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Pueri ludentes: Some Aspects of Play and Seriousness in Horace’s Epistles
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In Ode 3.4 Horace portrays himself as a sacred poet, beloved of the Muses. Even as a
child, he was protected miraculously from harm: 11-13 ludo fatigatumque somno / fronde
nova puerum palumbes / texere. Although the description is fanciful, as with the Wolf of
Ode 1.22, Horace may feel, seriously enough, that he bears a charmed life. He is also
building up his poetic credentials as Musarum sacerdos (3.1.3) so that he may address the
Princeps in a high Pindaric mode. It is a new beginning for them both. For “high Caesar,”
returning from the wars, is Pierio recreatus antro, refreshed and renewed, or perhaps
refashioned, by the Muses who love gentle counsel (3.4.40-42). And Horace, weary of
struggling with high epic subjects and with the tragic implications of recent Roman
history, gets a second wind, a sense of spiritual renewal, halfway through the Roman
Odes, and is enabled to pursue their moral and political vision to the end. Initially, he
dedicated these odes to the as yet uncorrupted young: 3.1.4 virginibus puerisque canto.
Now it is the happy, poetically embellished image of himself as a child at play that gives
him new resolution and new strength. 1
The child at play-puer ludens, puella ludens-turns up four times in Horace’s Epistles
against the dark background of aging, weariness, and disillusionment. I want, in this
essay, to make a distinction between games and play: between what we might call “the
poets’ game,” with all its implications of literary competition and social involvement,
from which Horace announces, more than once, that he is retiring, and the creative,
spontaneous play that empowers his poetry-writing in the first place. An aging poet may
tire of games, but never of play: which is why Horace’s protests of resignation, of
acceptance of the immutable proprieties of time and change, so easily reverse themselves
into bright bursts of indecorous creativity.
1. RETIRING FROM THE GAME
In Epistle 1.1, Horace announces his retirement from public life, and especially from
poetry-writing, to devote himself to the study of philosophy (Ep. 1.1.1-4, 10-12):
Prima dicte mihi, summa dicende Camena,
spectatum satis et donatum iam rude quaeris,
Maecenas, iterum antiquo me includere ludo.
non eadem est aetas, non mens.
nunc itaque et versus et cetera ludicra pono;
quid verum atque decens, curo et rogo et omnis in hoc sum;
condo et compono quae mox depromere possim.
It is a matter of age, and need. Horace is no longer fit for the “old game” to which
Maecenas reinvites him, the game of writing (lyric) poetry, together with the social
obligations that this entails. 2 In one sense, of course, Horace is being ironic when he
classifies poetry-writing (versus) together with other “frivolities” (ludicra, like drinking-
parties and lovemaking?), for the phrase combines the Roman philistine’s contempt for
poetry with the ironic Hellenistic topos that describes inferior genres such as lyric or
elegiac poetry, or indeed satire, as elegant “trifling.” 3 We are well aware that poetry-
writing is neither a casual nor an easy game; that, as Horace puts it later, the skilled poet,
like the ballet dancer, “will give the appearance of one playing, and will feel torture” (Ep.
2.2.124 ludentis speciem dabit et torquebitur). We are also aware that the Epistles are
themselves poetry, and skilled poetry at that. In another sense, however, Horace is dead
serious. Compared to an aging man’s need to study philosophy, to learn what is “true and
fitting” (verum atque decens), to get his thoughts together in preparation for death, even
the writing of lyric poems-and with them, the whole literary and social scene-may well
have seemed an invasive but also evasive game, a distraction from the real business of
life. Had Horace only been playing, all this time?
The games from which Horace needs to retire now are glossed further in the framing
Epistles 1.18 and 1.19, and then in Epistle 2.2. In Ep. 1.19, a poem about poetic
independence and creativity within a tradition, Horace attributes the unfavorable public
reception of his Odes to his refusal to enter into the literary politics of the day, which
would mean performing in public, canvassing for popular appeal and the favor of
professional critics and lecturers. 4 Attacked for what seems his imperial exclusiveness,
he cannot even use the old defensive irony: 48-49 ludus enim genuit trepidum certamen
et iram, / ira truces inimicitias et funebre bellum. The competitive game that poets
usually play escalates all too quickly into personal hostility and warfare, the “gladiatorial
contest” from which Horace retires so decisively and programmatically in Epistle 1.1. 5
In a different way, Epistle 1.18 shows poetry-writing subordinated, necessarily and
perhaps rightly, to its social context. Horace is telling young Lollius what obligations he
must undertake if he intends to “cultivate a powerful friend” (86)-a list that, in the end,
reinforces Horace’s advice, and his own personal resolution, to cultivate detachment
through the study of philosophy. In the central section (39-66), the demands come close
to home. You shouldn’t write poems, says Horace, when the great man wants to hunt.
