The scholarly interpretation of Horace’s first book of Epistles is itself becoming an antiquus ludus. Scholars investigating the collection divide it up for conquest, honing in on the poet and poetic themes (his private life and personal relationship with Maecenas; freedom and friendship); his turn to philosophy (which schools and to what degree?); or the genesis of his innovative genre. Yet any one of these foci by itself yields little in the way of consensus: Horace, it has been argued, is an aging poet struggling with self-worth (Johnson); a man bowing peacefully into retirement (Kilpatrick); or an artist to whose personal life we do not have access (McGann). Some find astoic, others an epicurean or hedonist—most a mixture. He is to one a philosopher who is scantly poetic (Heinz); to another a poet only superficially philosophic (Pasquali in Rudd). The genre itself, one suggests, came in to being through epiphany (Johnson), yet another contends it was through deliberate industry, to suit a hungry poet dissatisfied with “the restless exploitation of the inherited genres of personal poetry” (Mayer, 1). Epistles I, it seems, remains elusive—Horace is still winning.
It is the purpose of this paper to enter back into this same arena, equipped with a few new weapons, namely the scholarship on the exilic epistles of Cicero and Ovid and the attraction to the verse epistle for poets in seventeenth-century England. My argument hinges on the notion of an impetus: the creation of the first book of the Epistles was set in motion by a personal experience of the poet, a crisis of sorts, that is revealed by a close examination of the text. This “tempestas” resulted in Horace’s retreat (by choice or by suggestion) to the countryside, which became, for the poet, a state of exile. The acceptance of this premise provides a “key” to interpretation—a way to reconcile the collection, many of the sundry explanations, and the impetus to genre into a unified, harmonious whole. The personal experience of the poet “in exile” informs his poetic themes and shapes both a poetic philosophy and a genre that synthesizes consolation and reconciliation.
While this proposition suggests almost the antithesis of the popular beatusille image that Horace and his country retreat have become, such a premise can be supported. The verse epistle in the seventeenth century, as W. C.Dowling has argued, was a response of sorts, to an anxiety over a kind of Cartesian solipsism, a skepticism, which evoked an epistemological crisis, resulting in a deep-seeded fear of isolation— “the haunting fear that one’s own consciousness is all there is” (11). The reader might legitimately ask what relevance this has for a poet living in the early years of the principate: such a thesis is clearly irrelevant to any consideration of ancient Rome. I would suggest, however, the impetus to the verse epistle that he describes might well be applied to an individual haunted by fear of isolation—an individual in exile.
The personal experience of the poet“in exile” is further supported by a consideration of scholarship on other exilic epistles. J. M. Claassen’s grammatical analysis of the letters of five Roman men—Cicero, Ovid, Seneca the Younger, Dio Chrysostomus and Boethius (all formerly powerful in their sphere)—assess how they use literary means either to sublimate powerless ness or to find new ways of wielding power. I will show how EpistlesI corresponds to her exilic paradigm, and how the premise of a poet in isolation or exile adds scope to the poem, places it in a context, and perhaps provides answers to some of our questions.