Suppose some painter, as a tour de force,
Should couple head of man with neck of horse,
Invest them both with feathers, ‘stead of hair,
And tack on limbs picked up from here and there,
So that the figure, when complete, should show
A maid above, a hideous fish below:
Should you be favoured with a private view,
You’d laugh, my friends, I know, and rightly too.
Yet trust me, Pisos, not less strange would look,
To a discerning eye, the foolish book
Where dream-like forms in sick delirium blend,
And nought is of a piece from end to end.
“Poets and painters (sure you know the plea)
Have always been allowed their fancy free.”
I own it; ’tis a fair excuse to plead;
By turns we claim it, and by turns concede;
But ’twill not screen the unnatural and absurd,
Unions of lamb with tiger, snake with bird.
When poets would be lofty, they commence
With some gay patch of cheap magnificence:
Of Dian’s altar and her grove we read,
Or rapid streams meandering through the mead;
Or grand descriptions of the river Rhine,
Or watery bow, will take up many a line.
All in their way good things, but not just now:
You’re happy at a cypress, we’ll allow;
But what of that? you’re painting by command
A shipwrecked sailor, striking out for land:
That crockery was a jar when you began;
It ends a pitcher: you an artist, man!
Make what you will, in short, so, when ’tis done,
‘Tis but consistent, homogeneous, one.
Ye worthy trio! we poor sons of song
Oft find ’tis fancied right that leads us wrong.
I prove obscure in trying to be terse;
Attempts at ease emasculate my verse;
Who aims at grandeur into bombast falls;
Who fears to stretch his pinions creeps and crawls;
Who hopes by strange variety to please
Puts dolphins among forests, boars in seas.
Thus zeal to ‘scape from error, if unchecked
By sense of art, creates a new defect.
Fix on some casual sculptor; he shall know
How to give nails their sharpness, hair its flow;
Yet he shall fail, because he lacks the soul
To comprehend and reproduce the whole.
I’d not be he; the blackest hair and eye
Lose all their beauty with the nose awry.
Good authors, take a brother bard’s advice:
Ponder your subject o’er not once nor twice,
And oft and oft consider, if the weight
You hope to lift be or be not too great.
Let but our theme be equal to our powers,
Choice language, clear arrangement, both are ours.
Would you be told how best your pearls to thread?
Why, say just now what should just now be said,
But put off other matter for to-day,
To introduce it later by the way.
In words again be cautious and select,
And duly pick out this, and that reject.
High praise and honour to the bard is due
Whose dexterous setting makes an old word new.
Nay more, should some recondite subject need
Fresh signs to make it clear to those who read,
A power of issuing terms till now unused,
If claimed with modesty, is ne’er refused.
New words will find acceptance, if they flow
Forth from the Greek, with just a twist or so.
But why should Rome capriciously forbid
Our bards from doing what their fathers did?
Or why should Plautus and Caecilius gain
What Virgil or what Varius asks in vain?
Nay, I myself, if with my scanty wit
I coin a word or two, why grudge me it,
When Ennius and old Cato boldly flung
Their terms broadcast, and amplified our tongue?
To utter words stamped current by the mill
Has always been thought right and always will.
When forests shed their foliage at the fall,
The earliest born still drops the first of all:
So fades the elder race of words, and so
The younger generations bloom and grow.
Death claims humanity and human things,
Aye, e’en “imperial works and worthy kings:”
What though the ocean, girdled by the shore,
Gives shelter to the ships it tossed before?
What though the marsh, once waste and watery, now
Feeds neighbour towns, and groans beneath the plough?
What though the river, late the corn-field’s dread,
Rolls fruit and blessing down its altered bed?
Man’s works must perish: how should words evade
The general doom, and flourish undecayed?
Yes, words long faded may again revive,
And words may fade now blooming and alive,
If usage wills it so, to whom belongs
The rule, the law, the government of tongues.
For metres, Homer shows you how to write
Heroic deeds and incidents of fight.
Complaint was once the Elegiac’s theme;
From thence ’twas used to sing of love’s young dream:
But who that dainty measure first put out,
Grammarians differ, and ’tis still in doubt.
