The Works of Horace
By Horace

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The Second Book of the Epistles of Horace.



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].




If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight? Believe, ye Pisos, the book will be perfectly like such a picture, the ideas of which, like a sick man’s dreams, are all vain and fictitious: so that neither head nor foot can correspond to any one form. “Poets and painters [you will say] have ever had equal authority for attempting any thing.” We are conscious of this, and this privilege we demand and allow in turn: but not to such a degree, that the tame should associate with the savage; nor that serpents should be coupled with birds, lambs with tigers.

In pompous introductions, and such as promise a great deal, it generally happens that one or two verses of purple patch-work, that may make a great show, are tagged on; as when the grove and the altar of Diana and the meandering of a current hastening through pleasant fields, or the river Rhine, or the rainbow is described. But here there was no room for these [fine things]: perhaps, too, you know how to draw a cypress: but what is that to the purpose, if he, whe is painted for the given price, is [to be represented as] swimming hopeless out of a shipwreck? A large vase at first was designed: why, as the wheel revolves, turns out a little pitcher? In a word, be your subject what it will, let it be merely simple and uniform.

The great majority of us poets, father, and youths worthy such a father, are misled by the appearance of right. I labor to be concise, I become obscure: nerves and spirit fail him, that aims at the easy: one, that pretends to be sublime, proves bombastical: he who is too cautious and fearful of the storm, crawls along the ground: he who wants to vary his subject in a marvelous manner, paints the dolphin in the woods, the boar in the sea. The avoiding of an error leads to a fault, if it lack skill.

A statuary about the Aemilian school shall of himself, with singular skill, both express the nails, and imitate in brass the flexible hair; unhappy yet in the main, because he knows not how to finish a complete piece. I would no more choose to be such a one as this, had I a mind to compose any thing, than to live with a distorted nose, [though] remarkable for black eyes and jetty hair.

Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what your strength declines, and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style, nor a perspicuous disposition, shall desert the man, by whom the subject matter is chosen judiciously.

This, or I am mistaken, will constitute the merit and beauty of arrangement, that the poet just now say what ought just now to be said, put off most of his thoughts, and waive them for the present.

In the choice of his words, too, the author of the projected poem must be delicate and cautious, he must embrace one and reject another: you will express yourself eminently well, if a dexterous combination should give an air of novelty to a well-known word. If it happen to be necessary to explain some abstruse subjects by new invented terms; it will follow that you must frame words never heard of by the old-fashioned Cethegi: and the license will be granted, if modestly used: and the new and lately-formed words will have authority, if they descend from a Greek source, with a slight deviation. But why should the Romans grant to Plutus and Caecilius a privilege denied to Virgil and Varius? Why should I be envied, if I have it in my power to acquire a few words, when the language of Cato and Ennius has enriched our native tongue, and produced new names of things? It has been, and ever will be, allowable to coin a word marked with the stamp in present request. As leaves in the woods are changed with the fleeting years; the earliest fall off first: in this manner words perish with old age, and those lately invented nourish and thrive, like men in the time of youth. We, and our works, are doomed to death: Whether Neptune, admitted into the continent, defends our fleet from the north winds, a kingly work; or the lake, for a long time unfertile and fit for oars, now maintains its neighboring cities and feels the heavy plow; or the river, taught to run in a more convenient channel, has changed its course which was so destructive to the fruits. Mortal works must perish: much less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off; and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.

Homer has instructed us in what measure the achievements of kings, and chiefs, and direful war might be written.

Plaintive strains originally were appropriated to the unequal numbers [of the elegiac]: afterward [love and] successful desires were included. Yet what author first published humble elegies, the critics dispute, and the controversy still waits the determination of a judge.

Rage armed Archilochus with the iambic of his own invention. The sock and the majestic buskin assumed this measure as adapted for dialogue, and to silence the noise of the populace, and calculated for action.

To celebrate gods, and the sons of gods, and the victorious wrestler, and the steed foremost in the race, and the inclination of youths, and the free joys of wine, the muse has alotted to the lyre.

If I am incapable and unskilful to observe the distinction described, and the complexions of works [of genius], why am I accosted by the name of “Poet?” Why, out of false modesty, do I prefer being ignorant to being learned?

