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Horace by Theodore Martin

Part 4 out of 4

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admiration and love. Rome, it is true, has been more just. It has
appreciated, and it avows, how much it owes to Augustus. But the very
same people who have shown themselves wise and just in this are unable
to extend the same principle to living literary genius. A poet must
have been long dead and buried, or he is nought. The very flaws of old
writers are cried up as beauties by pedantic critics, while the
highest excellence in a writer of the day meets with no response.

"Had Greece but been as carping and as cold
To new productions, what would now be old?
What standard works would there have been, to come
Beneath the public eye, the public thumb?" (C.)

Let us then look the facts fairly in the face; let us "clear our minds
of cant." If a poem be bad in itself, let us say so, no matter how old
or how famous it be; if it be good, let us be no less candid, though
the poet be still struggling into notice among us.

Thanks, he proceeds, to our happy times, men are now devoting
themselves to the arts of peace. "_Graecia capta ferum victorem
cepit_"--"Her ruthless conqueror Greece has overcome." The Romans
of the better class, who of old thought only of the triumphs of the
forum, or of turning over their money profitably, are now bitten by a
literary furor.

"Pert boys, prim fathers, dine in wreaths of bay,
And 'twixt the courses warble out the lay." (C.)

But this craze is no unmixed evil; for, take him all in all, your poet
can scarcely be a bad fellow. Pulse and second bread are a banquet for
him. He is sure not to be greedy or close-fisted; for to him, as
Tennyson in the same spirit says, "Mellow metres are more than ten per
cent." Neither is he likely to cheat his partner or his ward. He may
cut a poor figure in a campaign, but he does the state good service at

"His lessons form the child's young lips, and wean
The boyish ear from words and tales unclean;
As years roll on, he moulds the ripening mind,
And makes it just and generous, sweet and kind;
He tells of worthy precedents, displays
The examples of the past to after days,
Consoles affliction, and disease allays." (C.)

Horace then goes on to sketch the rise of poetry and the drama among
the Romans, glancing, as he goes, at the perverted taste which was
making the stage the vehicle of mere spectacle, and intimating his own
high estimate of the dramatic writer in words which Shakespeare seems
to have been meant to realise:--

"That man I hold true master of his art,
Who with fictitious woes can wring my heart;
Can rouse me, soothe me, pierce me with the thrill
Of vain alarm, and, as by magic skill,
Bear me to Thebes, to Athens, where you will." (C.)

Here, as elsewhere, Horace treats dramatic writing as the very highest
exercise of poetic genius; and, in dwelling on it as he does, he
probably felt sure of carrying with him the fullest sympathies of
Augustus. For among his varied literary essays, the Emperor, like most
dilettanti, had tried his hand upon a tragedy. Failing, however, to
satisfy himself, he had the rarer wisdom to suppress it. The story of
his play was that of Ajax, and when asked one day how it was getting
on, he replied that his hero "had finished his career upon a sponge!"
--"_Ajacem suum in spongio incubuisse_."

From the drama Horace proceeds to speak of the more timid race of
bards, who, "instead of being hissed and acted, would be read," and
who, himself included, are apt to do themselves harm in various ways
through over-sensitiveness or simplicity. Thus, for example, they will
intrude their works on Augustus, when he is busy or tired; or wince,
poor sensitive rogues, if a friend ventures to take exception to a
verse; or bore him by repeating, unasked, one or other of their pet
passages, or by complaints that their happiest thoughts and most
highly-polished turns escape unnoticed; or, worse folly than all, they
will expect to be sent for by Augustus the moment he comes across
their poems, and told "to starve no longer, and go writing on." Yet,
continues Horace, it is better the whole tribe should be disappointed,
than that a great man's glory should be dimmed, like Alexander's, by
being sung of by a second-rate poet. And wherefore should it be so,
when Augustus has at command the genius of such men as Virgil and
Varius? They, and they only, are the fit laureates of the Emperor's
great achievements; and in this way the poet returns, like a skilful
composer, to the _motif_ with which he set out--distrust of his
own powers, which has restrained, and must continue to restrain, him
from pressing himself and his small poetic powers upon the Emperor's