Archilochus, inspired by fiery rage,
Called forth Iambics: now they tread the stage
In buskin or in sock, conduct discourse,
Lead action on, and awe the mob perforce.
The glorious gods, the gods’ heroic seed,
The conquering boxer, the victorious steed,
The joys of wine, the lover’s fond desire,
Such themes the Muse appropriates to the lyre.
Why hail me poet, if I fail to seize
The shades of style, its fixed proprieties?
Why should false shame compel me to endure
An ignorance which common pains would cure?
A comic subject steadily declines
To be related in high tragic lines.
The Thyestean feast no less disdains
The vulgar vehicle of comic strains.
Each has its place allotted; each is bound
To keep it, nor invade its neighbour’s ground.
Yet Comedy sometimes will raise her note:
See Chremes, how he swells his angry throat!
And when a tragic hero tells his woes,
The terms he chooses are akin to prose.
Peleus or Telephus, suppose him poor
Or driven to exile, talks in tropes no more;
His yard-long words desert him, when he tries
To draw forth tears from sympathetic eyes.
Mere grace is not enough: a play should thrill
The hearer’s soul, and move it at its will.
Smiles are contagious; so are tears; to see
Another sobbing, brings a sob from me.
No, no, good Peleus; set the example, pray,
And weep yourself; then weep perhaps I may:
But if no sorrow in your speech appear,
I nod or laugh; I cannot squeeze a tear.
Words follow looks: wry faces are expressed
By wailing, scowls by bluster, smiles by jest,
Grave airs by saws, and so of all the rest.
For nature forms our spirits to receive
Each bent that outward circumstance can give:
She kindles pleasure, bids resentment glow,
Or bows the soul to earth in hopeless woe;
Then, as the tide of feeling waxes strong,
She vents it through her conduit-pipe, the tongue.
Unless the speaker’s words and fortune suit,
All Rome will join to jeer him, horse and foot.
Gods should not talk like heroes, nor again
Impetuous youth like grave and reverend men;
Lady and nurse a different language crave,
Sons of the soil and rovers o’er the wave;
Assyrian, Colchian, Theban, Argive, each
Has his own style, his proper cast of speech.
In painting characters, adhere to fame,
Or study keeping in the type you frame:
If great Achilles figure in the scene,
Make him impatient, fiery, ruthless, keen;
All laws, all covenants let him still disown,
And test his quarrel by the sword alone.
Still be Medea all revenge and scorn,
Ino still sad, Ixion still forsworn,
Io a wanderer still, Orestes still forlorn.
If you would be original, and seek
To frame some character ne’er seen in Greek,
See it be wrought on one consistent plan,
And end the same creation it began.
‘Tis hard, I grant, to treat a subject known
And hackneyed so that it may look one’s own;
Far better turn the Iliad to a play
And carve out acts and scenes the readiest way,
Than alter facts and characters, and tell
In a strange form the tale men know so well.
But, with some few precautions, you may set
Your private mark on public chattels yet:
Avoid careering and careering still
In the old round, like carthorse in a mill;
Nor, bound too closely to the Grecian Muse,
Translate the words whose soul you should transfuse,
Nor act the copyist’s part, and work in chains
Which, once put on by rashness, shame retains.
Don’t open like the cyclic, with a burst:
“Troy’s war and Priam’s fate are here rehearsed.”
What’s coming, pray, that thus he winds his horn?
The mountain labours, and a mouse is born.
Far better he who enters at his ease,
Nor takes your breath with empty nourishes:
“Sing, Muse, the man who, after Troy was burned,
Saw divers cities, and their manners learned.”
Not smoke from fire his object is to bring,
But fire from smoke, a very different thing;
Yet has he dazzling miracles in store,
Cyclops, and Laestrygons, and fifty more.
He sings not, he, of Diomed’s return,
Starting from Meleager’s funeral urn,
Nor when he tells the Trojan story, begs
Attention first for Leda and her eggs.
He hurries to the crisis, lets you fall
Where facts crowd thick, as though you knew them all,
And what he judges will not turn to gold
Beneath his touch, he passes by untold.
And all this glamour, all this glorious dream,
Truth blent with fiction in one motley scheme,
He so contrives, that, when ’tis o’er, you see
Beginning, middle, end alike agree.
