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

LXXVI. To Tuscus

YOU desire my opinion as to the method of study you should pursue, in that retirement to which you have long since withdrawn. In the first place, then, I look upon it as a very advantageous practice (and it is what many recommend) to translate either from Greek into Latin or from Latin into Greek. By this means you acquire propriety and dignity of expression, and a variety of beautiful figures, and an ease and strength of exposition, and in the imitation of the best models a facility of creating such models for yourself. Besides, those things which you may possibly have overlooked in an ordinary reading over cannot escape you in translating: and this method will also enlarge your knowledge, and improve your judgment. It may not be amiss, after you have read an author, to turn, as it were, to his rival, and attempt something of your own upon the same topic, and then make a careful comparison between your performance and his, in order to see in what points either you or he may be the happier. You may congratulate yourself indeed if you shall find in some things that you have the advantage of him, while it will be a great mortification if he is always superior. You may sometimes select very famous passages and compete with what you select. The competition is daring enough, but, as it is private, cannot be called impudent. Not but that we have seen instances of persons who have publicly entered this sort of lists with great credit to themselves, and, while they did not despair of overtaking, have gloriously outstripped those whom they thought it sufficient honour to follow. A speech no longer fresh in your memory, you may take up again. You will find plenty in it to leave unaltered, but still more to reject; you will add a new thought here, and alter another there. It is a laborious and tedious task, I own, thus to re-enflame the mind after the first heat is over, to recover an impulse when its force has been checked and spent, and, worse than all, to put new limbs into a body already complete without disturbing the old; but the advantage attending this method will overbalance the difficulty. I know the bent of your present attention is directed towards the eloquence of the bar; but I would not for that reason advise you never to quit the polemic, if I may so call it, and contentious style. As land is improved by sowing it with various seeds, constantly changed, so is the mind by exercising it now with this subject of study, now with that. I would recommend you, therefore, sometimes to take a subject from history, and you might give more care to the composition of your letters. For it frequently happens that in pleading one has occasion to make use not only of historical, but even poetical, styles of description; and then from letters you acquire a concise and simple mode of expression. You will do quite right again in refreshing yourself with poetry: when I say so, I do not mean that species of poetry which turns upon subjects of great length and continuity (such being suitable only for persons of leisure), but those little pieces of the sprightly kind of poesy, which serve as proper reliefs to, and are consistent with, employments of every sort. They commonly go under the title of poetical amusements; but these amusements have sometimes gained their authors as much reputation as works of a more serious nature; and thus (for while I am exhorting you to poetry, why should I not turn poet myself?),

  • “As yielding wax the artist’s skill commands,
  • Submissive shap’d beneath his forming hands;
  • Now dreadful stands in arms a Mars confest;
  • Or now with Venus’s softer air imprest;
  • A wanton Cupid now the mould belies;
  • Now shines, severely chaste, a Pallas wife:
  • As not alone to quench the raging flame,
  • The sacred fountain pours her friendly stream;
  • But sweetly gliding through the flow’ry green,
  • Spreads glad refreshment o’er the smiling scene:
  • So, form’d by science, should the ductile mind
  • Receive, distinct, each various art refin’d.”
  • In this manner the greatest men, as well as the greatest orators, used either to exercise or amuse themselves, or rather indeed did both. It is surprising how much the mind is enlivened and refreshed by these little poetical compositions, as they turn upon love, hatred, satire, tenderness, politeness, and everything, in short, that concerns life and the affairs of the world. Besides, the same advantage attends these, as every other sort of poems, that we turn from them to prose with so much the more pleasure after having experienced the difficulty of being constrained and fettered by metre. And now, perhaps, I have troubled you upon this subject longer than you desired; however, there is one thing I have left out: I have not told you what kind of authors you should read; though indeed that was sufficiently implied when I told you on what you should write. Remember to be careful in your choice of authors of every kind: for, as it has been well observed, “though we should read much, we should not read many books.” Who those authors are, is so clearly settled, and so generally known, that I need not particularly specify them; besides, I have already extended this letter to such an immoderate length that, while suggesting how you ought to study, I have, I fear, been actually interrupting your studies. I will here resign you therefore to your tablets, either to resume the studies in which you were before engaged or to enter upon some of those I have recommended. Farewell.