Victorian Horace: Classics and Class
Stephen Harrison
Bloomsbury
216pp
Hardback, £85

Horace's elegant descriptions of landscapes and of love, as well as his biting invectives have secured his position today as one of the great writers of antiquity, giving us phrases such as carpe diem (Odes 1.11.8) and the immortal words, 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' (Odes 3.2.13), which live on in Wilfred Owen's haunting First World War poem, Dulce et Decorum Est (it is now often referred to as 'the old Lie').

The Victorians viewed Horace (65–8 BC) as a model gentleman. Studying his work was part of the education of the elite and a mark of a person's refinement. As a result, he appears again and again, not just in the poetry of the period, but in novels too. In Victorian Horace: Classics and Class, the last in the Classical Inter/Faces series that has been running for the past 20 years, Stephen Harrison, Professor of Latin Literature at Oxford and author of several works on Classical reception, explores the Roman lyric poet's literary afterlife in 19th-century Britain.

One of the most celebrated modern poets to engage directly with Horace is AE Housman – in his exquisite translation of Odes 4.7, Diffugere nives. Although the poem appears in the posthumous collection More Poems (1936), it was first published in 1897. Housman said of the original Latin version that it was 'the most beautiful poem in ancient literature'. He was by no means alone in his admiration of Horace. Alfred, Lord Tennyson in particular turned to his long-dead predecessor several times. He, along with many others, translated Horace's work as a schoolboy, but the Victorian poets also show a relationship with the ancient poet that extends beyond mere translation.

While it may be no surprise to see poets imitating earlier poets, the influence of Horace can often be seen in prose too. Harrison's survey of the Roman poet in the work of major Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy, produces some insightful observations. Thackeray, for instance, had favourite quotations. Post equitem sedet atra cura or 'dark Care sits behind the rider' (Odes 3.1.40) appears in various guises more than 10 times throughout his work. Horace's description of Fortune (Odes 3.29.49–56) is also alluded to frequently. On occasion it is even intermingled with a quotation from John Dryden's version of the poem ('I puff the prostitute away'), showing that the character who delivers the citation is familiar with Horace's original work and later renditions of the Ode. In Eliot, we encounter more casual, less diligent quoters of Horace than in Thackeray, and in cases like these, Horatian references in direct speech attest to the interesting relationships between the speaker, the addressee, the reader and the Classics.

Quoting passages in the original Latin and in translation, this thorough book examines the role of Horace before and after the Victorian period, setting the 19th-century appeal of the ancient poet in a wider cultural context as part of a dialogue down the centuries from 1st-century Rome till now.
Lucia Marchini

 

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