The Horatian Tradition

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Most of the odes discussed so far have been Pindaric odes, but an alternative tradition was available throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century: the Horatian ode, so named after its originator, the first-century bce Roman poet Horace. His Satires, Epistles, and Odes were all translated and imitated abundantly by eighteenth-century British writers [see ch. 33, "The Classical Inheritance"]. The Horatian ode differs from the Pindaric ode in a number of ways: while Pindarics aspire to extravagance and sublimity, Horatian odes are serene and contemplative in mood; the elaborate triadic structure of a Pindaric ode depends on sudden transitions and digressions, while a Horatian ode tends toward smoothness and poise in less intricate stanzas. Pindar's odes were staged publicly and accompanied by music and dance, but Horace's odes were always meant to be read privately. Readers have praised the Horatian ode for its quiet but moving meditations as well as its elegance and urbanity, qualities very different from the Pindaric's harsh splendor. This Horatian tradition had, unlike the Pindaric, been recognized during the Middle Ages, though the Horatian ode did not become a popular form for imitation until the sixteenth century. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was an early practitioner of the form, followed by Renaissance poets Sir Walter Raleigh, Michael Drayton, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, and Richard Fanshawe. Andrew Marvell wrote a famous and influential Horatian ode about a politically controversial subject: "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" (written 1650, published 1681).

After the Restoration, poets like Congreve and Dryden imitated the Horatian ode. Typical in these imitations was the Horatian injunction to live in the present and enjoy the pleasures of a simple rural life — books, friends, and wine — rather than chasing the temptations of wealth and power, of which death deprives even the richest. In his imitation entitled "The Ninth Ode of the First Book of Horace" (1685), for instance, Dryden recommends immediate delights despite a cold and dreary winter day:

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold, And feed the genial hearth with fires; Produce the wine, that makes us bold, And sprightly wit and love inspires.

Matthew Prior employed the Horatian ode for more overtly political purposes, celebrating political events ranging from the coronation of James and Mary in 1685 to William's arrival in Holland after Mary's death in 1694 and military success under Queen Anne in 1706. Prior's elegant "An Ode, Humbly Inscrib'd to the Queen. On the Glorious Success of Her Majesty's Arms" (1706) is striking because it combines an imitation of Horace with an imitation of Edmund Spenser. In his preface to this ode, Prior justifies this unlikely junction of classical and native traditions:

My Two Great Examples, Horace and Spenser, in many Things resemble each other: Both have a Height of Imagination, and a Majesty of Expression in describing the Sublime; and Both know to temper those Talents, and sweeten the Description, so as to make it Lovely as well as Pompous: Both have equally That agreeable Manner of mixing Morality with their Story, and That Curiosa Felicitas in the Choice of their Diction, which every Writer aims at, and so very few have reach'd: Both are particularly Fine in their Images, and Knowing in their Numbers.

Prior is forward-looking in his use of the ode to trace a native lineage as well as an ancient one [see ch. 35, "Recovering the Past: Shakespeare, Spenser, and British Poetic Tradition"]. He makes a double gesture to render classical conventions British, turning Horace's praise of Rome to his own praise of Britain as a nation and linking Horace and Spenser as equally viable poetic wellsprings. In a comparison like this, one can glimpse an early expression of the turn the ode will take by the middle of the eighteenth century, both toward "Height of Imagination" as an aesthetic purpose and toward the elevation of a native British poetic tradition.

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  • toni mcmullen
    What is horatian tradition?
    3 years ago

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