Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

diner-out of his time, a genial companion whose aim it was to be both amicus sibi and dulcis amicis, on good terms with himself and a joy to his friends, they found a man after their own heart, a man who knew how to amuse and interest them without ever degenerating into a bore. Hence it is that with this realistic writer, familiar as he was with every phase of contemporary society, we are never moving in a world of lay figures. There is no sensible gap in Horace between literature and life. As we read the satires or the epistles, we can only echo the words with which Mme. de Sévigné put down the Essays of Montaigne, 'Mon Dieu, que ce livre est plein de bon sens !' We feel that, bad we but chanced to have a Horace amongst us, much of his portraiture might well have been painted yesterday. For he deals, for the most part, not with those comparatively few characteristics in which men differ, but with mankind in the mass, with that central and elemental human nature which is the joint inheritance of us all.

Horace is no idealist. He is at the very opposite pole to a poet like Shelley. He does not belong to the company of those rare creative spirits who see visions and dream dreams. He has not ' hitched his wagon to a star.' No ode of his has the clarion ring of the great sonnet, nor do we hear in him what we are taught to call the lyric cry. An easy-going Epicurean in temperament, and moving, in respect of thought and feeling, within relatively narrow boundaries, he attempts neither to scale the heights nor to sound the depths of the human soul. He had never known the transfiguring power of a great love, or the purifying power of a great sorrow. In his early manhood he had his share of climbing to do. But the critical years of probation were soon over, and once Maecenas had taken him up his future was assured and his pecuniary anxieties at an end. In his ideal of conduct he bears some resemblance to Goethe. It is an ideal of orderliness and sobriety, a nice balance of moral and bodily healthfulness, a golden mean between asceticism and hedonism. With a cheerful smile upon his face, Horace stands, as it were, in the middle of life's highway, and invites the average man, or the exceptional man in his average moments, to come and look in his glass. A very human, a very unheroic, a very lovable man, his sketches can never fade or lose their freshness, for they recall types in our Vanity Fair which stand fast through all the changes of time and circumstance. His moral axioms, which in schooldays may have seemed to us somewhat trite and stale, tend to maintain and strengthen their hold upon us both because they are so delightfully presented and because, as the years pass on, we are made to learn in the school of experience how well they fit

3

5

.

in with the everyday realities of life. And if to this large-hearted and kindly humanity we add our poet's ironical yet genial humour, with its attendant shadow of pensiveness, the absence in him of all pretentiousness, his self-reliance and independence of spirit,“ his transparent honesty and candour, his instinctive tactfulness and good breeding, his calm, shrewd sanity of judgment, his wholesome teaching of the pure heart and the well-stocked contented mind as the master-keys to life, and the secret of real happiness, we shall be catching something of that personal attraction which is felt, by those who know him best, to be quite distinct from his artistic gifts and from his literary talent.

There was nothing, not even the study of Greek and Latin literature, in which this many-sided Italian genius took such unflagging interest as in human nature, including his own. He was as familiar with books as with the world around him. An omnivorous reader, he was also a man of introspective and meditative habit, and yet at times the most sociable of companions. Always a keen and shrewd observer, he grew up to manhood in an age when Rome's long career of conquest, with its resulting interfusion of nationalities and races, had brought about a general anarchy of thought and feeling. Opulence, luxury, idleness, and slavery bad poisoned the springs of life. By the lawless violence of the civil wars all this confusion was made worse confounded. The old landmarks of religion and morality had been torn up, and a swollen tide of demoralisation and corruption was threatening wholly to submerge what remained of the ancient commonwealth. Living for many years at the very centre of affairs, himself an important agent in a great intellectual, aesthetic, and religious reformation, the intimate and trusted friend of men who held his country's destiny in their hands, Horace had exceptional opportunities, as he had also an exceptional aptitude, for watching and noting the manners and morals of his day. It is in these circumstances that his writings present us at once with the best picture that we could have of contemporary Rome, and with a companion-picture, no less lifelike, of the writer himself.

Our poet was born under a lucky star. His boyhood was passed in close contact with social surroundings that were representative of the purest and the most wholesome traditions of Italian country life. Like Burns and Carlyle, he was thrice blessed with a father to whom his warm tributes of love and gratitude form some of the most delightful passages in literature. He received an excellent education. As the personal references in his compositions abundantly indicate, he formed congenial and enduring

See a striking passage to this effect in Newman's Grammar of Assent, 4th edit. p. 78.

Qui sibi fidet dux roget examen.' I. Epis. xix. 23. ''Quod petis hic est.' I. Epis. xi. 29.

[ocr errors]

friendships with the foremost men of the day. He was endowed with exceptional gifts and with a strongly marked individuality. Except for some minor ailments, such as blear eyes and a weak digestion, he enjoyed, up to an early middle-age, sound if not robust health. As a writer and critic he attained the highest eminence, and basked in the sunshine of success. Upon the whole, and as mortals count happiness and good fortune, he lived and died a fortunate and happy man.