Better to give in: 47 surge et inhumanae senium depone Camenae. Hunting is good,
manly exercise, suitable to one who possesses health, strength, and warlike skills, and
who also likes to play. Remember how you, your brother, and the pueri played “Battle of
Actium” on the pond? So go along now: 65-66 consentire suis studiis qui crediderit te, /
fautor utroque tuum laudabit pollice ludum. The implications are painful. Not only do
people scoff at poetry-writing as anti-social and tedious (inhumanae Camenae), but it
seems to be just another game that people play, “your little game,” like hunting or mock-
warfare. And yet, if the pueri who play “Actium” are children (as I suspect) and not
slaves, Lollius and his brother may be enjoying an imaginative return to childhood, what
Romans call repuerascere, that may be akin, after all, to the creative play from which
Again, in Epistle 2.2, Horace defends his retirement. His mind and temper have aged,
along with his body. He looks back bemusedly at the rash confidence, the ambition to get
ahead, that motivated his earlier writing. And now his poetic gift itself threatens to fall
away, together with other games, notably lovemaking, that require youthful energy and
singula de nobis anni praedantur euntes;
eripuere iocos, Venerem, convivia, ludum;
tendunt extorquere poemata; quid faciam vis?
Besides (he continues), the difficulties, the obstacles to poetry-writing-to good poetry-
writing, that is-seem greater than ever. All those different readers, with their conflicting
preferences and demands; all the busyness of social life at Rome; all those obligatory
meetings of the PMAS, the Poets’ Mutual Admiration Society, where you display your
writings and yourself to best advantage in the recitation hall echoing with the gladiatorial
clash of compliments: all this illustrates the “old game” that Horace earlier professed to
avoid, but in which he seems to have become more involved than ever. 6 By contrast,
writing good poetry is described as a serious task requiring quiet, concentration, and
magisterial “censorship” of words, one’s own not least, in the service of an ever-self-
renewing language and culture. In sum: the poet “will give the appearance of one
playing”-like the ballet dancer-“and will be tortured”: 124 ludentis speciem dabit et
torquebitur. Wouldn’t it be better, Horace asks-sarcastically, but also with a flash of
desperate seriousness-to be self-deceived like the Argive in the story, the harmless loony
who watched imaginary plays in an empty theater? Isn’t solipsism, or schizophrenia, the
Horace concludes the first half of Epistle 2.2 with a bitterly ironic, yet deadly serious
restatement of his resolution to retire from poetry-writing and study philosophy (141-44):
nimirum sapere est abiectis utile nugis,
et tempestivum pueris concedere ludum,
ac non verba sequi fidibus modulanda Latinis,
sed verae numerosque modosque ediscere vitae.
Bitterly ironic because, as he has just argued, writing good poetry is anything but a trivial
pursuit. But deadly serious, too, because Horace is deeply weary of the “poets’ game” as
it is played in Rome, and because the weariness and disillusionment that time and
experience bring have driven him back to the study of philosophy that he began at Athens
so many years before. And philosophy, as he now describes it, is most centrally the art of
living well from day to day; of enjoying life’s gifts while you have them, and using them
well; and of accepting Nature’s high impersonal laws in preparation for that final
retirement which is death (213-16):
vivere si recte nescis, decede peritis.
lusisti satis, edisti satis atque bibisti:
tempus abire tibi est, ne potum largius aequo
rideat et pulset lasciva decentius aetas.
These lines recall Natura in Lucretius’ Book 3, rebuking the old man who is unwilling to
die (938-39). If he has enjoyed life, like a good dinner-party, he should leave content; if
not, he never will. But Horace’s lines suggest that, while the party is still going strong,
we should put away our toys-the eating and drinking, the lovemaking or poetry-writing
(ludere)-and get ready to depart. The old diatribe-wisdom leaves a bitter taste now. But it
reinforces, once more, the urgency of studying philosophy, which is finally a rehearsal
for death. 7
Poetry may be a game, but not in the way its detractors suppose. Although it arises from a
play-instinct, it requires intense discipline, effort, and concentration. It may, to be sure,
distract one from life’s most urgent obligation, the business of living well, and dying
well; but it may also provide, as in Horace’s Epistles, a means of exploring the
conflicting demands of human life and our usually inconsistent response to those
demands. 8 On a different view, Book 1 of the Epistles is finally playful (like the
renounced lyrics of Odes 1-3) in its artistic arrangement, its juxtapositions and more
distant contrasts of incompatible feelings and attitudes. The pursuit of verum atque
decens heralded in Epistle 1.1 never reaches closure. And Horace’s resignation from
poetry-writing will lead, before very long, to the Carmen Saeculare and the beautiful
Odes of Book 4.
