He honors him with the highest compliments; then treats copiously of poetry, its origin, character, and excellence.
Since you alone support so many and such weighty concerns, defend Italy with your arms, adorn it by your virtue, reform it by your laws; I should offend, O Caesar, against the public interests, if I were to trespass upon your time with a long discourse.
Romulus, and father Bacchus, and Castor and Pollux, after great achievements, received into the temples of the gods, while they were improving the world and human nature, composing fierce dissensions, settling property, building cities, lamented that the esteem which they expected was not paid in proportion to their merits. He who crushed the dire Hydra, and subdued the renowned monsters by his forefated labor, found envy was to be tamed by death [alone]. For he burns by his very splendor, whose superiority is oppressive to the arts beneath him: after his decease, he shall be had in honor. On you, while present among us, we confer mature honors, and rear altars where your name is to be sworn by; confessing that nothing equal to you has hitherto risen, or will hereafter rise. But this your people, wise and just in one point (for preferring you to our own, you to the Grecian heroes), by no means estimate other things with like proportion and measure: and disdain and detest every thing, but what they see removed from earth and already gone by; such favorers are they of antiquity, as to assert that the Muses [themselves] upon Mount Alba, dictated the twelve tables, forbidding to trangress, which the decemviri ratified; the leagues of our kings concluded with the Gabii, or the rigid Sabines; the records of the pontifices, and the ancient volumes of the augurs.
If, because the most ancient writings of the Greeks are also the best, Roman authors are to be weighed in the same scale, there is no need we should say much: there is nothing hard in the inside of an olive, nothing [hard] in the outside of a nut. We are arrived at the highest pitch of success [in arts]: we paint, and sing, and wrestle more skillfully than the annointed Greeks. If length of time makes poems better, as it does wine, I would fain know how many years will stamp a value upon writings. A writer who died a hundred years ago, is he to be reckoned among the perfect and ancient, or among the mean and modern authors? Let some fixed period exclude all dispute. He is an old and good writer who completes a hundred years. What! one that died a month or a year later, among whom is he to be ranked? Among the old poets, or among those whom both the present age and posterity will disdainfully reject? He may fairly be placed among the ancients, who is younger either by a short month only, or even by a whole year. I take the advantage of this concession, and pull away by little and little, as [if they were] the hairs of a horse’s tail: and I take away a single one and then again another single one; till, like a tumbling heap, [my adversary], who has recourse to annals and estimates excellence by the year, and admires nothing but what Libitina has made sacred, falls to the ground.
Ennius the wise, the nervous, and (as our critics say) a second Homer, seems lightly to regard what becomes of his promises and Pythagorean dreams. Is not Naevius in people’s hands, and sticking almost fresh in their memory? So sacred is every ancient poem. As often as a debate arises, whether this poet or the other be preferable; Pacuvius bears away the character of a learned, Accius, of a lofty writer; Afranius’ gown is said to have fitted Menander; Plautus, to hurry after the pattern of the Sicilian Epicharmus; Caecilius, to excel in gravity, Terence in contrivance. These mighty Rome learns by heart, and these she views crowded in her narrow theater; these she esteems and accounts her poets from Livy the writer’s age down to our time. Sometimes the populace see right; sometimes they are wrong. If they admire and extol the ancient poets so as to prefer nothing before, to compare nothing with them, they err; if they think and allow that they express some things in an obsolete, most in a stiff, many in a careless manner; they both think sensibly, and agree with me, and determine with the assent of Jove himself. Not that I bear an ill-will against Livy’s epics, and would doom them to destruction, which I remember the severe Orbilius taught me when a boy; but they should seem correct, beautiful, and very little short of perfect, this I wonder at: among which if by chance a bright expression shines forth, and if one line or two [happen to be] somewhat terse and musical, this unreasonably carries off and sells the whole poem. I am disgusted that any thing should be found fault with, not because it is a lumpish composition or inelegant, but because it is modern; and that not a favorable allowance, but honor and rewards are demanded for the old writers. Should I scruple, whether or not Atta’s drama trod the saffron and flowers in a proper manner, almost all the fathers would cry out that modesty was lost; since I attempted to find fault with those pieces which the pathetic Aesopus, which the skillful Roscius acted: either because they esteem nothing right, but what has pleased themselves; or because they think it disgraceful to submit to their juniors, and to confess, now they are old, that what they learned when young is deserving only to be destroyed. Now he who extols Numa’s Salian hymn, and would alone seem to understand that which, as well as me, he is ignorant of, does not favor and applaud the buried geniuses, but attacks ours, enviously hating us moderns and every thing of ours. Whereas if novelty had been detested by the Greeks as much as by us, what at this time would there have been ancient? Or what what would there have been for common use to read and thumb, common to every body.