A comic subject will not be handled in tragic verse: in like manner the banquet of Thyestes will not bear to be held in familiar verses, and such as almost suit the sock. Let each peculiar species [of writing] fill with decorum its proper place. Nevertheless sometimes even comedy exalts her voice, and passionate Chremes rails in a tumid strain: and a tragic writer generally expresses grief in a prosaic style. Telephus and Peleus, when they are both in poverty and exile, throw aside their rants and gigantic expressions if they have a mind to move the heart of the spectator with their complaint.

It is not enough that poems be beautiful; let them be tender and affecting, and bear away the soul of the auditor whithersoever they please. As the human countenance smiles on those that smile, so does it sympathize with those that weep. If you would have me weep you must first express the passion of grief yourself; then, Telephus or Peleus, your misfortunes hurt me: if you pronounce the parts assigned you ill, I shall either fall asleep or laugh.

Pathetic accents suit a melancholy countenance; words full of menace, an angry one; wanton expressions, a sportive look; and serious matter, an austere one. For nature forms us first within to every modification of circumstances; she delights or impels us to anger, or depresses us to the earth and afflicts us with heavy sorrow: then expresses those emotions of the mind by the tongue, its interpreter. If the words be discordant to the station of the speaker, the Roman knights and plebians will raise an immoderate laugh. It will make a wide difference, whether it be Davus that speaks, or a hero; a man well-stricken in years, or a hot young fellow in his bloom; and a matron of distinction, or an officious nurse; a roaming merchant, or the cultivator of a verdant little farm; a Colchian, or an Assyrian; one educated at Thebes, or one at Argos.

You, that write, either follow tradition, or invent such fables as are congruous to themselves. If as poet you have to represent the renowned Achilles; let him be indefatigable, wrathful, inexorable, courageous, let him deny that laws were made for him, let him arrogate every thing to force of arms. Let Medea be fierce and untractable, Ino an object of pity, Ixion perfidious, Io wandering, Orestes in distress.

If you offer to the stage any thing unattempted, and venture to form a new character; let it be preserved to the last such as it set out at the beginning, and be consistent with itself. It is difficult to write with propriety on subjects to which all writers have a common claim; and you with more prudence will reduce the Iliad into acts, than if you first introduce arguments unknown and never treated of before. A public story will become your own property, if you do not dwell upon the whole circle of events, which is paltry and open to every one; nor must you be so faithful a translator, as to take the pains of rendering [the original] word for word; nor by imitating throw yourself into straits, whence either shame or the rules of your work may forbid you to retreat.

Nor must you make such an exordium, as the Cyclic writer of old: “I will sing the fate of Priam, and the noble war.” What will this boaster produce worthy of all this gaping? The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth. How much more to the purpose he, who attempts nothing improperly? “Sing for me, my muse, the man who, after the time of the destruction of Troy, surveyed the manners and cities of many men.” He meditates not [to produce] smoke from a flash, but out of smoke to elicit fire, that he may thence bring forth his instances of the marvelous with beauty, [such as] Antiphates, Scylla, the Cyclops, and Charybdis. Nor does he date Diomede’s return from Meleager’s death, nor trace the rise of the Trojan war from [Leda’s] eggs: he always hastens on to the event; and hurries away his reader in the midst of interesting circumstances, no otherwise than as if they were [already] known; and what he despairs of, as to receiving a polish from his touch, he omits; and in such a manner forms his fictions, so intermingles the false with the true, that the middle is not inconsistent with the beginning, nor the end with the middle.

