[ilds] "On First Looking into Loeb's Horace"

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Thu May 8 15:22:46 PDT 2008


James,

We must disagree.  I read "Loeb's Horace" very differently than you do.  The "I" of the poem, presumably male, addresses a former lover, presumably female, who owns or owned a copy of the Loeb edition of Horace ("your Horace").  The speaker need not be male, but I identify him with Durrell himself and not a persona.  (Why this is so, as I read Durrell's poetry, has to do with lyric nature of his poetry.)  The title already tells us that the poem is playing off Keats's famous sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," which is an unabashed tribute to a great poet.  Durrell reworks a tribute into a poem of scathing criticism of Horace's personality and also strikes blows at Keats.

The references to Horace are highly critical (fat, self-satisfied, isolated), frame the final piece of marginalia, and seem bent on attacking the man's reputation or at least his own claim to fame.  I take Durrell's "Who built in the Sabine hills this forgery / Of completeness" an attempt, a very clever attempt, to mock or besmirch Horace's "Exegi monumentum" (Odes 3.30.1), i.e., "I have completed/perfected a monument."  In that famous ode, Horace claims his poetic monument is loftier than the pyramids.  Horace had a very big ego too, and here Durrell is matching it by attempting to do what few would try.

The several allusions to Keats's great odes are negative, the most obvious one being, "slave to quietness," which plays off Keats's "bride of quietness."  What is positive in Keats is negative in Durrell.  I see this inversion as a way for Durrell to take a slap at his predecessor, in the same way that Durrell's title of his poem perverts the purpose of Keats's sonnet.  Durrell isn't delivering an encomium.

The poem can also be read as a bit of Durrell's self-criticism:  the attack on Horace being a subtle attack on Durrell himself.  If this is so, I still have trouble swallowing the bile directed at the old Roman on his Sabine farm.  Durrell concealed himself all-too-well in that Roman toga.

I believe it was Newton who said he stood on the shoulders of giants.  I don't see Durrell saying this.  He seems bent on cutting those giants down to size.


Bruce


-----Original Message-----
>From: James Gifford <odos.fanourios at gmail.com>
>Sent: May 8, 2008 12:05 PM
>To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
>Subject: Re: [ilds] Durrells
>
>Hi Bruce,
>
>Respectfully, I must disagree quite strongly.  Durrell's ego, whatever 
>it may have been, does not strike me at all in those examples.  There 
>may be an abundance of bafflegab in his interviews, but I think self 
>doubts and a genuine sense of fair play with unsuspecting interviewers 
>is to blame.
>
>> I would also cite a poem like "Loeb's Horace" 
>> (which Peter Porter, respected poet, calls 
>> Durrell's greatest poem), where Durrell/narrator 
>> takes on a great poet and faults (attempts to 
>> diminish?) him for sins he (Durrell) himself 
>> is guilty of.
>
>In this instance, I disagree most strongly, and the sins strike me as 
>the point of contention, as well as the confusion of poet, narrator, 
>character, and past poet.  To whom do you see the poem addressed, and 
>who writes those sins in the margin?  It's clearly a dual approach to 
>Keats and Horace, but there's also another reader involved, complete 
>with marginalia, and I don't catch egoism here at all.
>
>Porter places the other reader as a former lover, both in his 
>encyclopedia entry and in his introduction to the new /Selected Poems/ 
>of LD.  I think perhaps you are reading the lover's criticism of Horace 
>as Durrell's own (whether this other voice is an invention or not!), yet 
>I think there has to be something far more human in that marginal 
>annotation she has added to Horace:
>
>   You would discern the liar by a line,
>   The suffering hidden under gentleness
>   And add upon the flyleaf in your tall
>   Clear hand: 'Fat, human and unloved,
>   And held from loving by a sort of wall,
>   Laid down his books and lovers one by one,
>   Indifference and success had crowned them all.'
>
>If Horace lies by hiding that same self that is so crucial to the 
>opening stanzas, might we also assume Durrell learned this trick from 
>him?  And, if so, do you think this lover is really addressing Horace in 
>her marginalia, the same way we casually leave books open to particular 
>pages on coffee tables?  She's a lost lover writing to her reader, not 
>to a poet long dead -- speaking to Horace, she writes a note meant for 
>Durrell the poet.  I read this as a rebuke against the poet reading the 
>marginalia in Horace, not Horace himself -- I suspect my lovely wife 
>uses the same technique with magazines containing articles about people 
>who work too much.
>
>There are also the tasteful and kind references back to Durrell's 
>influences (those who influenced him), such that this Horace can be 
>afraid of urns and a slave to quietness, since I doubt he'd have been 
>permitted the position of a bride...
>
>I also enjoy the moment in the seventh stanza when we hear:
>
>         ... the landed man,
>   Found a suffering limb on the great Latin tree
>   Whose roots live in the barbarian grammar we
>   Use, yet based in him, ...
>
>I can't help but think back to a similar moment in Durrell's 
>"Anniversary" for T.S. Eliot, which blurs an allusion to an allusion to 
>an allusion:
>
>   In you his early roots drove through
>   The barbarian compost of our English
>   To sound new veins and marbled all his verses
>   Through and through like old black ledgers,
>
>I see tribute in these references to five great poets whose influences 
>linger: not an ego seeking to bury them.  Still, if I could tumble my 
>way through writing a poem like "On First Looking into Loeb's Horace," 
>I'd probably swell like a bullfrog too -- he repeats that phrase when 
>interviewed by Lyn Goldman as well.
>
>Best,
>James
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