On liking the unlikeable

I’ve been trying to find an analogy for my personal response to Horace’s political odes (spoiler: I like them), which has implications also for how I talk about them in the Very Short Introduction I’m writing. Horace’s Odes are all “political” in a broader sense, but here I mean the lyric poems that advance Augustan ideology in an overt fashion.

Contemporary scholarship tends to have a problem with these poems that it doesn’t have with other odes, and I find it odd. Sometimes the idea is that we in the twenty-first century have less sympathy with his political material, to which my response is that one doesn’t have to read his other poetry at all hard to find material or attitudes that are objectionable, and it doesn’t seem to me that poems promoting support for Augustus are much different in that respect. Sometimes the thought is more that Horace’s was too liberal a sensitivity to give real assent to the Augustan poetry he wrote, and just one objection to that is that every lyric poem composed by Horace is a carefully crafted piece of artifice, and not to be confused with any straightforward expression of his inner beliefs.

My feeling is that we can do two things with this poetry that are sometimes treated as incompatible. We can enjoy it, allowing ourselves to empathise enough with the poet and the poet’s circumstances to appreciate how effectively he promotes the cause, and to take pleasure from the reading experience; while at the same time we can achieve the detachment necessary to see accomplished political poetry for what it is, a sophisticated way of rendering people susceptible to a partisan ideology.

An example of what I’m talking about in Horace might be the passage in Odes 3.5, the Regulus Ode, where Horace condemns the miles Crassi, the “soldier of Crassus” taken prisoner by the Parthians in their crushing victory at Carrhae in 53 BC. Their greatest failure, in line with the core concern of this poem with the ethical guidance provided by the Roman past, is that they have forgotten their Romanness and “gone native” (5-12):

milesne Crassi coniuge barbara
turpis maritus uixit et hostium —
pro curia inuersique mores! —
consenuit socerorum in armis

sub rege Medo Marsus et Apulus
anciliorum et nominis et togae
oblitus aeternaeque Vestae,
incolumi Iove et urbe Roma?

“Has the soldier of Crassus lived his life a disgraceful husband to a barbarian wife, and have the Marsian and Apulian—shame on the Senate House and our topsy-turvy values!—grown old bearing arms for their fathers-in-law, their enemies, in the service of the Persian King, forgetful of the sacred shields and their name and the toga and everlasting Vesta while Jupiter and the city of Rome are yet unimpaired?”

It goes without saying, I hope, that I don’t endorse the chauvinistic nationalism of Horace’s “Roman Odes”, and furthermore I’m fascinated as an academic literary critic by the terms in which he expresses it, for instance the items that function as the Roman counterparts of motherhood and apple pie, the staples of a Roman identity that Horace suggests a true Roman could never forget: the sacred figure-of-eight shields borne by the dancing priests of Mars; the peculiar Roman styles of naming and dress; and Vesta, the goddess whose everlasting flame guaranteed Rome’s permanent existence.

Part and parcel of that analysis is seeing how brilliant the poetry is in which Horace’s xenophobic case is made. Just one detail out of many: how he exploits the expansive character of the third line of these alcaic stanzas to give aeternae special emphasis, the description of Vesta, “everlasting/eternal”, which clashes outrageously with oblitus, “forgetful” before it. What kind of people could forget Vesta who is always there, Horace asks us: only Romans who had fallen so far as no longer really to be Romans–and I feel the power of this. At some level I’m allowing myself to be manipulated by the poet, and understanding what he is doing by experiencing it.

Stated thus, it may still seem a paradoxical claim that I can be manipulated and still critique, but here comes my analogy. In the clip below Leonid Kharitonov, a Russian bass-baritone, with the Red Army Choir, performs the Song of the Volga Boatmen at a concert in the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, in 1965. I see (and who couldn’t, since everyone is in military uniform) the ideological project, and (9 years after Hungary, 3 before Prague) I deplore it. (Current events exert their own influence, no doubt.) Furthermore it interests me intellectually how a folksong, because it talks about working men collaborating for the common good, and doing so along Russia’s greatest river, could be coopted by an outfit like the Red Army Choir to express a Soviet ideal.

That said, though, I find everything about this video frankly thrilling, the power of the singing, by Kharitonov and by the Red Army Choir, the superb arrangement by the Choir’s director, the camera work and the whole mise-en-scène of the film. I think what’s happening here is that I’m achieving an imaginative empathy with the Soviet elite in 1965 which does not preclude, indeed coexists with and positively informs, my critical distance and dispassionate analysis.

And I think I can do that with Horace, too.

Enjoy, in any case (but critically):

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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