Horace: The Epistles
Book II: Epistle I
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved
This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.
- BkIIEpI:1-33 Introductory words to Augustus
- BkIIEpI:34-62 Rome only loves the ancient poets
- BkIIEpI:63-89 The ancients have their faults
- BkIIEpI:90-117 The craze for writing
- BkIIEpI:118-155 Poetry’s benefits and its history
- BkIIEpI:156-181 The Latin drama
- BkIIEpI:182-213 Ridiculous modern theatre
- BkIIEpI:214-244 Be a patron of the poets
- BkIIEpI:245-270 Though you are worthy of a greater poet
BkIIEpI:1-33 Introductory words to Augustus
Caesar, I would sin against the public good if I
Wasted your time with tedious chatter, since you
Bear the weight of such great affairs, guarding Italy
With armies, raising its morals, reforming its laws.
Were welcomed to the gods’ temples after great deeds,
But while they still cared for earth, and human kind
Resolved fierce wars, allocated land, founded cities,
They bemoaned the fact that the support they received
Failed to reflect their hopes or merit. Hercules crushed
The deadly Hydra, was fated to toil at killing fabled
Monsters, but found Envy only tamed by death at last.
He will dazzle with his brilliance, who eclipses talents
Lesser than his own: yet be loved when it’s extinguished.
We though will load you while here with timely honours,
Set up altars, to swear our oaths at, in your name,
Acknowledging none such has risen or will arise.
Yet this nation of yours, so wise and right in this,
In preferring you above Greek, or our own, leaders,
Judges everything else by wholly different rules
And means, despising and hating whatever it has
Not itself seen vanish from earth, and fulfil its time:
It so venerates ancient things that the Twelve Tables
Forbidding sin the Decemvirs ratified, mutual
The Pontiffs’ books, the musty scrolls of the seers,
If, because each of the oldest works of the Greeks
Is still the best, we must weigh our Roman writers
On the same scales, that doesn’t require many words:
Then there’d be no stone in an olive, shell on a nut:
We’ve achieved fortune’s crown, we paint, make music,
We wrestle, more skilfully than the oily Achaeans.
BkIIEpI:34-62 Rome only loves the ancient poets
If poems like wine improve with age, I’d like to know
How many years it takes to give a work its value.
Is a writer who died a century ago
To be considered among the perfect classics,
Or as one of the base moderns? Let’s set some limit
To avoid dispute: ‘Over a hundred’s good and old.’
Well what about him, he died a year, a month short,
How do we reckon him? As an ancient, or a poet
Whom contemporaries and posterity will reject?
‘Of course, if he falls short by a brief month, or even
A whole year, he should be honoured among the ancients.’
I’ll accept that, and then like hairs in a horse’s tail
I’ll subtract years, one by one, little by little, till
By the logic of the dwindling pile, I demolish
The man who turns to the calendar, and measures
Value by age, only rates what Libitina’s blessed.
The critics declare, is free of anxiety it seems
Concerning his Pythagorean dreams and claims.
Naevius, isn’t he clinging to our hands and minds,
Almost a modern? Every old poem is sacred, thus.
Whenever the question’s raised who is superior,
These mighty Rome memorises, watches them packed
In her cramped theatre: these she owns to, counts them
As poets, from the scribbler Livius’ day to our own.
BkIIEpI:63-89 The ancients have their faults
Sometimes the crowd see aright, sometimes they err.
When they admire the ancient poets and praise them
So none are greater, none can compare, they’re wrong.
When they consider their diction too quaint, and often
Harsh, when they confess that much of it’s lifeless,
They’ve taste, they’re on my side, and judge like Jove.
Of course I’m not attacking Livius’ verses,
Nor dream they should be destroyed, ones I remember
Orbilius, the tartar, teaching me when I was a lad:
But I’m amazed they’re thought finished, fine, almost perfect.
Though maybe a lovely phrases glitters now and then,
Or a couple of lines are a little more polished,
That unjustly carry, and sell, the whole poem.
I’m indignant that work is censured, not because
It’s thought crudely or badly made, but because it’s new,
While what’s old claims honours and prizes not indulgence.
If I doubted whether a play of Atta’s could even make it
Through the flowers and saffron, most old men would cry
That Shame was dead, because I’d dared to criticise
Either they think nothing’s good but what pleases them,
Or consider it’s shameful to bow to their juniors,
Confess: what beardless youth has learned, age should destroy.
