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Horace’s Stylistic Responsion and an "Iambic" Conceit in Epodes 1

Samuel D Beckelhymer


In this paper I identify and analyze a series of ‘iambic’ features within Horace’s first epode, i.e., stylistic contrasts and lexical responses that imitate the lilting, short-long sequence of the iamb. I argue that these features serve as a programmatic gesture for our understanding of the collection as a whole by placing broader thematic concerns and stylistic choices in dialogue with the formal constraints of the iambic genre and its meters, especially its signature metrical unit, the iamb.

Epode 1 presents a series of calls and responses—the hallmark and etymon of the ‘epode’—not just within the individual couplets, as the genre expects, but also through various syntactic contrasts (e.g., correlative constructions), in semantic correspondences (e.g., antitheses), and especially in the dynamic imbalance of Horace’s relationship with his patron Maecenas. These range from the narrow, such as the frequent litotes (non dulce for amarus or similar, l. 8; non mollis for fortis, l. 10; firmus parum perhaps for mollis, l. 16), to larger syntactic expressions, such as correlative utrumne… an… (l.  7-10). There are even features stretching across the entire poem that manifest this characteristic shape, such as its overarching structure: a short question—will Horace follow Maecenas to war?—followed by Horace’s long response, which occupies the remainder of the poem. This iambic effect, I argue, serves as a unifying principle across the wide-ranging content of the Epodes, and accords with Horace’s deliberate ordering of his individual poems, in this collection and elsewhere.

The meticulous organization of the Epodes has already been identified and established—on metrical grounds; in consideration of Horace’s relationship with Maecenas; and with regard to various public (i.e., ‘Roman’) and private  (i.e., ‘occasional’) themes and subjects. My reading complements earlier interpretations of this arrangement by establishing that a similar program operates on a microcosmic scale within individual poems, and that this program serves to reinforce the unity of the collection and its macro-level composition. I build especially on treatments of Horace’s theory and practice of the iamb and the epode by Potter (1995), Morgan (2010), Johnson (2012), and Morrison (2016) in presenting Horace’s ‘iambic’ approach in the Epodes as innovation within the traditional purview of the iambic genre.

The result of my reading is an introductory poem that highlights epodic responsion, the iamb, and its characteristic shape as a kind of metaphor for the collection’s poetic and thematic concerns. The first epode thus habituates the reader to expect a pattern of calls and responses, of shorts and longs, throughout the collection. Long syllables complement short syllables, just as antistrophes do strophes, as patrons do their poets, and as more serious matters do lighter subjects. In this way, we can read Epodes 1 not only as an introduction to the role that Maecenas and his and Horace’s amicitia play throughout the collection, but also as an early exhibition of the highly sensitive metrical acumen that allowed Horace to call himself the premier lyric poet at Rome.

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Triumviral Literature

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