When first Greece, her wars being over, began to trifle, and through prosperity to glide into folly; she glowed with the love, one while of wrestlers, another while of horses; was fond of artificers in marble, or in ivory, or in brass; hung her looks and attention upon a picture; was delighted now with musicians, now with tragedians; as if an infant girl she sported under the nurse; soon cloyed, she abandoned what [before] she earnestly desired. What is there that pleases or is odious, which you may not think mutable? This effect had happy times of peace, and favorable gales [of fortune].
At Rome it was long pleasing and customary to be up early with open doors, to expound the laws to clients; to lay out money cautiously upon good securities: to hear the elder, and to tell the younger by what means their fortunes might increase and pernicious luxury be diminished. The inconstant people have changed their mind, and glow with a universal ardor for learning: young men and grave fathers sup crowned with leaves, and dictate poetry. I myself, who affirm that I write no verses, am found more false than the Parthians: and, awake before the sun is risen, I call for my pen and papers and desk. He that is ignorant of a ship is afraid to work a ship; none but he who has learned, dares administer [even] southern wood to the sick; physicians undertake what belongs to physicians; mechanics handle tools; but we, unlearned and learned, promiscuously write poems.
Yet how great advantages this error and this slight madness has, thus compute: the poet’s mind is not easily covetous; fond of verses, he studies this alone; he laughs at losses, flights of slaves, fires; he contrives no fraud against his partner, or his young ward; he lives on husks, and brown bread; though dastardly and unfit for war, he is useful at home, if you allow this, that great things may derive assistance from small ones. The poet fashions the child’s tender and lisping mouth, and turns his ear even at this time from obscene language; afterward also he forms his heart with friendly precepts, the corrector of his rudeness, and envy, and passion; he records virtuous actions, he instructs the rising age with approved examples, he comforts the indigent and the sick. Whence should the virgin, stranger to a husband, with the chaste boys, learn the solemn prayer, had not the muse given a poet? The chorus entreats the divine aid, and finds the gods propitious; sweet in learned prayer, they implore the waters of the heavens; avert diseases, drive off impending dangers, obtain both peace and years enriched with fruits. With song the gods above are appeased, with song the gods below.
Our ancient swains, stout and happy with a little, after the grain was laid up, regaling in a festival season their bodies and even their minds, patient of hardships through the hope of their ending, with their slaves and faithful wife, the partners of their labors, atoned with a hog [the goddess] Earth, with milk Silvanus, with flowers and wine the genius that reminds us of our short life. Invented by this custom, the Femminine licentiousness poured forth its rustic taunts in alternate stanzas; and this liberty, received down through revolving years, sported pleasingly; till at length the bitter raillery began to be turned into open rage, and threatening with impunity to stalk through reputable families. They, who suffered from its bloody tooth smarted with the pain; the unhurt likewise were concerned for the common condition: further also, a law and a penalty were enacted, which forbade that any one should be stigmatized in lampoon. Through fear of the bastinado, they were reduced to the necessity of changing their manner, and of praising and delighting.
Captive Greece took captive her fierce conqueror, and introduced her arts into rude Latium. Thus flowed off the rough Saturnian numbers, and delicacy expelled the rank venom: but for a long time there remained, and at this day remain traces of rusticity. For late [the Roman writer] applied his genius to the Grecian pages; and enjoying rest after the Punic wars, began to search what useful matter Sophocles, and Thespis, and Aeschylus afforded: he tried, too, if he could with dignity translate their works; and succeeded in pleasing himself, being by nature [of a genius] sublime and strong; for he breathes a spirit tragic enough, and dares successfully; but fears a blot, and thinks it disgraceful in his writings.