Before returning to Horace’s pueri ludentes, I want to emphasize how much poetry and
philosophy complement, not oppose, each other in the longer Epistles. Taken together,
these amount to Horace’s poetic last will and testament. The Ars Poetica, arguably the
earliest of the three, describes and bequeaths to later generations, represented by the
young Pisones, what Horace has learned about the craft of poetry-writing. 9 Epistles 2.2
and 2.1 discuss poetry-writing in relation, first to the poet’s life, then to the state. But the
Ars Poetica and Epistle 2.2 reflect on each other especially, like an artistic diptych, in the
matter of decorum. In the Ars, the successful writer is one who understands and accepts,
among other things, the decorum of life’s changes: most notably, in depicting the Four
Ages of Man. Conversely, in Epistle 2.2, the tortured discipline of writing well seems to
model forth that other discipline, of living well, that philosophy is most importantly
about. The two disciplines embrace each other by turns, each clarifying the other and
giving it meaning in an ongoing reciprocal clarification of two unknowns, so that the
“wisdom-and-taste” (sapere) for which Horace rejected any lesser “trifling” comes to
imply them both.
2. CHILDREN AT PLAY (EPISTLE 1.1.53-69)
Against the dark personal background of aging, weariness, and resignation just now
described, I want to look at Horace’s pueri ludentes, who first appear in the
programmatic Epistle 1.1 discussed earlier. Horace has announced his retirement from
the game, to pursue philosophy: but here the paradoxes begin. On the one hand, he insists
on his grown-up independence. He will regulate his life as best he can, pursuing what is
“true and fitting,” but never following the dictates of any one philosophical school like a
schoolboy taking dictation from a master. On the other hand, he finds himself reviewing
the ABCs of moral philosophy: 27 restat ut his ego me ipse regam solerque elementis. He
thus becomes the opsimathês of comedy, the “late-learner” who comes to sit among the
schoolboys. But there is a further, more comical reversal.
Horace has argued, in good diatribe fashion, that rich and poor, young and old, equally
need philosophy (26 aeque neglectum pueris senibusque nocebit); but now, the older and
younger men turn childish, while the children at play, pueri ludentes, express adult
vilius argentum est auro, virtutibus aurum.
‘o cives, cives, quaerenda pecunia primum est;
virtus post nummos’: haec Ianus summus ab imo
prodocet, haec recinunt iuvenes dictata senesque,
laevo suspensi loculos tabulamque lacerto.
est animus tibi, sunt mores est lingua fidesque,
sed quadringentis sex septem milia desunt:
plebs eris. at pueri ludentes ‘rex eris’ aiunt,
‘si recte facies.’ hic murus aeneus esto,
nil conscire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa.
Roscia, dic sodes, melior lex an puerorum est
nenia, quae regnum recte facientibus offert,
et maribus Curiis et decantata Camillis?
Here, as in a cartoon, the iuvenes and senes are shown as schoolchildren, taking dictation
from Wall Street and giving it back in sing-song fashion; or else carrying their little
knapsacks with books and slates-a line used earlier, in Satire 1.6, to describe the
Venusian school from which Horace was so happily removed. How childish they are, all
those so-called grown-ups, in their obsessive pursuit of money, money, always money.
