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’).

It would be helpful if the following questions could be answered in connection with the ‘Epilogue’ and ‘1740’. What exactly is being said against each of the figures mentioned? The irony often defeats the amateur. Were they alive when the poems were published? If so, did they occupy positions of any importance in society? We will then be able to say how near Pope came to Juvenal. Meanwhile it may be observed that the poems in question seem to contain no reference to such an approach; also, although Juvenal may well have annoyed some of his contemporaries, he did not employ the name of anyone who was both alive and important. If we are looking for a Roman ‘model’, we might do better to think of Lucilius.

Some texts continually invoked in discussion are not Augustan at all. Most of Horace’s Satires (say, 15 out of 18) were written in the period of political disenchantment between Philippi and Actium, and except for a handful of allusions (mostly in 2.1) Octavian is not even mentioned. Other texts are ‘Augustan’ in the sense that they were written in Augustus’s reign and embody certain stylistic qualities associated with that period: but they have nothing whatever to do with the Emperor. This is true of the great majority of Horace’s Odes, including most of the best-loved pieces (‘Eheu fugaces’, ‘O fons Bandusiae’ and (‘Diffugere niues’). The Epistles paid so little attention to Augustus that he wrote to inquire whether Horace was afraid his reputation would suffer if he were seen to be on friendly terms with the Princeps. Several major works are about Augustus, but also have a much wider and more general field of reference. To concentrate on the beginning and end of the ‘Epistle to Augustus’ while ignoring the intervening 200 lines is bound to give a false impression of the poem. Even the opening verses form part of the literary argument: if the public admires a living ruler more than his predecessors on account of his civilising achievements, it ought to do the same for living poets. So as well as being flattered, and encouraged, and educated (his tastes were rather old-fashioned), Augustus is also being used. As for the Aeneid, when Aeneas is identified with Augustus (a process which had become familiar by the beginning of the 18th century), the epic can then be seen as a work of sustained sycophancy. This, of course, is absurd. Except in a very few passages, Aeneas is not a prototype of Augustus. Moreover, what Virgil says and implies about Augustus is part of what he says and implies about Rome, which in turn falls within what he says and implies about the course of human history. That is what makes the work a classic.

My second point is this: when books and articles on ‘Augustanism’ concentrate on Augustus, the significance of Horace and Virgil in the late 17th and 18th centuries is reduced to what they have to say about politics, and that must surely involve distortion. Other factors which are important for an understanding of ‘Augustanism’ in a much broader and more pervasive sense tend to be disregarded: the relation of city to country; class divisions and the operation of patronage; ideas of decorum and correctness in architecture, literature and social behaviour; more private poetic traditions, like the love poem and the Georgic; and themes like Beatus ille. So in general discussions it would be sensible to declare what aspect of ‘Augustanism’ is being considered, instead of agitating for the word’s abolition.

Dr Erskine-Hill’s book is primarily concerned with Augustus and his achievements, and with the ways in which they were viewed and employed between 1600 and 1800. That is an enormous and complex theme, for it shows educated people trying to understand and assess and influence what was happening to them. As we follow the story, we are reminded in abundant detail how this, like other Roman threads, is inextricably woven into two hundred years of British history.

At the end of 64, Catullus contrasted modern (i.e. historical) times with the age of heroes. In 401f., according to the exiguous manuscript tradition, he wrote:

optauit genitor primaeui funera nati,
liber ut innuptae poteretur flore nouercae.

(After the degeneration of mankind ‘father desired the death of eldest son, so that he might be free to enjoy the flower of the unmarried stepmother.’) Faced with this reading, some editors gloss over the problem with a paraphrase, others excogitate a defence, others admit the text is wrong but print it all the same, others affix daggers and hurry on their way. Goold, following suggestions from Maehly and Baehrens, prints: ‘liber uti nuptae poteretur flore nouellae’ (‘that he might be free to enjoy a young wife’s beauty’). Now of course we don’t know that this is right, but at least the line sounds like Catullus and not like a ‘goat-milker or ditch-digger’. (The young wife, of course, belongs to the son.) If we ignore misprints in lines 129 and 373, and leave aside Dousa’s fors (237), which is translated as if it were Guarinus’s sors, we are left with nearly two dozen alterations in a poem of four hundred-odd lines. ‘Slashing Bentley,’ murmur the conservatives. They are quite wrong. Many of the changes are very slight; they are drawn from five hundred years of Catullan scholarship; and (in my view) almost every one is an improvement.

