Horace’s famous advice to the aspiring writer, saepe stilum uertas, iterum quae digna legi sint/ scripturus (Serm. 1.10.72-73), seems straightforward enough: something worthy to be re-read must be frequently re-written. But this very injunction to polish exhibits a striking metrical irregularity, a short vowel not lengthened before the “st” beginning the following word (a phenomenon I shall call “sest”). Commentators tell us merely that Horace does this sometimes (Serm. 1.2.71, 1.3.44, 2.3.43, 2.3.296; see Palmer 1883: 238). Yet aside from the five in the Satires, only one other “sest” appears in hexameter poetry after Lucretius (Prop. 4.5.17)—a distribution lopsided enough to create suspicion that this feature was considered a uitium. Moreover, the other two other “sests” in Satires 1 touch on a theme central to the work as a whole: for both satire and sanity, one should combine the acumen to discern shortcomings with the wisdom to forgive them. In line with his thematically significant exploitation of dissonance between form and content (Morgan 2011: 334-45), I suggest that saepe stilum uertas is the punch-line of a subtle metrical joke, a choice illustration of Horace’s interweaving of the moral and the aesthetic throughout the Satires.
I begin by discussing how the other two “sests” in Satires 1 reinforce the message of intentionally overlooking flaws. The first hails from the outburst of an animus muttonis, berating its owner for excessive choosiness: when furious with passion, the member exclaims, it does not demand a consul-begotten cunnus cloaked in a matronly garment, uelatumque stola (1.2.71). The poem’s first “sest” thus accords well with the speaker’s persona, its crudity of language and meter (see Nilsson 1952: 34-35, Eskuche 1890: 386), and its message of getting the job done without too much consideration for niceties. The book’s second “sest” is even more apt, for it comes from the sermon in 1.3 on choosing to regard our friends’ defects as endearing traits. After scolding those who turn a bleary eye upon their own faults while discerning with eagle-eyed exactitude those of others (25-27), Horace suggests that we should view our friends through the rose-tinted glasses of lovers or parents. The “sest” appears precisely where the poet tells us that “similarly, as friends, we should not be fastidious if there’s some flaw. ‘Squinty’ is what a father calls his cross-eyed son” (sic nos debemus amici/ si quod sit uitium non fastidire. strabonem/ appellat paetum pater, 43-45). Especially given the thematic importance of his own lippitude—which prevents him from seeing too clearly things it might be better to ignore (Oliensis 1998: 27-28, Reckford 1999: 525, Gowers 2002)—Horace may well be reinforcing with a metrical illustration the desirability of “squinting” at uitia.
The precedent established by these first two “sests” helps to illuminate the self-mocking humor of the final instance in book 1. The advice—to re-write what one hopes to make worthy of re-reading—already calls attention to itself as illustrating its own precept: we have in fact just “re-read” Horace’s criticism of Lucilius’ hasty composition from Serm. 1.4 (Gowers 2012: 333). Yet Horace is as critical of the effeminate preciosity of the neoterics (17-19) as he is of the “muddiness” of Lucilius (50-51) (see Crowther 1978, Schlegel 2010). By placing a “sest” in the middle of his injunction to polish, Horace displays his own fallibility, his ability to poke fun at himself, and the avoidance of extremes so central to his poetry and his philosophy.
I conclude with a glance at Horace’s two remaining “sests,” which confirm the phenomenon’s “vicious” nature. Both appear in 2.3, the diatribe of the fanatical Stoic convert Damasippus, whose unique licentiousness of meter mirrors his moral deficiency: “mad men are best painted in mad verse” (Freudenburg 1996: 205). Alertness to such metrical “madness” can help us to pinpoint the nature of that human madness which is the satirist’s overarching theme.