Now listen, dramatists, and I will tell
What I expect, and all the world as well.
If you would have your auditors to stay
Till curtain-rise and plaudit end the play,
Observe each age’s temper, and impart
To each the grace and finish of your art.
Note first the boy who just knows how to talk
And feels his feet beneath him in his walk:
He likes his young companions, loves a game,
Soon vexed, soon soothed, and not two hours the same.
The beardless youth, at last from tutor freed,
Loves playing-field and tennis, dog and steed:
Pliant as wax to those who lead him wrong,
But all impatience with a faithful tongue;
Imprudent, lavish, hankering for the moon,
He takes things up and lays them down as soon.
His nature revolutionized, the man
Makes friends and money when and how he can:
Keen-eyed and cool, though on ambition bent,
He shuns all acts of which he may repent.
Grey hairs have many evils: without end
The old man gathers what he dares not spend,
While, as for action, do he what he will,
‘Tis all half-hearted, spiritless, and chill:
Inert, irresolute, his neck he cranes
Into the future, grumbles, and complains,
Extols his own young years with peevish praise,
But rates and censures these degenerate days.
Years, as they come, bring blessings in their train;
Years, as they go, take blessings back again:
Yet haste or chance may blink the obvious truth,
Make youth discourse like age, and age like youth:
Attention fixed on life alone can teach
The traits and adjuncts which pertain to each.
Sometimes an action on the stage is shown,
Sometimes ’tis done elsewhere, and there made known.
A thing when heard, remember, strikes less keen
On the spectator’s mind than when ’tis seen.
Yet ’twere not well in public to display
A business best transacted far away,
And much may be secluded from the eye
For well-graced tongues to tell of by and by.
Medea must not shed her children’s blood,
Nor savage Atreus cook man’s flesh for food,
Nor Philomel turn bird or Cadmus snake,
With people looking on and wide awake.
If scenes like these before my eyes be thrust,
They shock belief and generate disgust.
Would you your play should prosper and endure?
Then let it have five acts, nor more nor fewer.
Bring in no god save as a last resource,
Nor make four speakers join in the discourse.
An actor’s part the chorus should sustain
And do their best to get the plot in train:
And whatsoe’er between the acts they chant
Should all be apt, appropriate, relevant.
Still let them give sage counsel, back the good,
Attemper wrath, and cool impetuous blood,
Praise the spare meal that pleases but not sates,
Justice, and law, and peace with unbarred gates,
Conceal all secrets, and the gods implore
To crush the proud and elevate the poor.
Not trumpet-tongued, as now, nor brass-belayed,
The flute was used to lend the chorus aid:
Simple and slight and moderately loud,
It charmed the ears of not too large a crowd,
Which, frugal, rustic, primitive, severe,
Flocked in those early days to see and hear.
Then, when the city gained increase of land,
And wider walls its waxing greatness spanned,
When the good Genius, frolicsome and gay,
Was soothed at festivals with cups by day,
Change spread to scenic measures: breadth, and ease,
And freedom unrestrained were found in these:
For what (said men) should jovial rustic, placed
At random ‘mid his betters, know of taste?
So graceful dance went hand in hand with song,
And robes of kingly splendour trailed along:
So by the side of music words upgrew,
And eloquence came rolling, prompt and new:
Shrewd in things mundane, wise in things divine,
Its voice was like the voice of Delphi’s shrine.
The aspiring bard who served the tragic muse,
A paltry goat the summit of his views,
Soon brought in Satyrs from the woods, and tried
If grave and gay could nourish side by side,
That the spectator, feasted to his fill,
Noisy and drunk, might ne’ertheless sit still.
Yet, though loud laugh and frolic jest commend
Your Satyr folk, and mirth and morals blend,
Let not your heroes doff their robes of red
To talk low language in a homely shed,
Nor, in their fear of crawling, mount too high,
Catching at clouds and aiming at the sky.
Melpomene, when bidden to be gay,
Like matron dancing on a festal day,
Deals not in idle banter, nor consorts
Without reserve with Satyrs and their sports.
