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Horace, Cinara, and the Elegiac Discourse of Desire

Aaron Palmore

The Ohio State University

This paper reconsiders the poetic function of Horace’s late love Cinara in light of developments in elegiac poetry. While Horace has sometimes been read as an anti-elegist (e.g., Cairns 1995: 356 on Odes 3.7; Commager 1962: 239 on Odes 1.22.), my reading of Cinara demonstrates a close conceptual relationship between late Horace and the elegiac discourse of desire as explored by Ancona (1994), Miller (2003), and Janan (1996, 2001). With Cinara, Horace presents a fragmentary narrative with logical inconsistencies layered beneath a name laden with metapoetic significance, not unlike what we see with Propertius’ Cynthia or Catullus’ Lesbia.

Cinara is only mentioned four times by Horace (Epistles 1.7.28, 1.14.33; Odes 4.1.4, 4.13.21-2), always in the context of the past, her absence, or her death. Her unavailability is structurally significant to Odes 4 since this implicates desire’s reach over erotic boundaries into social and political ones. While Cinara is deceased (4.1, 4.13), Phyllis is interested in someone else (4.11), Ligurinus is always one step ahead of Horace, even in dreamwork (4.1), and Lyce is accessible but derided for her availability (4.11). So, too, Augustus is unavailable because of geographical distance (4.5, 4.15) and Maecenas because of social distance (4.11).

The name “Cinara” is textually unstable. This is unusual for Horace when compared to his elegiac contemporaries, whose texts (especially Propertius’) are plagued with manuscript discrepancies. Here the instability of Horace’s past and the openings it presents for revision are reflected in the variants of Cinara, which all suggest their own search for meaning. The variants are explored most thoroughly by Keller and Holder in their 1899 edition of Horace, where we find not only Cinar-, Cinayr-, Cinyr-, Cynar-, and Cynir- (Thomas 2011: 89 is equally interested in these), but also Ciner- and Cinir- (Keller-Holder 1899: 1.231, 272). We find more of the same at Epistles 1.7.28 and 1.14.33, where the variant Ciner- reappears (Keller-Holder 1899: 2.194, 216). “Cinura” has the added bonus of a more meaningful etymology: κινύρα, “lyre” (Thomas 2011: 88-9) rather than κινάρα, “artichoke” (Davis 1991: 68-70).

These variants provoke us to explore the relationships that the name has as a pattern of sound in the poems. “Cinara” is polyvalent: not only does the name recall Latin ashes (cineres, 4.13.28) or the Greek lyre (κινύρα), it also implicates Greek mourning (κινύρομαι). This latter bilingual meaning is highlighted by the juxtaposition at Epistles 1.7.28 of Cinarae with maerere. This immediate gloss on Cinara’s name exchanges some of her erotic power for linguistic mastery, as the repetition of ae (Cinarae maerere protervae) further reduces her role to a pattern of sounds that helps organize the poem.

Invested with meaning through plays with language in her absence, Cinara takes on the role of an empty signifier around which Horace’s desire is structured. This recalls the role of the elegiac puella (e.g., Janan 2001: 43 on Propertius 1.5), who often appears as a fragment of a larger social, political, and linguistic network. This is most explicit in Epistles 1.7, where Horace recalls mourning Cinara’s flight together with Maecenas rather than Cinara herself. As such, Cinara is a prompt to consider Horace’s relationship with Maecenas more than his relationship with her (cf. Miller 2003: 67-8 on Propertius 1.7; Oliensis 1997: 160; Janan 2001: 43). This experience of mourning is based upon lack, which, in turn, precipitates desire. Cinara is a vehicle for Horace to explore desire and the way that it constructs experience. As such, she is also a vehicle for the reader to explore desire, as we can see in the attempts to attach her name to something concrete and construct the poem’s meaning around this attachment.

Session/Panel Title:

Elegiac Desires

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