By contrast, the sing-song rhyme that the children, the pueri ludentes of my title, sing at
play-like a skipping-rope song: rex eris si recte facies; si non facies, non eris-inculcates a
moral truth that is not only Stoic (and thus subject to parody) but deeply Roman. 10 It
makes you not a front-row spectator at a third-rate play but a man who can stand up to
Fortune. The pueri ludentes are more serious in the end, more in touch with ultimate
reality, than the grown-ups who live in what my students call “the real world” but whose
underlying wishes may be very childish after all. 11
We see more of this childishness in the different pursuits that the Epistle later describes,
like the legacy-hunters who “hunt rich, greedy widows with cookies and apples, and
catch old men to put into their fishponds” (77-79). And we see it in the inconsistency of
the rich, and also the poor, as they dart from one purpose to another-and in Horace’s own
inconsistency, to which his loved and respected patron, Maecenas, pays painfully little
In the end, I think, the Horace of Epistle 1.1 is both senex and puer. He is old in
biological time, aging in his body, which may be sick, and in his mind, which is weary of
the world’s games (or schools) and skeptical about their alleged value. He will not-he
cannot-go back to the “old game” of writing poetry for Maecenas and Rome. Nor will he
“take dictation,” whether it be from a philosophical school or from the more insidious,
since more generally accepted, school of Rome. And yet: in going back to the ABCs of
philosophy and the ABCs of right living (even if he can’t get much further), he is even
now recovering something of the children’s playful wisdom. To be a “late-learner” is to
make oneself ridiculous; but what the great world of Rome cannot grasp is that its
ordinary unphilosophical pursuits-and Horace’s, with them-are a great deal more
ridiculous. Yet Horace’s idiosyncratic return to school joins puer with senex in a shared,
rejuvenating folly that might still make him a whole person, might still redeem his later
years from weariness and failure. It is a return to play in the deepest sense: play that
precedes and underlies all those different games, whether of businessmen or of poets, and
of which the playful “non-poetry” of the Epistles themselves may be, in the end, a
successful and healing incarnation.
3. THE AGES OF MAN (ARS POETICA 153-78)
The puer ludens reappears in the Ars Poetica, where Horace’s advice to the Pisones to
preserve decorum in character-portrayal by age, gender, status, condition, and literary
tradition, culminates in his description of the four Ages of Man (156-78):
aetatis cuiusque notandi sunt tibi mores,
mobilibusque decor naturis dandus et annis.
reddere qui voces iam scit puer et pede certo
signat humum, gestit paribus colludere, et iram
colligit ac ponit temere et mutatur in horas. 160
imberbus iuvenis, tandem custode remoto,
gaudet equis canibusque et aprici gramine campi,
cereus in vitium flecti, monitoribus asper,
utilium tardus provisor, prodigus aeris,
sublimis cupidusque et amata relinquere pernix. 165
conversis studiis aetas animusque virilis
quaerit opes et amicitias, inservit honori,
commisisse cavet quod mox mutare laboret.
multa senem circumveniunt incommoda, vel quod
quaerit et inventis miser abstinet ac timet uti, 170
vel quod res omnis timide gelideque ministrat,
dilator, spe longus, iners, avidusque futuri,
difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti
se puero, castigator censorque minorum.
multa ferunt anni venientes commoda secum, 175
multa recedentes adimunt. ne forte seniles
mandentur iuveni partes pueroque viriles,
semper in adiunctis aevoque morabimur actis.
Notice how Horace’s Ages are framed by verses about the passing of time: first, the
constant changes in human nature, as in the years (157 mobilibusque ... annis), and
finally, in a lulling, even rhythm, the tidelike movement of the years, advancing and
receding, bringing gifts and taking them away again, a movement that will be repeated
over and over again in the life of nature and the human species, though not, to be sure, in
the sequence here described, of a single human life.
Horace’s description of the Ages evidently draws on Aristotle’s characterization of youth
and age in Rhetoric 2.1389a2-90b4. For Aristotle, youth and age represent extremes of
excess and deficiency: the young (neoi) are subject to strong but quick-changing desires;
they are hot-tempered, competitive, careless about money, simple, trusting, hopeful,
lofty-minded; they have courage and a sense of shame; they enjoy friends and laughter;
they live by honor, not advantage; they tend to hybris; in short, their failings are those of
vehemence and excess. Whereas older men (presbyteroi) past their prime have the
diametrically opposite failings, of deficiency: their experience of life makes them
uncertain, suspicious, small-minded, ungenerous, worried about money, fearful, cold-
tempered, grasping after life, and selfish; they live by the code of advantage; they are
shameless and pessimistic; they live mostly in memory, talk about the past, complain a
lot; they are slaves to gain; in short, both their desires and their ability to gratify them are
weak. But people in their prime (hoi akmasdontes) combine the advantages of both
extremes while avoiding their failings. 12 They unite courage with self-control and a right
measure of self-confidence (not too much, not too little). This is a success story of middle
Horace keeps much of the Aristotelian contrast between youth and age, but with striking
differences. First, he subdivides Aristotle’s neotês into two separate stages, of child
(puer) and youth (iuvenis). And second, he depicts these changes, as Aristotle had not, as
a continuing process of growth and change. The child he describes has already learned to
speak and walk; now he is eager to play with his fellows (colludere, suggesting an
elementary sociability). Certainly, he is quick to change (mutatur in horas; Aristotle’s
eumetabolos), but that may not be so bad: his emotional outbursts are violent but brief,
and his very changing may point, in Horace, to the larger mutability of human life and
human nature. Indeed, the lines on the iuvenis begin with a further indication of change
and transition. In tandem custode remoto we feel the older child’s impatience to get out
from under restraints, to assume control of his own life. His new life, like the child’s, has
positive joys; he loves horses, dogs, and sports; but he is malleable towards vice and
resents admonitions; he is reckless, extravagant, and high-minded (or carried aloft by
fancies?), led by strong desires that come and go. We feel his growing, changing reality
here, his possibilities for good or bad, as we did not with Aristotle’s more abstract
description of youth.
