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Reading Books

First, be it understood, I make no claim
To rank with those who bear a poet's name:
'Tis not enough to turn out lines complete,
Each with its proper quantum of five feet;
Colloquial verse a man may write like me,
But (trust an author) 'tis not poetry.
No; keep that name for genius, for a soul
Of Heaven's own fire, for words that grandly roll.
Hence some have questioned if the Muse we call
The Comic Muse be really one at all:
Her subject ne'er as es, her style ne'er glows,
And, save that she talks metre, she talks prose.
Ay but the angry father shakes the stage,
When on his graceless son he pours his rage?...
Well, could Pomponius' sire to life return,
Think you he'd rate his son in tones less stern?
So then 'tis not sufficient to combine
Well-chosen words in a well-ordered line,
When, take away the rhythm, the self-same words
Would suit an angry father off the boards.
Strip what I write, or what Lucilius wrote,
Of cadence and succession, time and note,
Reverse the order, put those words behind
That went before, no poetry you'll find:
But break up this, `When battle's brazen door
Blood-boltered Discord from its fastenings tore,
'Tis Orpheus mangled by the Maenads: still
The bard remains, unlimb him as you will.
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 who do not run well.

(After a brief sketch of the progress of Tragedy and Comedy in Greece, he continues) :

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-checked,
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,
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.
In words again be cautious and select,
And duly pick out this, and that reject.
High praise and honor 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.

(Of the lines next quoted a competent critic (W. Y. Sellar, `Horace and the Elegiac Poets,' p. 110) says that they `are not only as admirable practical advice on the cultivation of style as any ever given, but explain the secret of Horace's own ease in writing.' Even those who censure Horace for his `golden mediocrity' and his want of deep feeling admit the essential charm and beauty which invest his picture of the ideal Latin poet.)

Bad poets are our jest; yet they delight,
Just like their betters, in whate'er they write,
Hug their fool's paradise, and, if you're slack
To give them praise, themselves supply the lack.
But he who meditates a work of art,
Oft as he writes, will act the censor's part:
Is there a word wants nobleness and grace,
Devoid of weight, unworthy of high place?
He bids it go, though stiffly it decline,
And cling and cling, like suppliant to a shrine:
Choice terms, long hidden from the general view,
He brings to day and dignifies anew, Which,
once on Cato's and Cethegus' lips,
Now pale their light and suffer dim eclipse;
New phrases, in the world of books unknown,
So use but father them, he makes his own:
Fluent and limpid, like a crystal stream,
He makes Rome's soil with genial produce teem.

Is not the power of appearance that deceiving art which makes us wander up and down and take the things at one time of which we repent at another, both in our actions and in our choice of things great and small? But the art of measurement is that which would do away with the effect of appearances, and, showing the truth, would fain teach the soul at last to find rest in the truth, and would thus save our life.

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