Monday, September 18, 2017

Horace & Ashbery: From Rome to Brindisi, with Stops

“From Rome to Brindisi, with Stops” is a perfect example of why reading Horace and gleaning any sense of meaning or intention is virtually impossible. There is such a complexity of interwoven themes; references to literary tropes and inside jokes, that I’ve spent more time reading this five page satire than I have reading some six hundred page books. My research has led me to podcasts on the fall of the Roman Republic, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives for a closer examination of Brutus, and Machiavelli’s Prince. 

A couple of weeks ago the poet John Ashbery passed away, I decided to take a break from Horace and read through “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, which was published in 1975 and won Ashbery a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

And here, in his title poem, written two-thousand years after Horace penned the first book of his satires, I saw a glimmer of recognition. Ashbery is wrestling with finding meaning in a piece of art, a self-portrait by Parmigianino. But meaning is so complex. Narrative is misleading and ultimately Ashbery explores the extent to which understanding the intent of another is illusory. 

In an attempt to describe the self portrait of Parmigianino, Ashbery writes what is essentially a self-portrait about the complexity of communication and authenticity in a world of invading semiotics. 

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is, 
No words to say what it really is, that it is not,
Superficial but a visible core, then there is 
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. Experience. 
You will stay on, restive, serene in 
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything. 
(92-99)

Parmigianino paints his self-portrait from a mirror fixed to a globe. The image is distorted, his hand is so large it’s almost a shield wall. There are virtually no details we can glean from the background; muted colors, the corner of a window sill. One eye is almost glazed over, as if myopic. His expression is serene? Ambivalent? Or is that one eye, with it’s direct gaze, defying the observer to see beyond all that is distorted and look beyond the context into his soul? 


And what would Parmigianino have us see? What background could he have painted that would have clued us in to the Florentine climate of 1524? How do you describe the rumblings of a discontented populace suffering the collapse of the Florentine Republic? Or the increasing suspicion of the Medici hegemony? By 1524 the Medici’s were the most powerful family in Florence and with Pope Leo X (a Medici scion) the family had solidified rule in both church and state. 

Florentine artists respond to this hostile environment with visual satire. They distort perspectives and exaggerate features in unnatural ways. Their movement becomes known as Mannerism. 

So, “there are no words for the surface, that is/ no words to say what it really is.” (92) Parmigianino takes his place along his compatriots of the art world and they distort the surface as a clarion call for closer investigation into the complexity of the world around them. The unnaturalness of their work reflects the unnaturalness of oppression in a political climate that is increasingly tyrannical. 

“Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning/ But holds something of both in pure/ Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.” (96-99) Their gaze looks on, disillusioned with man’s propensity to relive history without learning from her lessons. 

Parmigianino hides behind a distorted hand and offers, with his one directly gazing eye, a dialogue about authenticity in an atmosphere of repression. Horace hides behind his writing and we are left guessing at the intention of his distortions. 

Fifteen hundred years prior, when Horace was a young, jaded 30 year old; having lived through the collapse of the Roman Republic; having thrown his lot in with the wrong faction and narrowly escaped; having somehow procured a good administrative post in the treasury department of Octavian; having been driven to writing by his poverty: Horace publishes his first book of Satires and they are as impenetrable and inaccessible as the work of the Mannerist. There are no words to say what it really is. 

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. 
(1-4)

The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface 
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases 
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept 
In suspension, unable to advance much farther 
Than you look as it intercepts the picture.
(24-31)

This could be a perfect description of Horace, forever trapped behind an obfuscating hand that renders the contextual meaning indecipherable. All we have are his eyes, his witness to the history taking place around him, but like Francesco Parmigianino, rendering cloudy and myopic eyes, what Horace chooses to write is filled with the complexity and contradiction of satire. 

Satire V, “From Rome to Brindisi with Stops,” is presented as a travelogue where the journeymen are forever waylaid on their circuitous route to nowhere in particular, and that is abruptly ended when Horace runs out of paper. 

