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Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62?–c.A.D. 113). Letters.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

CVI. To Lupercus

I SAID once (and, I think, not inaptly) of a certain orator of the present age, whose compositions are extremely regular and correct, but deficient in grandeur and embellishment, “His only fault is that he has none.” Whereas he, who is possessed of the true spirit of oratory, should be bold and elevated, and sometimes even flame out, be hurried away, and frequently tread upon the brink of a precipice: for danger is generally near whatever is towering and exalted. The plain, it is true, affords a safer, but for that reason a more humble and inglorious, path: they who run are more likely to stumble than they who creep; but the latter gain no honour by not slipping, while the former even fall with glory. It is with eloquence as with some other arts; she is never more pleasing than when she risks most. Have you not observed what acclamations our rope-dancers excite at the instant of imminent danger? Whatever is most entirely unexpected, or, as the Greeks more strongly express it, whatever is most perilous, most excites our admiration. The pilot’s skill is by no means equally proved in a calm as in a storm: in the former case he tamely enters the port, unnoticed and unapplauded; but when the cordage cracks, the mast bends, and the rudder groans, then it is that he shines out in all his glory, and is hailed as little inferior to a sea-god.

The reason of my making this observation is, because, if I mistake not, you have marked some passages in my writings for being tumid, exuberant, and over-wrought, which, in my estimation, are but adequate to the thought, or boldly sublime. But it is material to consider whether your criticism turns upon such points as are real faults, or only striking and remarkable expressions. Whatever is elevated is sure to be observed; but it requires a very nice judgment to distinguish the bounds between true and false grandeur; between loftiness and exaggeration. To give an instance out of Homer, the author who can, with the greatest propriety, fly from one extreme of style to another:

  • “Heav’n in loud thunder bids the trumpet sound;
  • And wide beneath them groans the rending ground.”
  • Again,
  • “Reclin’d on clouds his steed and armour lay.”
  • So in this passage:
  • “As torrents roll, increas’d by numerous rills,
  • With rage impetuous down their echoing hills,
  • Rush to the vales, and pour’d along the plain,
  • Roar through a thousand channels to the main.”
  • It requires, I say, the nicest balance to poise these metaphors, and determine whether they are incredible and meaningless, or majestic and sublime. Not that I think anything which I have written, or can write, admits of comparison with these. I am not quite so foolish; but what I would be understood to contend for is, that we should give eloquence free rein, and not restrain the force and impetuosity of genius within too narrow a compass. But it will be said, perhaps, that one law applies to orators, another to poets. As if, in truth, Marc-Tully were not as bold in his metaphors as any of the poets! But not to mention particular instances from him, in a point where, I imagine, there can be no dispute; does Demosthenes himself, that model and standard of true oratory, does Demosthenes check and repress the fire of his indignation, in that well-known passage which begins thus?—“These wicked men, these flatterers, and these destroyers of mankind,” &c.—And again: “It is neither with stones nor bricks that I have fortified this city,” &c.—And afterwards: “I have thrown up these out-works before Attica, and pointed out to you all the resources which human prudence can suggest,” &c.—And in another place: “O Athenians, I swear by the immortal gods that he is intoxicated with the grandeur of his own actions,” &c.—But what can be more daring and beautiful than that long digression which begins in this manner: “A terrible disease?”—The following passage likewise, though somewhat shorter, is equally boldly conceived: “Then it was I rose up in opposition to the daring Pytho, who poured forth a torrent of menaces against you,” &c.—The subsequent stricture is of the same stamp: “When a man has strengthened himself, as Philip has, in avarice and wickedness, the first pretence, the first false step, be it ever so inconsiderable, has overthrown and destroyed all,” &c.—So in the same style with the foregoing is this:—“Railed off, as it were, from the privileges of society, by the concurrent and just judgments of the three tribunals in the city.”—And in the same place: “O Aristogiton! you have betrayed that mercy which used to be shewn to offences of this nature, or rather, indeed, you have wholly destroyed it. In vain then would you fly for refuge to a port, which you have shut up, and encompassed with rocks.”—He has said before: “I am afraid, therefore, you should appear, in the judgment of some, to have erected a public seminary of faction: for there is a weakness in all wickedness which renders it apt to betray itself!”—And a little lower: “I see none of these resources open to him; but all is precipice gulf, and profound abyss.”—And again: “Nor do I imagine that our ancestors erected those courts of judicature that men of his character should be planted there, but, on the contrary, eradicated, that none may emulate their evil actions.”—And afterwards: “If he is then the artificer of every wickedness, if he only makes it his trade and traffic,” &c.—And a thousand other passages which I might cite to the same purpose; not to mention those expressions which Aeschines calls not words, but wonders.—You will tell me, perhaps, I have unwarily mentioned Aeschines, since Demosthenes is condemned even by him, for running into these figurative expressions. But observe, I entreat you, how far superior the former orator is to his critic, and superior too in the very passage to which he objects; for in others, the force of his genius, in those above quoted, its loftiness, makes itself manifest. But does Aeschines himself avoid those errors which he reproves in Demosthenes? “The orator,” says he, “Athenians, and the law, ought to speak the same language; but when the voice of the law declares one thing, and that of the orator another, we should give our vote to the justice of the law, not to the impudence of the orator.”—And in another place: “He afterwards manifestly discovered the design he had, of concealing his fraud under cover of the decree, having expressly declared therein that the ambassadors sent to the Oretæ gave the five talents, not to you, but to Callias. And that you may be convinced of the truth of what I say (after having stripped the decree of its gallies, its trim, and its arrogant ostentation), read the clause itself.”—And in another part: “Suffer him not to break cover and escape out of the limits of the question.” A metaphor he is so fond of that he repeats it again. “But remaining firm and confident in the assembly, drive him into the merits of the question, and observe well how he doubles.”—Is his style more reserved and simple when he says: “But you are ever wounding our ears, and are more concerned in the success of your daily harangues than for the salvation of the city”?—What follows is conceived in a yet higher strain of metaphor: “Will you not expel this man as the common calamity of Greece? Will you not seize and punish this pirate of the state, who sails about in quest of favourable conjunctures,” &c.—With many other passages of a similar nature. And now I expect you will make the same attacks upon certain expressions in this letter as you did upon those I have been endeavouring to defend. The rudder that groans, and the pilot compared to a sea-god, will not, I imagine, escape your criticism: for I perceive, while I am suing for indulgence to my former style, I have fallen into the same kind of figurative diction which you condemn. But attack them if you please, provided you will immediately appoint a day when we may meet to discuss these matters in person: you will then either teach me to be less daring or I shall teach you to be more bold. Farewell.