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Horace, satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’

Horace, satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’

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Translation and authority in Poetaster

Poetaster Act III, scene five, the dramatisation of Horace, Satires II.1.

Although often remarked upon, it has generally been condemned dramatically.29 But this strikingly close translation, in a play riven with translation and adaption, is very far from being ‘transparent’. Several critics

have noted the expansion of line 100, where Jonson glosses the Latin

‘scribam’ (‘I shall write’, Satires II.1.60) as ‘I will write satires still, in

spite of fear’; but this is in fact just one of a collection of alterations or

expansions of the Latin text which here, as so often, serves to intensify in

Jonson’s version the threat in Trebatius’ words.

Satires II.1 is a programmatic poem that sets out many of the themes

to unfold in Horace’s second book of satires. Its theme of the conflict

between the ‘laws’ invoked by Trebatius, the establishment lawyer, and

the poetic ‘laws’ cited by Horace reflects the legal and poetic themes of

Poetaster. Frances Muecke describes how Horace’s poem ‘dramatises the

independence of literature and the law as ‘genres’ or ‘verbal systems’.30 In

Poetaster, Jonson stages a fantasy of the poet’s attainment of legal power.

Satires II.1 is also, and significantly, a key text for Horace’s (and, by adoption, Jonson’s) recusatio, and Jonson’s version does not tone down this

aspect of the poem; if anything, it is heightened.31 In fact, Cain reads the

translations of Virgilian epic and Ovidian elegy incorporated in the play

as a form of (Horatian) recusatio.32 Although he does not go on to follow

up this perceptive remark, and nor does he relate this ‘large-scale’ recusatio

to the inclusion of III.5 itself, his comment points the way to much of

what I hope to draw out.

The conventional recusatio of Satires II.1 is set up in lines 10–12 by

Trebatius’ suggestion:€ ‘aude / Caesaris invicti res dicere, multa laborum / praemia laturus’ (‘Dare / to tell the deeds of unconquered Caesar;

‘As a contribution to literature, as an excursus on the theory of satire, as an exercise in translation, the scene possesses distinct interest. But coming as part of the dramatic continuum of

Poetaster it forms a most ill-fitting and unwelcome intrusion’ (Jonas A. Barish, ‘Jonson and the

Loathèd Stage’, in William Blissett, Julian Patrick and R. W. van Fossen (eds.), A Celebration of

Ben Jonson:€Papers Presented at the University of Toronto in October 1972 (University of Toronto

Press, 1973), pp. 27–53 (p. 34)).


Frances Muecke (ed.), Horace:€Satires II (Warminster:€Aris and Phillips, 1993), p. 100.


On the recusatio of lines 10–20 see Muecke, Satires II, pp. 99–104. Muecke points out that this

early example of an Augustan recusatio incorporates all the stock features of the topos (p. 103).

This trope of self-deprecating refusal lies at the heart of the delicate negotiations between poet

and patron in Augustan verse.


‘Jonson offers an example of Virgilian epic in Poetaster, as he does an Ovidian love scene:€in both

cases, though, he is continuing to imitate Horace, who developed the recusatio, the poem which

in refusing to adopt a certain style actually exemplifies that style, as a way of coming to terms

with the limitations he imposed on his own poetic range’ (T. Cain (ed.), Poetaster, p. 12). Cain

understates the political significance of the recusatio in Augustan literature.


Horace, Satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’


you’ll carry off / many prizes for your labours’). Lines 16–36 of Jonson’s



Horace’s reply and the ensuing exchange€– are at several points

substantially expanded versions of the Latin text, although critics have not

remarked upon this. Here Jonson translates ten lines of Latin hexameter in

twenty lines of English verse. That portion of the scene runs as follows:

[T r e b at i u s.] Or, if such love of writing ravish thee,

â•…â•… Then dare to sing unconquered Caesar’s deeds,

â•…â•… Who cheers such actions with abundant meeds.

Hor ac e . That, father, I desire; but when I try

â•…â•…I feel defects in every faculty;

â•…â•…Nor is’t a labour fit for every pen

â•…â•…To paint the horrid troops of armèd men,

â•…â•… The lances burst in Gallia’s slaughtered forces,

â•…â•…Or wounded Parthians tumbled from their horses:

â•…â•… Great Caesar’s wars cannot be fought with words.