In turn (and again, conversis studiis suggests process and continuity in human life as well
as change), Horace’s grown man (aetas animusque virilis) is very different from
Aristotle’s well-balanced mean. For he too, like the other Ages, is subject to problematic
desires and fears. He pursues gain. He is a slave to honor, ambition for office and status.
His friendships (amicitiae), placed here between wealth and rank, may be business
friendships, not nearly so altruistic as the friendships of youth in Aristotle. 13 His
prudence too is businesslike, avoiding mistakes that it would take some trouble to correct.
The last words on the grown man, mutare laboret, bring us back again to Horace’s
leitmotif of change and resistance to change, for old age follows. Horace’s description of
it is both harsher and more sympathetic than Aristotle’s, and psychologically more acute.
The old man is besieged by troubles, which he brings largely on himself. He is slow and
fearful, afraid to use, let alone enjoy, the means he has amassed; yet his hopes lie in an
increasingly uncertain future. If he dwells, like Aristotle’s old man, largely in memory,
and his mind reverts nostalgically to his childhood (se puero: have we come full circle?),
it is only to complain about the degeneracy of modern life and modern youth-which is, in
effect, to resist time, change, and death. 14 But Horace’s summary lines insist once again
on nature’s ineluctable law of growth and decline: 175-76 multa ferunt anni venientes
commoda secum, / multa recedentes adimunt. In personal human terms, life’s ebb is
painful and sad. Horace says as much in many lyrical and nostalgic moments in the
Epistles; his heart is not easily reconciled to the acceptance of time, change, aging, and
death. Yet as a poet and a teacher of would-be poets, he insists on absolute fidelity to the
laws of decorum in art, which are closely bound up with the knowledge and acceptance
of reality, including the human reality of the different ages. 15 The rules of poetry, of the
craft that Horace has mastered and can, in some limited and ironic fashion, expound to
others, have come to include a concise and very challenging portrait of human life,
including, by implication, the writer’s own, and reminding us (as well as himself) that the
skilled professional in art still remains-like the young Pisones, like all the rest of us-an
amateur at living.
4. BEWARE: POETS AT PLAY (EPISTLE 2.1)
The child at play reappears, as a puella ludens now, in Epistle 2.1. This is Horace’s last
published work: a report to Augustus on the state of the arts, and a poetic meditation,
more personal than it first appears, on time, art, and culture. He begins by pleading for
the rights of modern poets against a widespread prejudice in favor of the Ancients. How
many years does it take, he asks, to become a Classic (i.e., part of the Canon)? Don’t the
Classical Authors, from Livius (Andronicus) down to Accius and Terence, have faults?
Are people envious of the young, or embarrassed to unlearn the handbook stuff they were
taught in school? And finally, if the Greeks had disliked novelty (novitas) as much as we
do, whatever would be old, a Classic, for us now? It is all a matter of time, Horace
argues; and of skill; and of public support. Which brings him to a quick survey of the
Greeks and the Romans, with their diametrically opposed temperaments and gifts.
Of the Greeks, he says ( in an “instant” version of some twenty Peripatetic lectures on the
History of Greek Literature): once they achieved peace, leisure, and prosperity after the
Persian Wars, they fooled around with all sorts of things, like a little girl at play (93-94,
ut primum positis nugari Graecia bellis
coepit et in vitium fortuna labier aequa,
sub nutrice puella velut si luderet infans,
quod cupide petiit mature plena reliquit.
