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Horace's Island of the Blessed: A Lyric Evaluation of a Pastoral Ideal

Jeffrey Ulrich

University of Pennsylvania

In ancient conceptions of space, mythical geography is often inextricably connected to the phenomenological experience of time. Homer’s Phaeacians experience time differently on the periphery of the world, and the Island of the Blessed exists in a kind of prelapsarian state. One useful theoretical model to explain this phenomenon is Bakhtin’s chronotope of the literary image (Bahktin (1982)). According to this framework, space and time are so intricately interwoven that we cannot speak of one without talking about the other. Moreover, the various chronotopes are especially tied to genre and generic landscapes. A second model one can deploy to discuss the temporal experience in mythical paradises is Mircea Eliade’s illud tempus (Eliade (1960)), an alternative temporality unlike ‘modern’ quotidian city-life.

In this paper, I use Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope blended with Eliade’s illud tempus in order to understand Horace’s depiction of the Island of the Blessed as a genre-specific ascription of value in landscape. By comparing Epode 16 with its two primary intertexts – Vergil’s Eclogue 4 and Pindar’s Olympian 2 – we can see how Horace chooses to depict a particular mythical locale in the lyric genre as a response both to the genre of Latin pastoral and to the inherently performative genre of Greek lyric. The written retelling of the mythical paradise is thus a rejection of Vergil’s bucolic landscape in which the poet prophesies a returning aureum saeculum, and simultaneously an appropriation of Pindar’s lyric world, where the audience is transported to an alternate spatio-temporality through performance. Horace utilizes the inherited meaning of two generic landscapes to provide his readers with a different experience of time.

I open the paper by considering how Horace’s lament about the degenerative cycle of ages offers a response to Vergil’s prophecy of a returning Golden Age in Eclogue 4. We can see in Horace’s altera aetas a rejection of Vergil’s ultima aetas (Feeney (2007)), and thus of the chronotope of the pastoral world. Horace proposes that the solution to civil war in Rome is voyage to the Island of the Blessed – a suggestion that is riddled with paradoxes. Horace’s eschatology ironically plays upon the poetic trope of the Argo as a symbolic rupture between the prelapsarian state of mythic space-time and the constraints of historical time and connected space. The answer to the problems plaguing Rome is sailing, which was itself the catalyst for the fall from a prelapsarian state. The poet, however, does not offer only pessimism to his readers. In the second portion of my paper, I analyze the way in which Horace imbues the Island of the Blessed with a new literary meaning through a ritual retelling akin to that of his Greek lyric predecessor (see Barchiesi (2008)). By appropriating a Pindaric ode in the lyric mode about this mythical place, Horace promises to the reader an escape from the degenerative cycle of saecula through his poetic creation. In conclusion, I suggest that it is the readerly experience of enjoying the poem that conveys the reader, in a sense, to an Island of the Blessed. Horace harnesses the power of performance inherent in Greek lyric and uses it to send his readers to an alternate landscape – a return to a kind of illud tempus of the Eliadean framework.

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War and Revolution in the Roman World

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