Book: Shifting Paradigms

About one instance of the relationship between historical background and poetic foreground in the works of Catullus, Sir Ronald Syme wrote: “The proconsul and his ‘comites’, Veranius and Fabullus, have a chronological bearing on the life and writings of Catullus, that imbroglio of problems where dogma and ingenuity have their habitation, where argument moves in circles, and no new passage in or out.”

These words might seem to provide an inappropriate–or, at least, inauspicious–beginning to a new study of the centuries-old and interrelated problems of the title, date, addressees, and genre of the poem we call Horace’s Ars Poetica. Dogma and ingenuity have certainly found their habitation in scholars’ treatment of these problems, too. About this work, Horace’s longest and most influential, we know much less than we sometimes assume. Moreover, much of what we think we know about these topics is subject to doubt and perhaps even revision. The purpose of this study is to support these claims, which, once demonstrated, set the stage for the new interpretation of the poem as a parody of Peripatetic poetics that I will adumbrate here and present with full details elsewhere.

By subtitling this book, New Approaches to Horace’s Ars Poetica, I want, first of all, to allude to Syme’s phrase, “new passage in.” By using the plural, I also want to suggest that a historical reading of a poem as complex and elusive as the Ars Poetica requires that we make our way not along a single royal road, but through a variety of approaches, old and new, if we are to stop moving in the same interpretive circles. Progress in this as in any scholarly project comes from our ability to bring to bear new evidence, new methods, or both to address old problems. These methods help us to eke out more information from the evidence contained within the poem itself and to find more unexploited historical evidence that can help us to calibrate our reactions to the poem with the knowledge and assumptions of Horace’s informed, contemporary readership. For the first, I would single out statistical stylistics, which, applied here for the first time to the problem of dating Horace’s poetry, can rely on data within the poems themselves to suggest a probabilistic dating of the Ars Poetica. Applying art-historical analysis to the interpretation of the opening lines of the poem exemplifies the second way in which a newly applied methodology can provide a richer context for historical understanding. Of course, traditional philological techniques have a contribution to make, too, e.g., in helping us to determine the poem’s genre and to make sense of the ancient and medieval evidence about its title and position in Horatian manuscripts.

Progress can also be made by shifting our perspectives as critics. For far too long the Ars Poetica has been read as something that would be rather anomalous among Horace’s poems: a sincere and almost confessional “how-to-do-it” booklet. Read in this way, the poem can be–and in this century generally has been–too easily dismissed as disappointing or worse. “The nineteenth century, like the twentieth so far, did without the Ars,” wrote the translator C. H. Sisson with much justification. In their history of literary criticism, Wimsatt and Brooks wrote rather dismissively that “the Ars Poetica…is a nice mélange of objective and critical rules with snatches of studio wisdom.” It is a telling fact that even the most historically-oriented literary critics of Horace have rarely found insights in the Ars Poetica that aid them in understanding his other poems. To cite perhaps the most striking example, in his influential book on Horace, Fraenkel did not discuss the poem at any length, mentioning it mainly in footnotes. Yet, if the Ars Poetica were really Horace’s poetic credo, it ought to be of some utility in the practical criticism of his poetry. Persona-theory, applied so fruitfully to other Roman poetry, including Horace’s own, can also serve us well in this endeavor to break free of critical ruts and circles. Once we dissociate Horace, the poet, from the speaker of the Ars Poetica, the poet’s fictional creation, we can stop having to explain or edit away the poem’s deficiencies and dullness, and we can begin to appreciate in it the same techniques of wit and satire that are so characteristic of Horace’s poetry.

The itinerary we will pursue through these approaches is as follows. In Chapter 1 I discuss the ancient and medieval evidence about the title of the poem and its location in the ancient manuscripts of Horace’s poetry, showing that modern editors’ habit of printing the poem after or even with Epistles II and of giving it the title Epistula ad Pisones goes against the grain of the evidence and reflects the (in most cases probably unconscious) influence of some rather flimsy Renaissance theorizing. The evidence strongly suggests that we should view the poem as an independent work in the Horatian corpus. In Appendix I, the pertinent Renaissance texts for the letter-theory are reproduced.

In Chapter 2 I tackle the problem of the poem’s date, using statistical stylistics and more traditional historical and literary arguments to advocate an early date (i.e., 24-20 B.C.) against the currently fashionable late dating to the end of Horace’s life. Appendix II presents some technical details.

In Chapter 3 several of the major prosopographical and interpretive consequences of chronology are discussed. Of these, the first and perhaps most important is that the early dating does not force us–as has been assumed for over a century–into the uncomfortable position of having to identify Cn. Calpurnius Piso (cos. 23) as the senior addressee of the Ars Poetica. Rather, there is good reason to assign that role to L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (cos. 58), a candidate never before considered, doubtless because of modern scholarly speculation that he died well before the Ars Poetica was written. In Appendix III is related the historical evidence from Pola supporting my suggestion that this speculation is probably wrong. Caesoninus–who had been memorably pilloried by Catullus for bad taste in choosing his literary companions and who had been branded the “Phalaris of grammatici” by Cicero–stood for bad literary taste in this period. The fact that the speaker of the Ars Poetica mentions him and Horace’s b�te noire, Sp. Maecius Tarpa, as respected authorities on literature naturally calls the speaker’s own authority into question–a suggestive piece of evidence for the parody-theory. This chapter concludes with a reading of the poem’s opening lines, where I argue that through his misuse of rhetoric and his display of ignorance about new developments in Roman painting, the speaker is characterized right from the start as a pretentious pedant who abuses poetic license and is out of touch with the taste of Horace and his circle.

In Chapter 4 I reconsider the generic classification of the poem, arguing that it more closely conforms to the features of Horatian sermo than to those of epistula–an exercise of interest for at least three reasons. First of all, refutation of the letter-theory reinforces the view that the Ars Poetica should not be printed with Epistles II or interpreted in the light of those poems. Secondly, the case for classifying the poem as sermo on the basis of formal features adds strength to the conclusion of Chapter 2 that the poem was composed in the period between Sat. II and Epist. I: for, although, as Carm. IV shows, Horace could revisit a genre after a long absence, he generally did not do so, and hence our dating is more plausible to the extent that it puts the poem into a period of Horace’s life when he was writing poetry of a similar kind. Finally, the classification of the Ars Poetica as sermo lends obvious support to its interpretation as a mock-didactic parody, since, especially in Sat. II, we find some striking passages and even whole poems in which Horace sends up pedants and their foolish dogmas.

Before joining the imbroglio that rages around these matters, I should stress that one of my main goals here is less to offer new solutions to the old problems than to reveal how speculative our answers to all these questions have been and–in view of the evidence–must, perforce, be. Another goal is to reopen discussion of these major problems facing a critic of the poem, something desirable, I think, because our most recent studies of the Ars Poetica, for all their virtues, have been lacking in this regard. Since some of these problems have not been thoroughly reconsidered for a century or more, solutions originally offered as speculations have almost come to have the status of facts. In pursuit of this second goal, I will be proposing some new solutions that, if not necessarily always more cogent than the possibilities encountered in the scholarly literature, are at least no more speculative than those they would replace.

As in the case of Catullus’ poetry, which cannot be diachronically understood without bringing to bear what can be ferreted out about such historical personages as Piso, Veranius and Fabullus, the importance of this enterprise lies in the new framework for interpreting the Ars Poetica to which it gives rise. As we will see, once we show that there are new possible ways of solving such basic–if seemingly antiquarian–problems as dating and classifying the poem and identifying its addressees, we are well on our way to constructing a fresh reading of what may well be not merely the longest, but also the wittiest, of Horatian poems.