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Horace and Vergil in Dialogue in Odes 4.12

Philip Thibodeau

Among the basic questions interpreters of Horace Odes 4.12 must wrestle with is whether the Vergilius it addresses is or is not identical to the famous Augustan poet, and how to account for its abrupt shifts in tone from one stanza to the next.  This paper supports the view now shared by most scholars (see most recently Thomas 2011, 226-7) that the addressee is indeed the epic poet, and builds upon the suggestion of Clay 2002 that the ode invites poet to come, as if from the realm of the dead, for a drink.  Its central contention is that the ode should be construed as a dialogue in which Vergil (or more specifically, his shade) is imagined to be voicing the odd-numbered stanzas while Horace voices the even.

A formal feature of the poem provides the initial item of evidence.  It was first noted by Fraenkel 1957 (418, n.3) that every stanza in the ode is end-stopped - a rare characteristic which only seven other Odes share, most of them short: 1.30 and 1.38 (two-stanzas), 1.23 (three stanzas), 1.19 and 3.28 (four stanzas), and 1.13 (five stanzas).  The next longest, 3.9 (six stanzas), is a dialogue or amoeban exchange between Horace and 'Lydia'.  At seven stanzas, 4.12 is Horace's longest end-stopped poem; the parallel with 3.9 raises the possibility of a dialogic interpretation.

The next point is that the even-numbered stanzas feature language that is consistently harsh, while the odd-numbered stanzas are much more gentle in both tone and style.  Stanza two, for instance, associates the birds of spring with their tragic progenitors Procne, Tereus, and Philomela, and stresses the scandalousness (e.g. aeternum opprobrium, 7) of their story.  Stanza four contains, among other items, a demeaning reference to Vergil as a iuvenum nobilium cliens (15); stanza six begrudges the poet a free drink and demands that he purchase it with merx (22).  Conversely, stanzas one and three draw calm pictures of nature in vernal and pastoral modes, while five and seven press for the forgetfulness of cares (19-20) and economic calculations (consiliis 27).  This distinction also extends to the level of sound, with the cacophonous juxtapositions of consonants and vowels in the even stanzas standing in contrast to the euphony of the odds.

The succession of ideas in the poem makes good sense if interpreted as an alternation of theme and response.  The first two stanzas evoke a Thracian landscape:  Vergil describes it in pleasant and vaguely Orphic colors (1-4), while Horace answers by emphasizing its sinister side (5-8).  Horace then reads into Vergil's interest in landscapes and the weather a suggestion that they share a drink (13); he consents to this idea but demands a gift of spikenard in return for his wine (nardo 16). Vergil repeats the word in the next line (nardi 17) and implies that he will comply.  Horace then tells him to hurry (22) and portrays himself as a miser who cannot afford to hand out drinks for free.  Vergil responds by advising Horace to drop his hard attitude and relax.  As in Odes 3.9, Horace's interlocutor gets the final word.

A signal advantage to this interpretation is that it removes a difficulty which critics of the identification of Horace's Vergilius with Vergil have always pointed to:  namely, the indelicacy involved in insulting a famous friend after his death.  If the deceased poet's shade is able to respond to Horace's brusque language, and is in fact presented in a more sympathetic light than the ode's author, the sting of the insult is largely removed.

Session/Panel Title

Vision and Perspective in Latin Literature

Session/Paper Number

62.3

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