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The First Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2498 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Living and writing in an era in which culture was flourishing and “poetry was not simply a pastime”[1], must have been a dream to Alexander Pope: such was the Augustan age in Latin literature (27 BC – AD 14), which under the reign of the emperor Augustus provided not only for a serene social environment for the thriving of liberal arts, but also concerned about its good management by the close advisor Maecenas, responsible of the patronage of the artistic talent. In this sort of literary scene, poets such as Horace, Ovid, Virgil and Livy found their mastery being appreciated, highlighted and celebrated.

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Approaching the two historical periods with a thorough close analysis, it’s remarkable how Pope’s England and the Roman Empire were sharing aspects of their social life: the division between Court and Country as existed in the Augustan Rome was common view in England as the difference between luxury and philosophical retreat. A literary analogy, specifically relevant for Pope’s works, could also be detected, but in terms of cultural and social satisfaction, unfortunately, the 18th Century poet faced a reality which of Augustan had nothing but the name.

The so called Augustan poetry rose during the first half of 1700 with the explicit intention of being satirical and political, meant to criticise and hit the government, whose enmity and hatred towards all poetry and the arts were concentrated in the figure of the contemporary ruling George II. Ascended to power in 1683, the monarch showed a non-caring and contrasting attitude towards every literary manifestation, often stating himself in favour of censorship that made poets’ voices and endavours even much harder to be heard and adequately esteemed. Moreover, the spreading corruption was detestated by the writers of the time, and by Pope in particular, who in 1737 came into closer association with the Opposition, expressing his role as an active political poet.

Funnily, George II was also christened Augustus, coincidence that considerably remarked the difference between the two princes: Alexander Pope didn’t think twice about taking advantage of this perfect homonymy and under the clever suggestion of his friend Lord Bolingbroke, he created a brilliant and enjoyable satirical collection: Imitations of Horace (1738).

Firstly, what an imitation is must be clarified: not a fake, something not genuine should be thought about, but the Latin sense of imitatio should be taken into consideration, in which the idea of re-creation and re-interpretation is implied. Secondly, the choice of Horace must be explained: not only he was on the defensive of writing satire, as Pope was towards his literary environment, but also gave him the chance to rise questions and social problems besides giving judgments of contemporary literature and taste. These issues found their place in the mock-epic poem The first Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated (May 1737), which also best underlines Pope’s contempt for George II, making of it a parodic effective thread over the poem.

The Horatian Epistle opens with compliments sincerely paid by Horace to Augustus, while the ones claimed in Pope’s version are to be constructed ironically: the English ‘Patron of Mankind’ in line 1 had nothing to do with the Horatian ‘Caesar’ in line 4. The word caesar was not meant just to address Augustus with his second name: it is an important honorific that stands for the recognised authority and greatness of a leader, who could bear alone all the government and social duties, worth following with trust. The contrast between the two Augustuses is here even more highlighted and as the English courtier Lord John Hervey defines it, it is a ‘very material difference […] For as personal courage was the only quality necessary to form a great prince which the one was suspected to want, so I fear it was the only one the other was ever thought to possess.’ (p. 261, Memoirs).

The game of the parallel ironic and glorific tone plays constantly throughout the poem: such a ‘Wonder of Kings! Like whom, to mortal eyes | None e’er has risen, and none e’er shall rise’ (line 29-30) becomes ‘some monster of a King’ in line 210 and is still contraposed to the indisputable maiestas (line 258) of the Roman Augustus, or his greatness. This political complaint then is strictly connected with and leads the way to the real Epistle’s social concern.

To start with, more than everything, Augustans of both ages were worried about their literary heritage and how they should have dealt with it. People and poets were happy and accostumed to praise primitives such as Shakespeare and Ennius, but a common sense of lacking of art of them was hanging in the air and foreign literature started being attractive after having conquered France in one case and Greece in the other. Horace could still see the ‘sapiens et fortis’Ennius (line 50) and his ingenium, the mastery he had demonstrated, as Pope would agree about Shakespeare’s immortality but another good way of doing literature was emerging and couldn’t wait to be noticed.

‘If Time improve our Wit as well as Wine, | Say at what age a Poet grows divine?’ (Pope, lines 49-50). Poets were scared of how much time might have taken for their works to be valued if people had remained stuck to the past for longer. For that, it was important not to leave the public be the judge in order to make sure the distance between the new and the old, veteros and novos (Horace, lines 37-38), was respected and here the social context starts to shape.

When the poets write about the public and their feelings towards it, there is where the two societies begin to clush and be really interactive. On more scientific basis, this connection is interestingly defined as time-space distanciation in The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th Edition, for which Anthony Giddens, British sociologist, describes ‘the ‘stretching’ of social systems across time and space’. Historically, ‘The nexus of relations – political, economic, military – in which a society exists with others is usually integral to the very nature of that society’[2]: thus to maintain this interaction, which is intrinsic to society itself, so called technically symbolic tokens are implied, as ‘media of exchange which have standard value and thus are interchangeable across a plurality of contexts’ (Modernity and Self-Identity, 1991).

Put in context, these ‘stretching’ and ‘media of exchange’ seem fundamental in order to read in parallel Horace’s and Pope’s societies. With the concept of time-space distanciation in mind, it’s easier to jump flexibly from one time to the other, from Rome to England and follow the thread that society weaves across the lines of the Epistle.