In the text as a whole there are inevitably a few places where one feels that the editor’s Augustan logic has carried him too far. For example, in 51 Catullus describes the shattering effect which Lesbia has upon him:

          tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
                    lumina nocte

(‘my ears ring, my eyes are covered with double darkness’). Goold rejects the figure, and reads:’

           tintinant aures geminae, teguntur
                    lumina nocte

(‘my two ears ring, my eyes are covered in darkness’). I suppose the point is that gemina nox ‘lacks authority’. But Catullus had not read the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, and the hypallage is not so unusual.

Goold’s translation is in prose, but follows Catullus’s lineation. Very occasionally it lapses into metre (‘Attis borne in speedy vessel/on the crest of seas profound’), and equally rarely it conveys an obscenity in what seems to be the wrong register: for example, ‘debauched’ for effututa, ‘loins’ for lumbos and ‘harlot’ for moecha sound rather too formal, whereas ‘dinky’ is slang for pene. But in the main it succeeds very well in combining ‘accuracy, clarity and elegance’. The instructions about reading verse aloud are open to question. They tell us to stress the ictus (i.e. the first and third syllables of uiuamus), but to stress it lightly so as not to distort the word accent, and at the same time to convey the proper sense. A hard task. Where ictus and accent do not coincide there must indeed be a compromise: but most scholars would prefer to reach it from the other direction by stressing the word accent (i.e. the second syllable of uiuamus) while trying to preserve some impression of the quantitative rhythm. Here and there we could do with more bibliographical information. ‘Julian Brown deduces ...’, ‘Clausen says ...’ Where? And how do we find ‘Goold 1969’? The complex question of fact and fiction is passed over rather quickly. And because of the sparseness of the notes readers will be unaware that some of the interpretations are controversial. Many scholars, for instance, see no need to postulate a model yacht in 4, and would banish that phantom housekeeper from 68. But then, where should the line be drawn? Even to have indicated the problems would have led to a much fatter and dearer book.

In any case, such complaints are mere quibbles when set beside this exhilarating text. In a sense, it is not new. It has evolved from a brilliant review of Mynors in Phoenix 1958 through the Groton edition of 1973; and even as I write, the editor is probably explaining another irresistible conjecture to his colleagues in Yale, using a battered biro and an old envelope. Nevertheless, the present work represents, as they say, a landmark. It shows that, given the right match of poet and critic, progress can still be made. And it will affect the reading and exposition of Catullus for years to come.

As readers of The Victorians and Ancient Greece will know, Richard Jenkyns is an accomplished literary critic with the professional training of a Classicist. The preface to his new book is slightly misleading. One might infer from his attack on one-sidedness and reductivism that he intended to employ a variety of critical techniques, but it soon becomes clear that he is making room for his own, which is essentially aesthetic in the pre-1914 sense. The style and sensibility which accompany this approach have been out of fashion for so long that they now strike home with all the force of novelty. We are encouraged to take up the fragments of Sappho one by one, apprehend their shape, finger their texture, and hold them up to the light. Our ears are kept alert for subtle effects of sound and rhythm. And sometimes even our taste buds are engaged – ‘luscious’ and ‘delicious’ are favourite words, and once the author speaks of a ‘morsel’ of Sappho as if tempted to attack it with a fork.

Since the fragments display no concern with politics, death or the vagaries of fortune, much of the outside world can be excluded from discussion. Jenkyns also adopts a neutral position on the sexual question, making merry at the expense of those 19th-century scholars who rallied to defend Sappho’s good name. (He might have mentioned Philip Buttmann, who, as death approached, prefixed a note to his Mythologus expressing public repentance for joining in the vulgar slander.) But even within the limits of his chosen method Jenkyns can bring his erudition to bear on Sappho’s poems in many interesting ways. He quotes, as few could, from Swinburne, Landor, Tennyson and Housman. (Oddly, in discussing fragment 104 he omits Byron’s charming adaptation in Don Juan CVII: ‘Oh Hesperus! thou bringest all good things.’) After an acute assessment of the authenticity of fragment 976, ‘The moon has set and the Pleiads, it is midnight, the watch passes, but I sleep alone,’ he concludes that it is not Sappho’s. Should fragment 2 be interpreted in terms of Freudian symbols? The answer is certainly not, and the unfortunate Professor Bagg who made that proposal is sent packing.

