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Is There Anything purus in Horace’s sermo merus?: Rhetorical Categories and Plautine Diction in Horace Satires 1.4.38-62

Ben Jerue

When in Satire 1.4 Horace finally raises questions concerning the status of his poetic project and where it does (and does not) fit into a standing system of genres, his argument presents more problems than it dispels (for the anti-Aristotlean nature of the argument see Freudenburg 1993: 119-128; for Horace’s ironizing use of word arrangement (dispositio) see Anderson 1982: 23-25; Oberhelman and Armstrong 1995: 243 contrast Horatian and Ennian dispositio). At S 1.4.45-48 the poet insists that (according to some unspecified individuals) comedy despite its meter (pede certo), is sermo merus thanks to its subject matter and diction (uerbis…rebus).  Sermo merus is often taken as indicating something akin to “straight prose.” While Freudenburg aligns the phrase with Ciceronian cottidianus sermo or ‘everyday speech’ (127), and Gowers notes that the phrase “conflates the concepts of ordinary prose speech, poetic, i.e. comic speech and (poetic) satire” (165), this paper argues that more can be gleaned from a further examination of the phrase.

Through an analysis of sermo merus and its relationship to both the plain style (oratio attenuata) of the Rhetorica ad Herennium and the Plautine lexicon, this paper highlights an additional way that Horace’s poem addresses and satirizes contemporary concerns with the classification of comedy and satire. Specifically, sermo merus constitutes a playful gloss on sermo purus, which the Auctor ad Herennium establishes as a defining virtue of the plain style (ad Her. 4.11 and 4.16; see Ferri and Probert 2010 for a recent discussion). By favoring the metaphorical merus—a word used primarily to describe unmixed wine and frequently found in poetic texts—in place of purus, the verbum proprium canonized in rhetorical treatises, Horace violates a key component of the very style he paradoxically describes. Completely absent from the ad Herennium and found only once in all of Cicero’s rhetorica (De or. 2.94, where the adjective is used to describe alumni of Isocrates’ school), merus makes a repeated and varied appearance within the Plautine corpus (though tellingly, the adjective occurs only once in Plautus’ more sober counterpart, at Terence Ph. 146). Merus denotes something that is plain to see (ita non facient: mera iam mendacia fundes Ps. 943) or unambiguously overpowering (si semel amoris poculum accepit meri/ eaque intra pectus se penetravit potio,/ extemplo et ipsus periit et res et fides Truc. 43-5). In a word, the sort of purity implicit in merus is better suited to the rhetorical transparency and psychagogic power of the grand style than to the subtle and misleading purity of the plain style. Horace’s sermo merus, then, perfectly draws attention to the liminal status of comic (and Horace’s own satiric) language: while in a real sense colloquial, Plautine style and diction cannot help but flaunt their contrived artfulness (see McCarthy 2000: 13).

An examination of sermo merus in its satiric context helps throw into relief Horatian strategies for simultaneously suggesting and rejecting a firm place for the Satires within the literary tradition. Through this mixture of Plautine diction and oratorical taxonomies we can see how Horace’s playful rendition of a rhetorical commonplace, which recommends hiding stylistic polish in the guise of plain language, is both a spectacular failure on the rhetorical level and yet a necessary means of displaying the unique place that Horatian satire carves out for itself. In a word, the collocation demonstrates Horace’s penchant for undermining both his own (feigned) authority and that of the literary critical tradition more broadly.

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The Descent of Satire from Old Comedy to the Gothic

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