An Introduction to a Reading of Horace’s Carmina Secunda Ex Quarti Libri

Written by on April 14th, 2014. Subject: Literature. Filed in Criticism, about Horace Poetry Latin

|||Horace, and James Michie. Odes: with the Latin text. New York: Modern Library, 2001.|||


Julus, whoever tries to rival Pindar,
Flounders on wings of wax, a rude contriver
Doomed like the son of Daedalus to christen
Somewhere a glassy sea.

A river bursts its banks and rushes down a
Mountain with uncontrollable momentum,
Rain-saturated, churning, chanting thunder—
There you have Pindar’s style. Ode 4.2.

Most likely Horace finished his fourth book of poems around 13 B.C. to celebrate the return of Augustus from the west the previous year. There is contention among scholars, however, about whether the second poem was written before or after 15 B.C., since it omits Tiberius’ victory in Transalpine Gaul and Drusus’ victory in Raetia1. While it could be argued that the poem predates these victories, or that the need to to mention them is satisfied later in odes 4 and 14, both answers indirectly suggest that the aim of the poem is to outline a military victory, which is an assumption. As we progress through the poem we find it increasingly difficult to reduce the poem to a song of military victory. The images, the texture, the unity of the poem point to a more formal and transcendental theme.

On the surface it seems that the theme of the poem, which is the praising of Augustus in an almost Pindaric strain, comes to fruition not through a conquering of Gaul, but through a returning to Rome. The difference may at first seem petty, especially considering the militaristic identity of the Romans—the greatness of Augustus is often identified with the greatness of his legions—but the poem, as we shall see, highlights Augustus as the best of all mankind2, not as Imperator.

Acknowledging that the focus of the poem is the excellence of Augustus, we must account for his lack in the poem. Augustus is not likened or compared to any great figure. We do not hear of his great virtues, or excellences, or victories. Instead, we are told simply that he triumphed over his enemies,3 that there is none greater nor better on the earth4, and that we owe him praise5. This lack can be explained in two interconnected ways. First through an appeal to the Pindaric style, and second through a reformulation of the theme of the poem.

This poem exhibits two features common to Pindar’s odes. First, Pindar would spend more time praising the virtue or feats of some mythical character, and less time praising the athlete who had commissioned the poem. Second, Pindar would often praise his own poetic powers. If Horace does imitate Pindar, it seems likely that like Pindar, Horace would extol Augustus returning victoriously to Rome through the more general theme of desiring and achieving excellence and fame.

The reformulation of the theme of the poem to the desire for excellence solves another smaller, but equally important problem of why a a third poet, the son of Antony, Julle, is introduced and contrasted. We begin to see the importance of relating the desire for Pindar’s success with the art of Daedalus and Icarus—the one excelling and the other perishing—since both Horace and Julle would naturally “desire to rival Pindar.”6

Since I take the stance that this poem is about the desire to achieve excellence I must identify and explain the imagery used in the poem, and relate this imagery to a unified action. In presenting my reading of the poem I will begin by listing the general motifs, then I will identify specific images or examples of each motif, and finally I will relate those images as motifs to a unified vision of the poem. The three primary motifs which I wish to discuss are 1) the relation between the known and the unknown, 2) the contrast between high places and the low places7, and 3) the use of the natural and the supernatural (i.e images of generation, nourishment, and immortality).

Horace begins the poem begins with “Pindarum quisquis studet aemulari. (whoever desires to rival Pindar)”8 The emphasis on Pindar is immediately evident for three reasons. First, we notice his primacy of position, both in the sentence and in poem as a whole. Second, we notice the object-subject-verb rather than the more common subject-object-verb word order. And Third, introducing the rest of the stanza, “Iulle9, ceratis ope Daedalea/nititur pennis vitreo daturus/nomina ponto, (Julle, with the wax-plastered aid of Daedalus/and to have glassy feathers pressed upon him—he will give his name to some sea),” we notice that the desire to rival Pindar, Pindarum quisquis studet aemulari, guides one naturally to an introduction to all three of our motifs. We are introduced to the motif of the known and the unknown by the relating of some unknown poet, quisquis, first to Pindar, perhaps the greatest Greek of poets, but secondly to both Daedalus and Icarus10. Next we have the contrast between the high places through Daedalus, and the low places, such as the sea, through Icarus. We will see later that the poem uses images such as high or vast for images of divine favor and inspiration, and images of the sea, and lower places as images of those lacking favor. Finally, we notice the images of natural generation introduced first through the specific use of ceratis11, and developed later through images of nourishment. We see images of the immortal, or supra-natural through the desire for eminence, which either becomes notoriety in the case of Icarus who is known for failure or it becomes preeminent in the case of Pindar and Daedalus.