And seems, uniquely, to follow what he and I can’t,
Isn’t honouring and applauding some dead genius,
But impugning ours, with envy, hating us and ours.
BkIIEpI:90-117 The craze for writing
If novelty had been as hateful to the Greeks
As to us, what would we have, now, to call ancient?
What would the crowd have to sample, read and thumb?
As soon as Greece ceased fighting, she started fooling,
And when better times had come, lapsed into error,
One moment hot with enthusiasm for athletes,
Then horses, mad for workers in ivory, marble, bronze:
Mind and vision enraptured by painted panels,
Crazy now for flute-players, now for tragic actors:
Like a girl-child playing at her nurse’s feet,
Quickly leaving when sated what she’s loudly craved.
Such things blessed peace and fair breezes brought.
For a long time, in Rome, it was a pleasant custom
To be up at dawn, doors wide, to teach clients the law,
To pay out good money to reliable debtors,
To hear the elders out, tell the youngsters the way
To grow an estate, and reduce their ruinous waste.
But what likes and dislikes would you call immutable?
The fickle public has changed its mind, fired as one
With a taste for scribbling: sons and their stern fathers,
Hair bound up with leaves, dine, and declaim their verse.
Even I, who swear that I’m writing no more poetry,
Lie more than a Parthian, wake before sun-up,
And call for paper and pen and my writing-case.
One without nautical skills fears to sail: no one
Unskilled dares give Lad’s Love to the sick: doctors
Practise medicine: carpenters handle carpentry tools:
But, skilled or unskilled, we all go scribbling verses.
BkIIEpI:118-155 Poetry’s benefits and its history
Yet this error, this mild insanity, has certain
Merits, consider this: the mind of a poet
Is seldom avaricious: he loves verse, that’s his bent:
At fires, disasters, runaway slaves: he smiles:
He never plots to defraud his business partner,
Or some young ward: he lives on pulse vegetables,
And coarse bread: a poor and reluctant soldier he still
Serves the State, if you grant small things may serve great ends.
The poet moulds the lisping, tender lips of childhood,
Turning the ear even then from coarse expression,
Quickly shaping thought with his kindly precepts,
Tempe ring envy, and cruelty, and anger.
He tells of good deeds, instructs the rising age
Through famous precedents, comforts the poor and ill.
How would innocent boys, unmarried girls, have learnt
Their hymns, if the Muse hadn’t granted them a bard?
Their choir asks for help, and feels the divine presence,
Calls for rain from heaven, taught by his winning prayer,
Averts disease, dispels the threatened danger,
Gains the gift of peace, and a year of rich harvests.
By poetry gods above are soothed, spirits below.
The farmers of old, those tough men blessed with little,
After harvesting their crops, with their faithful wives
And slaves, their fellow-workers, comforted body
And mind, that bears all hardship for a hoped-for end,
With milk, the Genius who knows life brevity
With flowers and wine. So Fescennine licence appeared,
Whereby rustic abuse poured out in verse-exchanges,
Freedom of speech had its place in the yearly cycle,
In fond play, till its jests becoming fiercer, turned
To open rage, and, fearless in their threats, ran through
Decent houses. Those bitten by its teeth were pained:
Even those who never felt its touch were drawn to
Make common cause: and at last a law was passed,
Declaring the punishment for portraying any man
In malicious verse: all changed their tune, and were led,
By fear of the cudgel, back to sweet and gracious speech.
BkIIEpI:156-181 The Latin drama
Captive Greece captured, in turn, her uncivilised
Conquerors, and brought the arts to rustic Latium.
So coarse Saturnian metres faded, and good taste
Banished venom: though traces of our rural
Past remained for many a year, and still remain.
Not till later did Roman thought turn to Greek models,
And in the calm after the Punic Wars began to ask
Romans experimented, seeing if they could rework
Such things effectively, noble and quick by nature,
They pleased: happily bold, with tragic spirit enough,
Yet novices, thinking it shameful, fearing, to revise.
Some think that Comedy, making use of daily life,
Needs little sweat, but in fact it’s more onerous,
Less forgiving. Look at how badly Plautus handles
A youthful lover’s part, or a tight-fisted father,
Or treacherous pimp, what a Dossenus he makes,
Sly villain, amongst his gluttonous parasites,
How slipshod he is in sliding about the stage.
Oh, he’s keen to fill his pockets, and after that
Cares little if it fails, or stands on its own two feet.
