Pushing Around Pastoral: Poetry and Status at the Fall of the Republic

Tara S. Welch

In Satires 1.5, Horace describes a journey to Brundisium in the company of Maecenas.  The poem is as complex as any in the Horatian corpus.  First, the poem contains a strong element of literary criticism.  It is a close imitation of and improvement upon an episode in Lucilius' satiric poetry.  By editing Lucilius' episode down and polishing it up, Horace puts into practice the aesthetic principles he preached in Satires 1.4 (Freudenburg 1993, Zetzel 1980).  What is more, via an exchange of insults between Sarmentus and Messius Cicirrus, the poem dramatizes the difference between buffoonery (scurrile) and satiric wit (ridiculum), a distinction Horace was at pains to make in Satires 1.4 (Knorr 2001).  Second, the poem comments on friendship and ambition, the theme of Satires 1.6.  In Satires 1.5 Horace demonstrates himself to be the sort of friend he professes himself to be in Satires 1.6: reserved and prudent, affectionate and loyal, genuine and not ambitious (Lyne 1995, Knorr 2001).  Third, the poem illuminates Maecenas and his political role (or not, Freudenburg 2001), and thus contains a political subtext.  In glossing over politics, Horace not only demonstrates to Maecenas and others his own discretion (Oliensis 1998) but also palliates the political crisis that necessitated the journey and presents Maecenas and his entourage in a friendly light (Kennedy 1992, DuQuesney 1984).  In this paper, I tie these three elements together — literary criticism, friendship, and politics  — by considering the fact that in this poem satire, an urban genre, leaves Rome and ventures out into the countryside.  By exploring the way Satires 1.5 perverts the world of Vergil's Eclogues,  I argue that Horace's mock pastoral poem comments on the viability of poetry at the crux between Republic and Principate, a period when dynastic contests of status were giving way to paradigms of inclusion and social mobility.

Satires 1.5.9-23 presents a darkened version of a pastoral singing contest.  Whereas Vergil's text is replete with erudite shepherds singing about love to the accompaniment of chirping cicadas and the music of the reed, in Horace's poem a drunken boatman and a traveler sing in turns (certatim, 1.5.17) about their absent girlfriends amid the natural accompaniment of frogs and mosquitoes (1.5.14).  Horace's sailor drinks not the sweet wine of Vergil's bucolic world, but rather the dregs (vappa, 1.5.16).  Animals graze in Horace's poem, but it is the satiric mule, not the pastoral sheep (1.5.18).  The bucolic reed also appears, but not as a musical instrument; rather, it is used to whip the mule (1.5.22-23).  Finally, Vergil's singing contests usually end with the nightfall, but Horace's takes place at night (1.5.9).

This episode is a generic tour-de-force, as Horace explores what happens when satire casts its critical eye on the bucolic countryside.  It also marks a tribute to Vergil just before his arrival into the traveling party (1.5.40).  I believe, though, that the poem's "reading" of Vergilian pastoral runs deeper than this.  In Vergil's bucolic world poetry and song create a respite from work and from the tensions created by shifting political realities.  Though Lycidas and Moeris, for example, are no longer equals because of the effects of civil war on the countryside (Eclogue 9), they can still nevertheless sing together and end their poem by promising to do so.  Horace's singers, on the other hand, are not, like Lycidas and Moeris (or Tityrus or Meliboeus from Eclogue 1) innocents whose honest lives have been affected by the evils of an intruding set of political circumstances.  Instead, they are already lazy (piger, 1.5.19), besotted (prolutus, 1.5.16), and hot-headed (cerebrosus, 1.5.21), as prone to hurl insults as to sing songs.  In direct contrast to the Eclogues, social strife is not a problem inflicted upon the countryside from the dynasts at Rome, but rather the result of a pervasive moral decay from the bottom up.  What is more, "pastoral" song, in Horace's evaluation, can illuminate but not resolve problems.  Indeed in Horace's poem the pastoral interlude — the singing contest and the grazing mule — constitutes not a release from but an unwelcome interruption of the business at hand.  This business is movement toward Brundisium, where politics will reassert itself upon Horace's mock pastoral countryside.  After all, the whole purpose of the journey is for Maecenas and Cocceius to reconcile estranged friends — i.e, to restore Vergil's precious pastoral world.

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