T r e b at i u s. Yet what his virtue in his peace affords,

â•…â•… His fortitude and justice, thou canst show,

â•…â•…As wise Lucilius honoured Scipio.

Hor ac e . Of that my powers shall suffer no neglect,

â•…â•… When such slight labours may aspire respect;

â•…â•… But if I watch not a most chosen time,

â•…â•… The humble words of Flaccus cannot climb

â•…â•… Th’ attentive ear of Caesar. Nor must I

â•…â•… With less observance shun gross flattery,

â•…â•… For he, reposèd safe in his own merit,

â•…â•…Spurns back the glozes of a fawning spirit.






[T r e b at i u s] aut si tantus amor scribendi te rapit, aude

â•…â•…Caesaris invicti res dicere, multa laborum

â•…â•… praemia laturus.

Hor ac e :╅╅╅╇╅ cupidum, pater optime, vires

╅╅ deficiunt:€neque enim quivis horrentia pilis

â•…â•… agmina nec fracta pereuntis cuspide Gallos

â•…â•… aut labentis equo describat vulnera Parthi.

T r e b at i u s: €attamen et iustum poteras et scribere fortem,

â•…â•…Scipiadam ut sapiens Lucilius.

Hor ac e :â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•… haud mihi deero,

╅╅ cum res ipsa feret:€nisi dextro tempore, Flacci

â•…â•… verba per attentam non ibunt Caesaris aurem,

â•…â•… cui male si palpere recalcitrat undique tutus.




(Satires II.1.10–20)33

In quotations from Satires II.1 I have added character names to the text in the interests of clarity.



Translation and authority in Poetaster

The first of these additions comes at line 25 of the English text. After the

conventional brief demonstration of the epic skill the poet claims not to

possess, Jonson’s Horace adds:€‘Great Caesar’s wars cannot be fought with

words.’ The line bears no relation to any part of the Latin text. Moreover,

it adds a surprising edge to the standard recusatio-formula, which depends

upon claiming, rather, that Caesar’s wars cannot be fought with my words

(although actually, it is implied, I could if I wanted to). Jonson here is

typically deft and sure-footed in his negotiation of the classical trope,

but cannot resist going one (blunter) stage further. In the weakest sense,

the additional line facilely claims that words cannot fight a war for us.

But there remains, beneath the surface, the suggestion of another meaning:€that words€– poetry€– cannot be used to do this specific thing; that is,

fight Caesar’s wars:€write imperial epic.

The sense of confrontation between the poet’s literary power and the

emperor’s demands is heightened by the tendency of Jonson’s translation

to limit the dissonance between legal and literary vocabulary which is a

feature of the Latin poem. Conversely, it writes into the text an insistence

on the poet’s power and authority more pointed than the Latin original.

In the opening lines of the scene, the Latin term ‘legem’ has an ambiguous force, oscillating between legal and aesthetic ‘law’:

Sunt quibus in satira videar nimis acer et ultra

legem tendere opus; sine nervis altera quidquid

composui pars esse putat, similisque meorum

mille die versus deduci posse. Trebati,

quid faciam praescribe.

(Satires II.1.1–5)

[horace:] There are some who think that I am too savage in my satire

â•…â•… and strain the work beyond lawful limits. The other party hold that


â•…â•… I’ve composed is cowardly, lacks nerve, and that verses similar to mine

â•…â•… could be churned out at a thousand a day. Trebatius,

â•…â•… what am I to do? Give me your professional advice.

Hor ac e . There are, to whom I seem excessive sour,

â•…â•…And past a satire’s law t’ extend my power:

â•…â•…Others that think whatever I have writ

â•…â•… Wants pith and matter to eternise it,

â•…â•…And that they could in one day’s light disclose

â•…â•…A thousand verses such as I compose.