Comedy is believed to require the least pains, because it fetches its subjects from common life; but the less indulgence It meets with, the more labor it requires. See how Plautus supports the character of a lover under age, how that of a covetous father, how those of a cheating pimp: how Dossennus exceeds all measure in his voracious parasites; with how loose a sock he runs over the stage: for he is glad to put the money in his pocket, after this regardless whether his play stand or fall.
Him, whom glory in her airy car has brought upon the stage, the careless spectator dispirits, the attentive renders more diligent: so slight, so small a matter it is, which overturns or raises a mind covetous of praise! Adieu the ludicrous business [of dramatic writing], if applause denied brings me back meagre, bestowed [makes me] full of flesh and spirits.
This too frequently drives away and deters even an adventurous poet? that they who are in number more, in worth and rank inferior, unlearned and foolish, and (if the equestrian order dissents) ready to fall to blows, in the midst of the play, call for either a bear or boxers; for in these the mob delight. Nay, even all the pleasures of our knights is now transferred from the ear to the uncertain eye, and their vain amusements. The curtains are kept down for four hours or more, while troops of horse and companies of foot flee over the stage: next is dragged forward the fortune of kings, with their hands bound behind them; chariots, litters, carriages, ships hurry on; captive ivory, captive Corinth, is borne along. Democritus, if he were on earth, would laugh; whether a panther a different genus confused with the camel, or a white elephant attracted the eye of the crowd. He would view the people more attentively than the sports themselves, as affording him more strange sights than the actor: and for the writers, he would think they told their story to a deaf ass. For what voices are able to overbear the din with which our theatres resound? You would think the groves of Garganus, or the Tuscan Sea, was roaring; with so great noise are viewed the shows and contrivances, and foreign riches: with which the actor being daubed over, as soon as he appears upon the stage, each right hand encounters with the left. Has he said any thing yet? Nothing at all. What then pleases? The cloth imitating [the color of] violets, with the dye of Tarentum.
And, that you may not think I enviously praise those kinds of writing which I decline undertaking, when others handle them well: that poet to me seems able to walk upon an extended rope, who with his fictions grieves my soul, enrages, soothes, fills it with false terrors, as an enchanter; and sets me now in Thebes, now in Athens.
But of those too, who had rather trust themselves with a reader, than bear the disdain of an haughty spectator, use a little care; if you would fill with books [the library you have erected], an offering worthy of Apollo, and add an incentive to the poets, that with greater eagerness they may apply to verdant Helicon.
We poets, it is true (that I may hew down my own vineyards), often do ourselves many mischiefs, when we present a work to you while thoughtful or fatigued; when we are pained, if my friend has dared to find fault with one line; when, unasked, we read over again passages already repeated: when we lament that our labors do not appear, and war poems, spun out in a fine thread: when we hope the thing will come to this, that as soon as you are apprised we are penning verses, you will kindly of yourself send for us and secure us from want, and oblige us to write. But yet it is worth while to know, who shall be the priests of your virtue signalized in war and at home, which is not to be trusted to an unworthy poet. A favorite of king Alexander the Great was that Choerilus, who to his uncouth and ill-formed verses owed the many pieces he received of Philip’s royal coin. But, as ink when touched leaves behind it a mark and a blot, so writers as it were stain shining actions with foul poetry. That same king, who prodigally bought so dear so ridiculous a poem, by an edict forbade that any one beside Apelles should paint him, or that any other than Lysippus should mold brass for the likeness of the valiant Alexander. But should you call that faculty of his, so delicate in discerning other arts, to [judge of] books and of these gifts of the muses, you would swear he had been born in the gross air of the Boeotians. Yet neither do Virgil and Varius, your beloved poets, disgrace your judgment of them, and the presents which they have received with great honor to the donor; nor do the features of illustrious men appear more lively when expressed by statues of brass, than their manners and minds expressed by the works of a poet. Nor would I rather compose such tracts as these creeping on the ground, than record deeds of arms, and the situations of countries, and rivers, and forts reared upon mountains, and barbarous kingdoms, and wars brought to a conclusion through the whole world under your auspices, and the barriers that confine Janus the guardian of peace, and Rome treaded by the Parthians under your government, if I were but able to do as much as I could wish. But neither does your majesty admit of humble poetry, nor dares my modesty attempt a subject which my strength is unable to support. Yet officiousness foolishly disgusts the person whom it loves; especially when it recommends itself by numbers, and the art [of writing]. For one learns sooner, and more willingly remembers, that which a man derides, than that which he approves and venerates. I value not the zeal that gives me uneasiness; nor do I wish to be set out any where in wax with a face formed for the worse, nor to be celebrated in ill-composed verses; lest I blush, when presented with the gross gift; and, exposed in an open box along with my author, be conveyed into the street that sells frankincense, and spices, and pepper, and whatever is wrapped up in impertinent writings.
