The "Ars Poetica", or, if we use its more proper title, the "De Arte Poetica Liber", was probably Horace's final work, written in 10 B.C. after he had ceased writing any other poetical works. Although it is usually considered as a separate work on it own account, it is written in epistolary form, and can therefore be regarded as Book III of Horace's "Letters". It was addressed to the two young Piso brothers, probably the sons of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the consul in 15 B.C. and a known literary patron. However, their exact identity and that of their father is not certain. At the same time, there is also a considerable controversy about the structure underlying the poem and its structure.

With regard to the poem's structure, Sabidius has followed the theory that it falls into three sections. Of these, the first (ll. 1-88) is preparatory to the main subject of the epistle, and contains some rules and reflections on poetry in general, which act as an introduction to the main sections of the poem, and it is written in an easy and beguiling manner essential to the epistolary form. The main body of the epistle (ll. 89-294) is concerned with regulating the Roman stage, and, especially, with giving rules for tragic drama, which at that time appeared to be the least cultivated and understood of the three dramatic genres, tragedy, comedy and satire. The last section (ll. 295-476) deals with correctness in writing, and is concerned both to explain the things which inhibit such correctness, and to consider the means by which it might be promoted. In this context, the poet's moral character is of central importance to Horace.

The purpose, or relevance, of the "Ars Poetica" is the subject of much argument and discussion, and is particularly difficult to nail down. Peter Levi, author of "Horace, a Life" (1997), argues that Quintilian, the old First Century A.D. schoolmaster, called it the "Art of Poetry", rather than a letter, because he saw it as a text-book for the two adolescent Piso boys, that is a book for children, and a school book about instruction in poetry. Another view is that the book was composed at the wish of Piso the father in order to dissuade his sons, particularly the elder one, from indulging any inclination they might have for writing poetry, firstly, by pointing out the difficulties of the art, and, secondly, by highlighting the ignominy to which a bad poet was likely to be subjected.

But, whatever the purpose of the book was, the "Ars Poetica" is surely a masterpiece of original work, full of good sense, humour and lightness of touch. The poem begins with a description of the mad artist, and ends with one of the mad poet. This final scene, with its last line which contains the metaphor of the poet as an unsatiated leech, Peter Levi considers to be especially brilliant.

As the text for this translation, Sabidius has utilised that of C. Smart, Philadelphia, Joseph Whetham (1836), and has also taken account of his translation, as edited by Theodore Alois Buckley, New York, Harper & Brothers (1863).

In the appendix at the foot of this translation Sabidius has listed some famous quotations taken from this work. That as many as eighteen are included is surely a tribute to the quality of this remarkable poem.


If a painter should wish to join a horse's neck to a human head, and lay different coloured feathers over limbs gathered from every part (of nature), so that a woman (who is) beautiful at the top (of her body) ends up as a repulsive black fish below, could you, my friend, if you were admitted to such a sight, withhold your laughter? Believe me, Pisones, this book, the fantastic ideas of which, will, like a sick man's dreams, be shaped in such a way that neither top nor bottom can be shaped in any one form, will be exactly similar to such a picture. 'Painters and poets alike, have always had the right to attempt such thing (as this),' (you will say). (This) we know, and we seek and grant this privilege in turn, but not to such an extent that the savage should associate with the tame, nor so that serpents should be coupled with birds, or lambs with tigers. 
To lofty introductions, often promising great (things), a purple patch or two is tacked on, in order to give a striking effect, (as) when the grove and altar of Diana and the meandering of a stream hurrying through pleasant fields, or the river Rhine or a rainbow, is described; but, on occasions, there has been no room for such (things). Perhaps, too, you know how to draw a cypress; (but) what (good is) that, if (he,) who is being painted at a given price, is (shown) swimming desperately away from (the fragments) of a wrecked ship? A wine-jar was put in place first; why, as the wheel revolves, does a pitcher result? In a word, let it be whatever you like, so long as it is simple and uniform.
The majority of (us) poets, a father and young men worthy of their father, are deceived by the appearance of (what is) right: (it is when) I labour to be brief (that) I become obscure; nerves and spirit fail (him) who is seeking an easy (style); (he) who aims at grandeur is bombastic; (he who is) too cautious and (is) fearful of the storm crawls along the ground; (he) who wants to vary a simple subject in an unnatural manner paints a dolphin in the woods, (or) a boar amongst the waves. The avoidance of error leads to a fault, if skill is lacking.

Any smith (hanging) around (the site of) the Aemilian school will both express the nails and imitate the easy-flowing hair in bronze, (yet he is) unfortunate in the completion of his work, because he does not know how to shape the whole (piece): if I were of a mind to compose anything, I should no more choose that I should be such (a one) than to be remembered for a broken nose, while appearing in public with (fine) black eyes and (jet-)black hair.

(You,) who write, must pick a subject suited to your abilities, and consider for a long time what your shoulders will refuse to bear, and what they can manage (to support). Neither eloquence nor a lucid arrangement will desert the man whose subject is chosen in accordance with his abilities. This, or I am much mistaken, will constitute the merit and beauty of method, that (the poet) should say right now (the things) which ought to be said right now, (and) defer most of his (thoughts) and omit (them) for the present time.