The ambiguity of ‘legem’ is lost in Jonson’s version, in which the meaning is

more clearly literary:€‘And past a satire’s law t’ extend my power’ (2). On the

Horace, Satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’


other hand, his translation of â•›‘opus’ (the standard word for a literary work) as

‘power’ suggests that the poet has failed to limit his ‘power’ as is proper in a

lowly genre. The following two lines (3–4) present the opposite literary vice€–

poetry that lacks nerve and ambition. Jonson translates that latter weakness

as poetry which fails to ‘eternise’ itself. There is no term corresponding to

‘eternise’ in the Latin text. Just as in the original, Jonson’s Horace is incapable of winning the argument€– because either raising or lowering his tone

will be criticised€– but the terms in which his ‘not winning’ are framed have

been crucially altered. Rather than a quibble between literary and legal ‘law’,

the reader is encouraged to think in terms of the poet’s capacity (‘power’) to

immortalise, and his proper deployment of that potential.

Something rather similar is in operation at the end of the scene. The

scale of Jonson’s expansion of the Latin is greater here than at any other

point in the poem:€ the last four lines of Horace’s poem become ten

(130–40). The expansion has accordingly been noted by various commentators and several interpretations have been attributed to it.34 As well as

being expanded, the momentum of the final lines is slightly altered in the

English version:€the suggestion of complete pardon is transferred from the

poet and onto the lawyer Trebatius, increasing its authority. In Horace’s

poem, the speaker ‘Horace’ suggests two possible and distinct ways out,

after conceding that the author of ‘mala … carmina’ (‘wicked verses’, 82)

would be rightfully persecuted:

T r e b at i u s:€si mala condiderit in quem quis carmina, ius est

â•…â•… iudiciumque.

Hor ac e :â•…â•… esto, si quis mala; sed bona si quis

â•…â•… iudice condiderit laudatus Caesare? si quis

â•…â•… opprobriis dignum latraverit, integer ipse?

T r e b at i u s: solventur risu tabulae, tu missus abibis.

(Satires II.1.82–6)

T r e b at i u s:€If a man writes bad [of poor quality; or libellous] verses

â•…â•… against another, he is liable to law and prosecution.

Horace:€Certainly, if they’re bad verses; but what if he’s made good

â•…â•… ones, and been praised for them in Caesar’s judgement? If he’s

â•…â•… barked at someone who’s deserving of blame, while he himself is

â•…â•… innocent?

T r e b at i u s:€Then the case will be dismissed with a laugh, and you’ ll

â•…â•… get away with it and be sent on your way.


Tom Cain notes the expansion and remarks that it emphasises ‘the probity and privilege of the

Horatian satirist’ ((ed.), Poetaster, p. 163). Burrow reads it as part of a wider pattern demonstrating that ‘Jonson wants to tap the security offered by Horace and Horatian satire, but his imitation is overshadowed by unease’ (‘Roman Satire in the Sixteenth Century’, p. 256). I explore an

aspect of this ‘unease’ below.


Translation and authority in Poetaster

Horace’s first suggestion is that he might rather be a good poet and

Â�(crucially) be praised as such by Caesar (83–4); secondarily, and sepÂ�arately,

he might indeed ‘bark’ (‘latraverit’)€– that is, indulge in the harsh criticism

appropriate to a satirist€– but might do so justly at one deserving reproof,

when he himself is free from blame (‘integer ipse’, 85). Jonson’s version

transfers the detail of ‘opprobriis dignum’ (‘deserving of reproach’, 85) to

Trebatius’ speech, but essentially has Trebatius reiterate and affirm what

Horace has already suggested:

[T r e b at i u s.] There’s justice, and great action may be sued

â•…â•… ’Gainst such as wrong men’s fames with verses lewd.

Hor ac e . Ay, with lewd verses, such as libels be,


â•…â•…And aimed at persons of good quality.

â•…â•…I reverence and adore that just decree;

â•…â•… But if they shall be sharp yet modest rhymes,

â•…â•… That spare men’s persons and but tax their crimes,

â•…â•…Such shall in open court find current pass,


â•…â•… Were Caesar judge, and with the maker’s grace.

