Supposing a painter chose to put a human head on a horse's neck, or to spread feathers of various colours over the limbs of several different creatures, or to make what in the upper part is a beautiful woman tail off into a hideous fish, could you help laughing when he showed you his efforts? You may take it from me, my friends, that a book will have very much the same effect as these pictures if, like a sick man's dreams, the author's idle fancies assume such a shape that it is impossible to make head or tail of what he is driving at.
'But,' you will say, 'the right to take liberties of almost any kind has always been enjoyed by painters and poets alike.'
I know that; we poets do claim this licence, and in our turn we concede it to others, but not to the point of associating what is wild with what is tame, of pairing snakes with birds or lambs with tigers.
Works that begin impressively and with the promise of carrying on in the heroic strain often have one or two purple passages tacked on to catch the eye, giving a description of Diana's grove and altar, the meanderings of a stream through a picturesque countryside, the River Rhine, or a rainbow. But this is not the right place for things of that kind. Perhaps, too, you know how to paint a cypress; but what is the point of that if you are being paid to paint a shipwrecked man swimming for dear life? A potter sets out to make a two-handled wine-flagon: why, as his wheel spins, does it turn into an ordinary water-jug? In short, whatever you set your hand to, you must be single-minded about it and keep to the point.
Most of us poets, my friends; are led astray by our notions of the right way to go to work. I try my hardest to be succinct, and merely succeed in being obscure; I aim at smoothness, only to find that I am losing fire and energy. One poet sets out to achieve the sublime, and falls into turgidity; another is overcautious, and, nervous of spreading his wings, never leaves the ground. Yet another, wishing to vary the monotony of his subject with something out of the ordinary, introduces a dolphin into his woods, or puts a boar among his waves. If art is lacking, the avoidance of a petty fault may lead to a serious imperfection.
At the end of the row of stalls down by the Aemilian gladiatorial school there is a craftsman in bronze who will mould fingernails and reproduce wavy hair to the life, but the total effect of his work is unsatisfactory because he cannot put together a complete figure. Now if I set out to write a poem, I would no more want to be like him than to have a crooked nose, much though I might be admired for my dark eyes and black hair.
Choose a subject that is suited to your abilities, you who aspire to be writers; give long thought to what you are capable of undertaking, and what is beyond you. A man who chooses a subject within his powers will never be at a loss for words, and his thoughts will be clear and orderly. The virtue and attraction of order, I think I am right in saying, is that the poet will at any moment be saying exactly what his poem at that moment requires; he will be keeping back points for the time being or leaving them out altogether, and showing what he thinks admirable and what beneath notice.
Furthermore, you will make an excellent impression if you use care and subtlety in placing your words and, by the skilful choice of setting, give fresh meaning to a familiar word. If it happens that you have to invent new terms for the discussion of abstruse topics, you will have a chance to coin words that were unknown to earlier generations of Romans, and no one will object to your doing this, as long as you do it with discretion. New and recently-coined words will win acceptance if they are borrowed from Greek sources and drawn upon sparingly. And indeed, why should we Romans allow this privilege to Caecilius and Plautus, and refuse it to Virgil and Varius? Why should I be grudged the right to add a few words to the stock if I can, when the language of Cato and Ennius has enriched our native speech by the introduction of new terms? It has always been accepted, and always will be, that words stamped with the mint-mark of the day should be brought into currency. As the woods change their foliage with the decline of each year, and the earliest leaves fall, so words die out with old age; and the newly born ones thrive and prosper just like human beings in the vigour of youth. We are all destined to die, we and all our works. Perhaps the land has been dug out and an arm of the sea let in, to give protection to our fleets from the northern gales (and what a royal undertaking this was!); or a marsh, long a barren waste on which oars were plied, has been put under the plough and produces food for the neighbouring towns; or a river has been made to change a course ruinous to the cornfields and turned into a straighter channel: whatever they are, the works of men will pass away. How much less likely are the glory and grace of language to have an enduring life! Many terms that have now dropped out of use will be revived, if usage so requires, and others which are now in repute will die out; for it is usage which regulates the laws and conventions of speech.
