A New Interpretation of the Pyrrha Ode (Horace, Ode 1.5)

This paper is a collective statement made in Spring 1997 by the students in Classics 190:315, Latin Poets in English, at Rutgers University. Maurice Connelly, Jen Faulkner, Robbie Glen, Isabelle Laitem, Elizabeth Manner, David McAllister, and Amy Wojdyla contributed to the writing, James Molnar to the discussion, and Professor Shirley Werner edited and revised their remarks into the single statement that follows. Professor Werner has granted permission for this web page to be posted on the VRoma server.
Pyrrha, an illustrated web page by Anne Dicks
The Seafarer, translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Charles Harrison Wallace and with an essay on translation
  Q. Horatii Flacci
  Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
    grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?
        cui flavam religas comam,
  simplex munditiis? heu quotiens fidem
mutatosque deos flebit et aspera
    nigris aequora ventis
        emirabitur insolens,
  qui nunc te fruitur credulus aurea,
qui semper vacuam, semper amabilem
    sperat, nescius aurae
        fallacis! miseri, quibus
  intemptata nites! me tabula sacer
votiva paries indicat uvida
    suspendisse potenti
        vestimenta maris deo.

Translation by John Milton | Imitation by Anthony Hecht | Latin text of Catullus 8

Our interpretation begins with a contrast between Horace's Pyrrha ode and Catullus 8, miser Catulle, desinas ineptire. The possibility that Catullus is Horace's model was noticed by Commager, who wrote: "Pyrrha's alterations of fair and foul form Horace's version of Catullus' fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles; the solemn apostrophe, miseri, quibus intemptata nites, suggests a detached echo of the specific miser Catulle, desinas ineptire; the amused question, quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa ... urget? recalls Catullus' inflamed queries: quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella? "1 Thus Horace has taken over the themes of formerly bright weather that has changed for the worse, the wretchedness of the lover, and the questioning of the desired woman ("Who is, or will be, in love with you?").

But the order in which the two poets set out these themes is not the same. Catullus begins with miser, invokes the metaphor of bright weather as he remembers the past, and near the end, when his emotions overcome him, turns to questioning the beloved. Horace, reversing this, begins with the questioning, then brings in the metaphor of weather, and only after this invokes the miseri.

Along with the reversal comes evident detachment. If the ode is the statement of a former lover (whom we shall here call Horace, without wishing to say that the poem is autobiographical2) to the woman with whom he had once been in love, it seems disappointing. The reader finds art, rather than intensity of feeling. Irony, rather than agony, is the prevailing emotion. Horace declares that he has weathered the storm of Pyrrha and now contemplates it from a distance, his passion quelled. The detachment seems even more pronounced when we compare Horace's statement with Catullus'. Where Catullus reveals what his own emotions are in the unbearable days (or weeks, or months) after breaking with the beloved, Horace contemplates and predicts the unhappiness of the other lover. As for himself, time has passed. The garments from his emotional shipwreck have been dedicated in the sea god's temple, and the votive tablet commemorating that event has since been hung there. By contrast to Catullus, who experiences the sharp grief of youth, Horace's response seems that of a mature man who has come to terms with the past.

Horace, then, is older. But if Horace is older, what is, or to ask the more immediate question when was, the relationship between Horace and Pyrrha? If the storm commemorated in the temple represents the affair with Pyrrha, it must be past for her too, and she too should have aged. But she is splendidly youthful. Her lover is just a boy, gracilis puer, not yet a man. Even her sophistication is characterized by simplicity and evident lack of guile (she is simplex munditiis), and her beauty is similarly so perfect that it deceives. She is like Barine in Ode 2.8, who, Horace complains in mock lament, is punished by no sign of black teeth or blemished fingernails, despite her falseness: if anything, it is her falseness that makes Barine, like Pyrrha, shine (enitescis, 2.8.6: nites, 1.5.13).3 Not that Pyrrha must absolutely be as young as the gracilis puer who is imagined embracing her. But she has none of the repulsive qualities of an older woman in the odes.4 Pyrrha, then, is youthful enough to appeal to a mere boy, Horace mature and his shipwrecked feelings those of long ago. Again a qualification seems necessary. Long ago is a subjective term. The poem projects a feeling of great distance between Horace and his emotional shipwreck, but the elapsed time need not be years. Still, the point about distance remains. Horace engages in no bitter denunciation of Pyrrha, nor does he seem heartbroken with despair. So either they were in a relationship long ago, or he was never intimate with her at all. Surprisingly, there is no positive evidence in the poem for a past relationship between Pyrrha and Horace.