In plays like these I would not deal alone
In words and phrases trite and too well known,
Nor, stooping from the tragic height, drop down
To the low level of buffoon and clown,
As though pert Davus, or the saucy jade
Who sacks the gold and jeers the gull she made,
Were like Silenus, who, though quaint and odd,
Is yet the guide and tutor of a god.
A hackneyed subject I would take and treat
So deftly, all should hope to do the feat,
Then, having strained and struggled, should concede
To do the feat were difficult indeed.
So much may order and arrangement do
To make the cheap seem choice, the threadbare new.
Your rustic Fauns, methinks, should have a care
Lest people deem them bred in city air;
Should shun the cant of exquisites, and shun
Coarse ribaldry no less and blackguard fun.
For those who have a father or a horse
Or an estate will take offence of course,
Nor think they’re bound in duty to admire
What gratifies the vetch-and-chestnut-buyer
The Iambic foot is briefly thus defined:
Two syllables, a short with long behind:
Repeat it six times o’er, so quick its beat,
‘Tis trimeter, three measures for six feet:
At first it ran straight on; but, years ago,
Its hearers begged that it would move more slow;
On which it took, with a good-natured air,
Stout spondees in, its native rights to share,
Yet so that none should ask it to resign
The sixth, fourth, second places in the line.
But search through Attius’ trimeters, or those
Which Ennius took such pleasure to compose,
You’ll rarely find it: on the boards they groan,
Laden with spondees, like a cart with stone,
And brand our tragedy with want of skill
Or want of labour, call it which you will.
What then? false rhythm few judges can detect,
And Roman bards of course are all correct.
What shall a poet do? make rules his sport,
And dash through thick and thin, through long and short?
Or pick his steps, endeavour to walk clean,
And fancy every mud-stain will be seen?
What good were that, if though I mind my ways
And shun all blame, I do not merit praise?
My friends, make Greece your model when you write,
And turn her volumes over day and night.
“But Plautus pleased our sires, the good old folks;
They praised his numbers, and they praised his jokes.”
They did: ’twas mighty tolerant in them
To praise where wisdom would perhaps condemn;
That is, if you and I and our compeers
Can trust our tastes, our fingers, and our ears,
Know polished wit from horse-play, and can tell
What verses do, and what do not, run well.
Thespis began the drama: rumour says
In travelling carts he carried round his plays,
Where actors, smeared with lees, before the throng
Performed their parts with gesture and with song.
Then AEschylus brought in the mask and pall,
Put buskins on his men to make them tall,
Turned boards into a platform, not too great,
And taught high monologue and grand debate.
The elder Comedy had next its turn,
Nor small the glory it contrived to earn:
But freedom passed into unbridled spite,
And law was soon invoked to set things right:
Law spoke: the chorus lost the power to sting,
And (shame to say) thenceforth refused to sing.
Our poets have tried all things; nor do they
Deserve least praise, who follow their own way,
And tell in comedy or history-piece
Some story of home growth, not drawn from Greece.
Nor would the land we love be now more strong
In warrior’s prowess than in poet’s song,
Did not her bards with one consent decline
The tedious task, to alter and refine.
Dear Pisos! as you prize old Numa’s blood,
Set down that work, and that alone, as good,
Which, blurred and blotted, checked and counter-
Has stood all tests, and issued forth correct.
Because Democritus thinks fit to say,
That wretched art to genius must give way,
Stands at the gate of Helicon, and guards
Its precinct against all but crazy bards,
Our witlings keep long nails and untrimmed hair,
Much in brown studies, in the bath-room rare.
For things are come to this; the merest dunce,
So but he choose, may start up bard at once,
Whose head, too hot for hellebore to cool,
Was ne’er submitted to a barber’s tool.
What ails me now, to dose myself each spring?
Else had I been a very swan to sing.
Well, never mind: mine be the whetstone’s lot,
Which makes steel sharp, though cut itself will not.
Although no writer, I may yet impart
To writing folk the precepts of their art,
Whence come its stores, what trains and forms a bard,
And how a work is made, and how ’tis marred.
Of writing well, be sure, the secret lies
In wisdom: therefore study to be wise.
The page of Plato may suggest the thought,
Which found, the words will come as soon as sought.
