Works, by Lucian

A Word with Hesiod

Lycinus. Hesiod

Ly. As to your being a first-rate poet, Hesiod, we do not doubt that, any more than we doubt your having received the gift from the Muses, together with that laurel-branch; it is sufficiently proved by the noble inspiration that breathes in every line of your works. But there is one point on which we may be excused for feeling some perplexity. You begin by telling us that your divine gifts were bestowed upon you by Heaven in order that you might sing of the glories that have been, and tell of that which is to come. Well, now, one half of your duties you have admirably performed. You have traced back the genealogy of the Gods to Chaos and Ge and Uranus and Eros; you have specified the feminine virtues; and you have given advice to the farmer, adding complete information with reference to the Pleiads, the seasons suitable for ploughing, reaping, and sailing — and I know not what besides. But that far diviner gift, which would have been of so much more practical utility to your readers, you do not exercise at all: the soothsaying department is entirely overlooked. We find no parallel in your poems to those prophetic utterances which Calchas, and Telemus, and Polyidus, and Phineus — persons less favoured by the Muses than yourself — were wont to dispense freely to all applicants. Now in these circumstances, you must plead guilty to one of three charges. Either the alleged promise of the Muses to disclose the future to you was never given, and you are — excuse the expression — a liar: or it was given, and fulfilled, but you, niggard, have quietly pocketed the information, and refuse to impart it to them that have need: or, thirdly, you have composed a number of prophetic works, but have not yet given them to the world; they are reserved for some more suitable occasion. I do not presume to suggest, as a fourth possibility, that the Muses have only fulfilled half of their promise, and revoked the other — which, observe, is recorded first in your poem. Now, if you will not enlighten me on this subject, who can? As the Gods are ‘givers of good,’ so you, their friends and pupils, should impart your knowledge frankly, and set our doubts at rest.

Hes. My poor friend, there is one very simple answer to all your questions: I might tell you that not one of my poems is my own work; all is the Muses’, and to them I might refer you for all that has been said and left unsaid. For what came of my own knowledge, of pasturage, of milking, of driving afield, and all that belongs to the herdsman’s art, I may fairly be held responsible: but for the Goddesses — they give whatso they will to whom they will. — Apart from this, however, I have the usual poet’s apology. The poet, I conceive, is not to be called to account in this minute fashion, syllable by syllable. If in the fervour of composition a word slip in unawares, search not too narrowly; remember that with us metre and euphony have much to answer for; and then there are certain amplifications — certain elegances — that insinuate themselves into a verse, one scarce knows how. Sir, you would rob us of our highest prerogative, our freedom, our unfettered movement. Blind to the flowers of poetry, you are intent upon its thorns, upon those little flaws that give a handle to malicious criticism. But there! you are not the only offender, nor I the only victim: in the trivial defects of Homer, my fellow craftsman, many a carping spirit has found material for similar hair-splitting disquisitions. — Come, now, I will meet my accuser on fair ground, face to 6 face. Read, fellow, in my Works and Days: mark the inspired prophecies there set forth: the doom foretold to the negligent, the success promised to him that labours aright and in due season.

One basket shall suffice to store thy grain,

And men shall not regard thee.

Could there be a more timely warning, balanced as it is by the prospect of abundance held out to him that follows the true method of agriculture?

Ly. Admirable; and spoken like a true herdsman. There is no doubting the divine afflatus after that: left to yourself, you cannot so much as defend your own poems. At the same time, this is not quite the sort of thing we expect of Hesiod and the Muses combined. You see, in this particular branch of prophecy, you are quite outclassed by the farmers: they are perfectly qualified to inform us that if the rain comes there will be a heavy crop, and that a drought, on the other hand, will inevitably be followed by scarcity; that midsummer is not a good time to begin ploughing if you wish your seed to do anything, and that you will find no grain in the ear if you reap it when it is green. Nor do we want a prophet to tell us that the sower must be followed by a labourer armed with a spade, to cover up the seed; otherwise, the birds will come and consume his prospective harvest. Call these useful suggestions, if you like: but they are very far from my idea of prophecy. I expect a prophet to penetrate into secrets wholly hidden from our eyes: the prophet informs Minos that he will find his son drowned in a jar of honey; he explains to the Achaeans the cause of Apollo’s resentment; he specifies the precise year in which Troy will be captured. That is prophecy. But if the term is to be so extended, then I shall be glad to have my own claims recognized without loss of time. I undertake, without the assistance of Castalian waters, laurel-branches, or Delphian tripods, to foretell and prognosticate: That if a man walk out on a cold morning with nothing on, he will take a severe chill; and particularly if it happens to be raining or hailing at the time. And I further prophesy: That his chill will be accompanied by the usual fever; together with other circumstances which it would be superfluous to mention.

No, Hesiod: your defence will not do; nor will your prophecies. But I dare say there is something in what you said at first — that you knew not what you wrote, by reason of the divine afflatus versifying within you. And that afflatus was no such great matter, either: afflatuses should not promise more than they mean to perform.

F.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49