VICTORIAN HORACE: Classics and Class

Stephen Harrison

Bloomsbury (2017) h/b 200 pp £85 (ISBN 9781472583918)

This is the final volume in the Classical Inter/Faces series initiated by Duckworth in 2000 with the publication of Lorna Hardwick’s Translating Words, Translating Cultures. To celebrate its conclusion, the series’ editors offer an ‘Envoi’ in the final chapter, giving a brief retrospective of all 14 titles they published.

Victorian Horace is an H.’s overview of Horace’s appearance in English literature and scholarship with a focus on his use as a marker of class. The section on Horace in the Victorian age is introduced by a chapter on earlier reception of the poet from the seventeenth century, and is concluded by an epilogue on his appearance in modern poetry, thus giving the book a wider range than the title indicates.

On the other hand, the scope of the book is confined to Horace in English, a limitation perhaps to be understood from ‘Victorian’. H. informs us in the prologue that this volume ‘develops a series of earlier articles and chapters’ derived from his earlier publications on the subject, and these too appear to have some impact on the focus of the volume. For example, H.’s chapter ‘Expurgating Horace 1660-1900’ in Harrison S.J. and Stray C. (eds.) (2012) Expurgating the Classics provides substantial material, especially for the first chapter where there seems a danger that the handling of obscenity might dominate. H., however, keeps his subtitle in the foreground, concluding this preliminary chapter with a section on Horace in the Victorian gentleman’s education and the social prestige that education afforded.

The central chapters have a wide range, covering commentaries, criticism, translation as well as Horace in poetry and fiction. H. keeps issues of class prominent as in the general conclusion at the end of his treatment of Horace in fiction: ‘Horatian allusion serves as a self-conscious marker of social class … the capacity to make and recognise references to the Latin poet, a key part of Victorian elite education, is consistently presented as an identifier of gentlemanly status.’

H. covers a substantial range of literature in a relatively slim volume and there are times when one would like him to extend his discussion of texts. For example, the opening of Basil Bunting’s version of Odes 2.14, which H. briefly mentions as a relatively close reading, cries out for more attention:

 

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume          You can’t grip years Postume,

labuntur anni nec pietas moram            that ripple away, nor hold back

   rugis et instanti senectae                   wrinkles, and soon now age,

     adferet indomitaeque morti …       nor can you tame death …

 

The repetition of Postumus’ name replaced by the repetition of sound in grip and ripple, the second denying the former. Bunting was alert to Horace’s word order—the words ‘hold back’, ‘age’ and ‘death’ at the end of consecutive lines echo Horace’s moram, senectae and morti.

But this perhaps isn’t the book for detailed analysis of individual works. H. is an erudite and agreeable cicerone who presents the reader with a wide range of responses to Horace over a significant period in the history of classical education. He concludes on an up-beat note: ‘Access to Horace no longer requires an elite male education or close knowledge of Latin.’ If only such access were available for all, there would be no need for a Jude Fawley, learning Latin from old Delphin editions while delivering bread thrice a week in a creaking cart drawn by an aged horse (Hardy Jude the Obscure I.5).

 

Alan Beale

 

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