Do you attend to what I, and the public in my opinion, expect from you [as a dramatic writer]. If you are desirous of an applauding spectator, who will wait for [the falling of] the curtain, and till the chorus calls out “your plaudits;” the manners of every age must be marked by you, and a proper decorum assigned to men’s varying dispositions and years. The boy, who is just able to pronounce his words, and prints the ground with a firm tread, delights to play with his fellows, and contracts and lays aside anger without reason, and is subject to change every hour. The beardless youth, his guardian being at length discharged, joys in horses, and dogs, and the verdure of the sunny Campus Martius; pliable as wax to the bent of vice, rough to advisers, a slow provider of useful things, prodigal of his money, high-spirited, and amorous, and hasty in deserting the objects of his passion. [After this,] our inclinations being changed, the age and spirit of manhood seeks after wealth, and [high] connections, is subservient to points of honor; and is cautious of committing any action, which he would subsequently be industrious to correct. Many inconviences encompass a man in years; either because he seeks [eagerly] for gain, and abstains from what he has gotten, and is afraid to make use of it; or because he transacts every thing in a timorous and dispassionate manner, dilatory, slow in hope, remiss, and greedy of futurity. Peevish, querulous, a panegyrist of former times when he was a boy, a chastiser and censurer of his juniors. Our advancing years bring many advantages along with them. Many our declining ones take away. That the parts [therefore] belonging to age may not be given to youth, and those of a man to a boy, we must dwell upon those qualities which are joined and adapted to each person’s age.

An action is either represented on the stage, or being done elsewhere is there related. The things which enter by the ear affect the mind more languidly, than such as are submitted to the faithful eyes, and what a spectator presents to himself. You must not, however, bring upon the stage things fit only to be acted behind the scenes: and you must take away from view many actions, which elegant description may soon after deliver in presence [of the spectators]. Let not Medea murder her sons before the people; nor the execrable Atreus openly dress human entrails: nor let Progue be metamorphosed into a bird, Cadmus into a serpent. Whatever you show to me in this manner, not able to give credit to, I detest.

Let a play which would be inquired after, and though seen, represented anew, be neither shorter nor longer than the fifth act. Neither let a god interfere, unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen; nor let a fourth person be officious to speak.

Let the chorus sustain the part and manly character of an actor: nor let them sing any thing between the acts which is not conducive to, and fitly coherent with, the main design. Let them both patronize the good, and give them friendly advice, and regulate the passionate, and love to appease those who swell [with rage]: let them praise the repast of a short meal, and salutary effects of justice, laws, and peace with her open gates; let them conceal what is told to them in confidence, and supplicate and implore the gods that prosperity may return to the wretched, and abandon the haughty. The flute, (not as now, begirt with brass and emulous of the trumpet, but) slender and of simple form, with few stops, was of service to accompany and assist the chorus, and with its tone was sufficient to fill the rows that were not as yet too crowded, where an audience, easily numbered, as being small and sober, chaste and modest, met together. But when the victorious Romans began to extend their territories, and an ampler wall encompassed the city, and their genius was indulged on festivals by drinking wine in the day-time without censure; a greater freedom arose both, to the numbers [of poetry], and the measure [of music]. For what taste could an unlettered clown and one just dismissed from labors have, when in company with the polite; the base, with the man of honor? Thus the musician added now movements and a luxuriance to the ancient art, and strutting backward and forward, drew a length of train over the stage; thus likewise new notes were added to the severity of the lyre, and precipitate eloquence produced an unusual language [in the theater]: and the sentiments [of the chorus, then] expert in teaching useful things and prescient of futurity, differ hardly from the oracular Delphi.

The poet, who first tried his skill in tragic verse for the paltry [prize of a] goat, soon after exposed to view wild satyrs naked, and attempted raillery with severity, still preserving the gravity [of tragedy]: because the spectator on festivals, when heated with wine and disorderly, was to be amused with captivating shows and agreeable novelty. But it will be expedient so to recommend the bantering, so the rallying satyrs, so to turn earnest into jest; that none who shall be exhibited as a god, none who is introduced as a hero lately conspicuous in regal purple and gold, may deviate into the low style of obscure, mechanical shops; or, [on the contrary,] while he avoids the ground, effect cloudy mist and empty jargon. Tragedy disdaining to prate forth trivial verses, like a matron commanded to dance on the festival days, will assume an air of modesty, even in the midst of wanton satyrs. As a writer of satire, ye Pisos, I shall never be fond of unornamented and reigning terms: nor shall I labor to differ so widely from the complexion of tragedy, as to make no distinction, whether Davus be the speaker. And the bold Pythias, who gained a talent by gulling Simo; or Silenus, the guardian and attendant of his pupil-god [Bacchus]. I would so execute a fiction taken from a well-known story, that any body might entertain hopes of doing the same thing; but, on trial, should sweat and labor in vain. Such power has a just arrangement and connection of the parts: such grace may be added to subjects merely common. In my judgment the Fauns, that are brought out of the woods, should not be too gamesome with their tender strains, as if they were educated in the city, and almost at the bar; nor, on the other hand; should blunder out their obscene and scandalous speeches. For [at such stuff] all are offended, who have a horse, a father, or an estate: nor will they receive with approbation, nor give the laurel crown, as the purchasers of parched peas and nuts are delighted with.