T r e b at i u s. Nay, I’ll add more:€if thou thyself, being clear,

â•…â•…Shalt tax in person a man fit to bear

â•…â•…Shame and reproach, his suit shall quickly be

â•…â•…Dissolved in laughter, and thou thence set free. [Exeunt] 140

(Poetaster, III.5.128–40)35

In fact, throughout Horace’s speech (130–6) Jonson’s language interprets

the Latin in a very particular way. The joke with which the Latin poem

concludes turns upon the reading of ‘mala … carmina’ and ‘bona [carmina]’, and is once again€ – as in the opening lines€ – dependent upon

the comical overlap between two professional vocabularies. A ‘malum

carmen’ in this context is legal jargon for libel, whereas Horace’s term,

by contrast, is an aesthetic judgement. Jonson’s version avoids translating ‘bona’ entirely, replacing it with the adaption of Martial noted above.

He has elided too the changing force of Horace’s ‘Caesare’ (84):€a Caesar

who acts as judge (‘iudice’, 84, suggesting a courtroom setting), but who

is apparently judge of an author he has already praised (‘laudatus’, 84), a

rather unlikely legal scenario. In the Latin, ‘laudatus Caesare’ undoes in

a single word the menace that Trebatius has not quite articulated:€Horace

can voice the threat (that the judge we mean, the one we fear, is actually

These lines also include an imported fragment translated from Martial. Horace’s phrase ‘sed

bona’ (83) becomes ‘But if they shall be sharp yet modest rhymes, / That spare men’s persons and

but tax their crimes’ (133–4), derived from Martial 10.33.9–10. This is a favourite Jonsonian passage, and its relevance here is obvious.


Horace, Satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’


Caesar (‘iudice … Caesare’)) only because it is neutralised even as it is

voiced, by that assured and assuring ‘laudatus’.

Jonson’s reading of this crucial line is perhaps the most enigmatic of

the whole scene. In his re-division of the Latin material between Horace

and Trebatius, the translation of this line becomes Horace’s final comment:€‘Such shall in open court find current pass, / Were Caesar judge,

and with the maker’s grace’ (135–6). That adjectival ‘laudatus’, so carefully placed and reassuring in the Latin, has been transmuted into the

strange phrase ‘and with the maker’s grace’ with which this Horace ends

his speech. Both ‘maker’ and ‘grace’ are resonant words in Jonson’s private lexicon. On several occasions he plays upon the etymological origin

of ‘poetry’ (‘poiesis’) in the Greek verb for ‘make’, and his use of the term

‘grace’ typically responds to the range of meaning incorporated in the

Latin term ‘gratia’ (thanks, blessing and payment, with a further hint of

its theological connotations). ‘Maker’ suggests the poet himself, but, especially in combination with the term ‘grace’, it carries too a religious overtone:€in this version of the poem, the last word on the decision goes not

to Caesar, but, depending on our reading, either to the poet himself, with

the help of ‘grace’ (‘integer’, perhaps?) or even to the ultimate Maker, the

only power greater even than Caesar’s.

On one level, this shift in tone and emphasis away from the legalism of

Horace’s satire serves a simple dramatic purpose:€the legalistic word-play

of the Latin version is less relevant to the narrative, while the double affirm�

ation, by poet and lawyer alike, of the justice of deserved reproach is an

appropriate preparation for the denouement of the play. The important

distinction between Crispinus’ charges against Horace, and Horace and

Virgil’s denunciation of Crispinus, is the moral status of the characters

involved. Crispinus is envious; Horace and Virgil paradigmatically virtuous. The importance of this moral distinction is cast into greater relief by

the unsettling similarity between the content of Crispinus’ envious accusÂ�

ations€– that ‘Horace’ is guilty of translating€– and the actual experience

of the play as a work which is, as we have seen, charged with, and structured around, translated material. But the role played by this scene€– and

in particular by its divergence from its model€– is not limited to this kind

of structural and thematic endorsement. The other major locus of disjunction between Jonson’s text and Horace’s importantly centres around

Caesar, and the poet’s relationship to him.