The Greeks were creative but, like the puella, they lacked steadiness of purpose. From
the Roman point of view, they were childish, they just “fooled around” (nugari). 16 And
the Romans? They are brought up to be serious and businesslike-or is it, moralistic and
Romae dulce diu fuit et sollemne reclusa
mane domo vigilare, clienti promere iura,
cautos nominibus rectis expendere nummos,
maiores audire, minori dicere per quae
crescere res posset, minui damnosa libido.
The clash of extremes here is Aristotelian. The Greeks are too frivolous, the Romans too
serious; so we might expect Horace to advocate a mean in poetry-writing, rather like his
own practice (not least in these Epistles) of serious play, or playful seriousness. But there
is a surprise, a comic twist; for in the one area of poetry-writing, it seems, all these
serious, respectable, businesslike Romans have suddenly been transformed into frivolous
mutavit mentem populus levis et calet uno
scribendi studio; pueri patresque severi
fronde comas vincti cenant et carmina dictant.
Young and old are joined now-in a mad rush of poetry-writing. Or rather, they don’t
write: they toss off poems at dinner-parties. In a comic reversal reminiscent of Epistle
1.1, the revered elders have left off being severi, have reverted to childishness. This is not
the expected Aristotelian mean between frivolity and over-seriousness. It is sheer
confusion, such as the senex lenis produces in Plautine comedy, or the senex amator.
Rejuvenation in the wrong style.
Later on, Horace develops a more Aristotelian picture of the development of comedy, and
one in which his own contribution to the development of Roman satire is strongly
implied. Comedy began, as he pictures it, with simple rustic holidays. Its libertas in the
early stages was endearing, like a small child at play. 17 “How cute,” we say. But just as
cute children turn quickly into rambunctious teen-agers, that seemingly-innocent play of
invective and indecency got out of hand; important people were attacked by name, and
comedy had to be controlled by law, both socially and, as Horace also implies (following
Aristotle), aesthetically. Roman comedy and satire, and drama generally, have come a
long way from those rustic beginnings-though, as Horace emphasizes, there is still a way
to go. Evidently, he takes pleasure in having assisted at the growing-up ceremonies: as a
poet, first; but also, and more deliberately just now, as a teacher.
Let me turn, then, to the famous passage in which Horace describes the poet as educator,
and where the puer and puella make their positively last appearance (126-37):
os tenerum pueri balbumque poeta figurat,
torquet ab obscenis iam nunc sermonibus aurem,
mox etiam pectus praeceptis format amicis,
asperitatis et invidiae corrector et irae;
recte facta refert, orientia tempora notis
instruit exemplis, inopem solatur et aegrum.
castis cum pueris ignara puella mariti
disceret unde preces, vatem ni Musa dedisset?
poscit opem chorus et praesentia numina sentit,
caelestis implorat aquas docta prece blandus,
avertit morbos, metuenda pericula pellit,
impetrat et pacem et locupletem frugibus annum.
In the first section (126-31), the poet is pictured as a sculptor of the young. He shapes the
child’s speech, or literally, shapes his mouth, as if from clay; he wrenches the child’s ear
(metaphorically, but also literally?) away from indecent language; and he shapes the
child’s heart and mind (pectus) with precepts in such a friendly, encouraging manner that
the precepts seem like friends. He “corrects” the child’s natural rudeness, its tendencies
to envy and quick anger. He revives old examples of good, moral behavior. In lines 130-
31 there is a balance between young and old, for the same poetry that educates the rising
generation brings consolation, if not healing, to the elderly and sick. 18
In lines 132-37 Horace is clearly thinking of his Carmen Saeculare (cf. 138 carmine di
superi placantur, carmine Manes), performed in 17 b.c. on the last morning of the great
Games, the Ludi Saeculares. Under his direction, the chorus of twenty-seven boys and
twenty-seven girls, young and innocent, pray to the gods to confer and confirm all
blessings upon Rome; and the gods hear them-or so they report with assurance. In
Horace’s verses, the poet-teacher joins imaginatively with these innocent, believing
children. They represent the future of Rome, and they renew its past. Even an aging,
skeptical poet may lose himself momentarily in the great participatory moment here
commemorated, a moment where youth and age, play and seriousness, the old fertility
magic of the night and the new religious worship of the Augustan day, are wonderfully
and harmoniously joined.