A long syllable put after a short one is termed an iambus, a lively measure, whence also it commanded the name of trimeters to be added to iambics, though it yielded six beats of time, being similar to itself from first to last. Not long ago, that it might come somewhat slower and with more majesty to the ear, it obligingly and contentedly admitted into its paternal heritage the steadfast spondees; agreeing however, by social league, that it was not to depart from the second and fourth place. But this [kind of measure] rarely makes its appearance in the notable trimeters of Accius, and brands the verse of Ennius brought upon the stage with a clumsy weight of spondees, with the imputation of being too precipitate and careless, or disgracefully accuses him of ignorance in his art.

It is not every judge that discerns inharmonious verses, and an undeserved indulgence is [in this case] granted to the Roman poets. But shall I on this account run riot and write licentiously? Or should not I rather suppose, that all the world are to see my faults; secure, and cautious [never to err] but with hope of being pardoned? Though, perhaps, I have merited no praise, I have escaped censure.

Ye [who are desirous to excel,] turn over the Grecian models by night, turn them by day. But our ancestors commended both the numbers of Plautus, and his strokes of pleasantry; too tamely, I will not say foolishly, admiring each of them; if you and I but know how to distinguish a coarse joke from a smart repartee, and understand the proper cadence, by [using] our fingers and ears.

Thespis is said to have invented a new kind of tragedy, and to have carried his pieces about in carts, which [certain strollers], who had their faces besmeared with lees of wine, sang and acted. After him Aeschylus, the inventor of the vizard mask and decent robe, laid the stage over with boards of a tolerable size, and taught to speak in lofty tone, and strut in the buskin. To these succeeded the old comedy, not without considerable praise: but its personal freedom degenerated into excess and violence, worthy to be regulated by law; a law was made accordingly, and the chorus, the right of abusing being taken away, disgracefully became silent.

Our poets have left no species [of the art] unattempted; nor have those of them merited the least honor, who dared to forsake the footsteps of the Greeks, and celebrate domestic facts; whether they have instructed us in tragedy, of comedy. Nor would Italy be raised higher by valor and feats of arms, than by its language, did not the fatigue and tediousness of using the file disgust every one of our poets. Do you, the decendants of Pompilius, reject that poem, which many days and many a blot have not ten times subdued to the most perfect accuracy. Because Democritus believes that genius is more successful than wretched art, and excludes from Helicon all poets who are in their senses, a great number do not care to part with their nails or beard, frequent places of solitude, shun the baths. For he will acquire, [he thinks,] the esteem and title of a poet, if he neither submits his head, which is not to be cured by even three Anticyras, to Licinius the barber. What an unlucky fellow am I, who am purged for the bile in spring-time! Else nobody would compose better poems; but the purchase is not worth the expense. Therefore I will serve instead of a whetstone, which though not able of itself to cut, can make steel sharp: so I, who can write no poetry myself, will teach the duty and business [of an author]; whence he may be stocked with rich materials; what nourishes and forms the poet; what gives grace, what not; what is the tendency of excellence, what that of error.

To have good sense, is the first principle and fountain of writing well. The Socratic papers will direct you in the choice of your subjects; and words will spontaneously accompany the subject, when it is well conceived. He who has learned what he owes to his country, and what to his friends; with what affection a parent, a brother, and a stranger, are to be loved; what is the duty of a senator, what of a judge; what the duties of a general sent out to war; he, [I say,] certainly knows how to give suitable attributes to every character. I should direct the learned imitator to have a regard to the mode of nature and manners, and thence draw his expressions to the life. Sometimes a play, that is showy with common-places, and where the manners are well marked, though of no elegance, without force or art, gives the people much higher delight and more effectually commands their attention, than verse void of matter, and tuneful trifles.