So many things are happening at once. Perhaps the most obvious is the thinly veiled chronology of the Odyssey. “The first lines parody Odysseus’ opening words to the Phaeacians, and the journey unfolds in the shadow of this original traveller: a lucky escape, a siege, a Cyclops pitted against a puny stranger, a fire, Diomedes, the city of the Laestrygonians (Formiae), epic periphrases for night, invocation of a muse, and hints of a final nostos. But a deceitful girl replaces faithful Penelope, a kitchen fire the fires of Troy, Formiae now belongs to Matura’s family, and siege is laid to H.’s own stomach after a bought of diarrhea.” 1

Rather than an illustrious hero, we have Horace. His journey makes a counterpoint to the heroic at every point. He is not the protagonist of this epic but merely a tired journeyman. He needs a patron to survive the hostile climate of Octavian and has found one in Maecenas, but as such risks becoming a censored captive,  taking his place in the entourage of the most powerful Emperor in the known world. He’s treated humanely, but kept in suspension: 

That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept 
In suspension, unable to advance much farther 
(29-30)

The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The siting of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, 
longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move 
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
(34-39) 

Maybe I’m reading into Horace an atmosphere of oppression and dissatisfaction that isn’t there…after all in three years Maecenas would give Horace a Sabine Farm and he would be free from the stress of poverty for the rest of his life. He would have recognition and support of an influential patron and the ability to hide in the country and devote himself to studious solitude. Sounds pretty good. 

But he left his studies in Athens and threw his lot into the campaign of Brutus. And according to Plutarch, Brutus was a mensch. The full package; ideals, virtue, heroism, the love of the populace, an adoring wife. I have a hard time believing that after the battle of Philippi, when Horace abandoned the republicans as a lost cause and returned “home” to an estate that had been confiscated by the victorious Caesarians, that it was as easy to walk away from his ideals. 

How many people came and stayed a certain time, 
Uttered light or dark speech that became a part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on 
In the form of memories deposited in irregular 
Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, 
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
(108-123)

One of the complexities of reading Horace is that there are no outside sources that can give us a glimpse into his life. He is an amalgam of his context, embodying the “light or dark” speech of those around him. He espouses Epicureanism, but is that part of his satirical persona?  He only gives us shards of a broken mirror, distributed throughout his writings and when we have reassembled the mirror we’re not sure he’s been a reliable narrator. There are contradictions between the little he says about himself and the little historical facts we know. For example, how could the now impoverished son of a freeman procure a “good administrative post in the treasury department”? 

All we have are his words, and his words are complex and misleading, but simultaneously saturated with inferences that leave a breadcrumb trail for the diligent reader. For example, his verbs throughout Satire V are slow and dense: lazy, worming, crawling. He spends more time discussing preparations to leave than the actual travel. While Caesar has quickly and decisively made war on the known world and has solidified for the next five hundred years the supremacy of Rome, his scribe drags his feet, taking note of everything except missions of state. 

Horace refuses to acknowledge the campaign of his patron, our best guess is that Octavian was making his way to Tarentum for the signing of a treaty with Anthony and Lepidus in 37 BC, which would cede control of the western world to Octavian.  Despite this omission his language drips with militaristic references, he declares “war” on his stomach, and watches the heavens prepare a siege on the day.

Now the night was preparing to spread 
Her darkness on earth, to station her stars in the heavens.
[SI. V. 9]

Whatever Horace’s intention was, it was not to talk about Octavian. Perhaps this satire is less about describing an actual journey and more of a commentary about travelogues, and the limitations of satire.

Never take a night boat, reader. You spend the first hour
Paying fares and hitching up the mule. Then fearless mosquitos 
And resonant swamp frogs keep sleep safely at bay. 
A sailor and passenger, soused with cheap wine, compete
In songs to their absent girl friends. The mule driver finally 
Drops off to sleep: the lazy drive lets the mule browse, 
Fasten the rope to a rock, stretches out and snores. 
Dawn was already at hand before we observed 
That the boat hadn’t budged an inch. 
[SI. V. 13-19]

At this point, all the travelers are so frustrated and burnt out by not actually traveling that a fellow passenger jumps out of the boat, grabs a switch from a nearby willow and starts beating the mule and the driver “Drumming their domes and their bones” [SI. V. 20] Is this passenger’s inability to wait patiently, and his outburst of hot headed frustration a reference to anti-epicureanism? The beating also has a thinly veiled sexual component. Some translators interpret “loins” for bones, and this is a sharp contrast to the action the drunken sailor and passenger are singing about in the proceeding lines.