Homer showed us in what metre the exploits of kings and commanders and the miseries of war were to be recorded. The elegiac couplet was first used as the vehicle for lament, but was later adopted for verses of thanks-giving; however, scholars argue about who devised this slighter elegiac form, and the case so far rests undecided. Archilochus invented the iambic measure as the weapon for furious satire; it was adopted both for comedy and for high tragedy, since it is appropriate for dialogue, is capable of drowning the noises of the audience, and is by its nature well suited to accompany action. To lyrical poetry the Muse assigned the task of celebrating the gods and their offspring, the winner in a boxing-match, and the horse that led the field; the task, too, of singing the woes of young lovers and the pleasures of wine. If I have not the ability and skill to adhere to these well-defined functions and styles of poetic forms, why should I be hailed as a poet? Why out of false shame should I prefer to remain ignorant rather than to learn my craft? A comic subject is not susceptible of treatment in a tragic style, and similarly the banquet of Thyestes cannot be fitly described in the strains of everyday life or in those that approach the tone of comedy. Let each of these styles be kept for the role properly allotted to it. Yet even comedy at times uses elevated language, and an angry Chremes rails in bombastic terms; while in tragedy Telephus and Peleus often express their grief in prosaic language, and each of them in his poverty-stricken exile renounces his usual rant and his sesquipedalian words when he wants to move the spectator's pity with his lamentation.
It is not enough that poems should have beauty; if they are to carry the audience with them, they must have charm as well. Just as smiling faces are turned on those who smile, so is sympathy shown with those who weep. If you want to move me to tears, you must first feel grief yourself; then, Telephus and Peleus, your misfortunes will grieve me too, whereas, if your speeches are out of harmony with your feelings, I shall either fall asleep or burst out laughing. Pathetic language is appropriate to the face of sorrow, and violent language to the face of anger; a sportive diction goes with merry looks, and a serious with grave looks. For nature has so formed us that we first feel inwardly any change in our fortunes; it is she that cheers us or rouses us to anger, she that torments us and bows us to the ground with a heavy burden of sorrow, and it is only afterwards that she expresses these feelings in us by means of the tongue. If the speaker's words are out of key with his for-tunes, a Roman audience will cackle and jeer to a man. It will make a great difference whether a god or a hero is speaking, a man of ripe years or a hot-headed youngster in the pride of youth, a woman of standing or an officious nurse, a roving merchant or a prosperous farmer, a Colchian or an Assyrian, a man from Thebes or one from Argos.
Either follow the beaten track, or invent something that is consistent within itself. If in your play you happen to be representing the illustrious Achilles, let him be energetic, passionate, ruthless, and implacable; let him say that laws are not meant for him, and think that everything must yield to the force of arms. See to it that Medea is fierce and indomitable, Ino tearful, Ixion faithless, Io a wanderer, and Orestes sorrowful. If you introduce an untried subject to the stage, or are so bold as to invent a new character, be sure that it remains the same all the way through as it was at the beginning, and is entirely consistent.
It is hard to be original in treating well-worn subjects, and it is better for you to be putting a Trojan tale into dramatic form than that you should be first in the field with a theme hitherto unknown and unsung. A theme that is familiar can be made your own property as long as you do not waste your time on a hackneyed treatment; nor should you try to render your original word for word like a slavish translator, or in imitating another writer plunge yourself into difficulties from which shame, or the rules you have laid down for yourself, prevent you from extricating yourself. And you must not, like the cyclic poet of old, begin: 'Of Priam's fate I'll sing and war's renown.' What will emerge that can live up to such extravagant promises? The mountains will fall into labour, and there will be born — an absurd little mouse. How much more to the purpose are the words of the man who makes no foolish undertakings:
'Sing for me, Muse, the man who, after the fall of Troy, made himself acquainted with the ways of many men and their cities.'
This poet does not mean to let his flash of fire die away in smoke, but to make the smoke give way to light, when he may with striking effect relate his tales of wonder, tales of Antiphates and Scylla and Charybdis and the Cyclops. He does not trace Diomede's return right back to the death of Meleager, or the Trojan War to the twin eggs of Leda. All the time he is hurrying on to the crisis, and he plunges his hearer into the middle of the story as if it were already familiar to him; and what he cannot hope to embellish by his treatment he leaves out. Moreover, so inventive is he, and so skilfully does he blend fact and fiction, that the middle is not inconsistent with the beginning, nor the end with the middle.
