Horace Carm. 2.20: tailoring the myth of Icarus.
A fatidic flight that brings poetic immortality.

Rubén García Fernández

University of Washington

Horace Carm. 2.20 has conventionally been considered an epilogue or sphragis (Fraenkel 299) in the same manner as Carm. 3.30, which is the sphragis or epilogue that closes off the first three books of Odes with an elegant and satisfying finality.  Odes 2.20, and in particular the third stanza, have been interpreted as an ironic move with which Horace decided to end his second book of Odes with the ridiculous image of his transformation into a bird to shock his audience (Fraenkel 301; Pascal 105; Jacobson 574; Nisbet & Hubbard 337).  Others read 2.20 as the climax to the three last Odes of the second book (Tatum 21-2), or even as the prelude to the 'Roman Odes' (Silk 60).  Despite the numerous interpretations of this poem, it is clear, however, that the topos of immortality achieved by means of poetic dexterity is germane in this Ode.  The poetic fame of Horace will spread through the entire Roman territory, and thus his metamorphosis into a white bird is understood as the immortal poetic self of the poet, in consonance with stanzas 4 and 5.

However, not much attention has been devoted to the use of the Icarus story in 2.20.  I suggest that Horace intentionally included this mythological reference to illustrate his attempt at reaching poetic immortality, a reference that indirectly transforms him into a mythical character.  In fact, by making his own poetic flight more well-known (notior, 13) than that of Icarus, not only does Horace manufacture his poetic self as a white bird, but he also transforms its flight into a self-tailored myth that carries him beyond his intention of achieving poetic immortality. His flight will survive not only time, but will become an everlasting and paradigmatic account, more notorious than that of Icarus in the mythical tradition of people turning into birds or acquiring wings and flying away.  The immortality of Horace's poetic flight has not yet been realized in 2.20 -- it is situated in the future tense (ferar,1; visam, 13) --  because his poetic immortality is fully achieved in 3.30, the Ode that closes the first three books in which Horace claims the immortality of his poetry as an accomplished fact (Exegi, 3.30.1).

I believe that it is crucial to understand how Horace manipulates the fatidic outcome of Icarus' story to transform it into an optimistic account that illustrates his own fatidic flight.  The flight of this poetic bird is an ill-omened one because Horace is not yet familiar with his new-grown wings (Non usitata nec tenui … pinna, 1-2), and this white bird is canorus (15), which indicates its imminent death and gives a different meaning to the fifth stanza.  The mention of the wings at this point brings to the reader's mind the well-known myth of Icarus and his fateful flight; thus Horace sets up the audience to a further development and relation between his flight and Icarus'.  Horace's poetic self will fly away to disassociate himself from mortal ties in order to reach his place in the immortal world that poetic accomplishment brings.  The poet's intentional association with Apollo is obvious: transformation into a white bird that is canorus (15), normally read as the swan, the bird of Apollo par excellence; and the fact that 'Horace the bird' will reach such remote regions as the Hyperborean fields, the deathbed for Apollo's swans (Nisbet and Hubbard 346; Thevenaz 865).  The allusion to Icarus' story, the bird's nature as canorus, and the bird's last place of visit being the Hyperborean fields leads me to consider Horace's flight as fated to be more unsuccessful than Icarus', and thus, more renown.  There is no need for funerary rites or offerings (stanza 6) because Horace, as one of Apollo's swans, will rest forever in the Hyperborean fields. Although Horace in 2.20 has not yet achieved poetic immortality, he has transformed himself into a myth that even the outermost barbarian regions will learn about (stanza 5) due to the originality of his flight: it surpasses Icarus in popularity.

Horace's previous mention in the Odes collection of the Icarus myth is first in 1.3, in which "Daedalus experienced the empty air on wings not given to man" (expertus vacuum Daedalus aera / pinnis non homini datis, 34-5), which is an illustration of human presumption and the successful flight of Icarus' father.  Odes 2.2, although neither Daedalus nor Icarus are explicitly mentioned, is an allusion to this myth with a positive outcome for Proculeius because "enduring fame shall bear him on a wing that takes care not to come unstuck" (illum aget pinna metuente solvi / Fama superstes, 7-8).  Finally, Odes 4.2.2-4 explicitly alludes to the Icarian myth as metaphoric precipitation into the sea to illustrate that not by relying upon Daedalian wings fixed with wax will one be able to surpass the poetic craft of Pindar.  These other references to the Icarus' story will briefly be a focus of my attention in their notions of immortality.

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