Even so, it was ten when we finally got through the canal 
And washed our faces and hands in your sacred spring,
Feronia, goddess of groves.
[SI. V. 23-24]

They proceed with their journey and wash themselves in the sacred spring of Feronia, the Italian Juno, patron goddess of freedmen and a shadowy reference to the enslaved. Next they “worm” their way to the limestone cliffs of Anxur, where they would have been met with the formidable temple of Jupiter, the god of War. But Jupiter is not mentioned. Horace has given precedence to the goddess of the enslaved. Instead the god of war that is mentioned is only obliquely referenced, for this is the rendezvous point where he meets up with Maecenas and Nerva on a “mission of state”.

Here was the rendezvous 
With noble Maecenas and Nerva, on a mission of state,
Men deft at settling the quarrels of sensitive allies.
[S1. 5.26-28]

At this moment Horace chooses to cover his eyes with black salve. Emily Gowers, in her incredible annotated study of book one of the satires says: “Horace ignores his patron’s arrival and concentrates on smearing black ointment onto his sore eyes (30-1): ‘History’s witness has sealed his eyes shut.’” 2

It seems like the most honest bread crumb trail is the one left by omission. The shapes in the background left unpainted, the illustrious campaigns left un-described. 

Next they make their way to Formiae, in the Odyssey, this is where the cannibalistic giants, the Laestrygones dwell, and where Odysseus suffers his greatest disaster and loses a horrific amount of casualties. Tens of thousands of flesh eating giants destroy eleven of his ships, and it is here that Odysseus’ prudence as a leader is questioned. 

But rather than disaster, Horace meets up with his friends Vergil, Plotius and Varius:

These men are surely the finest the world has to offer, 
And no one is more indebted to them than am I. 
[S1. 5.41]

We know that Horace was introduced into the privileged circle of Maecenas by Varius and Vergil. But is the world in which he finds himself his metaphorical Formiae? He was a republican that now finds himself in the courts of Octavian, the future Caesar Augustus. Beneath the veneer of a carefree joyride has he found himself in the land of ten thousand flesh eating giants, caught in a kafkaesque struggle to get to the next backwater village, with bad food, undrinkable water and frustrated dreams?

The narrative is interspersed with Epicurean non sequiturs; slogans on friendship and patience, that almost seem like propaganda. The adoration for his friends seems like a distorted hand in the foreground, and leaves the suspicion that there is context somewhere, waiting imperceptibly in the background that I’m missing. 

Our cyclops battle is between a slave and a Oscan suffering from venereal scars across his forehead. The slave, Sarmentus, tell the Oscan, Messius, that he could play the part of the cyclops without additional accouterments, and Messius replies by referencing the cyclops:

“You’re a white-collar worker, 
Of course, but your owner has property rights, you know. 
And why run away in the first place? A thin little thing
Like you could live nicely on one pound of flour.”
[S1. 5.66-69]

One pound of flour was the daily minimum for imprisoned debtors. Messius makes fun of both the social status of a slave and his poverty and indebtedness to his master, while ultimately casting the slave in the role of Odysseus. Horace’s father was a freedman, his paternity is far from glorious and his writing is the one thing that keeps him from his own bag of flour. 

The satire ends with this indecipherable little gem: 

They want you to think that the incense flares on the alters
Without any flame. Let Apella the Jew believe it- 
I won’t. I’ve been taught that the gods live a carefree life;
That is nature produces a miracle, it is not the gods
In their anger who send it on down from high heaven.

Marked the long journey’s end, and at this point I ran out of paper.
[S1. 5.99-104}

Whatever the reason Horace has made a preemptive escape and allowed the reader to suffer for one last time the frustrations of unfulfilled expectations. As he recites his Epicurean credo, the satire has followed the trajectory of his maturation. He has pupated from a hopeful, naive, and sexually gullible young man to a skeptic. He exists in a world filled with cyclops and “eunuch horns”, where the spoils belong to the rich and powerful, and the god of war controls the destiny and fate of the masses. He offers science or nature as a rejection to the gods, but the science he offers is rudimentary, and all that is left is chaos. 

And this brings us back to Ashbery:

I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty, 
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
(120-123)

The only thing that we can with certainty take from Satire V is chaos. A five-hundred year old republic has collapsed, and as the minutia of everyday life continues, the future is opaque.




1.   Gowers, E. 2012. Horace Satires: Book 1. Cambridge University Press. pp.184
2.   Ibid. pp.187 (Oliensis, E. 1998. Horace and the rhetoric of authority. Cambridge)

Machiavelli's Virtue
Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue
Interpreting InterpretationTextual Hermeneutics as an Ascetic Discipline

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