Monday, November 09, 2009


Poetry Stripped to the Bone

J.W. Mackail, "Poetry and Life," in Lectures on Poetry (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911), pp. 23-47 (at 43-44):
Let us take, as another instance, the poetry of Horace—a poet who for the purpose of testing theories or generalisations about poetry is of unique value, because he gives us, as one might say, poetry stripped to the bone. It is not the enlarged matter, the high argument of his political and moral odes that gives him his quality as a poet: indeed it is only his exquisite workmanship that redeems these from being, as all lyrics based on their model have since been, mannered and dull. He makes that universal appeal against which time and change and fashion seem powerless, because the Odes deal with the central realities of life—the little things. By the piled logs when Soracte is white, under the ilex that shadows the spring in the summer heat, yes, even in the suburban back-garden with its clipped vine, he sees the whole pageant of the world pass as though at a great distance. Unconcerned with the life and labour of the people—neglegens ne qua populus laboret—he is almost as little concerned with the large subject-matter of epic or romance, with high actions, and deep passions, and wide adventures. Cetera fluminis ritu feruntur; in the quiet life, with its bounded scope, its narrow range of thought and feeling, he found and fixed that on which the gods, and men too, have set their heart: tears and laughter, debita lacrima, lentus risus—note the scrupulous felicity of the epithets, those weighed and measured epithets in the use of which Horace is so consummate a master,—the "quiet laughter," the "due tears" of that narrow bounded space which is most central and most real in life.
"By the piled logs when Soracte is white" — Ode 1.9
"Under the ilex that shadows the spring in the summer heat" — Ode 3.13
"In the suburban back-garden with its clipped vine" — Ode 1.38
"Neglegens ne qua populus laboret" — Ode 3.8.25
"Cetera fluminis ritu feruntur" — Ode 3.29.33-34
"Debita lacrima" — Ode 2.6.23
"Lentus risus" — Ode 2.16.26-27

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