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  • Horace and the Construction of the English Victorian Gentleman
  • Stephen Harrison (bio)

The reading, criticism, and imitation of particular classical authors formed a natural part of self-construction for the elite classes in Victorian England, since the centrality of classics in the education of the period ensured that these texts were a key element in contemporary self-fashioning.1 In this paper I look at the role in this self-fashioning of Horace, in some ways the most congenial of Latin authors for Victorian elite subjectivity. Unlike his fellow Augustan poet Vergil,2 Horace remained popular among general as well as scholarly readers in Victorian England.3 Although there are several reports by famous literary figures that they were put off Horace in youth by unimaginative school tuition,4 the centrality of Horace to the curriculum of the newly influential elite English "public" (private) school5 was clearly one root cause of this popularity. Fundamental here was the reception and construction of Horace as an honorary English gentleman who represented the values of the male and homosocial Victorian English elite: moderation, clubbability, leisured gentility, patriotism, and (even) religion.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as one of its definitions of the term "gentleman" (s.h.v. 4, a) "a man of superior position in society, or having the habits of life indicative of this; often, one whose means enable him to live in easy circumstances without engaging in trade, a man of money and leisure." This is roughly how I will use the term here, adding some of the moral ideals and high culture to be found in, for example, the celebrated view of the Victorian gentleman given in J. H. Newman's The Idea of a University (first published 1852): "a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life."6 As we shall see, both aspects—leisured and genteel wealth, cultured behavior and manners—make Horace an especially attractive ancient author for the Victorian male elite.

The wide range of Horace's poems, even within the single genre of lyric, the Odes being in the Victorian period (as always) the most read of his works, meant that he could be appropriated and reprocessed by the [End Page 207] English elite for a wide range of purposes. But the key factor was the gentlemanly status conferred and implied by a knowledge of the poet-cultural capital, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term (Bourdieu 1984, 53–4). Clive Newcome in W. M. Thackeray's The Newcomes (1855) acquires enough classics at Grey Friars (based on the English "public" school Charterhouse) in the 1820s "to enable him to quote Horace respectably throughout life" (ch. 8), the mark of a gentleman and elite member. Horace, in fact, provides the route into the gentlemanly club, literally so in Ronald Knox's Let Dons Delight (1939), set in a senior common room in the University of Oxford in 1938 but reflecting established Victorian and Edwardian ideas:

God knows why it should be so, but as a matter of observation it seems to me quite certain that the whole legend of the 'English Gentleman' has been built upon Latin and Greek. A meets B on the steps of his club and says: 'Well, old man, eheu fugaces, what?' and B says 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,' and the crossing-sweeper falls on his knees in adoration of the two men who can talk as learnedly as that.7

This entertainingly absurd exchange of random Horatian tags, dimly recalled from elite education, takes place on the steps of a London gentleman's club, which constitutes the metropolitan analogue of the select Oxford college common room in which the framing conversation itself takes place. It shows both that Horace represented a natural talisman for the elite and (behind the evident irony) how little knowledge of the poet was actually required for such social acceptance.

Horace's elite status is also clear from the other side of the sociological tracks. Several characters in Victorian literature seeking intellectual self-improvement and consequent increase in social standing use Horace as a potential way to success. At one end...


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