Horace: The Epistles

Book II: Epistle I

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

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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.

Romulus, Father Liber, and Pollux and Castor,

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

Treaties our kings made with Gabii, or tough Sabines,

The Pontiffs’ books, the musty scrolls of the seers,

It insists the Muses proclaimed on the Alban Mount!

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.

Ennius, the ‘wise’ and ‘brave’, a second Homer,

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,

Old Pacuvius is ‘learned, Accius ‘noble’,

Afranius ’ toga’s the style of Menander’s,

Plautus runs on like Sicilian Epicharmus,

His model, Caecilius for dignity, Terence art.

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

What grave Aesopus, and learned Roscius, acted:

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.

Indeed, whoever praises Numa’s Salian Hymn,

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,

By propitiating Earth with a pig, Silvanus

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

What SophoclesThespisAeschylus might offer.

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?

You’d think the Garganian woods or Tuscan Sea roared:

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,

Set me down in Thebes one moment, Athens another.

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

Virgil and Varius, nor by the gifts your poets

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