At line 16 of Satires II.1 Trebatius responds to Horace’s refusal to write

military epic with a straight-faced suggestion that he could still praise

Caesar’s virtues:€ ‘But [even if you can’t write effective military epic]


Translation and authority in Poetaster

you could write of [Caesar] himself, both just and courageous, as wise

Lucilius wrote of Scipio’ (16–17). Jonson’s version expands the line to

emphasise more clearly the distinction between the options; they have

become specifically peace-time virtues in contrast to the martial themes

of epic:€ ‘Yet what his virtue in his peace affords, / His fortitude and

justice, thou canst show, / As wise Lucilius honoured Scipio’ (Poetaster

III.5.26–8, italics mine). Horace’s reply to this suggestion is, in the Latin,

a dextrous sidestep:€‘Indeed I shall not fail myself, / When the material is

available’ (17–18). Apparently a form of courteous agreement, it is, however, not clear what ‘not failing oneself’ might amount to; nor indeed

can we be sure that such material will ever present itself. Jonson’s Horace

replies:€‘Of that my powers shall suffer no neglect, / When such slight

labours may aspire respect’ (29–30). ‘Slight labours’ has no correspondence in the Latin. On the one hand, the poet celebrates the thought that

such a pleasant and therefore un-arduous (‘slight’) task might be enough

to gain him high favour. But there is more than a hint here that any

attempt to write about Caesar’s peaceful virtue might find itself rather

short of material.

Caesar’s greatness at III.5.25 (‘Great Caesar’s wars’) is moreover echoed

ominously at line 102 where, although not a complete interpolation,

Jonson again expands upon the Latin. Satires II.1.57–62 forms the climax

of the satire:€the point at which Horace declares most clearly that he will

continue to write (57–60) and Trebatius makes the threat to the headstrong poet most explicit (60–2):

[Hor ac e :] dives, inops, Romae seu fors ita iusserit exsul,

â•…â•… quisquis erit vitae scribam color.

T r e b at i u s: ╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╇ o puer, ut sis

â•…â•… vitalis metuo, et maiorum ne quis amicus

â•…â•… frigore te feriat.

(Satires II.1.59–62)

[Hor ac e :] Whether rich, poor, at Rome or, if chance commands, as

â•…â•… an exile€– whatever the colour of my life shall be, I will write.

T r e b at i u s:€╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅╅ Child, I’m afraid

â•…â•… that your life will be short, and that some friend of the powerful

â•…â•… will strike you with a chill.

In the lines that follow, Trebatius’ threat is progressively obscured by

Horace’s rehearsal of constructive satire, of which the powerful Scipio and

Laelius actually approved, followed by Trebatius’ final amused concession, discussed above. Trebatius’ wording at this central point is carefully

Horace, Satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’


vague:€‘maiorum ne quis amicus’ (‘some friend of the powerful’, 61) and

Jonson’s version is equally non-specific:€‘And that some great man’s friend

will be thy death’ (III.5.102). Nevertheless, the replacement of the plural

(‘maiorum’€– a friend of those more important than you) with the singular ‘some great man’s friend’, and the echo of the earlier phrase ‘great

Caesar’ adds a threatening edge:€there is a suggestion that the ‘great man’

in question may be Caesar himself.

Alan Sinfield, writing of Virgil’s defence of Horace in Act V, comments

that that speech ‘effaces what actually makes malicious interpretations so

crucial:€the regime of state terror that depends upon a system of informers and arbitrary penalties’.36 The shadow of that threat€– the non-specific

‘frigor’ the satiric poet risks at the hands of ‘some great man’s friend’€– is

visible in Horace’s encounter with Trebatius in III.5. Sinfield is right to

point out that the same looming presence is discernible, too, in the terms

of Horace’s response at Poetaster V.3.57–63:

A just man cannot fear, thou foolish tribune,

Not though the malice of traducing tongues,

The open vastness of a tyrant’s ear,

The senseless rigour of the wrested laws,

Or the red eyes of strained authority,

Should, in a point, meet all to take his life.

His innocence is armour ’gainst all these.


But the link is more than just thematic. Connecting these sections is a

powerful allusive association, traceable, too, elsewhere in the play. The

lines cited above are identified by Herford and Simpson as alluding

to Horace, Odes III.3.1–8, and the parallel structure (although not the

details) of the two passages is clear enough.37 The mention of ‘traducing

tongues’ (one thinks of Lupus) and of the ‘senseless rigour of the wrested

laws’ (Trebatius comes to mind) are appropriate to the plot as it has so far

unfolded. But the ‘open vastness of a tyrant’s ear’ is reminiscent, too, of

Caesar’s ‘attentam … aurem’, his ‘pricked’ or ‘alert’ ear at Satires II.1.19.

