Horace is best known for his lyric poetry, four books now known as the Odes. In these poems especially he is a word artist who can make even Virgil seem ordinary, and that is hard for me to say.
An example follows.
In the first poem of the third book of his Odes, not for the first or last time, he chides people who believe that material comfort is the answer to their problems. An illustration is a rich man building a fancy villa by the sea (3.1.32-40):
Contracta pisces aequora sentiunt
iactis in altum molibus: huc frequens
caementa demittit redemptor
cum famulis dominusque terrae
fastidiosus: sed Timor et Minae
scandunt eodem quo dominus, neque
decedit aerata triremi et
post equitem sedet atra Cura.
Fish feel the shrinking of the water as massive piers
are dropped into the deep. Here come crowding
the master who has wearied of dry land
and the contractor with his slaves throwing in
the building rubble. But Fear and Foreboding
climb as high as the master. Black Care
stays aboard the bronze-plated trireme,
and sits behind the Knight.
No matter how visibly successful you are, says Horace, commanding a ship, parading through Rome as a Knight, or building a villa that extends out into the sea, you can never escape the troubles that attend all humanity, high, low and in between.
Horace in the Odes is working on a very small canvass, the miniature metrical schemes he’s borrowed from archaic Greek poets such as Sappho and (here) Alcaeus. His response was to develop a style of poetic expression that a character in Petronius’ Satyricon calls curiosa felicitas (118), “meticulous appositeness”, a precision in word selection, word placement, and word combination. At its most brilliant, Horace’s lyric poetry identifies the mot juste, situates that mot juste perfectly, and combines it with another mot juste to intensify poetic felicity to the maximum degree.
An excellent instance of just this is the three-word expression that in the Latin bridges these two stanzas, dominusque terrae// fastidiosus (“and the master who has wearied of dry land”).
These tiny lyric stanzas work rather like individual lines in more expansive metres, in the sense that the stanza is felt to be a sense unit, and that carries with it an expectation that the end of the stanza will coincide with a sense break (even though it often doesn’t). Here there’s a very marked disruption of the integrity of the stanza, a single expression strung between two, and the very least that does is delay and enhance our appreciation of the complete meaning of the expression, giving special impact to the first word in the second stanza, fastidiosus.
Which we shall contemplate for a spell, for it is the mot juste, perfectly placed, and perfectly combined. Roughly, this word means “bored”: it governs terrae, “of dry land”, and it describes the dominus, the owner of the property, its proprietor: thus “the master bored of dry land”.
But that isn’t to do fastidiosus justice. Fastidium is an aversion to something, and to be fastidiosus is to have that aversion, to be full of it, though I refer you to Robert Kaster in Transactions of the American Philological Association 2001 for a proper discussion of a word and a Roman emotion that are fascinating — all my examples comes from Kaster. For now, though, you might feel fastidium if, like Pliny the Elder, you were contemplating having to eat a lizard (Historia Naturalis 30.90) or at the very mention of bedbugs (29.61); or you might prove yourself a very inadequate Roman indeed if you betrayed the fundamental principles of amicitia, “friendship”, by being in aequos et pares fastidiosus, (something like) “contemptuous of your equals” (Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.52).
The man in Horace’s poem building his house out into the sea is wrong-headed in the same way as a Roman being a snob about his fellow Romans, but to an extreme degree. This man is so disconnected from reality and good sense that he can’t stomach something as basic to everyday existence as dry land. Terrae fastidiosus is a paradox capturing a profoundly unhealthy state of mind.
That’s the mot juste and combination of mots justes covered. But what about placement?
This is where the stanza break comes in. By separating the word for “dry land” and the word for “bored/contemptuous of/disgusted by” between the two stanzas Horace is also visually illustrating on the poetry page this man’s unhealthy thinking, and enacting his disdain in our reading about it. What’s perfect about the placement of fastidiosus is that it makes the word itself look contemptuous of terrae. Fastidium is all about keeping your distance from something unappealing: Cicero talks of us being caused by fastidium to back away (abalienemur, de Orat. 3.98) from something.
What do we do between stanzas of a poem we’re reading? We pause momentarily, take a breath: the result is that fastidiosus is separated, unnaturally, from the rest of its expression, and Horace has placed some supercilious space between fastidiosus and “the dry land” of the previous stanza.