Horace puts it differently in his commemorative Ode 4.6. There he foretells how, when
one of his girl singers has grown into married womanhood, she will recall that great
moment of performance with affection and nostalgia-will recall her teacher, the poet
Horatius, who will by then be dead. It is, seen on one level, the usual incompatibility joke
that time and nature play on Horace. But there is more. For the reconciling moment in
which the innocence of youth and the experience of age are triumphantly bound together-
a moment of teaching culminating in the performance of renewal-endures in poetry like a
playing child, a puer or puella ludens, who never quite grew up.
Let me end this series of pueri and puellae with the boy Ligurinus in Ode 4.1. He is
usually treated, and rightly, as a figure of erotic desire, subverting the decorum of
Horace’s life and art with strong elegiac passion. But he is also, I think, a figure of
Horace’s younger and vitally creative self, the puer within the senex. 19 And that, too, is
why Horace is weeping: with the sadness, to be sure, of lost youth and love, but also with
the joy of receiving back, once more, the creative, very erotic play of poetry-writing from
which, with all the best reasons, he had so decisively retired.
CODA: “NOW PLAYING AT THE APA”
I want, finally, to develop a metaphor, to take some of what Horace says about play and
games in regard to the craft of poetry and apply it to the craft of scholarship. This is
mostly for the younger people, graduate students looking for jobs, young Ph.D.’s working
as temps, gypsy scholars, etc. It is also for older people, including myself, who forget all
too easily what our work, or play, is really about.
What does it mean to be a professional scholar and teacher? To work hard, we might say;
to practice a craft well; to teach others to do the same. The difficulty, when you are
young, is of mastering the game, or games, you want to play, and of convincing others
that you’ve done just that. The difficulty, as you get older, is that many aspects of the
game you’ve mastered become wearisome. Horace said it all in Epistle 2.2. The skills are
there, but not the old spirit of energy and ambition. You grow tired. Maybe you think
about retirement. You look at the young people and, on a good day, you’re excited by
their energy, their ambition, their enthusiasm. On a bad day, you envy that energy, that
hopefulness-even as they, perhaps, on a bad day envy what seems your easy, settled place
as a full, a very full, professor. You know, on all days, the challenge of the craft: how
hard it is, not to play the game, but to play it well. And you know, as Samuel Johnson
did, that scholarly ambition falls under the “Vanity of Human Wishes” (like the wish for
eloquentia in Juvenal 10): “Resistless burns the fever of renown, Caught from the strong
contagion of the Gown” (137-38). Sometimes, as you get older, the game doesn’t seem
worth the candle. But also, as you get older, some of the superficial desires may fall
away, leaving the craft itself, the ars, as what you care about. You “just do it,” as they
say. Because it is there. And because you love it. Which brings me back from the
professional to the amateur, from games to play, and from the senex or anus to the pueri
We began as amateurs. We took up the Classics, at school or college, because we had
good teachers who were very serious and/or very playful about what they did; and
because, when we worked at Greek, or Latin, or history, or philosophy, or whatever it
was we did well, we found to our surprise that our work was also our play, what we did,
not just out of ambition or fear, but out of love. It was a good place to be. By the end of
my freshman year, I knew that my calling was to teach Classics. And it still surprises and
delights my spirit today that I got away with it, got away with teaching poetry and plays,
of all things-with teaching Horace and Virgil, Euripides and Aristophanes-instead of
going dutifully and miserably into the family business.
I liked being an amateur, at college. It had something of child’s play about it. And I
didn’t like giving up my amateur status when I went to graduate school and entered the
profession. I know, I tell them now: it’s a serious business to learn the craft, if you want
to do it well. Your younger, playful, spontaneous, loving self must give way to the more-
or-less respectable, grown-up persona you need now to assume, the professional ethos
you need to project. But as you struggle to make a place for yourself in the professional
world-to establish yourself as a young pro-you are in danger of losing the sense of play
with which you started and letting the game, or games, take over. Which happens in all
professions. We are all invited, more or less obviously, to disregard our deeper selves. To
sell our soul, as they used to say (and, in our profession, to sell it rather cheap).
So what I tell my graduate students is (and when I tell them, I’m also reminding myself):
“Cultivate a professional mind, but keep an amateur heart.” Which is to say: Never stop
reminding yourself why you went into this business in the first place. People do this
differently. I remember how, when I was younger and felt intimidated (to put it mildly)
by APA meetings, I would sometimes go to my friend T’s room (T for Tityrus) and read
one of Virgil’s Eclogues with him. For that pastoral world of leisure and love-of singing
shepherds, or shepherd-poets, or shepherd-poet-scholars-was where we had started on our
Virgilian course, and where we most deeply belonged, and where we needed to return,
from time to time, to be renewed in mind and spirit-if only for the work, and for the wars.