The combination of this image of Caesar’s expectant attention with

examples of verbal dishonesty€– whether malice or flattery€– is one which

recurs uncomfortably throughout the play.

Sinfield, ‘Perils of Cultural Production’, 9.

Odes III.3.1–8:€‘Neither the passion of a populace clamouring for wicked deeds, nor the expression of a threatening tyrant, can shake a man who is just and tenacious of his purpose, whose

resolve is firm€ – nor even the south wind, the stormy general of the restless Adriatic, nor the

mighty hand of Jove the thunderer. If the world cracks and collapses, the ruins will fall down

upon him unafraid.’




Translation and authority in Poetaster

In this regard, it is worth returning to Poetaster III.5, and to Jonson’s

version of the Latin lines in question, which once again offer a substantial

expansion upon the original:

But if I watch not a most chosen time,

The humble words of Flaccus cannot climb

Th’ attentive ear of Caesar. Nor must I

With less observance shun gross flattery,

For he, reposèd safe in his own merit,

Spurns back the glozes of a fawning spirit.

â•…â•…â•…â•…â•…â•… nisi dextro tempore, Flacci

verba per attentam non ibunt Caesaris aurem,

cui male si palpere recalcitrat undique tutus.


(Satires II.1.18–20)

Unless it’s the right moment, Flaccus’

words won’t reach Caesar’s pricked ear,

and if you stroke him clumsily, he’ll kick out all around to keep himself safe

[or:€even though he’s already safe].

The simple ‘tutus’ of the Latin (20) has been expanded into:€‘reposèd safe

in his own merit’ (35). Both versions carry an ironic force, though the

irony is working differently. The final word of line 20, Horace’s ‘tutus’

fatally undermines the already uncomfortably irreverent image of Caesar

built up in the preceding line€– a Caesar who must be properly ‘stroked’

(‘palpere’, 20), since the wrong handling will cause him to ‘kick out all

around’ (‘recalcitret undique’, 20). The wary language of horse-breaking€–

and the implied necessity of flattery (‘stroking’) under the guise of careful

handling€– is surprising; but that final ‘tutus’ reveals Caesar’s swiftness to

anger as paranoia:€all the time he is perfectly ‘safe’.38

The ambiguous heart of the passage comes at lines 33–4 of the English,

in which the double negatives and tortuous circumlocution leave Jonson’s

meaning poised uncertainly between opposite extremes. ‘With less obserÂ�

vance’ is an adverbial clause meant to be taken with ‘shun’:€Jonson’s Horace

is saying ‘I must not shun gross flattery with any less care than I give to

waiting for the best time’, that is, I must be very careful to avoid gross flattery. But the sentence teeters upon the verge of saying:€‘I must not (‘nor

must I’) be so careless as to shun gross flattery’€– that is, I must assiduously

continue to flatter. With that hidden meaning present, if just out of sight,

The final position of the nominative adjective ‘tutus’ admits of either a proleptic reading (‘to

keep himself safe’) or a concessive one (‘although he is safe’).


Horace, Satires II.1 and Caesar’s ‘attentive ear’


the flattery of ‘reposèd safe in his own merit’, and the explicit mention of

the ‘fawning spirit’ in the final lines acquire an added ironic edge.

A similar juxtaposition of the prince’s ‘safety’ and the receptivity of his

‘ear’ is found in Act IV. Maecenas caps Horace’s condemnation of Lupus

with a pronouncement (pointed as gnomic in the folio text) which uneasily suggests that his own trust in Caesar’s judgement is not absolute€ –

note the ‘I hope’ (27):

M a ecena s. Caesar doth know it [Horace’s condemnation of Lupus],

wolf, and to his knowledge,

â•…â•… He will, I hope, reward your base endeavours.

â•…â•… Princes that will but hear, or give access

â•…â•…To such officious spies, can ne’er be safe:

â•…â•… They take in poison with an open ear,

â•…â•…And, free from danger, become slaves to fear.


