Monday, February 17, 2014

The Works of Horace: The Odes

After two weeks of crazy work schedules and scarcely time to post a book-related photo and literary quotation, I can at last write down some of the entries that have been festering at the back of my book-reviewing mind!

As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance. 
~ The Art of Poetry, The Works of Horace

I downloaded The Works of Horace because I’d read a few selections of his poems elsewhere in a compilation of ancient Greek and Latin literature.  I often read ancient literature, not only because of my interest in its historical value, but also because these works are the fledgling attempts of storytelling, of prose, style, and the art of writing.  But I’m already getting ahead of myself, as I’d like to tackle the different types of Horace’s works—Odes, Satires, and Epistles—in the order I read them.

First, the Odes.  Most of these are dedicated to Roman gods, and will be of interest to mythology buffs.  Others are historically interesting, such as Book 1, Ode XXXVII, which is dedicated to Horace’s companions and talks at length of how Cleopatra, how she corrupted Julius Caesar and eventual cunning suicide.  I say “cunning suicide” because although most Romans didn’t think of suicide as dishonorable (in fact it was the “only” escape from dishonor, as seen by stories like Lucretia), Horace seems to think that Cleopatra practiced a little Houdini escape act on her rightful fate of being defeated and captured by Augustus Caesar, and instead of stabbing herself like Lucretia she cheated by using a poisonous snake.

Another ode of note is Book 2, Ode II, “The Praises of a Country Life.”  This ode is a fundamental read for anyone studying the future works of people like Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, or pretty much any poetry written during the Renaissance.  Why is this?  Because it defines the ideal of the Pastoral that the Renaissance—a period of history where half of Europe was trying to revive Roman values—was trying to recreate.  Like the Renaissance poets would in centuries to come, Horace extols the simple country life, the purity of hard work and a close communion with nature.

If I were to generalize, I’d say that Horace’s Odes are where we can best surmise his perspective of what being “Roman” meant.  “The Praises of a Country Life” is an example of what a simple, hardworking Roman should aspire to, while the more biting remarks such as he uses against Cleopatra show what a good Roman should avoid.

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