It is the play element in scholarship-what you do for its own sake-that renews and
sustains us, whether through graduate school, or as harassed junior faculty, or as weary
senior faculty: that sustains us through all the work and all the wars-not least, the struggle
of communicating our passion to others in the midst of a world that cares very little for
either scholarship or education. It is the play element, too, I believe, that keeps us honest,
keeps us doing what we do, in some part at least, for its own sake, and not for the rewards
(or to avoid the threats). And maybe, if we are lucky, even as we grow older and wearier
of the various games, maybe that puer or puella ludens of ours will reappear in our lives,
brighter and lovelier than ever before; and our tears, like Horace’s, will be tears of
sadness, but also tears of joy. 20
Anderson, W. S. 1995. “Horatius Liber, Child and Freedman’s Free Son.” Arethusa 28:
Bramble, J. C. 1974. Persius and the Programmatic Satire: A Study in Form and
Brink, C. O. 1963. Horace on Poetry [Vol. I]: Prolegomena to the Literary Epistles.
Cameron, A. 1995. Callimachus and his Critics. Princeton.
Davis, G. 1991. Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse. Berkeley.
Dilke, O. A. W. 1973. “Horace and the Verse Letter.” In C. D. N. Costa, ed., Horace.
Fraenkel, E. 1957. Horace. Oxford.
Frischer, B. 1991. Shifting Paradigms: New Approaches to Horace’s Ars Poetica.
Huskinson, J. 1996. Roman Children’s Sarcophagi: Their Decoration and its Social
Johnson, W. R. 1993. Horace and the Dialectic of Freedom: Readings in Epistles 1.
Kilpatrick, R. S. 1986. The Poetry of Friendship: Horace, Epistles 1. Edmonton.
La Penna, A. 1993. Saggi e Studi su Orazio. Florence.
Macleod, C. W. 1977. “The Poet, the Critic, and the Moralist: Horace, Epistles 1.19.” CQ
---. 1979. “The Poetry of Ethics: Horace, Epistles I.” JRS 69: 16-27.
Putnam, M. C. J. 1986. Artifices of Eternity: Horace’s Fourth Book of Odes. Ithaca.
Wagenvoort, H. 1956. “Ludus Poeticus.” In Studies in Roman Literature, Culture, and
Religion. Leiden. 30-42.
Wallach, B. P. 1976. Lucretius and the Diatribe Against the Fear of Death: De Rerum
Natura III 830-1094. Leiden.
For Horace’s “authentication” of his art, to support and justify this longum melos (Ode
3.4.3), see Davis 98-107, especially 101-2. There may be an implied play on libertas (cf.
Anderson 163-64): the Child is father to the Man who, still under the Muses’ protection,
may address a “king” with vatic/Pindaric authority. In the larger poetic structure of Odes
3.1-6, Horace’s renewal of spirit reverses the weariness and escape into recusatio that
ends 3.3 (whose last word is parvis). Although Caesar’s “re-creation” must remain
ambiguous (entertained and refreshed? refashioned into a better political image, with the
poets’ help? transformed, with the poets’ help, into a new being, wiser and more humane
than before? or a mix of all three?), the parallel between Caesar’s re-creation and
Horace’s is significant. Without that sense of rebirth and renewal (threatened though it is,
especially in 3.6) there would be no Roman Odes.
Horace often depicts aging as loss in the Epistles: cf. Ep. 1.7.25-28, 1.14.32-36 (ending,
nec lusisse pudet, sed non incidere ludum), and 2.2.55-57. He asks us indirectly in Ep. 1.1
to take his pain, confusion, and need for philosophical reflection and healing seriously,
and a few scholars have obliged, notably La Penna 178-86, who speaks of Horace’s
unease, irritation, and senso di delusione (disillusionment/disappointment) in regard to
his past life, and Johnson 1-53. The phrase, antiquo me includere ludo, suggests (a) how
the self (me) is “elided” within the game, and (b), by the sound-play of includere ludo,
how silly the “old game” can become: like a tired joke. For the rich connotations of ludus
poeticus, see Wagenvoort. Ludere can mean to play, jest, or enjoy the delights of love,
but also “to train,” as in a gladiatorial or military school. Thus, “thinking of the ludus
poeticus reminds the poet of the ludus gladiatorius” (Wagenvoort 39), and, I would ad
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