In apologizing for not having written to him, he shows that the well-ordering of life is of more importance than the composition of verses.
O Florus, faithful friend to the good and illustrious Nero, if by chance any one should offer to sell you a boy born at Tibur and Gabii, and should treat with you in this manner; “This [boy who is] both good-natured and well-favored from head to foot, shall become and be yours for eight thousand sesterces; a domestic slave, ready in his attendance at his master’s nod; initiated in the Greek language, of a capacity for any art; you may shape out any thing with [such] moist clay; besides, he will sing in an artless manner, but yet entertaining to one drinking. Lavish promises lessen credit, when any one cries up extravagantly the wares he has for sale, which he wants to put off. No emergency obliges me [to dispose of him]: though poor, I am in nobody’s debt. None of the chapmen would do this for you; nor should every body readily receive the same favor from me. Once, [in deed,] he [loitered on an errand]; and (as it happens) absconded, being afraid of the lash that hangs in the staircase. Give me your money, if this runaway trick, which I have expected, does not offend you.” In my opinion, the man may take his price, and be secure from any punishment: you wittingly purchased a good-for-nothing boy: the condition of the contract was told you. Nevertheless you prosecute this man, and detain him in an unjust suit.
I told you, at your setting out, that I was indolent: I told you I was almost incapable of such offices: that you might not chide me in angry mood, because no letter [from me] came to hand. What then have I profited, if you nevertheless arraign the conditions that make for me? On the same score too you complain, that, being worse than my word, I do not send you the verses you expected.
A soldier of Lucullus, [having run through] a great many hardships, was robbed of his collected stock to a penny, as he lay snoring in the night quite fatigued: after this, like a ravenous wolf, equally exasperated at himself and the enemy, eager, with his hungry fangs, he beat off a royal guard from a post (as they report) very strongly fortified, and well supplied with stores. Famous on account of this exploit, he is adorned with honorable rewards, and receives twenty thousand sesterces into the bargain. It happened about this time that his officer being inclined to batter down a certain fort, began to encourage the same man, with words that might even have given courage to a coward: “Go, my brave fellow, whither your valor calls you: go with prosperous step, certain to receive ample rewards for your merit. Why do you hesitate?” Upon this, he arch, though a rustic: “He who has lost his purse, will go whither you wish,” says he.
It was my lot to have Rome for my nurse, and to be instructed [from the Iliad] how much the exasperated Achilles prejudiced the Greeks. Good Athens give me some additional learning: that is to say, to be able to distinguish a right line from a curve, and seek after truth in the groves of Academus. But the troublesome times removed me from that pleasant spot; and the tide of a civil war carried me away, unexperienced as I was, into arms, [into arms] not likely to be a match for the sinews of Augustus Caesar. Whence, as soon as [the battle of] Philippi dismissed me in an abject condition, with my wings clipped, and destitute both of house and land, daring poverty urged me on to the composition of verses: but now, having more than is wanted, what medicines would be efficacious enough to cure my madness, if I did not think it better to rest than to write verses.
The advancing years rob us of every thing: they have taken away my mirth, my gallantry, my revelings, and play: they are now proceeding to force poetry from me. What would you have me do?