Back to the relationship with the public, both poets are trying to warn about the misunderstanding of contemporary literature: Pope assumes an explicit rude and insulting tone while declaring that the public is nothing but a fool (lines 93-94), while on his side, Horace takes a softer and much more diplomatic position by claiming that not always the public sees and interprets things in the right way and it’s now mistaken in believing that no poetry can match the old school but that in this case ‘Iove iudicat aequo’ (‘God judges righteously’, line 68). However, the Latin text suggests a different shade of what Horace’s consideration of the public was: he addresses the audience as volgus (line 63), which does not only refer to ‘people’ in general but has to be read with a negative and offensive connotation that is effective on a class-based society, in which the mass was considered inferior and with scorn.

The argue about the public goes on in lines 115-118 in Pope’s imitation: ‘I lose my patience, and I own it too, | When works are censur’d, not as bad, but new; | While if our Elders break all Reason’s laws, | These fools demand not Pardon, but Applause’. Fools that have no taste, a crowd that has no interest in welcoming the novitas, the novelty in literature (line 90, Horace) and still pays honorem et premia (‘honours and praises’, line 78) only to the ancients: Pope was clearly complaining about the audience but at the same time denouncing the ruling power and censorship that was affecting the literary environment.

Even the writer’s profession seemed to be undermined, as for ‘Indocti doctique’ (‘educated people and not’, line 117) for Horace and ‘those who cannot write, and those who can’ for Pope, ‘All ryme, and scrawl, and scribble, to a man’ (lines 187-188). Unskilled writers were emerging and the public was enjoying them with ‘incertos oculos et gaudia vana’ (line 188, Horace). The choice of the adjective incertos (uncertain) for the eyes (oculos) is interesting, as it doesn’t only refer to the dubious taste of the public but also to a sort of inner ignorance that caused confusion and inability to judge, as if the public itself was unskilled. That might simply remark the mistrust and disdain for the audience in Horace but in Pope it assumes again a political connotation, in which the unskilled writer is just taken as a pretext and metaphor to criticise the unprofessional and unskilled George II.

The poem is so constantly balanced on the coexistence of political and social context. They create the wire on which the reader keeps his equilibrium within the two Augustan societies, each of them narrated and sung by their poets with similar yet so different connotations; in fact, their opinions about the literary taste converge in all their aspects but their perceptions of the possibility of dealing with power for it, differ. In this divergence lies the key point and crucial concept to change and light up the whole interpretation of the text and of the poets themselves.

As previously mentioned, Horace was writing for and of Augustus, whom he could trust and relate to besides his audience: whether the latter failed, the prince was still a solid pillar waiting for his courtier’s words. On the other hand, Pope had no one to rely on: the public’s senseless and George II taken of any consideration. In this light, the Epistle takes the shape and significance of a social poem in which Horace is the image of that kind of society Pope wishes to live in and write for: Horace becomes the means by which Pope wants to raise his voice and at the same time he makes him part of the society itself.

More than a simple report of power misbehaviour hides behind the lines of the Epistle: Pope puts in it his frustration and will, his anger and wish that a society of Horatian type could still be possible and viable and while this anger falls into satiric tones, he constructs on it an entire poem. The ideal of Horace and his actual figure help Pope in bringing his age and society to life and as he states in the Advertisement to The First Satire of the Second Book of Horace Imitated, ‘an answer from Horace was both more full, and of more Dignity, than any I cou’d have made in my own person’.

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In the last part of the Epistle, the presence of the poets becomes expressively strong. Standing in front of Poetry, Horace keeps his humble tone by declaring once again his ‘scribendi studio’ (‘passion for writing’, line 108) only aimed at celebrating Augustus maiestas; he would blush, in fact, at a great tribute to him alone, departed from his patron. On his side, Pope sticks to that aggressivity that just conceals insecurity and finally reveals the real parodic ‘biting’[3] intention of the Encomium. In the final lines he delineates a self-portrait, adjusting and immerging himself among the Georgian England, society for whom he felt the need to ‘call for Pen and Ink’[4].


Pope, Alexander, Imitations of Horace, ed. by John Butt, Methuen’s English Classics, 1966

Horace, Liber Secundus, Epistula I in Horatii Epistularum in Q. Horatius Flaccus, rec. J.G. Orellius, (Editionem Minorem Sextam post Io. Georgium Baiterum curavit Guilelmus Hirschfelder, Volumen Prius, ed. by Berolini, 1882), p. 400-436

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia in Internet



LeedsWIKI, Virgil, Horace and Ovid: The Politics behind the Poetry


The Dictionary of Human Geography, ed. by R.J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, Geraldine Pratt and Micheal Watts, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 4th Edition, 2000), pp. 837-838

[1] Virgil, Horace and Ovid: The Politics behind the Poetry, LeedsWIKI https://wiki.leeds.ac.uk/index.php/Virgil,_Horace_and_Ovid:_The_Politics_behind_the_Poetry.

[2] A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 2nd edn (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1995), p. 91.

[3] ‘That when I am at praise, they say I bite.’, line 409.

[4] Line 180.


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