drawn by swans: that is mentioned in two poems, and it is a pity that here they are translated, both times, as geese. When Horace passes through the town of Rubi and 'does not say [the poet] Ennius was born there', that is because Ennius was born at Rudiae, 100 miles away. It is strange to excogitate a theory to explain why the first book of the Odes contains 39 poems ('his intention is Probably to offer the first nine as examples of nine metres he can use for lyric poetry, Which leaves 30 odes as the contents, prop- erly speaking'), when the number of poems in the book is 38. `Aela Gallia, daughter or sister of Aelus Gallicus', a very unconvinc- ing set of names, should read, `Aelia Galla, daughter of Aelius Gallus'. So there!
But that sort of thing, to be honest, is not very frequent in Levi's book, and really it is beside the point. What we have here is a fine example of an old-fashioned literary form: the book by a well-informed and enthusiastic amateur, talking to the reader about a poet whose work he has loved for many years. Disarmingly, Levi declares his stance at once: 'Today there is something farcical about the late Victorians, close to whom I count myself.' He loves some of the poems, is tepid about others, dislikes a few. The book goes through all Horace's productions, and of many of them it includes English translations by the author. It is something of a surprise to find Levi quoting A. E. Housman with a rather trou- bled brow. Housman said, characteristical- ly, that in order to achieve communion with the ancients we must be born again:
But to be born again is a process exceedingly repugnant to all right-minded Englishmen. . . They would much rather retain the prevalent opinion that the secret of the classical spirit is open to anyone who has a fervent admira- tion for the second-best bits of Tennyson.
Housman's swipe at the second-best bits of Tennyson does worry me about the bits of translation that I offer, but they are not poet- ry, they are only an attempt to explain what I am talking about.
That is surely ingenuous, and many of the translations, which must have cost some effort, read excellently. Levi remarks that there was only one generation of lyric poetry in English, from 1590 to 1630. I seem to detect the influence of Ben Jonson on the style of his own versions, though for Ben himself he can find no kinder com- ment than that he 'lumbers a little'. But above all, perhaps, his deftly varied four- line stanzas recall the form, and sometimes the spirit, of that supreme masterpiece, Marvell's 'Horatian Ode' (written, of course, well after 1630).
Here is the opening of an Ode ('what I imagine was Auden's ideal Horatian poem'):
Melpomene, the one you see With a pleased eye newly born, The Isthmus will not let him be A famous boxer, he will scorn The horses and their victory, And war will never bring The garland of the bay that he Crushed the muttering threats of Kings, Climbing the Capitol at ease, But the water running along Rich Tibur's dense hair of trees Shall make him noble for Aeolian song. . .
In other places he gives his reader the version of some older poet, Cowley or Sir Richard Fanshawe. In the case of the exquisite poem `Diffugere nives' (`The snows have fled away') he prints both the translation by Samuel Johnson and that by Housman: a fascinating comparison, in which Housman's language and style are so classical that he and Johnson might almost have been contemporaries.
Levi is sympathetic to his man. He goes through his life, the most knowable to us of all the classical poets, and he has sensible and perceptive things to say about Horace and the history and society of his time — though I do not agree that 'had Mark Antony won, Horace would not have sur- vived'. Why ever not?
He has an understanding of the places Horace writes about, and of Mediterranean life. He likes to give us glimpses of his own life and reflections. Of one poem he says: One has only to compare it with such writers as Augustine and the rest of later moralists to see what a pleasure it is to be reading this decent, sensible and funny poet.
I wish my own religion had a hymn as long and solemn and untheological as this: though it would not do for congregational hymn- singing, that bedraggled tail-end of the Reformation.
Amateurs of poetry, ancient or modern, will enjoy this book. So will connoisseurs of the late Victorian: as gentleman, scholar, and eccentric.
`. . . and as part of my fat-free lifestyle, I want a divorce.'