Horace: The Epistles

Book I: Epistle XIX

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved

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BkIEpXIX:1-20 On slavish imitation

If you believe old Cratinus, learned Maecenas,

No poetry could ever live long or delight us

That water-drinkers pen. Since Bacchus enlisted

Poets, the barely sane, among his Fauns and Satyrs,

The sweet Muses usually have a dawn scent of wine.

Homer’s praise of it shows he was fond of the grape:

Ennius never leapt to his tales of arms, unless

He was drunk. ‘I’ll trust the Forum and Libo’s Well

To the sober, I’ll prevent the austere from singing’:

Since I made that edict, poets have never left off

Wine-drinking contests at night, reeking by day.

What? If a man imitated Cato’s fierce, grim look,

His bare feet, and the cut of his curtailed toga,

Would he then show us Cato’s virtues and character?

Emulating Timagenes’ speeches ruined Iarbitas,

Through straining so hard to be witty and eloquent.

Examples with reproducible faults mislead us:

If I were sallow, they’d swallow cumin to turn pale.

O Imitators, slavish herd, how often your noise

Has stirred my anger, how often stirred my laughter!

BkIEpXIX:21-49 Horace has forged his own style

I first planted my footsteps freely on virgin soil,

Touched by my feet, no others. He who trusts himself

Rules, as leader of the crowd. I was the first to show

Latium the Parian iambic, following

Archilochus in spirit and metre, though not

The theme or words that accused Lycambes. And lest you

Crown me with a lesser wreath, for fearing to change

Metre or style, it’s the beat of Sappho’s mannish Muse,

And of Alcaeus’, though his theme and order differ,

Not trying to smear his father-in-law with dark verse

Nor weaving a noose for his bride with slanderous rhyme.

Never sung before by other lips, I the lyrist

Of Latium made him known. I’m pleased to convey

New things, be read by gentle eyes, held by gentle hands.

Want to know why ungrateful readers love and praise

My works at home, then savage them unfairly abroad?

Because I don’t chase the votes of a fickle public

With costly dinners and gifts of second-hand clothes:

Because, student of noble writers, and avenger,

I don’t deign to court the tribe of stagy lecturers.

Hence the tears. If I say: ‘I’m ashamed to recite

Worthless writings in a crowded hall, and add weight

To trifles’ they say: ‘You’re teasing, you’re keeping them

For Jove’s ear: you alone distil poetic honey,

Sure enough, full of yourself.’  Fearing to show contempt

For that, and of being torn by a sharp nail in a fight,

I cry: ‘I don’t like the location,’ and call a truce.

That game indeed gives rise to restless strife and anger:

Anger to savage enmities, wars unto the death.

End of Book I Epistle XIX