Why the poem, then? If Pyrrha did not cause Horace shipwreck, how does she provoke him, and why does he speak to her? It would seem unlikely that he has a firsthand and intimate knowledge of her character as a lover if they were never lovers. Instead he has substituted for her his own preconceptions about her type. Thus Pyrrha seems to Horace representative of the type of beautiful and deceptive woman who was dangerous to him in his immaturity, and this poem is the result of that recognition. The puer is also a type, but of a different sort. It would seem that Horace has personal insight into the feelings of the puer, as if he once was that slim boy. And yet the puer is not someone Horace knows, or even positively knows of. The puer is merely imagined by him: Horace's question, after all, is Quis gracilis puer...? And although Horace predicts the storms and shipwreck awaiting him, he does not truly commiserate with the puer in his imagined plight. The puer is merely a vehicle for Horace's own remembered emotions.

Many a reader must have wondered why Pyrrha is being admonished by Horace, rather than the boy being warned. If the puer is only a hypothetical figure constructed in Horace's imagination, then of course it is idle to speak to him. But that does not really answer the fundamental question of the ode's rhetorical motive. What is it that provokes Horace to speak to Pyrrha at all? If he has never been hurt by her, why bother to tell her that he knows what kind of person she is? Perhaps he is remembering his bitterness to others, and wishes to take revenge on her as a type, even though she is not herself to blame for his past. If that is so, the persona adopted by Horace is not a very pleasant one. Horace turns out to be a petulant, rather irritatingly self-righteous character who wishes to vent his spleen (or what remains of it) by embarrassing Pyrrha and showing her for what she is. And yet he does not, after all, even seem to care so very much.

This would mean that we have a Horace not far from the Horace of the traditional interpretation, who wishes for no particular reason to utter his old complaints to Pyrrha, though his bitterness has long since lost its pungency. But we would like to propose a different rhetorical motive. The fact that Horace speaks to Pyrrha at all suggests his desire for her. It is almost as if Horace is saying to Pyrrha: "Since I know that you are inconstant, why be anything other than true to character? Why be faithful to that gracilis puer, since that is not in your nature?" Underlying this is the question: "Why not, perhaps, fall in love with me?"

At this point our reader will perhaps object that we are pushing our interpretation too far. This is not, after all, a seduction poem. Horace declares that he has withdrawn from that dangerous sea. Yet one could argue that the withdrawal of the last stanza is neither so complacent, nor the first three stanzas to Pyrrha so gratuitously spiteful, as readers have been inclined to think.5

The poem is about desire, the almost simultaneous recognition of the impossibility of that desire, and, finally, withdrawal. The very form in which Horace constructs his mental image of Pyrrha already includes in it the potential of reversal. In the first stanza the reader makes associations of bright red and flame with Pyrrha, whose name suggests fire,6 and whose hair is red-gold, as she is ardently pressed on roses. At the end of the ode, however, the reader confronts a picture of the dripping wet garments of the shipwrecked seafarer. How is the transition made? An underlying association with fire is darkness, the ashes left when the flame is consumed. Thus the reader is subtly prepared for the black winds, nigris ... ventis (7), of the second stanza, even though the connection is not totally logical. Pyrrha first seems to be like flame, then is shown to be a storm at sea. The transition pivots on the word play between aurea (9) and aurae (11).7 That golden Pyrrha is an aura fallax, a deceptive breeze, explains the storm the puer must face in the second stanza, but only in retrospect, for the pun on the words aurea and aurae only comes in the third stanza. Horace thus plays with contrasting sensations of light and dark, dry and wet, warmth and cold, as well as employing what first appear as two contradictory images of Pyrrha, first as flame and then as a storm out at sea. Horace's susceptibility to Pyrrha is reinforced by the use of complementary metaphors for his own experience (shipwreck) and Pyrrha's nature (beautiful but treacherous weather). The reader discovers one more indication in the imagery that the danger to Horace is inherent from the beginning. In using images of moisture to describe both the puer, who is perfusus liquidis ... odoribus, "bedew'd with liquid odours", in the first stanza, and the "dank and dropping weeds", uvida ... vestimenta, of Horace's own shipwreck in the last stanza, Horace links himself with the puer. The movement from "bedew'd" to "drenched" comprehends the cycle of Horace's past experience. The prediction of future disaster awaiting the puer is thus understood at the end to be equivalent to Horace's remembrance of his own past.

Miseri, quibus intemptata nites! (12-13.) As we mentioned in our opening remarks, with these words Horace echoes Catullus. And so our discussion comes full circle back to Catullus, since we are now in a position to consider the nature of Horace's poetic response. Catullus' poem begins as soliloquy (miser Catulle, 1), but slightly more than halfway through the poem Catullus directs his wretched remarks to his beloved: Vale, puella. Iam Catullus obdurat | nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam (12-13). The lovers have already broken with each other. She is neither present, nor listening to him. His farewell to her and his reproaches (scelesta, vae te! 15) thus form a kind of half-soliloquy before Catullus, after a series of increasingly unbearable questions (quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris? | quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis? 17-18) abruptly pulls himself short with the desperate: at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura! (19). With that verse his poem ends.

