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Cupid, Minerva, and Lyric Consciousness: Two Readings of Odes 3.12

Brian McPhee


    In this paper I propose a new reading for Horace Odes 3.12 made possible by the multiplicity of voices in Horace’s lyric collection.  Of the poet’s several amatory offerings, the poem exciting among the least scholarly comment has been Odes 3.12 – a short description of a Roman citizen girl’s frustrated desire to set aside her loom and take on an idealized, athletic lover instead.  When scholars have seen fit to write on the poem, their attention has largely been confined to a handful of issues:  the poem’s unique meter in Ionic a minore; the possibility that the opening line is a motto adapted from Alcaeus 10; and the question of whether the speaker should be construed as Horace or the girl Neobule herself, speaking in self-address.  Although few commentators can agree on these points, each scholarly analysis thus far shares a basic assumption of the poet’s sympathy with Neobule (Cairns 1977; Nielsen 1980; West 2002: 112-119; Günther 2013: 354).  It is the contention of this paper, however, that these several “sympathetic readings” have overlooked an important alternative, namely, a “judgmental reading” critical of Neobule’s desire to overstep the dictates of Roman social and gender norms.

    Inter- and intratextuality complicate the convivial, Epicurean voice heard in the sympathetic reading and connect the speaker to the moralizing, nationalistic voice prevalent elsewhere in the Odes.  My analysis will especially focus on Odes 3.6, which occupies the homologous final position in the collection of “Roman Odes” (3.1-6) that 3.12 occupies in the erotic collection that follows (3.7-12).  In this reading, Neobule corresponds to the “unwed maiden” (innupta virgo, 3.6.22) who “contemplates unchaste loves from childhood” (incestos amores | de tenero meditatur ungui, 3.6.23-24); moreover, the lusty Ionic dance steps that this maiden learns (motus doceri gaudet Ionicos, 3.6.21) offer a key to interpreting the exotic Ionic meter employed in 3.12.  Another important text that I will consider is Odes 1.8, which offers a variant on the same scenario envisioned in 3.12.  The difference between the two is that, in the absence of the patriarchal supervision that keeps Neobule’s daydreams from becoming reality, in 1.8 female desire succeeds in emasculating an otherwise vigorous Roman youth.  Finally, I will briefly examine the Archilochean intertexts that the name “Neobule” inevitably summons to mind, besides a few minor passages from elsewhere.  When read in light of the cues that these intra- and intertexts provide, the speaker of 3.12 becomes condemnatory of illicit female lusts.

    Nevertheless, the judgmental reading does not displace the sympathetic reading; rather, these readings are mutually destabilizing, and a reader may choose to understand the ode in either or both fashions depending on which details and connotations s/he centers in a given reading on a given trajectory of reading.  I will thus conclude with a reflection on the nature of “lyric consciousness” as Miller defines the term, as the polyvalence of 3.12 exemplifies the “profoundly articulated interiority, with . . . internal complexities, ambivalences, and contradictions” by which Miller characterizes the genre of lyric (1994: 4).  The sort of nuanced understanding that I advocate for Odes 3.12 may prove useful in elucidating other ambivalent texts, such as Ariadne’s portrayal in Catullus 64 or Dido’s in the Aeneid.

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Problems of Triumviral and Augustan Poetics

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