To the Greeks, covetous of nothing but praise, the muse gave genius; to the Greeks the power of expressing themselves in round periods. The Roman youth learn by long computation to subdivide a pound into an hundred parts. Let the son of Albinus tell me, if from five ounces one be subtracted, what remains? He would have said the third of a pound.–Bravely done! you will be able to take care of your own affairs. An ounce is added: what will that be? Half a pound. When this sordid rust and hankering after wealth has once tainted their minds, can we expect that such verses should be made as are worthy of being anointed with the oil of cedar, and kept in the well-polished cypress?

Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life. Whatever precepts you give, be concise; that docile minds may soon comprehend what is said, and faithfully retain it. All superfluous instructions flow from the too full memory. Let what ever is imagined for the sake of entertainment, have as much likeness to truth as possible; let not your play demand belief for whatever [absurdities] it is inclinable [to exhibit]: nor take out of a witch’s belly a living child that she had dined upon. The tribes of the seniors rail against every thing that is void of edification: the exalted knights disregard poems which are austere. He who joins the instructive with the agreeable, carries off every vote, by delighting and at the same time admonishing the reader. This book gains money for the Sosii; this crosses the sea, and continues to its renowned author a lasting duration.

Yet there are faults, which we should be ready to pardon: for neither does the string [always] form the sound which the hand and conception [of the performer] intends, but very often returns a sharp note when he demands a flat; nor will the bow always hit whatever mark it threatens. But when there is a great majority of beauties in a poem, I will not be offended with a few blemishes, which either inattention has dropped, or human nature has not sufficiently provided against. What therefore [is to be determined in this matter]? As a transcriber, if he still commits the same fault though he has been reproved, is without excuse; and the harper who always blunders on the same string, is sure to be laughed at; so he who is excessively deficient becomes another Choerilus; whom, when I find him tolerable in two or three places, I wonder at with laughter; and at the same time am I grieved whenever honest Homer grows drowsy? But it is allowable, that sleep should steal upon [the progress of] a king work.

As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light; the one has pleased once, the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated.

O ye elder of the youths, though you are framed to a right judgment by your father’s instructions, and are wise in yourself, yet take this truth along with you, [and] remember it; that in certain things a medium and tolerable degree of eminence may be admitted: a counselor and pleader at the bar of the middle rate is far removed from the merit of eloquent Messala, nor has so much knowledge of the law as Casselius Aulus, but yet he is in request; [but] a mediocrity in poets neither gods, nor men, nor [even] the booksellers’ shops have endured. As at an agreeable entertainment discordant music, and muddy perfume, and poppies mixed with Sardinian honey give offense, because the supper might have passed without them; so poetry, created and invented for the delight of our souls, if it comes short ever so little of the summit, sinks to the bottom.

He who does not understand the game, abstains from the weapons of the Campus Martius: and the unskillful in the tennis-ball, the quoit, and the troques keeps himself quiet; lest the crowded ring should raise a laugh at his expense: notwithstanding this, he who knows nothing of verses presumes to compose. Why not! He is free-born, and of a good family; above all, he is registered at an equestrian sum of moneys, and clear from every vice. You, [I am persuaded,] will neither say nor do any thing in opposition to Minerva: such is your judgment, such your disposition. But if ever you shall write anything, let it be submitted to the ears of Metius [Tarpa], who is a judge, and your father’s, and mine; and let it be suppressed till the ninth year, your papers being held up within your own custody. You will have it in your power to blot out what you have not made public: a word ice sent abroad can never return.

Orpheus, the priest and Interpreter of the gods, deterred the savage race of men from slaughters and inhuman diet; once said to tame tigers and furious lions: Amphion too, the builder of the Theban wall, was said to give the stones moon with the sound of his lyre, and to lead them whithersover he would, by engaging persuasion. This was deemed wisdom of yore, to distinguish the public from private weal; things sacred from things profane; to prohibit a promiscuous commerce between the sexes; to give laws to married people; to plan out cities; to engrave laws on [tables of] wood. Thus honor accrued to divine poets, and their songs. After these, excellent Homer and Tyrtaeus animated the manly mind to martial achievements with their verses. Oracles were delivered in poetry, and the economy of life pointed out, and the favor of sovereign princes was solicited by Pierian drains, games were instituted, and a [cheerful] period put to the tedious labors of the day; [this I remind you of,] lest haply you should be ashamed of the lyric muse, and Apollo the god of song.

