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Essays on Roman Satire
By William S. Anderson
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
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ROMAN SATIRISTS AND LITERARY CRITICISM
ON APRIL 9, 1778, Boswell dined with Samuel Johnson at the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds, in the august company of such people as Bishop Shipley, the painter Allan Ramsay, and Edward Gibbon. With Johnson present, it was inevitable that any dinner would develop into a symposium and that the conversation would range over the widest spaces. On this occasion, the diners began to discuss Horace. I now quote Boswell: "The Bishop said, it appeared from Horace's writings that he was a cheerful contented man. Johnson: 'We have no reason to believe that, my Lord. Are we to think Pope was happy, because he says so in his writings? We see in his writings what he wished the state of his mind to appear.'"
Johnson rightly drew a distinction between the poet's state of mind and the attitude which he chose to present in the first person in any particular personal poem. Moreover, he chose for analogy Alexander Pope, that misshapen genius, whose body would seem to be the archetype for that of the so-called twisted satirist imagined by the romantic mind, whose poems, however, run the gamut of attitudes from Horatian wit to Juvenalian indignation. This kind of distinction, which is reflected today in the critical terminology adopted by students of English literature especially, in the much-used word persona, has unfortunately not percolated down to many readers of classical literature. One of the most patient sufferers from our ignorance is Roman poetic satire. Too many, it seems to me, ignore the fact that Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal were poets first and foremost.
From the first satires written by Lucilius, it was conventional for the persona to disclaim poetic ability, especially in contrast to the writers of epic and tragedy, and instead to place his emphasis on the down-to-earth, truthful qualities of his material. Let us see how these ideas were expressed in the works of Lucilius, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, then how expert Latinists have dealt with them.
The voice cries out in Lucilius: "I utter spontaneously whatever comes into my head according to the promptings of my heart, according to the immediate occasion, whether it be my state of health, my passion or anger against my concubine, my partisan political feelings, or what have you. Secondly, I am no poet like Ennius. I dabble at verse for the entertainment of the uncritical. I prefer to call my products plays (ludos) or mere conversation-like prose (sermonem). I can write so freely that I dash off 200 verses an hour, indeed 200 verses after a good dinner."
A proper critic today might be on his guard against such claims; the average Latinist has not been. The latter seems to use the following reasoning. "These words are spoken by Lucilius and must be sincere confessions on his part. Now, since he denies to himself poetic ability, we may ignore all poetic considerations that would, of course, be relevant to a talented writer like Vergil, and instead we should concentrate our scholarship on what is after all more reliable factual material: namely, what the Satires of Lucilius tell us about his biography, the social practices, and historical situation of his day." As a result of such reasoning, much excellent matter has been deduced from the Satires, matter, however, that is peripheral to the purposes of the poet; and, on the other hand, many mistakes have been committed by those who pursue a biography of Lucilius in the behavior of the persona.
Thus, the scholarship on Lucilius is remarkably unbalanced. On the one hand, there are elaborate analyses of his political thought and his place in the party politics of the Second Century B.C. On the other, scholars have permitted the most uninformed generalizations on literary matters to escape their lips, as, for example, that Lucilius is prosaic in all but meter or that his poetry is formless. When they compound their error by making guesses about the poet from the words spoken by the persona in a specially designed dramatic context, they radically distort the true proportions of Lucilius' poetry. Lucilius is a libertine, says one eminent Italian, because his Satires talk so much about affairs with prostitutes. Lucilius exhibits the mentality of an old soldier, says another scholar, because he again and again discusses military matters. In the midst of this, nobody cares to grapple with the problem of the poetic purpose of satire. It does not seem to cross the mind of serious scholars that, had Lucilius desired merely to express the socio-political ideas that interest modern critics, then he would have done so quite frankly in prose. Instead of identifying the persona with Lucilius, we should be studying the processes by which this persona is effectively created and the novelty that the poet achieved in producing the first extensive personal verse in Latin literature. The question to ask is not: What can we learn about the biography of Lucilius? The question to ask is: What does this speaker, this persona, with his wild invective, his frank eroticism, his witty anecdotes, and his serious moral judgments, accomplish for the poem? It is no accident, therefore, that some recent studies in Germany and Italy have demonstrated that, far from being a clumsy versifier, Lucilius was a sophisticated poet, closer to the polished Alexandrians than many a contemporary writer.