I will tell you what I, and with me the public as a whole, look for in a play. If you want an appreciative hearer who will wait for the curtain and remain in his seat until the player calls out, 'Give us your applause', you must note the behaviour of people of different ages, and give the right kind of manners to characters of varying dispositions and years. The child who has just learnt to speak and to plant his feet firmly on the ground loves playing with his friends, will fly into a temper and with as little reason recover from it, and will change every hour. The beardless youth who has at last got rid of his tutor finds his pleasures in horses and dogs and the grassy sports-fields of the Campus Martius; pliant as wax, he is easily persuaded to vicious courses, is irritable with his counsellors, slow to provide for his needs, lavish with his money, of high aspirations and passionate desires, and quick to abandon the objects of his fancy. When he is become a man in years and spirit, his inclinations change; he sets out to acquire wealth and influential connexions, aims at securing public offices, and is careful to avoid doing anything which he might later wish had been done otherwise. The old man is beset by many troubles; either he tries to make money, but holds back miserably when it comes his way and is afraid to use it, or he is cautious and faint-hearted in all his dealings; he puts things off, clings to his hopes, and remains inactive in an eager desire to prolong his life; he is obstinate, too, and querulous, and given to praising the days when he was a boy and criticizing and rebuking his juniors. Advancing years bring with them many blessings, but many of these are taken away in the decline of life. Thus, in order not to give a young man the characteristics of old age, or the child those of a grown man, we shall always dwell upon the qualities that are appropriate to a particular time of life.
An episode is either acted on the stage, or reported as having taken place. However, the mind is less actively stimulated by what it takes in through the ear than by what is presented to it through the trustworthy agency of the eyes — something that the spectator can see for himself. But you will not bring on to the stage anything that ought properly to be taking place behind the scenes, and you will keep out of sight many episodes that are to be described later by the eloquent tongue of a narrator. Medea must not butcher her children in the presence of the audience, nor the monstrous Atreus cook his dish of human flesh within public view, nor Procne be metamorphosed into a bird, nor Cadmus into a snake. I shall turn in disgust from anything of this kind that you show me.
If you want your play to be called for and given a second performance, it should not be either shorter or longer than five acts. A deus ex machina should not be introduced unless some entanglement develops which requires such a person to unravel it. And there should not be more than three speaking characters on the stage at the same time.
The Chorus should sustain the role and function of an actor, and should not sing anything between the acts that does not contribute to the plot and fit appropriately into it. It should side with the good characters and give them friendly advice, and should control those who are out of temper and show approval to those who are anxious not to transgress. It should commend moderation in the pleasures of the table, the blessings of law and justice, and times of peace when the gates lie open; it should respect confidences, and should pray and beseech the gods to let prosperity return to the wretched and desert the proud.
At one time the flute — not as now bound with brass and a rival to the trumpet, but simple and delicate in tone and with only a few stops — was of service in giving the note to the Chorus and accompanying it; and its soft music filled rows of seats that were not yet overcrowded, where an audience small enough to be counted came together — simple, thrifty folk, modest and virtuous in their ways. But when a conquering race began to extend its territories, and cities grew in size, and the tutelary deity could be propitiated without fear of censure by drinking in the daytime on festal occasions, a greater freedom was allowed in the choice both of rhythms and melodies. For what taste could be expected in a crowd of uneducated men enjoying a holiday from work, when country bumpkins rubbed shoulders with townsfolk, and slum-dwellers with men of rank? Thus the flute-player introduced wanton movements that were unknown in the style of earlier days, and trailed his robe as he made his way over the stage. The grave lyre, too, acquired new notes, and a more abrupt type of eloquence brought with it a new style of speech in which wise laws and prophecies of the future caught the very manner of the Delphic oracle.
The poet originally competed in tragic verse for the paltry prize of a goat; soon he introduced wild and naked satyrs on to the stage, and without loss of dignity tried his hand at a form of crude jesting; for an audience that was tipsy after observing the Bacchic rites and in a lawless mood could only be held by the attraction of some enticing novelty. But if jesters and mocking satyrs are to win approval, and a transition made from the serious to the light-hearted, it must be done in such a way that no one who has been presented as a god or hero, and who a moment ago was resplendent in purple and gold, is transported into a dingy hovel and allowed to drop into the speech of the back streets, or alternatively to spout cloudy inanities in an attempt to rise above vulgarity. Tragedy scorns to babble trivialities, and, like a married woman obliged to dance at a festival, will look rather shamefaced among the wanton satyrs. If ever I write satyric dramas, my dear fellows, I shall not be content to use merely the plain, unadorned language of everyday speech; I shall try not to depart so far from the tone of tragedy as to make no distinction between the speech of a Davus, or of a bold-faced Pythias who has managed to trick Simo out of a talent, and that of Silenus, who after all was the guardian and attendant of the young god Bacchus. I shall aim at a style that employs no unfamiliar diction, one that any writer might hope to achieve, but would sweat tears of blood in his efforts and still not manage it — such is the power of words that are used in the right places and in the right relationships, and such the grace that they can add to the commonplace when so used. If you are going to bring woodland fauns on to the stage, I do not think you should ever allow them to speak as though they had been brought up in the heart of the city; do not let them be too youthfully indiscreet in the lines you give them, or crack any filthy or obscene jokes. For such things give offence to those of knightly or freeborn rank and the more substantial citizens; these men do not take kindly to what meets with the approval of the masses, the buyers of roast beans and chestnuts, nor do they give it a prize.