Let us introduce the next two stanzas in their entirety, with a parallel translation, since I believe they provide poetic illustration of the poem’s primary motifs:

monte decurrens velut amnis, imbres
quem super notas aluere ripas,
fervet inmensusque ruit profundo
Pindarus ore,

laurea donandus Apollinari,
seu per audacis nova dithyrambos
verba devolvit numerisque fertur
lege solutis,

Just as a torrent down a mountain12,
showers swelling13 the signate banks,
profound Pindar thunders and crashes
from his mighty mouth;14

and having had15 Apollo’s crown,
and through some boldness he bestows16
some new and wild17 verses born
by measures free from rule.

Now, in this second stanza we apply the motifs which introduce the poem to a simile. Poetry falls from the mouth of Pindar, the one who is inspired, the one who is known by us, and his poetry flows down from above to us below, and nourishes us to overflowing. Like torrent rains which nourish and overflow a mountain river. And we notice the manner of this nourishment, put, as it were, in the obscure words of a Dr. Chalmer’s “there was no pausing to enquire, why or how—fervetruitfertur, he boils—he rushes—he is borne along; and so are all who hear him.”18 And notice how the images are extended further in the third stanza. His poem is the conferring of a crown by Apollo, the god of poetry, and he is given the right through his genius to break free from the bounded rules of Greek verse, and to create new and unheard Dithyrambs.

Organizing the images into our motifs, we see that mons decurrens, super notas ripas, and fervet ruitque, and profundo are images of spacial difference, or height. A mountain (mons) is the high place from which rolls down the truth of Pindar’s profound voice. The banks rise above their allotted marks (super notas ripas), and then surges downward downward thundering. Pindar is profound (profundo) in the sense that his depths cannot be probed19.

The single image of Apollo is enough to further our motif of the known and the unknown. Apollo is the worshiped god of poetry. He is that one to whom all poets sacrifice and aspire. Pindar is given not just some poet’s crown, but the renowned laurel of Apollo. We notice the use of the gerundive, donandus, to emphasis the actual conferring of the wreath. Notice how it is this honor of being called out by Apollo which grants him to carry along unfettered by the rules of his trade20.

As for images of generation and the supernatural: the whole simile of the second stanza is guided by an image of nourishment. We see heavy rains (imbres) nourishing (alo) the river, which is likened to the profound uttering (profundo ore) of Pindar. Pindar is nourished from the high places; he is inspired by the Apollo and the Muses.

This introduction to the reading of this poem serves a methodological beginning to examining the poetry of Horace, not as historical pieces, but as poetic works of art. One could continue in the same structural vein through each stanza with similar results. This poem, whose topic at first seems to be on the greatness of Augustus’ victories, turns out, instead, to be about the desire to achieve and maintain divine excellence. As we traverse the poem further we find that Augustus, like Horace, has achieved excellence and favor from above, that this excellence has given them a certain identity and name, a place in the Roman mythos, which also nourishes and supports those below who cannot achieve such heights.

About B. R. Mullikin

B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

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  1. Clifford Moore argues for composition in 16-15 B.C. Horace, The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace, trans. Clifford Herschel Moore (Chicago: American Book Company, 1902), page 335. Paul Shorey argues for composition in 14 B.C., but points out that “The failure to mention the victories of Drusus, does not prove that it was written later.” Horace, Odes and Epodes. Ed. Paul Shorey. revised by. Paul Shorey and Gordon J. (New York: Benj. H. Sanborn and Co, 1910) p. 398 

  2. ll. 37-40. quo nihil maius meliusve terris/fata donavere bonique divi/nec dabunt, quamvis redeant in aurum/tempora priscum. 