The man who once has learned to comprehend
His duty to his country and his friend,
The love that parent, brother, guest may claim.
The judge’s, senator’s, or general’s aim,
That man, when need occurs, will soon invent
For every part its proper sentiment.
Look too to life and manners, as they lie
Before you: these will living words supply.
A play, devoid of beauty, strength, and art,
So but the thoughts and morals suit each part,
Will catch men’s minds and rivet them when caught
More than the clink of verses without thought.
To Greece, fair Greece, ambitious but of praise,
The Muse gave ready wit, and rounded phrase.
Our Roman boys, by puzzling days and nights,
Bring down a shilling to a hundred mites.
Come, young Albinus, tell us, if you take
A penny from a sixpence, what ’twill make.
Fivepence. Good boy! you’ll come to wealth one day.
Now add a penny. Sevenpence, he will say.
O, when this cankering rust, this greed of gain,
Has touched the soul and wrought into its grain,
What hope that poets will produce such lines
As cedar-oil embalms and cypress shrines?
A bard will wish to profit or to please,
Or, as a tertium quid, do both of these.
Whene’er you lecture, be concise: the soul
Takes in short maxims, and retains them whole:
But pour in water when the vessel’s filled,
It simply dribbles over and is spilled.
Keep near to truth in a fictitious piece,
Nor treat belief as matter of caprice.
If on a child you make a vampire sup,
It must not be alive when she’s ripped up.
Dry seniors scout an uninstructive strain;
Young lordlings treat grave verse with tall disdain:
But he who, mixing grave and gay, can teach
And yet give pleasure, gains a vote from each:
His works enrich the vendor, cross the sea,
And hand the author down to late posterity.
Some faults may claim forgiveness: for the lyre
Not always gives the note that we desire;
We ask a flat; a sharp is its reply;
And the best bow will sometimes shoot awry.
But when I meet with beauties thickly sown,
A blot or two I readily condone,
Such as may trickle from a careless pen,
Or pass unwatched: for authors are but men.
What then? the copyist who keeps stumbling still
At the same word had best lay down his quill:
The harp-player, who for ever wounds the ear
With the same discord, makes the audience jeer:
So the poor dolt who’s often in the wrong
I rank with Choerilus, that dunce of song,
Who, should he ever “deviate into sense,”
Moves but fresh laughter at his own expense:
While e’en good Homer may deserve a tap,
If, as he does, he drop his head and nap.
Yet, when a work is long, ’twere somewhat hard
To blame a drowsy moment in a bard.
Some poems, like some paintings, take the eye
Best at a distance, some when looked at nigh.
One loves the shade; one would be seen in light,
And boldly challenges the keenest sight:
One pleases straightway; one, when it has passed
Ten times before the mind, will please at last.
Hope of the Pisos! trained by such a sire,
And wise yourself, small schooling you require;
Yet take this lesson home; some things admit
A moderate point of merit, e’en in wit.
There’s yonder counsellor; he cannot reach
Messala’s stately altitudes of speech,
He cannot plumb Cascellius’ depth of lore,
Yet he’s employed, and makes a decent score:
But gods, and men, and booksellers agree
To place their ban on middling poetry.
At a great feast an ill-toned instrument,
A sour conserve, or an unfragrant scent
Offends the taste: ’tis reason that it should;
We do without such things, or have them good:
Just so with verse; you seek but to delight;
If by an inch you fail, you fail outright.
He who knows nought of games abstains from all,
Nor tries his hand at quoit, or hoop, or ball,
Lest the thronged circle, witnessing the play,
Should laugh outright, with none to say them nay:
He who knows nought of verses needs must try
To write them ne’ertheless. “Why not?” men cry:
“Free, gently born, unblemished and correct,
His means a knight’s, what more can folks expect?”
But you, my friend, at least have sense and grace;
You will not fly in queen Minerva’s face
In action or in word. Suppose some day
You should take courage and compose a lay,
Entrust it first to Maecius’ critic ears,
Your sire’s and mine, and keep it back nine years.
What’s kept at home you cancel by a stroke:
What’s sent abroad you never can revoke.
Orpheus, the priest and harper, pure and good,
Weaned savage tribes from deeds and feasts of blood,
Whence he was said to tame the monsters of the wood.
