- Victorian Horace: Classics and Class by Stephen Harrison
Harrison’s volume seeks “to show that Horatian quotation and allusion lie at the heart of the cultural identity of the elite Victorian gentleman” (145). Horace essentially serves as a distant patron for over a century of writers who sought erudition to enhance their literary status or at least sufficient poetic ornamentation to validate their role in the classical tradition. Interestingly, Harrison rarely invokes the word “tradition” throughout his own writing, thereby avoiding any facile approach and instead offering specific trajectories thoughtfully delineated to detail how Horace was received in nineteenth-century England.
The book begins with a preliminary survey (“from English Augustan to Victorian Horace”) of the influence of Horace’s Odes, Epodes, and Epistles upon the verses of various British authors including Byron, Wordsworth, and Keats. This introduction offers different approaches to “problematic terms” (8) in Horace by seventeenth-century translators, who often show prudent consideration for their readership, always spending their “cultural capital” wisely. Additional lines from Dryden, Pope, and others show how Horatian verse was adapted in various ways within their milieu. The author makes a strong case that Horace “represented a natural talisman for the elite” (21)—one who, especially in his Odes, can be viewed as “proto-Christian” and “quasi-scriptural” (22), suitable for a society that is rooted in religion. This spiritual context enables many of these writers understandably to expurgate certain elements of Horace’s verses, although the examples given suggest a sort of censorship that Victorians viewed as common decency rather than disapprobation: the manor demands manners.
Harrison also details the important role that Victorian commentaries on Horace played in the formal training of schoolboys. These commentaries provided an understanding of Horace’s own schooling, thereby enabling some Victorian readers and later writers to identify themselves with him. Horace is perceived as an “honorary English gentleman” (41) and a “representative of civilization” (47). An increasingly standardized pedagogy in the nineteenth century results in boys being introduced to Horace by their headmasters and not by their fathers, as some Romans might have experienced. (Perhaps this is why their reception of Horace in many of Harrison’s selected lines seems measured rather than lived.) Scholars and pupils also fittingly make use of self-referential episodes from Horace’s schooling, enabling Victorians to classicize and romanticize their own Oxford and Cambridge experiences as gentlemen-in-training. Unlike Horace, however, the Victorian gentleman, once his customary cultural capital has been secured, busies himself with shopkeeping an empire, rather than relaxing in his hegemonic hammock. Even at the age of eighty-four, the British Prime Minister William Gladstone, a statesman whose gentlemanly credentials needed no further validation among his fellow Victorians, composed a complete translation of the Odes after leaving office.
Space limitations here prevent the inclusion of examples of the greatest strength of Harrison’s book, namely, the carefully collated and sensibly arranged analyses of the interplay between Horatian verse and its Victorian manifestations. He devotes a chapter to an engaging exegesis of Horatian elements in the works of several Victorian poets, including Tennyson, Arnold, Clough, and [End Page 277] Fitzgerald. His insightful discussion of the Horatian imitation in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” does indeed deliver (as the author states) “fresh literary reflections” (65), showing Horace’s influence to rival that of Roman elegy. The author clearly demonstrates that “Horatian allusion enriches the texture of classic Victorian poetry to a greater extent than is generally realized . . .” (88).
For some English writers, the imitation of Horace is extensive and sincere, but elsewhere in this book satiric and glancing treatments are noted. As the novel becomes a dominant literary form, Horace can be found as both a character and a source of characterization in the works of several authors of Victorian fiction, including Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, and Hardy. Even the inclusion of a mere smattering of Horatian references in the works of Dickens confirms his profile as an “anti-gentleman” of sorts, whose scant allusions...