When we proceed to Horace, we find him deploying the same conventional argument in the mouth of his persona. "I have a compulsion," says that character, "to speak out, to tell the truth with a smile (ridentem dicere verum), at least in the intimate company of my confidential friends. On the other hand, I lack the talent to produce genuine poetry, epic or tragedy, so I play at this (haec ego ludo)." If all things were equal, we should expect critics to treat Horace in the same cavalier fashion which has marked their handling of Lucilius. Fortunately, a number of new factors introduce differences that avert the worst errors of Lucilian analysis. In the first place, a good biography of Horace has come down to us from Suetonius and rendered otiose much biographical conjecture. Second, Horace's Satires survive complete, whereas Lucilius' poems are entirely fragmentary and so seem to encourage extravagant hypotheses and reconstructions. Finally, there are other quite different poems of the same poet, iambic vituperation, lyrics of the most diverse tones, and literary epistles, to warn us that Horace could don almost any mask at will, in order to show us, as Johnson long ago noted, the attitude which he chose to manifest. I do not think that anyone has actually said it, but the fact is, that Horace's persona as satirist acts a great deal older and more serious morally than his persona as lyric lover, drinker, and advocate of carpe diem; and yet the external evidence unanimously proves that he wrote and published the Satires ten or more years before the lyric Odes!
I should say, then, that Horace is the most adequately appreciated verse satirist of Rome. Not that a few critics do not pursue the old will-o-the-wisps. Did Horace really take that trip to Brundisium? Did he really have that conversation with the bore? On the whole, though, knowing that Horace boasts a great reputation in lyric, they somewhat mystifiedly accept the fact that his Satires are poetry and talk very learnedly of his superiority to Lucilius. If here and there an incautious word escapes them and they call the contents of Serm. 1.5 (the trip to Brundisium) a versified diary and make of Serm. 1.7 a rather unnecessary anecdote, they nevertheless will fight anyone who denies Horace's rank as a poet. Almost no one would follow that misbegotten Crocean, Durand, who recently argued that, because not only the Satires but the Odes were earthbound, devoid of soaring lyric sentiments, Horace must not be called a "poet" at all — no one, that is, except the distinguished Italian academy that awarded one of its most coveted prizes to Durand. But despite such absurdities in Horace's homeland, Horace can defend himself. His successors are in a far worse plight.
Persius, as we might expect, uses the same conventional argument in his Program Satire. The persona says: "Like Midas' barber, I am bursting with the truth about mankind and must speak out. However, I am no high-flown poet, but a half-boor (semipaganus) in matters of art; I produce pretty modest stuff, a great deal of nothing (tam nil), boiled down (decoctius) and direct rather than ornate." Our external controls on this disarming confession do not help us so much here. Six short Satires of Persius have survived and nothing else but fourteen apparently prefatory lines; in addition, a good biography was produced within a few generations of his death. However, unlike the persona of Horace's Satires, who is pleasing and constitutes a good model of sound moral thinking, the persona of Persius offends many and is so radically inconsistent with his programmatic disclaimer that critics find vast difficulties with these Satires.
There are many who eagerly agree with Persius that he is no poet and so pursue the usual factual material offered by any literature. Their favorite interest is the Stoic substance of Persius's discourse. By proving the self-evident, that Persius uses Stoic ideas, they believe that they have contributed immensely to the understanding of the Satires. Then, there are those who chase the red herring of political allusions. Persius wrote, they say, under the monstrous Nero; it is inevitable that he would make some references to the emperor. And they can find them everywhere! Almost any innocent remark, political or otherwise, made by the earnest persona can be twisted into a sneer against Nero. The climax of such maunderings — at least, I hope it is — is the recent hypothesis by one of Belgium's most eminent Classicists that Nero had Persius poisoned!
Italy celebrated this past year the anniversary of Persius's death, with a typical Italian festa in Persius' home town, Volterra. On this august occasion, various dignitaries assembled to do honor in their own academic way to the distinguished citizen of the town. Among the lectures delivered to commemorate the poet's passing was one that has since been twice printed, apparently because the speaker, the noted Latinist Paratore, did not wish the world to miss his brilliant thesis. He develops an interesting twist on the biographical fallacy. The authoritative biography tells of a session where Persius apparently recited some of his works and the young Lucan, when his turn to recite came around, burst out with rapturous words of praise. But, notes Paratore, Satire 1 opens with a sharp attack on the institution of public readings (recitationes). We must conclude from Satire 1, then, that Persius loathed such sessions and would never stoop to reading his Satires in public, and consequently it is necessary to emend the biography by removing the offending passage. Thus, the persona forces the facts about the poet to conform!
Meanwhile, the literary problems connected with Persius languish. If critics could grasp the fact that his Stoic ideas are so superficial as to be negligible and his political ideas non-existent, they might realize that Persius' main claim to glory is his fascinatingly labored manner of expressing these commonplaces through a specially contrived persona. With him more than any other satirist in poetry, the gap between the disavowal of poetic ability and the vast effort made to produce poetic moralization is patent. Therefore, the task of the critic — that ideal critic who has not appeared for Persius in 1900 years — remains to interpret those poetic methods first, knowing quite well that the disclaiming of talent forms a conventional and always ambiguous aspect of the persona, that the producer of poetic satire would not have essayed the genre without fundamentally poetic purposes.