A long syllable following a short one is called an iambus, which is a fast-moving foot. From this the name 'trimeters' became attached to the iambic line, since it produced six beats; and the metre was the same throughout the line. But not so very long ago, so that it might fall upon the ear with rather more weight and deliberation, the iambic line obligingly opened its ranks to the steady spondee, but did not extend its welcome to the point of giving way to it in the second or fourth foot. The true iambic measure is rarely found in the 'noble' trimeters of Accius; and on the verse, too, with which Ennius so ponderously burdened the stage lies the reproach of over-hasty and careless composition, or of ignorance of his art. Not everyone is critical enough to be aware of rhythmical faults in verse, and an indulgence has been shown to our Roman poets that true poets should not need. Is that a reason for loose and lawless writing on my part? Or should I assume that everyone will notice my transgressions, and therefore proceed cautiously, keeping within the bounds in which I may safely hope for indulgence? If I do so, I shall have escaped censure, indeed, but shall not have deserved any praise. For yourselves, my friends, you must give your days and nights to the study of Greek models. But, you will say, your grandfathers were enthusiastic about the versification and wit of Plautus. They were altogether too tolerant, not to say foolish, in their admiration of both these things in him, if you and I have any idea of how to discriminate between coarseness and graceful wit, and how to pick out the right rhythm both by counting and by ear.
Thespis is given the credit for having invented tragedy as a new genre; he is said to have taken his plays about to be sung and acted on wagons by players whose faces were smeared with the lees of wine. After him came Aeschylus, who devised the mask and the dignified robe of tragedy; it was he who laid down a stage with planks of moderate size, and who introduced the grand style into tragedy and increased the actor's height with buskins. These playwrights were succeeded by those of the Old Comedy, which enjoyed a fairly considerable favour; but its freedom degenerated into an offensive violence of language which had to be curbed by law. This law was observed, and the Chorus, deprived of its right to be abusive, fell into a shamed silence.
Our own poets have tried their hand in every style; and they have enjoyed some of their greatest successes when they have had the courage to turn aside from the paths laid down by the Greeks and sing of deeds at home, and this in both tragedies and comedies with Roman backgrounds. Indeed Italy would be no less renowned in the arts of language than she is in valour and the arts of war, were it not that her poets, one and all, shrink from the tedious task of polishing their work. But you, my dear fellows, the descendants of Numa Pompilius, you must have nothing to do with any poem that has not been trimmed into shape by many a day's toil and much rubbing out, and corrected down to the smallest detail.
Because Democritus believes that native genius is worth any amount of piddling art, and will not allow a place on Mount Helicon to poets with rational minds, a good many will not take the trouble to trim their nails and their beards; they haunt solitary places, and keep away from the public baths. For they will gain the repute and title of poets, they think, if they never submit to the ministrations of the barber Licinus a head that all the hellebore of all the Anticyras in the world could never reduce to sanity. What an ass I am to purge the bile out of my system as the season of spring comes along! Otherwise no man would write better poetry. But the game's not worth the candle. So I will play the part of a whetstone, which can put an edge on a blade, though it is not itself capable of cutting. Even if I write nothing myself, I will teach the poet his duties and obligations; I will tell him where to find his resources, what will nourish and mould his poetic gift, what he may, and may not, do with propriety, where the right course will take him, and where the wrong.
The foundation and fountain-head of good composition is a sound understanding. The Socratic writings will provide you with material, and if you look after the subject-matter the words will come readily enough. The man who has learnt his duty towards his country and his friends, the kind of love he should feel for a parent, a brother, and a guest, the obligations of a senator and of a judge, and the qualities required in a general sent out to lead his armies in the field — such a man will certainly know the qualities that are appropriate to any of his characters. I would lay down that the experienced poet, as an imitative artist, should look to human life and character for his models, and from them derive a language that is true to life. Sometimes a play that has a few brilliant passages showing a true appreciation of character, even if it lacks grace and has little depth or artistry, will catch the fancy of an audience, and keep its attention more firmly than verse which lacks substance but is filled with well-sounding trifles.