Delicate and cautious too in his linking of words, the author of the promised poem must embrace one and reject another. You will have expressed yourself uncommonly well, if some skilful combination should render some well-known word (as) new. If it happens to be necessary to explain some abstruse subjects by newly-invented terms, there will also be the chance to invent (words) unheard of by the Cethegi of old; and the right will be granted, if used with moderation, and new and recently formed words will have authority, if they descend, with (only) a slight alteration, from some Greek source. But why should the Romans grant to Caecilius and Plautus (something) which they have denied to Virgil and Varius? Why should I be envied, if I can acquire a few (words), when the tongue of Cato and Ennius has enriched our fathers' language, and has produced new names for things? We have been allowed, and ever will be allowed, to coin the name (of a word) impressed with the current stamp. As the woods are changed by their (falling) leaves during the fleeting years, the earliest (ones) fall off (first): in this way old age destroys words, and newly invented (ones) flourish and bloom as in the manner of young men. We and our (works) are destined for death: whether Neptune, having been welcomed on land, defends our fleets from the North Winds, the work of a king (indeed), or the swamp, barren for so long and (only) fit for oars, (now) nourishes its neighbouring cities and feels the weighty plough, or the river, having learned a better route, has changed its course, (which was so) damaging to crops, mortal works are destined to perish. Still less can the glory and charm of language be long-lived. Many (words), which now are dead, will be born again, and names, which now (are held) in esteem, will fall away, if usage, which controls the regulation and the rules and the standard of speech, wills (it).

Homer has demonstrated in what measure the achievements of kings and chiefs and (the accounts of) dismal wars might be written; plaintive strains (i.e. elegies) (were) at first (assigned) to the coupling of unequal verses (i.e. in elegiac couplets hexameters alternate with pentameters), and, afterwards successful desires were included also; yet scholars dispute which author (first) published humble elegies, and the case is still before the courts. Rage armed Archilochus with his own iambus; socks (i.e. comedy) and the stately buskin (i.e. tragedy) adopted this foot (as) suitable for dialogue (i.e. the rapid conversation in iambics more readily engaged the attention of the audience), and to subdue the noise of the popular (audience) and made for the action of the stage. The Muse consigns to the lyre (the right) to celebrate Gods and the sons of Gods, and victorious boxers and the horse (which comes) first in the race (i.e. the poetry of Pindar), and the pains (felt) by the young (i.e. the poetry of Sappho) and the uninhibited (joys of) wine (i.e. the poetry of Anacreon). If I am unable, and too ignorant, to observe the alternatives (just) described and the complexions of works (of genius), why am I greeted (as) a poet? Why, out of false modesty, do I prefer to be ignorant than to be learned?


A comic subject will not be presented in tragic verses; likewise, the banquet of Thyestes is considered unsuitable to be recounted in verse of a familiar (cast) and almost fitting for the sock (i.e. comedy): let each species (of verse), having been allocated its (proper) place, hold (that place) in a becoming manner; yet sometimes even comedy raises her voice, and angry Chremes rails in a swelling strain; and (a writer) of tragedy usually expresses grief in an ordinary voice. Telephus and Peleus, when in poverty and exile, both cast aside inflated expressions and words a foot and a half long, if they care to move the heart of the spectator with their complaint.

It is not enough for poems to be beautiful: let them be tender and lead the heart of the listener wherever they desire. As men's faces smile on those who are smiling, so they shed tears with those who are weeping. If you want me to weep, you must first show grief yourself: then, Telephus or Peleus, your misfortunes will distress me. Sad words suit a sorrowful face, (words) full of threats an angry (one), wanton (expressions) a playful (look), and, when speaking of serious (matters), a solemn (one). For, from our very birth, nature adjusts our inner (feelings) to every circumstance of fortune: she delights (us) or impels (us) to anger, or makes (us) sink to the ground choking with grievous sorrow. If you bring to the stage something untried, and venture to form a new character, let it be preserved to the end as it was introduced at the beginning and be consistent with itself.

It is difficult to express common (topics in such a way as to make them appear) our own (property), and you will be wiser to divide the story of Troy into acts, than to be the first to introduce (themes which are) unknown and untold:  public subject-matter will become your private property, if you do not dwell around ground (which is) common and open (to all), nor, as a translator, (should you be so) faithful as to take pains to render (the original) word for word, nor, (as) an imitator, should you leap into a straitened (place), from where (a sense of) shame and the rules of your work may forbid you to proceed, nor should you begin in a style like the cyclic bards of old: 'I shall sing of the fate of Priam and the famous war'. What will produce this boaster worthy of so great an abyss? The mountains are in labour, (and) a ridiculous mouse will be born. How much more sensible (is) he who attempts nothing unsuitable (i.e. Homer): 'Tell me, (O) Muse, of the man who, after the occasion of Troy's fall, saw the customs and cities of many people'. He does not intend (to produce) smoke from a flash, but to give light from the smoke, so that from it he may reveal his splendid marvels: Antiphates (i.e. the cannibal king), and Scylla, together with the Cyclops (i.e. Polyphemus), and Charybdis; neither does he begin the Return of Diomedes from the death of Meleager (i.e. as in the case of the cyclic bard Antimachus) nor the Trojan War from the double egg (i.e. the birth of Helen from Leda's eggs): he always hastens to the event, and hurries the listener into the midst of things, as though (they were) well-known, and (the things) he has handled which he despairs of being able to burnish brightly he omits; and he forms his fictions in such a manner, (and) so mingles the false with the true, that the middle will not be out of harmony with the beginning, nor the end with the middle.

