On the Anvil of Horatian Criticism

R.C. Jebb, Bentley (Chp. VIII):

Now, Horace was one of the most perilous subjects that Bentley could have chosen. Not so much because the text of Horace, as we have it, is particularly pure. There are many places in which corruption is certain, and conjecture is the only resource. But, owing to his peculiar cast of mind and style, Horace is one of the very last authors whose text should be touched without absolute necessity. In the Satires and Epistles his language is coloured by two main influences, subtly interfused, each of which is very difficult, often impossible, for a modern reader to seize. One is the colloquial idiom of Roman society. The other is literary association, derived from sources, old Italian or Greek, which in many cases are lost. In the Odes, the second of these two influences is naturally predominant; and in them the danger of tampering is more obvious, though perhaps not really greater, than in the Satires or Epistles. Now, Bentley’s tendency was to try Horace by the tests of clear syntax, strict logic, and normal usage. He was bent on making Horace ‘sound’ in a sense less fine, but even more rigorous, than that in which Pope is ‘correct.’

Thus, in the ‘Art of Poetry,’ Horace is speaking of a critic : — ‘If you told him, after two or three vain attempts, that you could not do better, he would bid you erase your work, and put your ill-turned verses on the anvil again‘ (et male tornatos incudi reddere versus). ‘Ill-turned ‘ — ‘anvil’! said Bentley : ‘what has a lathe to do with an anvil?’ And so, for male tornatos, he writes male ter natos, ‘thrice shaped amiss.’ Horace elsewhere speaks of verses as incultis . . .et male natis. To Bentley’s reading, however, it may be objected that the order of words required by the sense is ter male natos: for male ter natos ought to mean, either ‘unhappily thrice-born’ — like the soul of a Pythagorean, unfortunate in two migrations; or ‘barely thrice-born’ — as if, in some process which required three refinements, the third was scarcely completed. And then, if we are not satisfied with the simplest account of tornatos — viz., that Horace lapsed into a mixture of common metaphors — it admits of a strict defence. The verses have been put on the lathe, but have not been successfully rounded and polished. Then, says Horace’s critic, they must go back to the anvil, and be forged anew, passing again through that first process by which the rough material is brought into shape for the lathe. Yet Bentley was so sure of his ter natos that persons who doubted it seemed no better than ‘moles.’

Peter Paul Rubens, Hephaestus

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