In short, all persons do not love and admire the same things. Ye delight in the ode: one man is pleased with iambics; another with satires written in the manner of Bion, and virulent wit. Three guests scarcely can be found to agree, craving very different dishes with various palate. What shall I give? What shall I not give? You forbid, what another demands: what you desire, that truly is sour and disgustful to the [other] two.
Beside other [difficulties], do you think it practicable for me to write poems at Rome, amid so many solicitudes and so many fatigues? One calls me as his security, another to hear his works, all business else apart; one lives on the mount of Quirinus, the other in the extremity of the Aventine; both must be waited on. The distances between them, you see, are charmingly commodious. “But the streets are clear, so that there can be no obstacle to the thoughtful.”— A builder in heat hurries along with his mules and porters: the crane whirls aloft at one time a stone, at another a great piece of timber: the dismal funerals dispute the way with the unwieldy carriages: here runs a mad dog, there rushes a sow begrimed with mire. Go now, and meditate with yourself your harmonious verses. All the whole choir of poets love the grove, and avoid cities, due votaries to Bacchus delighting in repose and shade. Would you have me, amid so great noise both by night and day, [attempt] to sing, and trace the difficult footsteps of the poets? A genius who has chosen quiet Athens for his residence, and has devoted seven years to study, and has grown old in books and study, frequently walks forth more dumb than a statue, and shakes the people’s sides with laughter: here, in the midst of the billows and tempests of the city, can I be thought capable of connecting words likely to wake the sound of the lyre?
At Rome there was a rhetorician, brother to a lawyer: [so fond of each other were they,] that they would hear nothing but the mere praises of each other: insomuch, that the latter appeared a Gracchus to the former, the former a Mucius to the latter. Why should this frenzy affect the obstreperous poets in a less degree? I write odes, another elegies: a work wonderful to behold, and burnished by the nine muses! Observe first, with what a fastidious air, with what importance we survey the temple [of Apollo] vacant for the Roman poets. In the next place you may follow (if you are at leisure) and hear what each produces, and wherefore each weaves for himself the crown. Like Samnite gladiators in slow duel, till candle-light, we are beaten and waste out the enemy with equal blows: I came off Alcaeus, in his suffrage; he is mine, who? Why who but Callimachus? Or, if he seems to make a greater demand, he becomes Mimnermus, and grows in fame by the chosen appellation. Much do I endure in order to pacify this passionate race of poets, when I am writing; and submissive court the applause of the people; [but,] having finished my studies and recovered my senses, I the same man can now boldly stop my open ears against reciters.
Those who make bad verses are laughed at: but they are pleased in writing, and reverence themselves; and if you are silent, they, happy, fall to praising of their own accord whatever they have written. But he who desires to execute a genuine poem, will with his papers assume the spirit of an honest critic: whatever words shall have but little clearness and elegance, or shall be without weight and held unworthy of estimation, he will dare to displace: though they may recede with reluctance, and still remain in the sanctuary of Vesta: those that have been long hidden from the people he kindly will drag forth, and bring to light those expressive denominations of things that were used by the Catos and Cethegi of ancient times, though now deformed dust and neglected age presses upon them: he will adopt new words, which use, the parent [of language], shall produce: forcible and perspicuous, and bearing the utmost similitude to a limpid stream, he will pour out his treasures, and enrich Latium with a comprehensive language. The luxuriant he will lop, the too harsh he will soften with a sensible cultivation: those void of expression he will discard: he will exhibit the appearance of one at play; and will be [in his invention] on the rack, like [a dancer on the stage], who one while affects the motions of a satyr, at another of a clumsy cyclops.
I had rather be esteemed a foolish and dull writer, while my faults please myself, or at least escape my notice, than be wise and smart for it. There lived at Argos a man of no mean rank, who imagined that he was hearing some admirable tragedians, a joyful sitter and applauder in an empty theater: who [nevertheless] could support the other duties of life in a just manner; a truly honest neighbor, an amiable host, kind toward his wife, one who could pardon his slaves, nor would rave at the breaking of a bottle-seal: one who [had sense enough] to avoid a precipice, or an open well. This man, being cured at the expense and by the care of his relations, when he had expelled by the means of pure hellebore the disorder and melancholy humor, and returned to himself; “By Pollux, my friends (said he), you have destroyed, not saved me; from whom my pleasure is thus taken away, and a most agreeable delusion of mind removed by force.”
