This project offers a re-examination of the relationship between love and politics in Odes 4, Horace’s final lyric collection. The fifteen poems that make up the collection are on a diverse set of topics, with love, politics, and poetics among them. I claim that the concept of desire is a thread that unifies the work. Combining the resources of psychoanalytic literary criticism and more traditional philological scholarship, I demonstrate how desire—for stability, for love, for the future—emerges systematically from slips in phonemes, thematically ambiguous language, and the consonance of love and politics. In doing so, I advocate a style of philology that is on the border of language and the unconscious.
My primary method is to focus on sounds, patterns, and rhythms as material traces of desire and as significant conveyors of meaning. These material traces of desire constitute a discourse about the contingency of subjectivity in a changing socio-political landscape. Desire is predicated upon lack or absence, which conceptually links Cinara, Ligurinus, and Augustus. Horace’s poetic practice in Odes 4 attempts to overcome the insurmountable distance between himself and these targets of his desire.
The collection also reenacts the Augustan achievement through its trajectory of confusion to order. Ultimately, Augustus is set up as the guarantor of this order not only in the world, but also in poetry. Throughout most of the collection, this order is imperfect: a threatening darkness lingers throughout the poems and suggests that everything is not as it seems. In the final poem, the perfect order that is proposed emerges through the systematic reorganization of desire itself, as the desire of the poetic and erotic subject is enveloped by the totalizing desire of Augustus.
Among many smaller observations that emerge from reading the collection through desire, two conclusions seem most significant. First, Horace’s final collection is not a scatter-shot collection of late poems, but presents a coherent trajectory under the rubric of desire. Second, despite masquerading as an idiosyncratic lyric project, Odes 4 is informed by many of the same sort of the socio-political developments that signal the rise and fall of elegy. The collection is not about an abstract experience or poetry for the sake of poetry, but about Horace’s experience in this changing world. In this world, erotic targets of desire are analogized to Augustus and his political power until, in the final poem, the diversity and energy of desire are flattened out by Augustus himself.