A cold audience deflates, a warm one inspires
Those whom Fame’s airy chariot bears to the light:
So slight, so small a thing it is, shatters and restores
Minds that crave praise. Farewell to the comic theatre,
If winning the palm makes me rich, its denial poor.
BkIIEpI:182-213 Ridiculous modern theatre
Often even the brave poet is frightened and routed,
When those less in worth and rank, but greater in number,
Stupid illiterates always ready for a fight
If the knights challenge them, shout for bears or boxing
Right in the midst of the play: it’s that the rabble love.
Nowadays even the knight’s interest has wholly passed
From the ear to the empty delights of the roaming eye.
The curtain’s drawn back (lowered) for four hours or more,
While squads of infantry, troops of horse, sweep by:
Beaten kings are dragged past, hands bound behind them,
Chariots, carriages, wagons and ships hurry along,
Burdens of captured ivory, Corinthian bronze.
If Democritus were still here on earth, he’d smile,
Watching the crowd, more than the play itself,
As presenting a spectacle more worth seeing,
Than some hybrid creature, the camelopard,
Or a white elephant, catching their attention.
As for the authors he’d think they were telling their tales
To a deaf donkey. What voices could ever prevail
And drown the din with which our theatres echo?
Amongst such noise the entertainment’s viewed, the works
Of art, the foreign jewels with which the actor
Drips, as he takes the stage to tumultuous applause.
‘Has he spoken yet?’ ‘Not a thing.’ ‘Then, why the fuss?’
‘ Oh, it’s his wool robe dyed violet in Tarentum.’
But lest you happen to think I give scant praise to those
Who handle with skill what I refuse to consider,
Well that poet seems to me a magi, who can walk
The tightrope, who can wring my heart with nothings,
Inflame it, calm it, fill it with illusory fears,
BkIIEpI:214-244 Be a patron of the poets
But come, give a moment’s care to those who trust themselves
To the reader, rather than suffer the spectator’s
Proud disdain, that is if you wish to fill with books
Your gift worthy of Apollo, and spur our poets
To seek Helicon’s verdant slopes with greater zeal.
Of course we poets frequently harm our own cause
(Just as I’m axing my own vine) sending our books
To you when you’re tired or anxious: when we’re hurt
That a friend of ours has dared to criticise a verse:
When we turn back to lines we’ve already read, unasked:
When we moan that all our efforts go unnoticed,
And our poetry, spun with such exquisite threads:
While we live in hope that as soon as you hear that we
Are composing verses, you’ll kindly send for us,
Relieve our poverty, and command us to write.
Still it’s worth while considering what kind of priests
Virtue, tested at home and in war, should appoint,
Since unworthy poets shouldn’t be given the task.
Choerilus, who had his crude misbegotten verses
To thank for the golden Philips, the royal coins,
He received, more than pleased Alexander the Great:
But often writers dim shining deeds with vile scrawls,
As ink on the fingers will leaves its blots and stains.
That same king, who paid so enormous a price for such
Ridiculous poetry, issued an edict
Forbidding anyone but Apelles to paint him,
Anyone other than Lysippus to cast in bronze
Brave Alexander’s artistic likeness. Yet if you
Applied that judgement, so refined when viewing works
Of art, to books and to those same gifts of the Muses,
You’d swear he’d been born to Boeotia’s dull air.
BkIIEpI:245-270 Though you are worthy of a greater poet
But your judgement’s not discredited by your beloved
Receive, that redound to your credit, while features
Are expressed no more vividly by a bronze statue,
Than the spirit and character of famous heroes
By the poet’s work. Rather than my earthbound pieces
I’d prefer to compose tales of great deeds,
Describe the contours of land and river, forts built
On mountains, and barbarous kingdoms, of the end
Of all war, throughout the world, by your command,
Of the iron bars that enclose Janus, guardian of peace,
Of Rome, the terror of the Parthians, ruled by you,
If I could do as much as I long to: but your greatness
Admits of no lowly song, nor does my modesty
Dare to attempt a task my powers cannot sustain.
It’s a foolish zealousness that vexes those it loves,
Above all when it commits itself to the art of verse:
Men remember more quickly, with greater readiness,
Things they deride, than those they approve and respect.
I don’t want oppressive attention, nor to be shown
Somewhere as a face moulded, more badly, in wax,
Nor to be praised in ill-made verses, lest I’m forced
To blush at the gift’s crudity, and then, deceased,
In a closed box, be carried down, next to ‘my’ poet,
To the street where they sell incense, perfumes, pepper,
And whatever else is wrapped in redundant paper.
End of Book II Epistle I