The elder Horace, though he won his freedom before his son was born to him, had begun life as a public slave in the military colony of Venusia. After his enfranchisement he contrived to

. make and to save enough money to buy a small neighbouring farm. His daily business was to collect the dues arising out of the sales of property by auction, and, owing to the constant expropriation of owners during the civil wars, he seems to have made this business a success. It is easy, however, to understand that, in the circumstances, young Horace, who was apparently an only child, and a child, moreover, whose mother had not long survived his birth, must have been left a good deal to his own devices and to the indulgence of his own tastes. Readers of the odes will remember the lovely lines in which the poet idealises some real adventure of his infancy, when he had slipped through his nurse's fingers and in one of his solitary rambles had lost himself upon Mount Voltur. Knowing, as we do, his genius for friendship, it seems a natural inference that in his young days he would make the most of the society of his country neighbours. A glance at the second satire of the second book will show, for example, how sincere was his admiration for one Ofellus, a farmer near Venusia, a ‘sage without rules' (abnormis sapiens), and, in his own humble way, a sort of Roger de Coverley among his people. As sketched for us in the satire referred to he stands out as an attractive specimen of the independent, selfrelying spirit, the homely and rugged virtues, of the Sabellian husbandman. The time was not very far distant when Horace would have to breathe the relaxing air of a dissolute and licentious capital, and his father's watchful training, supported and strengthened by the wholesome influences of these Sabine uplands, must have done much to brace and fortify his character against that day. But his old home did even more for him than this. While it familiarised him with a mode of life austere in its simplicity, active in its daily industries, pure in its domestic integrity, and religious in its untutored piety, it served also to awaken the sleeping poet in him.

Born, as Horace was born, with a full share of the Italian sensitiveness to joy and beauty, what could have been more stimulating to him than the varied and picturesque scenery of the southern

Odes III. iv.

6

Apennines? Twenty years and more had passed when he composed the odes in which the memories of the old homestead, with its familiar baunts, its favourite landscapes, its varied charms of hill and wood and river, dwell immortally enshrined. Yet, so deep had been their first impressions upon his mind that as he recalls them to his imagination be seems to be actually back in the old familiar places once again. The distant roar of impetuous Aufidus is still echoing in his ears. The wooded slopes of Voltore, the glens of Bantia, the low-lying pastures of Forentum, the crystal spring of Bandusia, Acherontia 'like an eagle's nest upon the crest of purple Apennine '--all seem to be actually mirrored in the poet's soul, and to be steeping his senses in the same delight as when they had been the loved companions of his boyhood. Assuredly it was not for nothing that the country had been his nursing mother and not the town.

When the time came to decide upon his son's educational future, considerations of convenience may naturally have inclined the elder Horace to send him to the school close at hand in Venusia which enjoyed the patronage of the local aristocracy. But to such a course there were serious drawbacks. The curriculum wa's narrow, uninspiring, severely utilitarian. The spirit which it reflected was that commercial spirit of the main chance which so well suited the Roman type of character, and which Horace, in one of his latest epistles, has contemptuously contrasted with the free artistic spirit of Greek culture.' Moreover, the social atmosphere of the school was not likely to prove congenial to a boy who was by nature shy. The 'great strapping sons of great strapping centurions' who frequented it would be certain to look down upon a mere freedman's son, and to ruin all his chances of intellectual expansion by the blight of their arrogant contempt.

The father was not man to hesitate where he thought that a future so dear to him was at stake. Whatever the fates might have in store, his lad should at any rate be given the advantage of as good an education as if he had been of knightly or of senatorial descent. Not content to entrust him, in such a city as Rome, to the care of any casual slave, this most unselfish and self-denying of parents turned his back on the claims of his local business, and himself accompanied Horace, then perhaps some twelve years of age, to the capital, so that he might keep him under his own eye, and supplement his school work with the informal lessons of practical everyday experience.

These early lessons Horacę never forgot, and later on, as he told his critics, he found in them the source and inspiration of his satires. They accustomed him, once for all, to look at life

8

[blocks in formation]

in the concrete, life as it might be watched at work in the Via Sacra, or the Suburra, in the Circus, or in the Forum : life as teach

: ing by example, and mirrored in the fortunes of the Roman notables to whom his attention was daily directed as they passed along.' Good and evil, success and failure, forethought and folly, miserliness and prodigality, good breeding and vulgarity, were illustrated and exemplified for the boy week by week and year by year, not by associating them with maxims in books, or with lay sermons in his private ear, but with life itself as it was actually being lived in the Rome of that day, and with the patterns that he saw running off its loom.

So passed the five or six years of his early education. Somewhere about his eighteenth year, or perhaps a little later, after studying there under Orbilius, the rod-loving Dr. Busby of his period, a man of some note as a teacher, Horace left the capital to complete his education at Athens in company with the young bloods of the Roman aristocracy. It is only natural to wish that he had told us more about this formative part of his history, but, though Horace in his own way is as self-revealing as Montaigne or as Samuel Pepys, he unfortunately failed to forestall the latter in keeping a full diary of his days. From the tone of affection, however, in which he refers to the university, it may be safely inferred that he most heartily enjoyed the opportunities which Athens afforded. From this time forward we hear no more of his devoted guardian. Probably he had died before his son's schooldays were quite over. Nor have we any information as to how the necessary funds for a university course were raised, seeing that Athens was an expensive place, and the undergraduates from Rome, or at any rate the majority of them, had deep purses, long, dry throats, and convivial proclivities. It redounds greatly to Horace's credit, and prepares us also for the strong fibre of moral independence which runs through all his subsequent career and which is so conspicuous in his relations with Maecenas and with Augustus, that, in such a society, he was able to hold his own, to make many lasting friendships, to avoid debt, and, what proved to be of such vital importance later on, to study the doctrines of the rival schools of Greek philosophy as well as the rich and varied treasures of Greek literature.

Quite an interesting side-light is thrown on the extravagance, and also on the moral pitfalls, of undergraduate life at Athens at this time by what we chance to know of the younger Cicero. He had served as a cavalry officer on Pompey's staff before he went up to matriculate. Of intellectual interests he was wholly devoid. His father seems to have declined to keep a horse for him, though he made him a generous allowance of no less than

• I. Sat. iv. 103.

[ocr errors]
« VorigeDoorgaan »