In a word, it is of the first consequence to be wise in the rejection of trifles, and leave childish play to boys for whom it is in season, and not to scan words to be set to music for the Roman harps, but [rather] to be perfectly an adept in the numbers and proportions of real life. Thus therefore I commune with myself, and ponder these things in silence: “If no quantity of water would put an end to your thirst, you would tell it to your physicians. And is there none to whom you dare confess, that the more you get the more you crave? If you had a wound which was not relieved by a plant or root prescribed to you, you would refuse being doctored with a root or plant that did no good. You have heard that vicious folly left the man, on whom the gods conferred wealth; and though you are nothing wiser, since you become richer, will you nevertheless use the same monitors as before? But could riches make you wise, could they make you less covetous and mean-spirited, you well might blush, if there lived on earth one more avaricious than yourself.”
If that be any man’s property, which he has bought by the pound and penny, [and] there be some things to which (if you give credit to the lawyers) possession gives a claim, [then] the field that feeds you is your own; and Orbius’ steward, when he harrows the corn which is soon to give you flour, finds you are [in effect] the proper master. You give your money; you receive grapes, pullets, eggs, a hogshead of strong wine: certainly in this manner you by little and little purchase that farm, for which perhaps the owner paid three hundred thousand sesterces, or more. What does it signify, whether you live on what was paid for the other day, or a long while ago? He who purchased the Aricinian and Veientine fields some time since, sups on bought vegetables, however he may think otherwise; boils his pot with bought wood at the approach of the chill evening. But he calls all that his own, as far as where the planted poplar prevents quarrels among neighbors by a determinate limitation: as if anything were a man’s property, which in a moment of the fleeting hour, now by solicitations, now by sale, now by violence, and now by the supreme lot [of all men], may change masters and come into another’s jurisdiction. Thus since the perpetual possession is given to none, and one man’s heir urges on another’s, as wave impels wave, of what importance are houses, or granaries; or what the Lucanian pastures joined to the Calabrian; if Hades, inexorable to gold, mows down the great together with the small?
Gems, marble, ivory, Tuscan statues, pictures, silver-plate, robes dyed with Getulian purple, there are who can not acquire; and there are others, who are not solicitous of acquiring. Of two brothers, why one prefers lounging, play, and perfume, to Herod’s rich palm-tree groves; why the other, rich and uneasy, from the rising of the light to the evening shade, subdues his woodland with fire and steel: our attendant genius knows, who governs the planet of our nativity, the divinity [that presides] over human nature, who dies with each individual, of various complexion, white and black.
I will use, and take out from my moderate stock, as much as my exigence demands: nor will I be under any apprehensions what opinion my heir shall hold concerning me, when he shall, find [I have left him] no more than I had given me. And yet I, the same man, shall be inclined to know how far an open and cheerful person differs from a debauchee, and how greatly the economist differs from the miser. For there is some distinction whether you throw away your money in a prodigal manner, or make an entertainment without grudging, nor toil to accumulate more; or rather, as formerly in Minerva’s holidays, when a school-boy, enjoys by starts the short and pleasant vacation.
Let sordid poverty be far away. I, whether borne in a large or small vessel, let me be borne uniform and the same. I am not wafted with swelling sail before the north wind blowing fair: yet I do not bear my course of life against the adverse south. In force, genius, figure, virtue, station, estate, the last of the first-rate, [yet] still before those of the last.
You are not covetous, [you say]:— go to. — What then? Have the rest of your vices fled from you, together with this? Is your breast free from vain ambition? Is it free from the fear of death and from anger? Can you laugh at dreams, magic terrors, wonders, witches, nocturnal goblins, and Thessalian prodigies? Do you number your birth-days with a grateful mind? Are you forgiving to your friends? Do you grow milder and better as old age approaches? What profits you only one thorn eradicated out of many? If you do not know how to live in a right manner, make way for those that do. You have played enough, eaten and drunk enough, it is time for you to walk off: lest having tippled too plentifully, that age which plays the wanton with more propriety, and drive you [off the stage].
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55