Maecenas makes clear that the ‘safety’ of the over-suspicious prince is no

real security, and the acuity of his remark is revealed in the final engagement with this topos towards the end of the play. At the climactic moment

of betrayal in Act V Caesar’s response to Lupus’ interruption similarly

engages with this Latin passage:

C a e s a r . What noise is there? Who’s that names Caesar?


L u p u s. A friend to Caesar. One that for Caesar’s good would

speak with Caesar.

C a e s a r . [To Gallus] Who is’t? Look, Cornelius.

I E qu e s. [To Caesar] Asinius Lupus.

C a e s a r . O, bid the turbulent informer hence.


â•…â•… We have no vacant ear now to receive

â•…â•… The unseasoned fruits of his officious tongue.

M a e c e n a s. [To I Eques] You must avoid him there.

L u p u s. I conjure thee, as thou art Caesar, or respect’st thine

â•…â•… own safety, or the safety of the state, Caesar, hear me,


â•…â•… speak with me, Caesar; ’tis no common business I come

â•…â•… about, but such as being neglected may concern the life of


C a e s a r . The life of Caesar? Let him enter. Virgil, keep thy seat.


In the lines preceding this, Horace accuses Lupus of ‘pretending / To be the props and columns

of his [Caesar’s] safety, / The guards unto his person and his peace’ (IV.8.21–3). The power of this

accusation is enhanced by its allusion to several instances of the historical Horace’s tribute to

Maecenas, as protector both of himself (Odes II.17.3–4, ‘columen’; Odes I.1.2, ‘praesidium’) and,

significantly, of Caesar (Epodes 1.1–4). The allusive resonance helps to reinforce the significance

of Maecenas’ closing remarks.



Translation and authority in Poetaster

Tellingly, it is Lupus’ appeal to Caesar’s life and safety (‘thine own safety’,

19–20) which makes Caesar change his mind (‘The life of Caesar? Let

him enter’, 24). For all his apparently enthralled attention to the description of the wicked ‘fama’ (rumour), in the reading of Virgil, Aeneid IV

that immediately precedes this scene, Caesar is slow to recognise the personification of that monster when it intrudes into his own court. Caesar’s

failure here is one of judgement, but it is also specifically (and ominously)

a failure of that particular kind of combined aesthetic and moral discernment which would allow him to see the connection between the literature

he admires and the political realities of the court.

In this network of parallels, the play connects Caesar’s susceptibility to

flattery€– one kind of verbal deceit, hung upon Caesar’s ear at Satires II.1€–

with an equally dangerous readiness to listen to malicious lies. Although

Caesar does finally dismiss and condemn Lupus, and clear Horace, this

pattern of doubts about the possible dangers of (epic) flattery as well as the

base malice of the inept poetaster continue to speak throughout the final

scenes. We can never quite trust Caesar, because he remains this Caesar,

the Caesar of the ‘attentam … aurem’, the pricked ear, ready for all his

safety to ‘kick out all around’ if not handled quite carefully enough.

We have seen, then, the extent to which Poetaster is structured around

‘translation’ understood in its broadest sense:€not only the most explicit

passages taken from Ovid and Virgil, but rather a myriad details of plot,

dialogue or song, as well as whole scenes, are defined by their relationship to other texts. Repeatedly, the most structurally significant texts€–

the ones from which the action takes its lead€ – are Horace’s Satires; as

has been shown, the characters ‘participate in’, in some sense act out, the

content of these poems throughout the play. Ironically, it is the character

‘Horace’ who is accused€– and acquitted€– of ‘translation’ which amounts

to stealing. The overall impression of ‘Horace’ as guiding author is powerful; an author, moreover, authoritative enough to incorporate examples of

genres outside his own (Virgil and his epic; Ovid’s elegy).

The fact of this structural primacy, once its extent is realised, sets even

the final scenes of Caesar’s (and the other poets’) endorsement of Virgil

within an overarching Horatianism. But if our confidence in Caesar’s

ability to distinguish between flattery and sincerity, malicious informing and real loyalty, is thereby impaired, the final scenes do still seem to

express Caesar’s respect for, and excellent taste in, poetry and the power

of the poet€ – especially the epic poet Virgil. Given Jonson’s consistent

tendency to associate ethical goodness with aesthetic excellence or good

taste, this too deserves further scrutiny.

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