  3. ll. 33-36. concines maiore poeta plectro/Caesarem, quandoque trahet ferocis/per sacrum clivum merita decorus/fronde Sygambros. 

  4. ll. 37. nihil maius meliusve terris. 

  5. ll. 46. o laudande. 

  6. ll. 1. Pindarum […] studet aemulari. 

  7. Especially the heavens and the divine versus the sea and mortality. 

  8. Whoever desires to emulate Pindar. 

  9. Jullus Antonius. The son of Marc Antony and Octavia. Spared by Augustus after Marc Antony’s death. Was a poet of some notable quality. He wrote a 12 volume epic called The Diomedea. He becomes the archetype for a particular type of poetry later in the poem which is contrasted with Horace’s poetic style. 

  10. The relationship of the unknown to either Daedalus or Icarus has interesting consequences. Recalling the story, we remember how Daedalus escapes unharmed from the Minoan Labyrinth because of his craft and cunning. His son, Icarus, however, borrows from his fathers craft without either prudence nor understanding, misuses his wings, and falls to his death. By pointing out that the sea now bears Icarus’ name cautions the reader (and potential poet) of two facts: 1) One may be remembered for failure as easily as for success, 2) Borrowing another’s craft is always risky business. This may stand as a possible rhetorical buffer against our tendency to criticize Horace for failing to fully emulate Pindar. Perhaps Horace wishes to point out that each poet must imitate an action in his own manner. 

  11. wax-plastered: Latin ceratis from ceratum. from greek κηρωτή. The connotation is that the wax is a salve for healing. The word Ovid uses in the Metamorphosis (Book VIII line 193) is ceris, which is molding wax, such as for a statue or a writing surface. Apollodorus (Epitome, bk E ch. 1 section 12) uses κόλλα which is a flour-paste glue. The use of ceratum over these other terms is important because of the comparison later of aid and succor, and because of the ultimate use of the bee as an image in the text. It also furthers the image of generation, such as alo (ln. 6), singuino (ln. 14), etc. 

  12. Horace imitates Cicero who says: flumen ingenii, flumen orationis (The river of genius, the river of speech) 

  13. aluere 3rd perf pl. poetic for aluerunt. The word is translated by Tennyson as “well-fed”. Here I use the participle ‘swelling’ to indicate the over-nourishing of the river, above its designate banks. 

  14. Inverting of the images: profound Pindar and mighty mouth, instead of vast Pindar and profound mouth. 

  15. No sense of using the gerundive provides an adequate transition. 

  16. The image is “unrolls”. This ties in nicely with the river imagery from the above stanza, however, the closest idiomatic equivalent in english seems to be “falls off the tongue” which is too burdensome a translation. 

  17. I use ‘wild’ to relegate the rather formal poetic term dithyramb to its colloquial equivalent. 

  18. p. 67. “Chalmer’s Posthumous Works,” in The Living Age (Boston: E. Little & Company, 1848), 61-72. 

  19. The depths, or profundity of Pindar stands in direct contrast to the previous reference to Icarus. While the sea is an image of the failure to achieve divine excellence, it is also an image of fathomlessness. We should note that the falling toward the sea of Icarus is differentiated from the image of profundity through the firsts falling downward into the depths, whereas the image here is of the waters surging limitlessly upward. 

  20. Many, scholars such as those mentioned before (Paul Shorey and Clifford Moore) point to this passage for evidence of Pindar’s lack of metric consistency, or at the very lease, that Horace believes Pindar to lack a certain formal construction. Again, I must disagree with them. The focus of the stanza is not “unfettered by law” but nova verba. When Pindar is crowned a poet by Apollo he frees himself from the need to follow convention since he is to be that one who creates convention. I see as support to this argument, the introduction of the phrase with seu per audacis (or through boldness) which describes the manner in which he “rolls out” new dithyrambs. It is true that these new dithyrambs carry him beyond the relegated forms of poet-craft, but this is because of their new nature, and not because of a lack of adherence to some formal structure. In fact, if we take the assumption that Horace is indeed imitated the Pindaric ode, then our first complaint must be the relatively structured nature of the poem—something explained by both the acknowledgment of Pindar’s new form, and the recognition, at least rhetorically, of some inferiority beside Pindar, and thus of the need to follow convention.