In the other poems which belong to this period--the Second Epistle of
the Second Book, and the Epistle to the Pisos, generally known as the
_Ars Poetica_--Horace confines himself almost exclusively to
purely literary topics. The dignity of literature was never better
vindicated than in these Epistles. In Horace's estimation it was a
thing always to be approached with reverence. Mediocrity in it was
intolerable. Genius is much, but genius without art will not win
immortality; "for a good poet's made, as well as born." There must be
a working up to the highest models, a resolute intolerance of anything
slight or slovenly, a fixed purpose to put what the writer has to
express into forms at once the most beautiful, suggestive, and
compact. The mere trick of literary composition Horace holds
exceedingly cheap. Brilliant nonsense finds no allowance from him.
Truth--truth in feeling and in thought--must be present, if the work
is to have any value. "_Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et

"Of writing well, be sure the secret lies
In wisdom, therefore study to be wise." (C.)

Whatever the form of composition, heroic, didactic, lyric, or
dramatic, it must be pervaded by unity of feeling and design; and no
style is good, or illustration endurable, which, either overlays or
does not harmonise with the subject in hand.

The Epistle to the Pisos does not profess to be a complete exposition
of the poet's art. It glances only at small sections of that wide
theme. So far as it goes, it is all gold, full of most instructive
hints for a sound critical taste and a pure literary style. It was
probably meant to cure the younger Piso of that passion for writing
verse which had, as we have seen, spread like a plague among the
Romans, and which made a visit to the public baths a penance to
critical ears,--for there the poetasters were always sure of an
audience,--and added new terrors to the already sufficiently
formidable horrors of the Roman banquet. [Footnote: This theory has
been worked out with great ability by the late M. A. Baron, in his
'Epitre d'Horace aux Pisons sur l'Art Poetique'--Bruxelles, 1857;
which is accompanied by a masterly translation and notes of great
value.] When we find an experienced critic like Horace urging young
Piso, as he does, to keep what he writes by him for nine years, the
conclusion is irresistible, that he hoped by that time the writer
would see the wisdom of suppressing his crude lucubrations altogether.
No one knew better than Horace that first-class work never wants such
protracted mellowing.

Soon, after this poem was written the great palace on the Esquiline
lost its master. He died (B.C. 8) in the middle of the year,
bequeathing his poet-friend to the care of Augustus in the words
"_Horati Flacci, ut mei, esto memor_,"--"Bear Horace in your
memory as you would myself." But the legacy was not long upon the
emperor's hands. Seventeen years before, Horace had written:

"Think not that I have sworn a bootless oath;
Yes, we shall go, shall go,
Hand linked in hand, where'er thou leadest, both
The last sad road below."

The lines must have rung in the poet's ears like a sad refrain. The
Digentia lost its charm; he could not see its crystal waters for the
shadows of Charon's rueful stream. The prattle of his loved Bandusian
spring could not wean his thoughts from the vision of his other self
wandering unaccompanied along that "last sad road." We may fancy that
Horace was thenceforth little seen in his accustomed haunts. He who
had so often soothed the sorrows of other bereaved hearts, answered
with a wistful smile to the friendly consolations of the many that
loved him. His work was done. It was time to go away. Not all the
skill of Orpheus could recall him whom he had lost. The welcome end
came sharply and suddenly; and one day, when, the bleak November wind
was whirling down the oak-leaves on his well-loved brook, the servants
of his Sabine farm heard that they should no more see the good, cheery
master, whose pleasant smile and kindly word had so often made their
labours light. There was many a sad heart, too, we may be sure, in
Rome, when the wit who never wounded, the poet who ever charmed, the
friend who never failed, was laid in a corner of the Esquiline, close
to the tomb of his "dear knight Maecenas." He died on the 27th
November B.C. 8, the kindly, lonely man, leaving to Augustus what
little he possessed. One would fain trust his own words were inscribed
upon his tomb, as in the supreme hour the faith they expressed was of
a surety strong within his heart,--


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