The last victim of distorted criticism is a far greater poet than Persius, but one would hardly learn this from reading some of the latest discussions. In the conventional manner, Juvenal lets his persona make the same statements in Satire 1 as were made in the satires of his predecessors: "It is difficult not to write satire, for I cannot endure the many vicious scoundrels of this corrupt city. I admit that I have little talent, but my spontaneous indignation makes my verse, such as it is." Once again, the critics face these programmatic statements, identify them with the feelings of Juvenal, and try to decide whether this vaunted indignation is as sincere as the speaker makes it out to be. Those who, like Gilbert Highet in his Juvenal the Satirist, feel the sincerity of this anger then pursue the source of it. Highet argues this way: "Something very strange and violent must have happened in the first part of Juvenal's life to produce such powerful repercussions in the second [that is, the indignant Satires]. ... Satirists are peculiarly sensitive, and their sensitivity means suffering. They have come into personal conflict with stupidity and injustice, and their satires are the direct result." Accordingly, Highet constructs an ingenious biography for Juvenal. Juvenal's indignation in the early Satires. he argues, resulted directly from his hatred of the villainous emperor Domitian, who had exiled him in or about A.D. 93 to Egypt.
It is not impossible that Juvenal was in fact exiled, but the evidence is ambiguous. Highet goes wrong in generalizing erroneously about the suffering of satirists — Lucilius, Horace, and Persius had no such impetus to write that we can discover — and then searching for some traumatic experience to motivate Juvenal's indignation. Similarly, when he comes to Satire 6, Highet feels compelled to explain its violent attack on women through an imaginary chain of sad circumstances, a fictional marriage of Juvenal with a proud, selfish, and intolerable Roman lady. Granted, the indignation of the persona strikes the reader as something new and powerful in Roman satire. However, it is no more original than Horace's smiling irony or Persius's intolerant Stoicism, and it can be successfully explained on a poetic level without resort to biographical conjecture. Merely that we lack any good biography of Juvenal does not mean that we should allow our imaginations free rein.
It must be said in behalf of Highet that he likes Juvenal and uses his biographical methods to give the Satires a sympathetic interpretation. Opposed to him are those who deny the sincerity of Juvenal, who insist on a sharp dichotomy between what Juvenal says and what he does. According to one of the most vigorously antagonistic critics, De Decker, there is in the Satires a poet occasionally, but more frequently an orator who undermines the work of the poet by his patently false methods for displaying indignation. Juvenal is, then, predominantly a declamator, a declaimer for the audience. With the help of misunderstood Crocean ideas, the Italian Marmorale has refurbished the dichotomy. Since in his view Juvenal lacks sincerity and emotional depth and, on the other hand, manipulates the literary topoi dexterously, Marmorale denies to him the rank of poet and instead christens him a "letterato," a professional writer, in the pejorative sense.
Light comes to the darkened minds of Classicists these days from their more sophisticated colleagues in English. In the past twenty or thirty years, English satire has become again a respectable field for scholarship, and some of the sharpest brains have concentrated their labors on Dryden, Pope, and Swift. Maynard Mack's delightful essay, "The Muse of Satire," starts from disagreement with Highet's biographical methods and proceeds to outline the conventional character of the persona in Pope. More recently, Alvin Kernan has discussed Jacobean satire in an important book, The Cankered Muse. Kernan has shown that the Jacobeans favored a violent persona like that of Juvenal, whereas the Augustans favored Horatian methods. Even more important, it seems to me, is Kernan's suggestion that, in the case of these violently indignant speakers, the poet has deliberately attributed to them objectionable and offensive ways, more or less as a warning to the audience to dissociate itself from their indignation. In other words, sometimes the persona created by the satiric poet is so distinct from the poet's biography that the two are opposites.
I suspect that Kernan's theories provide the solution to the critical dilemma over Juvenal: that Highet is right in a sense to argue for sincerity and Marmorale right in a sense to belabor the insincerity. If, following Kernan, we maintain a distinction between Juvenal and the speaker he creates for the Satires, then we can call the speaker genuinely indignant; but we must also add that Juvenal has so portrayed him that his prejudices and exaggerations are unacceptable, and for sound poetic reasons. The persona is indignant, but wrong, in many cases, as, for example, in his universal denunciation of women, even the most upright; reading or listening to such ranting, the Roman audience recognized the untruth and re-interpreted the described situations, stimulated by the Satires, more accurately.
Excerpted from Essays on Roman Satire by William S. Anderson. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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