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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Art of Poetry

By Horace (65–8 B.C.)

Translation of Sir Theodore Martin

SUPPOSE, by some wild freak of fancy led,

A painter were to join a human head

To neck of horse, cull here and there a limb,

And daub on feathers various as his whim,

So that a woman, lovely to a wish,

Went tailing off into a loathsome fish:

Could you, although the artist’s self were there,

From laughter long and loud, my friends, forbear?

Well, trust me, Pisos, of that freak of art

The book would be the very counterpart,

Which with a medley of wild fancies teems,

Whirling in chaos like a sick man’s dreams,

A maze of forms incongruous and base,

Where naught is of a piece, naught in its place.

To dare whate’er they please has always been

The painter’s, poet’s, privilege, I ween.

It is a boon that any one may plead—

Myself I claim it, and in turn concede;

But ’twill not do to urge the plea too far.

To join together things that clash and jar,

The savage with the gentle, were absurd,

Or couple lamb with tiger, snake with bird.

Mostly, when poems open with a grand

Imposing air, we may surmise at hand

Some flashy fustian, here and there a patch

Of flaming scarlet, meant the eye to catch.

A grove shall be described, or Dian’s shrine,

Or through delightsome plains for many a line

A brook shall wind, or the Rhine’s rushing stream,

Or o’er the page the heavenly bow shall gleam.

All very fine, but wholly out of place!

You draw a cypress with consummate grace;

But what of that, if you have had your fee

To paint a wrecked man struggling in the sea?

A vase was meant: how comes it then about,

As the wheel turns, a common jug comes out?

Whate’er you write, by this great maxim run:

Let it be simple, homogeneous, one.

We poets, most of us, by the pretense,

Dear friends, are duped of seeming excellence.

We grow obscure in striving to be terse;

Aiming at ease, we enervate our verse;

For grandeur soaring, into bombast fall,

And, dreading that, like merest reptiles crawl:

Whilst he who seeks his readers to surprise

With common things shown in uncommon wise,

Will make his dolphins through the forests roam,

His wild boars ride upon the billows’ foam.

So unskilled writers, in their haste to shun

One fault, are apt into a worse to run.

The humblest statuary, of those that nigh

The Æmilian Circus their vocation ply,

A finger-nail will to a turn express,

And hit you off in bronze a flowing tress,—

Yet is his work a failure; for his soul

Can neither grasp nor mold a living whole.

In anything that I may ever write,

I would no more resemble such a wight

Than I would care to have dark hair, dark eyes,

If coupled with a nose of uncouth size.

All ye who labor in the Muses’ bowers,

Select a theme proportioned to your powers,

And ponder long, and with the nicest care,

How much your shoulders can and cannot bear.

Once right in this, your words will freely flow,

And thought from thought in lucid order grow.

Now, if my judgment be not much amiss,

The charm and worth of order lie in this:

In saying just what should just then be said,

And holding much that comes into the head

Deliberately back for future use,

When it may just the right effect produce.

In choice of words be cautious and select;

Dwell with delight on this, and that reject.

No slight success will be achieved, if you

By skillful setting make old phrases new.

Then, should new terms be wanted to explain

Things that till now in darkness hid have lain,

And you shall coin, now here, now there, a word

Which our bluff ancestors have never heard,

Due leave and license will not be refused,

If with good taste and sound discretion used.

Nay, such new words, if from a Grecian source,

Aptly applied, are welcomed as of course.

To Virgil and to Varius why forbid

What Plautus erewhile and Cæcilius did?

Or why to me begrudge a few words more,

If I can add them to my scanty score,

When Cato and old Ennius reveled each

In coining new words that enriched our speech?

A word that bears the impress of its day

As current coin will always find its way.

As forests change their foliage year by year,

Leaves that came first, first fall and disappear,—

So antique words die out, and in their room

Other spring up, of vigorous growth and bloom.

Ourselves, and all that’s ours, to death are due;

And why should words not be as mortal too?

The landlocked port, a work well worthy kings,

That takes whole fleets within its sheltering wings;

Swamps, sterile long, all plashy, rank, and drear,

Groan ’neath the plow, and feed whole cities near;

The river, perilous to field and farm,

Its channel changed, can now no longer harm,—

These, and all earthly works, must pass away;

And words, shall they enjoy a longer day?

Some will revive that we no more allow,

And some die out that are in favor now,

If usage wills it so; for ’tis with her

The laws of language rest as sovereign arbiter.