LYRIC PERFORMANCE Horace “To the Poet Tibullus”

Albius, honest reader of my poems, / What shall I say you are doing, out there in the country? / At work on a poem to outdo Cassius? / Taking a calm salubrious walk in the woods, / And thinking thoughts that are worthy of yourself? // You never were a body without a soul./ The gods gave you good looks and they gave you money, / And gave you the art of being pleased with their gifts. / What more could a governess want for the sweet child she raises, / Than that he should know and that he be able to say / What’s honest and right, and that he should act upon it, / And that he be granted favor and fame and good health, / And the money to live an agreeable kind of life? // Between hope and discouragement, fears, and angers, and such, / Treat every new day as the last you’re going to have, / Then welcome the next as unexpectedly granted. / / When you want a good laugh, you’ll find me here, in the pink, / A pig from Epicurus’s sty, fat, sleek, well cared for.

from The Epistles of Horace translated by David Ferry (FSG 2001)

FIELD OF REFERENCE The incognito generosity shows a surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work, though it be driven out of the foreground of our picture of things. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press, 2016)

NB: in all my writing about lyric I owe so much to my Berkeley teacher W. R. Johnson and his indispensable book The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (California, 1982)

The voice in lyric is a problematic thing and gets a lot of attention on this blog. Modern lyric since Baudelaire has featured the alienated, ironic, voice. Which means in practice that the first person and second person pronouns lack a foundation in the Common sense world of the reader. So coming upon the “epistles” or literary letters of Horace (65-27 BCE) can be a shock to the system and inoculate the reader from any challenge to it. We instantly file it under irrelevant.

A quick google check will discover that Horace has always been considered thanks to his Odes a master of lyric. We may learn that after publishing his monumental three-volume book of Odes, he turned to a new form of short poem. They drew on philosophical traditions of conversation. Looking at one closely reveals lyric form as we discuss it at Lyric Investigations.

Indeed, my dear reader (!) will recognize many of the essential moves of lyric. The opening scene defers in some key way to the world shared by poet and reader. Then the loosening of our hold on that world as our language loosens into its equivocal status. As that move deepens our sense of our own fragility along with the poet’s and her language, a dance of dialectics takes over: if not this, how about that. The pieces are sharply defined and determinate and open to challenge. As a eddying flow of language it sweeps through, by us. In this section the lyric expands its references to more abstract but no less relevant material that tends to replace the poet’s voice with a more universal but no less intimate voice.

This lyric narrative shapes Horace’s letter to Tibullus, one of the young or “new” poets of his times. He speaks with the authority of the author of the Odes, which were not particularly popular though they had the imprimatur of the emperor Augustus and his minister of culture, who was Horace’s dear friend. He is avuncular and a little awkward in his new persona of the real Horace up close and personal.

After a catalogue of possible images of his addressee, slightly edged at the end with a suggestion of Narcissism, Horace cuts to the chase. Self-knowledge depends on one’s circumstances, and Tibullus had the good fortune not shared by Horace, whose struggles to achieve independence were dependent on the powers-that-be. The passage is both general in a textbook-way and, in its rhythms and warm tone personal. Horace rejoices with Tibullus in his good fortune. As the passage ripens, what moves front and center is Tibullus’s freedom. It was his good fortune to be able to say “what’s honest and right” and moreover that he was free to act on it. He had been granted “favor” AND money and could do whatever he pleased.

The image of Tibullus’s freedom Is obviously ideal, but no less real for that, at least in this letter. We get a glimpse here of the ancient practice of philosophy as spiritual exercise, in this case giving voice to the school of Epicurus. To us it goes down easily (according to our modern Epicurian ideals we believe in the universality of the pursuit of happiness. To Horace and Tibullus it probably had more of the smell of the academic exercise in the gardens of philosophy, and some of the fun was in how Horace could turn that into poetry.

But we are not done, or the lyric narrator hasn’t completed his moves until he can broaden the view beyond the dialectical to the intimate universal. Horace, or the poem, shifts the scene to the “between” or metaxu. Life is lived between the extremes of life and death. This between is porous to one’s individual universality, not the academic universals of the textbooks. The temperature of the language has now risen to lyric intensity. Whatever we receive in the future is excess. Unmerited. A gift of eternity’s beloved Time. Though a gift it shouldn’t be taken for granted. We live in contradiction. Now that’s poetry.

The last lines fulfill the lyric’s endowment of freedom in Horace’s self-image. As finite particular being beyond the scope of thought thinking thinking (Aristotle’s unforgettable phrase), Horace achieves an image of his own true self, grateful for his endowments, which include his gentle if not genteel sense of irony.

So the lyric narrative comes to a definitive end in Horace’s new poetry. As master of lyric, the status he achieved in the Odes, Horace performs lyric in a new non-lyric genre, which is the perfect move for his commitment to personal freedom. In Desmond’s 21st-century philosophical language, lyric is among other things the expression of the “to be” of incarnate free being.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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