Horace 2.20: The Swan Poet

Writing in the 1st century BC Horace is my favourite Roman poet. Whether he is being charming and witty or lofty and philosophical he is always a great friend of those who read him.

Ode 2.20 one of his more fantastic poems. In it he warns his friend Maecenas not to mourn his death, for he is an immortal poet. He imagines himself transformed into a swan, borne by his song to the very edges of the Roman Empire. Like Catullus in my previous post, Horace is exploring the immortality of the poet’s voice.

By no ordinary or flimsy wings shall I be borne
through the clear air, a poet of two forms,
and I shall not remain any longer on land,
beyond all envy, I shall leave these cities.

For I, born to poor parents, I whom you command,
dear Maecenas, I shall not die,
and the waters of the Styx shall not encircle me.
Now, already, rough skin spreads over my legs,
and I am transforming from above
into a white swan, soft feathers
sprout from my fingers and shoulders.
Now, more renowned than Icarus, son of Daedalus,
as a melodious bird I shall see the shores of the groaning Bosphorus,
the Gaetulian Syrtes, and the Hyperborean plains.
And Colchus shall hear me, and the Dacians,
who hide their fear for Marsian troops,
and the Geloni at the edges of the earth,
the learned Iberians and drunken Rhodes shall know me.

Let there be no mindless funeral rites,
and unsightly lamenting and weeping,
Restrain from crying, and do not trouble
with the empty honour of a tomb.

The poem is addressed to Maecenas, Horace’s patron and dear friend. In a previous poem Horace promises that their fates are entwined and the two of them shall journey to the underworld together. Here however he soars off and leaves Maecenas to his fate. Scholars think this contradiction is explained by Horace’s reference to himself as a ‘poet of two forms’. On the one hand he has his mortal, earthly self that will pass on along with his friends, however as a poet he has another form: the immortal swan that transcends death.

It might at first seem like an arrogant boast, a bold assertion of his own importance. However there are elements of humour which suggest Horace is actually having a joke at his own expense. He imagines his skin growing rough and feathers sticking out from his fingers. This is not a glorious transformation, but an elderly man sprouting feathers. It is a very self-deprecating touch.

The places Horace describes in the second half lie on the far reaches of the Empire. A Roman would associate these places with barbarism and unrest. This reflects the restless nature of the poem; it is almost feverish with movement. And yet it is not triumphant. Horace compares himself to Icarus, a character from myth who wore wings made of feathers and wax to escape imprisonment. Icarus flew too close to the sun, and so his wings melted and he tumbled to his death. The Ode itself is a wild and reckless escape from the confines of mortality, but it is one Horace foresees ending with a fall.

I think this is a very self-aware poem. Perhaps Horace feels that at this point to claim immortality is too bold. He imagines it in this wild fantasy, but is forced to see what a ridiculous figure he makes as the swan-poet. He tells himself that he is being like Icarus and aiming too high. Poetry such as this will only be heard in the far-off reaches of the Empire; warlike and barbaric places. It is only in later poems, when he finishes his Odes, that Horace can take the idea seriously.

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