To the Greeks the Muses gave native wit and the ability to turn phrases, and there was nothing they craved more than renown. We Romans in our schooldays learn long calculations for dividing the pound into dozens of parts.
'Here, young Albinus, you tell me: if you take an ounce from five-twelfths of a pound, what's left? Come on now, you could have answered by now.'
'A third of a pound.'
'Good! You'll be able to look after yourself all right. If you add an ounce, what does that come to?'
When once this corroding lust for profit has infected our minds, can we hope for poems to be written that are worth rubbing over with cedar oil and storing away in cases of polished cypress?
Poets aim at giving either profit or delight, or at combining the giving of pleasure with some useful precepts for life. When you are giving precepts of any kind, be succinct, so that receptive minds may easily grasp what you are saying and retain it firmly; when the mind has plenty to cope with, anything superfluous merely goes in one ear and out of the other. Works written to give pleasure should be as true to life as possible, and your play should not demand belief for just anything that catches your fancy; you should not let the ogress Lamia gobble up a child, and later bring it out of her belly alive. The centuries of the elder citizens will disapprove of works lacking in edification, while the haughty Ramnes will have nothing to do with plays that are too serious. The man who has managed to blend profit with delight wins everyone's approbation, for he gives his reader pleasure at the same time as he instructs him. This is the book that not only makes money for the booksellers, but is carried to distant lands and ensures a lasting fame for its author.
However, there are faults that we should be ready to forgive; for the lute-string does not always give the note intended by the mind and hand, but often returns a high note when a low one is required, and the bow will not always hit the mark aimed at. When there are plenty of fine passages in a poem, I shall not take exception to occasional blemishes which the poet has carelessly let slip, or which his fallible human nature has not guarded against. What then is our conclusion about this? Just as the literary scribe gets no indulgence if he keeps on making the same mistake however often he is warned, and the lutenist is laughed at if he always goes wrong on the same string, so the poet who is often remiss seems to me another Choerilus, whose two or three good lines I greet with an amused surprise; at the same time I am put out when the worthy Homer nods, although it is natural that slumber should occasionally creep over a long poem.
A poem is like a painting: the closer you stand to this one the more it will impress you, whereas you have to stand a good distance from that one; this one demands a rather dark corner, but that one needs to be seen in full light, and will stand up to the keen-eyed scrutiny of the art-critic; this one only pleased you go the first time you saw it, but that one will go on giving pleasure however often it is looked at.
A word to you, the elder of the Piso boys. Though you have been trained by your father to form sound judgements and have natural good sense, take this truth to heart and do not forget it: that only in certain walks of life does the second-rate pass muster. An advocate or barrister of mediocre capacity falls short of the eloquent Messalla in ability, and knows less than Aulus Cascellius, yet he is not without his value; on the other hand, neither gods nor men — nor, for that matter, booksellers — can put up with mediocrity in poets. Just as at a pleasant dinner-party music that is out of tune, a coarse perfume, or poppy-seeds served with bitter Sardinian honey give offence, for the meal could just as well have been given without them, so is it with a poem, which is begotten and created for the soul's delight; if it falls short of the top by ever so little, it sinks right down to the bottom. A man who does not understand the games keeps away from the weapons of the Campus Martius, and if he has no skill with the ball or quoit or hoop, he stands quietly aside so that the crowds round the side-lines will not roar with laughter at his expense; yet the man who knows nothing about poetry has the audacity to write it. And why not? he says. He is his own master, a man of good family, and above all he is rated as a knight in wealth and there is nothing against him.
You, I am sure, will not say or do anything counter to the will of Minerva; you have judgement and sense enough for that. But if at any time you do write anything, submit it to the hearing of the critic Maecius, and your father's and mine as well; then put the papers away and keep them for nine years. You can always destroy what you have not published, but once you have let your words go they cannot be taken back.
While men still roamed the forests, they were restrained from bloodshed and a bestial way of life by Orpheus, the sacred prophet and interpreter of the divine will — that is why he is said to have tamed tigers and savage lions. Amphion, too, the founder of Thebes, is credited with having moved stones by the strains of his lyre, and led them where he would with this sweet blandishment. At one time this was the way of the wise man: to distinguish between public and personal rights and between things sacred and profane, to discourage indiscriminate sexual union and make rules for married life, to build towns, and to inscribe laws on tablets of wood. For this reason honour and fame were heaped upon the bards, as divinely inspired beings, and upon their songs. After them the illustrious Homer and Tyrtaeus fired the hearts of men to martial deeds with their verses. In song, too, oracles were delivered, and the way to right living taught; the favour of kings was sought in Pierian strains; and singing-festivals were devised as a close to the year's long toils. So there is no need for you to blush for the Muse, with her skill in song, and for Apollo the god of singers.
