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Ursine Poetics in Horace and the Classical Tradition

Aaron Kachuck

Trinity College, Cambridge

This paper aims to put the bear back in Horace, and in the classical tradition he imitates and instantiates. Although Horace’s Ars Poetica (AP) opens by attacking hybrid images and, by ut pictura poesis inference, hybrid poems, it then delivers a poem jarring in its transitions, concluding with the shocking metamorphosis of a Mad Poet into a violent bear-leech. As Charles Brink (1963), Niall Rudd (1989), Ellen Oliensis (1998), and others have demonstrated, the auto-critique of AP’s conclusion also represents the poet’s auto-critique vis-à-vis his corpus, and, more directly, his lyric self, though in ways that recapitulate the hybrid structure of the Horatian ode itself. Thus, in addition to presenting a counterpart to Virgilian vitae’s eirenic, maternal, model of ursine prose-to-verse poetics, Horace’s AP recapitulates in formal (i.e. “poetic”) terms a tension central to all Horatian poetry: the balance of structure and libertas, order and error. Horace’s bear, though, this paper argues, is at the heart of a classical tradition of classical rule-breaking; as such, understanding its part in Horace’s AP, and in related works, will help reveal a less ordered face of Augustan classicism (Hardie 2016) and of the classical tradition.

         Building on recent cultural-historical treatments of bears (Pastroureau 2007), this paper begins by reviewing the role of the bear in poetry and poetics from archaic Greek poetry down to Virgil. Born “unformed,” then “licked into shape,” bears are as much the product of nature as of nurture. As I show, bearsone part verbal technician, one part creature of rageproved poetologically useful for the (self-) description of Virgil’s creative process, as well as embodying a typically Roman addition to certain type-scenes. Bears would prove equally important to Horace’s AP, a work permeated with Virgil’s influence, with Horace’s bear, I argue, responding specifically to the furor that concludes epic works in Latin from Catullus 64 to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and, most famously, Virgil’s Aeneid. That Horace should have turned to the bear as ultimate symbolic form in the AP is not surprising when one looks at his corpus as a whole. While bears mark one of the ends of Horace’s poetry, they also feature in the earliest view the poet gives us of his childhood (Carm. 3.4) in Italy’s bear-country—the land between Apulia and Lucania (Varro, Ling. 5.20.100). As I demonstrate, from his birth-place to his namesakes, from his self-representation through a variety of personae to the manner in which he frames his celestial ascents, the bear—as animal, behavioral profile, and astrological sign—serves as a frequent, and foundational, emblem for Horace as poet, from the start to the end of his corpus.

         Although the metamorphic Horace adumbrated by AP’s bear was sidelined by a great deal of the subsequent classical tradition, the bear emerges as a force in poetics, and with a vengeance, in England of the 1590’s. There, I briefly show, Roger Ascham, Samuel Daniel, and others, put the furious ending of Horace’s AP to work in the structure of their own works. This, in turn, led to the bear’s starring role in the Poetomachia of 1599 to 1602 that pitting Ben Jonson against John Marston, Thomas Dekker, and William Shakespeare (Bednarz 2001). The last of these, I suggest, built on contemporary artes poeticae to give Horace’s bear a starring role as the unstable genre-crossing centre of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611). Building on recent work on bear-puns throughout the play (Pitcher 2010), I show how this play emerges as an extended critique of Jonson’s more “classical” classicism, with Horace as Shakespeare’s precedent for classical chaos. Conquering an anxiety that went back to Terence, I conclude, Horace taught Shakespeare that, if the populace prefers bears to plays, the poet can become a bear, but only if he is willing to put to flight both learned and unlettered alike, and, like the young women of Attica, “play the bear.”

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Horace and his Legacy

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