Naturally, not all of Jenkyns’s judgments command assent. He maintains that Denys Page was ‘radically mistaken’ in applying the word ‘objective’ to Sappho’s account of her symptoms in fragment 31. I suspect, however, that a closer semantic analysis would justify both ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. Again, not everyone will accept the contention that when fragment 31 is set beside Catullus 51 ‘the comparison is entirely to the lady’s advantage.’ It can be shown that at several points Catullus is neater, more logical and more mannered – perhaps because he approached Sappho through Callimachus. Whether that makes his poem inferior is a matter of taste.

No 64 is Catullus’s longest and most ambitious work. Full of brilliant detail, it evokes the world of Greek myth with all its beauty and heroism and passion. We hear of the sailing of the Argo, the meeting of Peleus and Thetis, and their splendid wedding. On the marriagebed is a coverlet with two embroidered scenes – Ariadne abandoned by Theseus, and Bacchus on his way to marry her. The weddingsong for. Peleus and Thetis is sung by the Fates, who tell of the joys of the happy couple and the exploits of their future son, Achilles. A closing section wistfully contrasts the glory of that age with the crime and squalor of more recent times. Thus summarised, the poem sounds straightforward. But three main difficulties have to be faced. First, between his descriptions of the two pictures on the coverlet, Catullus tells how after killing the Minotaur Theseus deserted Ariadne; how Ariadne uttered a long lament culminating in a curse; and how the curse was fulfilled by the death of Theseus’s father. As all this is outside the dramatic context of Peleus’s wedding it does not, strictly, disturb the symmetry of the coverlet: but it certainly affects the proportions and the happy mood of the poem. Perhaps we can take account of this by talking of sad and joyful panels. Then comes the second problem: the contrast of modern and mythical is not as clear as it should be. At the end, when we read of fratricide and incest, we have to forget about myths like the seven against Thebes and Oedipus; conversely, we must assume that Theseus’s mean and ungrateful behaviour was involuntary (he was bewitched by Bacchus) and that Ariadne’s indictment of him is not endorsed by Catullus. Again, these assumptions can be made, but not without damage to the poem.

Finally, what of the Fates? Their presence at the wedding need not surprise. (See the François vase.) Their weird appearance may pass (just) as another example of graphic contrast. But their song, with its horrible details of brutality, presents a serious difficulty. Did Catullus really think that Achilles’s savagery contributed to his glory? (So Giangrande.) That is very hard to believe. Or did the sensitive neoteric fail to keep control when describing epic carnage and go beyond Homer himself? An unwelcome hypothesis. Or are the lines to be blamed on the tastelessness of the Fates?

This is Jenkyns’s idea, yet it hardly provides an answer, for what the Fates say is true, and Catullus would still be stressing the presence of hideous cruelty in the age which he has just been glorifying. Whatever the writer’s intention may have been, there can, I fear, be no solution which preserves the harmony of the poem as a whole. However, Jenkyns’s treatment is barely affected by these larger problems. He concentrates on the separate sections, and by his numerous insights – for example, his choice of the term ‘rococo’, his emphasis on the pictorial quality of Ariadne, and his comparison of Catullus’s procedure with that of Hofmannsthal and Strauss – he gives a new demonstration of the poet’s virtuosity.

The chapter on Juvenal is not quite so impressive, mainly because the method of sampling (however expert the connoisseur) is not suited to the discussion of larger units. Nothing is said about the structure of individual satires or about the oeuvre as a whole. Again, what are we to make of Juvenal as a satirist? Is he a preacher of moral reform, or an embittered pessimist relieving his indignation, or merely a declaimer with a special gift of sardonic wit? Jenkyns escapes the problem in his last footnote, like a patron slipping out the back door to avoid a tedious client. More queries arise on points of detail, which suggests that this chapter may not have been quite so thoroughly prepared and thought out as the others. For example, the idea of spoiling something native and natural with something expensive can hardly be Juvenal’s invention, since it occurs in Persius 6.38-40; and the practice of overlaying clay statues with gold (Juv. 11.116) is referred to in Persius 2.55ff. The glowing ears of the adulterous wife (11.189) were anticipated by Suetonius (Aug. 69.1); and ‘the smell of profit’ (14.204) is based on Vespasian’s remark, referred to by Suetonius (Vesp.23) and Dio (66.14.5). But the chapter has many perceptive things to say about Juvenal’s use of Virgil, his odd blend of pity and scorn, his management of sound and pace, his sharp eye for detail – features which are too often underestimated in more conventional studies of his satire.

Jenkyns is so lively and witty, so wide-ranging in his erudition, and so continuously interesting that one readily overlooks the (sporadic) mannerisms acquired from his long sojourn among eminent Victorians – the florid generalisations, the over-sumptuous language, and (most reprehensible) the jibes at Horace.