The question has been asked whether a fine poem is the product of nature or of art. I myself cannot see the value of application without a strong natural aptitude, or, on the other hand, of native genius unless it is cultivated — so true is it that each requires the help of the other, and that they enter into a friendly compact with each other. The athlete who strains to reach the winning-post has trained hard as a boy and put up with a great deal, sweating, and shivering in the cold, and keeping away from women and wine; the flautist who plays at the Pythian games has first had to learn his art under a stern master. Yet nowadays it is enough for a man to say:
'I write marvellous poems — the devil take the hindmost! It would be dreadful if I fell behind and had to admit that I know absolutely nothing about what, after all, I've never learnt.'
Like the auctioneer who gathers a crowd round him anxious to buy his wares, the poet who has plenty of property and plenty of money accumulating interest is a standing invitation to flatterers to swarm round for what they can make out of him. But if he is a man who can put on a first-class dinner in proper style, or stand security for a poor man of little credit, or rescue him when he is tied up in a dismal lawsuit, I shall be surprised if, for all his apparent happiness, he can tell a true friend from a false. And you, if you have given or intend to give anyone a present, do not ask him in the first flush of his delight to listen to your own poems.
'Lovely!' he will exclaim. 'That's excellent — it's absolutely first-rate!'
He will turn quite pale with emotion, and will even be so amiable as to squeeze out a tear or two; he will dance with excitement, or tap out his approval with his foot. Just as at a funeral the paid mourners are on the whole more active and vocal than those who are really suffering deeply, so the mock admirer shows more appreciation than the man who is sincere in his praise. It is said that when kings are anxious to test thoroughly whether a man is worthy of their friendship, they put him to the trial with wine, and ply him with many bumpers. If you are going to write poetry, see to it that you are never put upon by people with the hidden cunning of the fox.
When anything was read to Quintilius Varus, he would say: 'You must put this right — and this too, please.' If after two or three ineffectual attempts you said you could not do any better, he would tell you to get rid of the passage; the lines were badly turned and would have to be hammered out again. If you chose to defend a weakness rather than correct it, he would not say another word, nor waste any effort in trying to prevent you from regarding yourself and your work as unique and unrivalled. An honest, sensible man will condemn any lines that are lifeless, will find fault with them if they are rough, and will run his pen through any that are inelegant; he will cut out any superfluous adornment, will force you to clarify anything that is obscure, and will draw attention to ambiguities; in fact he will prove another Aristarchus and point out everything that requires changing. He will not say, 'Why should I quarrel with a friend over trifles?' Those trifles will bring his friend into serious trouble when once his efforts have been taken amiss and he has become an object of ridicule.
Just as happens when a man is plagued by a nasty rash, or by jaundice, or a fit of lunacy, so men of sense are afraid to have any dealings with a mad poet, and keep clear of him; but children boldly follow him about and tease him. While he is wandering about, spouting his lines with his head in the air like a fowler intent on his game, he can fall into a well or pit, and no one will bother to pull him out however long he goes on shouting to the passers-by for help. And if anyone should take the trouble to lend a hand and let down a rope, 'How do you know he didn't jump down there on purpose,' I shall say, 'And doesn't want to be rescued?' and I shall tell the story of the Sicilian poet Empedocles' death. Eager to be regarded as one of the immortal gods, Empedocles in cold blood leapt into the flames of Etna. And poets should have the right to take their own lives. To save a man who does not want to be saved is as good as murdering him. This is not the first time he has tried, and if he is pulled out he will not immediately become a normal human being and abandon his desire to win notoriety by his death. Nor is it very clear why he goes on trying to write poetry — whether because he has defiled his father's ashes, or sacrilegiously violated a place struck by lightning. It is certain, at any rate, that he is raving mad, and like a bear that has been strong enough to burst the bars of its cage, he makes everyone, learned and ignorant alike, take to their heels when he embarks on his detestable recitations. He will fasten on to anyone he manages to catch, and read him to death — just like a leech that will not drop off your skin until it is gorged with blood.
|« Literary Criticism »||« Biographies »||« Classical Works »||« Library »||« Our Civilization »|