It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect]. He who is industrious to reach the wished-for goal, has done and suffered much when a boy; he has sweated and shivered with cold; he has abstained from love and wine; he who sings the Pythian strains, was a learner first, and in awe of a master. But [in poetry] it is now enough for a man to say of himself: “I make admirable verses: a murrain seize the hindmost: it is scandalous for me to be outstripped, and fairly to Acknowledge that I am ignorant of that which I never learned.”

As a crier who collects the crowd together to buy his goods, so a poet rich in land, rich in money put out at interest, invites flatterers to come [and praise his works] for a reward. But if he be one who is well able to set out an elegant table, and give security for a poor man, and relieve when entangled in glaomy law-suits; I shall wonder if with his wealth he can distinguish a true friend from false one. You, whether you have made, or intend to make, a present to any one, do not bring him full of joy directly to your finished verses: for then he will cry out, “Charming, excellent, judicious,” he will turn pale; at some parts he will even distill the dew from his friendly eyes; he will jump about; he will beat the ground [with ecstasy]. As those who mourn at funerals for pay, do and say more than those that are afflicted from their hearts; so the sham admirer is more moved than he that praises with sincerity. Certain kings are said to ply with frequent bumpers, and by wine make trial of a man whom they are sedulous to know whether he be worthy of their friendship or not. Thus, if you compose verses, let not the fox’s concealed intentions impose upon you.

If you had recited any thing to Quintilius, he would say, “Alter, I pray, this and this:” if you replied, you could do it no better, having made the experiment twice or thrice in vain; he would order you to blot out, and once more apply to the anvil your ill-formed verses: if you choose rather to defend than correct a fault, he spent not a word more nor fruitless labor, but you alone might be fond of yourself and your own works, without a rival. A good and sensible man will censure spiritless verses, he will condemn the rugged, on the incorrect he will draw across a black stroke with his pen; he will lop off ambitious [and redundant] ornaments; he will make him throw light on the parts that are not perspicuous; he will arraign what is expressed ambiguously; he will mark what should be altered; [in short,] he will be an Aristarchus: he will not say, “Why should I give my friend offense about mere trifles?" These trifles will lead into mischiefs of serious consequence, when once made an object of ridicule, and used in a sinister manner.

Like one whom an odious plague or jaundice, fanatic phrensy or lunacy, distresses; those who are wise avoid a mad poet, and are afraid to touch him; the boys jostle him, and the incautious pursue him. If, like a fowler intent upon his game, he should fall into a well or a ditch while he belches out his fustian verses and roams about, though he should cry out for a long time, “Come to my assistance, O my countrymen;” not one would give himself the trouble of taking him up. Were any one to take pains to give him aid, and let down a rope; “How do you know, but he threw himself in hither on purpose?” I shall say: and will relate the death of the Sicilian poet. Empedocles, while he was ambitious of being esteemed an immortal god, in cold blood leaped into burning Aetna. Let poets have the privilege and license to die [as they please]. He who saves a man against his will, does the same with him who kills him [against his will]. Neither is it the first time that he has behaved in this manner; nor, were he to be forced from his purposes, would he now become a man, and lay aside his desire of such a famous death. Neither does it appear sufficiently, why he makes verses: whether he has defiled his father’s ashes, or sacrilegiously removed the sad enclosure of the vindictive thunder: it is evident that he is mad, and like a bear that has burst through the gates closing his den, this unmerciful rehearser chases the learned and unlearned. And whomsoever he seizes, he fastens on and assassinates with recitation: a leech that will not quit the skin, till satiated with blood.

The End


The First Book of the Odes of Horace.  •  The Second Book of the Odes of Horace.  •  The Third Book of the Odes of Horace.  •  The Fourth Book of the Odes of Horace.  •  The Book of the Epodes of Horace.  •  The First Book of the Satires of Horace.  •  The Second Book of the Satires of Horace.  •  The First Book of the Epistles of Horace.  •  The Second Book of the Epistles of Horace.  • 

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