Princes and Poets

Niall Rudd

  • The Augustan Idea in English Literature by Howard Erskine-Hill
    Arnold, 379 pp, £33.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 7131 6373 9
  • Catullus by G.P. Goold
    Duckworth, 266 pp, £24.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1435 5
  • Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus and Juvenal by Richard Jenkyns
    Duckworth, 242 pp, £24.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1636 6

In his immensely impressive book Dr Erskine-Hill shows how the example of Augustus was used as an inspiration, or as a warning, at every period from the Church Fathers to the end of the 18th century. Elizabeth’s reign had important Augustan features, but her court was not a source of literary patronage, and England did not occupy a central position on the international scene. James I saw himself as a potential Augustus; he encouraged Shakespeare, Jonson and Donne, and took a serious interest in religion; but he failed to assert British power abroad. Charles II was hailed as a new Augustus in panegyrics and on ceremonial arches, and it was in connection with his reign that the word ‘Augustan’ was first used of a cultural period. The comparison was developed by Higgons in 1726 but opposed by Warton and Hume, who argued that in taste and morals the age was far from Augustan. In the mid-18th century the debate became more complicated. Opponents of George II could use either the favourable ‘Velleian’ picture of Augustus as a contrast or the unfavourable ‘Tacitean’ picture as a comparison; many accounts of Augustus were ambiguous. But whether revered or reviled he remained a central point of reference.

The book is not just a catalogue of opinions, cleverly selected and described. It also contains analyses of several cardinal texts. Particularly notable are the comparison of Donne’s fourth Satire (based on Horace 1.9) with Pope’s ‘The Impertinent’, the interpretation of Jonson’s The Poetaster, the comparison of Huish’s Horatian Ode with that of Marvell, and the discussion of Pope’s poem ‘To Mr Addison’. This combination of literary criticism and historical narrative presents many new insights and is bound to stimulate further thought. On the basis of the book, rather than in criticism of it, I should like to offer two rather simple contributions to the current debate about ‘Augustanism’ from a point of view which is now seldom represented.

First, if we are to understand how Dryden, Pope and the others are related to the Romans, we also have to try to understand the Romans. This is a principle which some scholars seem reluctant to acknowledge: see, for example, Professor Weinbrot’s new book, Alexander Pope and the Traditions of Formal Verse Satire, pp. xvi-xvii. Let us consider a passage from the ‘Epilogue to the Satires’ which has been much discussed recently in connection with Pope’s abandonment of Horace as a satirical model.

But Horace, Sir, was delicate, was nice;
Bubo observes, he lash’d no sort of Vice:
Horace would say, Sir Billy served the Crown,
Blunt could do Bus’ness, H – ggins knew the Town.

Erskine-Hill rightly points out that ‘Pope does not give this account of Horace in his own person but puts it into the mouth of the pusillanimous and time-serving “Friend”.’ It is not true, however, that ‘on one occasion at least [Sat. 1.3.49-54] Horace’s own precepts lend support.’ Granted, Horace did not ‘lash’ vice, but he never employed or advocated sly euphemisms in satire. The passage in question is about tolerance in friendship (see II. 41, 50, 54 etc); it does not deal with the ridicule of society. So when Pope decided to abandon Horace’s manner, it seems he first constructed a verbal caricature of his old friend and then had it spoken by a figure who, to say the least, was an unreliable authority. The same point should be borne in mind when Walpole’s function as a ‘screen’ (see Butt’s note on 1.22 in the Twickenham Edition) is attributed retrospectively, and quite unfairly, to Horace.

Again, that whole passage was suggested to Pope by Dryden’s translation of Persius 1, where the interlocutors were designated as ‘Friend’ and ‘Persius’. In II. 114-118 Persius said:

                          secuit Lucilius urbem,
te Lupe, te Muci, et genuinum fregit in illis;
Omne uafer uitium ridenti Flaccus amico
tangit et admissus circum praecordia ludit,
callidus excusso populum suspendere naso.

Dryden, with considerable freedom, translated thus:

Yet old Lucilius never fear’d the times,
But lash’d the city, and dissected crimes.
Mutius and Lupus both by name he brought;
He mouth’d ’em, and betwixt his grinders caught.

Unlike in method, with conceal’d design,
Did crafty Horace his low numbers join:
And, with a sly insinuating grace,
Laugh’d at his friend, and look’d him in the face.

That is where Pope’s ‘Friend’ got the word ‘lash’d’. (Actually, in view of the broken molar in the next line, secuit probably means ‘bit’.) As for Horace, Persius can hardly be saying that his characteristic method was to pull his friend’s leg about his foibles, for Horace never does that in the Satires and very rarely in the Epistles. So it looks as if he means something like this: Horace makes his friend smile (i.e. any friend who happens to be reading him) through his satire of people in general; then, too late, the friend realises that he also is included in the ridicule (‘mutato nomine de te/fabula narratur’).

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