Horace, remembering Catullus, has questioning, followed by a reminder to himself, a pulling up short. But we have already remarked on Horace's reversal of motifs before his final withdrawal. Horace begins rather than ends with questioning, and ends rather than begins with a recognition of the lover's wretchedness. This recognition is a prelude to his withdrawal. Horace's miseri, quibus intemptata nites!, then, incorporates both the very first and the very last lines of Catullus' poem: miser Catulle, desinas ineptire ... at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura. The statement is an acknowledgment of Horace's own susceptibility to Pyrrha, and simultaneously a retreat from it. And so the miseri for whom Pyrrha shines include the puer (and other unknown but easily imagined lovers), but also Horace. Horace's statement is directed to Pyrrha, but perhaps even more to himself, in a kind of half-soliloquy reminiscent of Catullus.

Thus the word intemptata, used of Pyrrha, turns out to be ambiguous. It seems on the surface reading to apply to the puer's ignorance of Pyrrha's fickle character. But it would be as appropriate to Horace's non-experience of Pyrrha. She is intemptata to him because he has not yet had the experience of love with her. Remembered past and imagined future come together in a moment of present consciousness, and it is awareness of the present, of what it means in terms of past and future, that makes Horace miser.8 Pyrrha, not tried, shines. Horace knows full well that she shines only because she is intemptata. But he cannot help feeling her shining, and that disturbing awareness is what prompts the poem.

We are not quite ready to leave Catullus aside, but must make some remarks on the significance of the Catullan reminiscence in this particular ode. Santirocco (following previous scholars) has observed that the Pyrrha ode signals the beginning of Horace's erotic odes, while Ode 3.26 (vixi puellis nuper idoneus) announces Horace's retirement from erotic lyric in similar terms. In that ode, Horace says that he intends to dedicate his weapons and lyre in the temple of Venus of the sea. Ode 1.5 is the fifth poem from the beginning of the collection, while 3.26 is the fifth poem from the end. The programmatic intention is unmistakable.9 We may now put this together with what we have observed about Horace's response to Catullus. Horace intends to write erotic poetry following a program different from that of Catullus. What we will find in the erotic poetry of the Odes is detachment and emotional elusiveness under a surface that is conspicuously artistic and artificial. Horace, then, inverts the relationship between emotion and art that Catullus had established in his love poems. Art is to the fore, emotion is harder to define, and more complex and ironic when we do find it.

What then of Horace's emotion in the Pyrrha ode? Is it merely amused, intellectual, unconcerned? Is Horace that dull? We have already said that the persona of this ode is neither so smug, nor so peevish, as readers are inclined to think. But neither is he so dispassionate. Horace is prompted to speak to Pyrrha because he is disturbed by desire. He knows full well that he has long since withdrawn from the disasters of love, and in the end he withdraws again. But just for the moment he cannot help speaking to Pyrrha. The ode is a beautiful and realistic recognition of the temporary uselessness of past experience in the face of Pyrrha, and the irrational nature of desire.


1. Steele Commager, The Odes of Horace. A Critical Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), pp. 144-6. (return to essay)

2. By contrast Commager (above, n. 1), p. 144, introduces his discussion of the ode with the phrase "Horace's specifically autobiographical love poems...." (return to essay)

3. Barine is, however, desirable to the youth who are growing up (adde quod pubes tibi crescit omnis, 17), as well as to the men who are already in love with her (nec priores ... tectum ... relinquunt, 18-19). This would imply that she is, if not old, at least older than the boys she attracts. The comparison of Odes 1.5 and 2.8 may be more apt than we acknowledge in this essay, and may mean that we could deconstruct our reading of the Pyrrha ode by applying the Barine ode backwards to it. Perhaps Pyrrha is after all only young in appearance, and perhaps then Horace does have in mind a past affair with her. (return to essay)

4. Older women who are losing or have lost their attractiveness in the Odes: Lydia in 1.25, Chloris in 3.15, Lyce in 4.13. (return to essay)

5. See, for example, R. G. M. Nisbet and Margaret Hubbard, A Commentary on Horace. Odes Book 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970) on mein line 13: "Emphatic and self-satisfied; Horace is not miser but ter felix." (return to essay)

6. Nisbet and Hubbard (above, n. 5) on line 3. (return to essay)

7. The pun is remarked on by Nisbet and Hubbard (above, n. 5) on line 11 and Commager (above, n. 1) pp. 66-67. (return to essay)

8. It is interesting to compare the remarks of Lowell Edmunds on time in Ode 1.9 in his From a Sabine Jar. Reading Horace, Odes 1.9 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), pp. 35-9. (return to essay)

9. Matthew S. Santirocco, Unity and Design in Horace's Odes (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 33-4, 145-6 (with n. 31 p. 209 for citations of previous scholarship). (return to essay)

Shirley Werner, sjwerner@mac.com