Amphion too, men said, at his desire
Moved massy stones, obedient to the lyre,
And Thebes arose. ‘Twas wisdom’s province then
To judge ‘twixt states and subjects, gods and men,
Check vagrant lust, give rules to wedded folk,
Build cities up, and grave a code in oak.
So came great honour and abundant praise,
As to the gods, to poets and their lays.
Then Homer and Tyrtaeus, armed with song,
Made manly spirits for the combat strong:
Verse taught life’s duties, showed the future clear,
And won a monarch’s favour through his ear:
Verse gave relief from labour, and supplied
Light mirth for holiday and festal tide.
Then blush not for the lyre: Apollo sings
In unison with her who sweeps its strings.
But here occurs a question some men start,
If good verse comes from nature or from art.
For me, I cannot see how native wit
Can e’er dispense with art, or art with it.
Set them to pull together, they’re agreed,
And each supplies what each is found to need.
The youth who suns for prizes wisely trains,
Bears cold and heat, is patient and abstains:
The flute-player at a festival, before
He plays in public, has to learn his lore.
Not so our bardlings: they come bouncing in–
“I’m your true poet: let them laugh that win:
Plague take the last! although I ne’er was taught,
Is that a cause for owning I know nought?”
As puffing auctioneers collect a throng,
Rich poets bribe false friends to hear their song:
Who can resist the lord of so much rent,
Of so much money at so much per cent.?
Is there a wight can give a grand regale,
Act as a poor man’s counsel or his bail?
Blest though he be, his wealth will cloud his view,
Nor suffer him to know false friends from true.
Don’t ask a man whose feelings overflow
For kindness that you’ve shown or mean to show
To listen to your verse: each line you read,
He’ll cry, “Good! bravo! exquisite indeed!”
He’ll change his colour, let his eyes run o’er
With tears of joy, dance, beat upon the floor.
Hired mourners at a funeral say and do
A little more than they whose grief is true:
‘Tis just so here: false flattery displays
More show of sympathy than honest praise.
‘Tis said when kings a would-be friend will try,
With wine they rack him and with bumpers ply:
If you write poems, look beyond the skin
Of the smooth fox, and search the heart within.
Read verses to Quintilius, he would say,
“I don’t like this and that: improve it, pray:”
Tell him you found it hopeless to correct;
You’d tried it twice or thrice without effect:
He’d calmly bid you make the three times four,
And take the unlicked cub in hand once more.
But if you chose to vindicate the crime,
Not mend it, he would waste no further time,
But let you live, untroubled by advice,
Sole tenant of your own fool’s paradise.
A wise and faithful counsellor will blame
Weak verses, note the rough, condemn the lame,
Retrench luxuriance, make obscureness plain,
Cross-question this, bid that be writ again:
A second Aristarch, he will not ask,
“Why for such trifles take my friend to task?”
Such trifles bring to serious grief ere long
A hapless bard, once flattered and led wrong.
See the mad poet! never wight, though sick
Of itch or jaundice, moon-struck, fanatic,
Was half so dangerous: men whose mind is sound
Avoid him; fools pursue him, children hound.
Suppose, while spluttering verses, head on high,
Like fowler watching blackbirds in the sky,
He falls into a pit; though loud he shout
“Help, neighbours, help!” let no man pull him out:
Should some one seem disposed a rope to fling,
I will strike in with, “Pray do no such thing:
I’ll warrant you he meant it,” and relate
His brother bard Empedocles’s fate,
Who, wishing to be thought a god, poor fool,
Leapt down hot AEtna’s crater, calm and cool.
“Leave poets free to perish as they will:
Save them by violence, you as good as kill.
‘Tis not his first attempt: if saved to-day,
He’s sure to die in some outrageous way.
Beside, none knows the reason why this curse
Was sent on him, this love of making verse,
By what offence heaven’s anger he incurred,
A grave denied, a sacred boundary stirred:
So much is plain, he’s mad: like bear that beats
His prison down and ranges through the streets,
This terrible reciter puts to flight
The learned and unlearned left and right:
Let him catch one, he keeps him till he kills,
As leeches stick till they have sucked their fills.”