Consider what I, and, with me, the public, expect, if you are in need of an applauding (spectator) who waits for the curtain (to fall), and who will sit continuously, until the singer calls out, 'Clap your (hands)!' The behaviour of every age-group must be noted by you, and a proper respect must be assigned to various dispositions and ages. A child, who already knows how to express himself in words and imprints the ground with a sure tread, delights to play with his fellows and thoughtlessly contracts and sets aside anger, and is subject to change from hour to hour. The beardless youth, after his guardian has at last been disposed of, rejoices in horses and dogs and the sunny grass of the Campus (Martius); (he is) easily led in being turned towards vice, rude to advisers, a tardy provider of what is advantageous, free with his money, aspiring and passionate, and swift to discard the objects of his desire. (Then,) after our inclinations have changed, the age and spirit of manhood seeks wealth and connections, is devoted to (positions of) honour, and is wary of committing (any act) which he might struggle to correct quickly. Many difficulties encompass an old man, either because he makes money, and, (like) a miser, he abstains from what he has acquired and is afraid to make use of (it), or because he manages everything in a timid and feeble manner; (he is) dilatory, slow to hope, listless, and terrified of the future, morose and querulous, a praiser of times past, when he was a boy, (and) a castigator and critic of his juniors. Advancing years bring with them many advantages, our declining (years) take many (of these) away: an old man's stage parts should not be entrusted to a youth, and a man's to a boy: we should always dwell upon (those things which are) attached to and (are) appropriate to (a particular) age.

An action is either represented on the stage, or is reported (there) after it has been done (elsewhere). (Things) which are received by the ear excite the mind more slowly than (those) which are subjected to the faithful eyes, and which a spectator transmits to himself: you should not, however, present on stage (things only) fit to be enacted behind (the scenes), and you should remove from view many (actions) which the eloquence (of an actor) may soon report in person: let not Medea slaughter her sons in the presence of the people, nor the impious Atreus openly cook human entrails, nor let Procne be turned into a bird, (and) Cadmus into a serpent. Whatever you show in this manner, I view with incredulity and disgust. Let a play, which it is your wish should be in (public) demand and revived as a spectacle, be neither shorter nor longer than the fifth act. Neither let a God intervene, unless a difficulty worthy of his unravelling should present itself, nor let a fourth person take the trouble to speak. Let the chorus perform the part, and the strenuous role, of an actor, and let it not sing anything in between the acts that is not connected with, and does (not) adhere closely to, the plot. Let it favour the good, and give (them) friendly counsel, and let it restrain the passionate, and be pleased to appease (those) boiling (with rage). Let it praise the repast of a frugal table, (and let) it (praise) wholesome justice, and laws, and peace with its open gates. Let it keep concealed (the secrets) entrusted to it, and let it pray to the gods, and beseech (them) that good fortune may return to the poor, and abandon the proud.

The pipe, not, as now, ringed with brass, and a rival to the trumpet, but slender and simple (in form) with a small opening, was employed to accompany and assist the chorus, and to fill with its tones the (rows of) seats, which were not yet too densely crowded, where the people, being doubtless easy to count, as being few (in number), and (being) honest and decent and modest, assembled. When the victorious (people of Rome) began to extend their territories, and a wider (circuit of) wall (began) to encompass  the city, their Genius was indulged on festal days by (drinking) wine during the daytime without penalty, and a greater (degree of) licence emerged both in the number (of verses) and the measures (of music). For what (sense of) taste could an unlettered rustic (yokel), and (one just) freed from his labours, demonstrate, when mingled with an urbane (city-dweller), the base-born with (a man) of honourable birth? Thus, the pipe-player added both a (quicker) movement and a richer (modulation) to the ancient art, and trailed his robe as he strutted across the stage; in this way, too, (new) notes increased the (range of) the sober lyre, and a cascading (style of) eloquence brought an unfamiliar (way of) speaking (to the theatre), and the sentiments (of the chorus), quick with useful pieces (of advice) and prescient of the future, did not differ (in quality) from the oracles at Delphi.

(The man) who, for the sake of a common he-goat, competed in tragic verse, soon after presented wild Satyrs naked (on the stage), and, (with) rough (sarcasm,) attempted a jest (i.e. wrote a Satyric drama to accompany tragic trilogies), (while still keeping) the gravity (of tragedy) unharmed, for the (reason) that the spectator, having been engaged in festal rites, and (being) both drunk and disorderly, had to be kept in his seat by enticements and welcome novelty. However, it will be expedient so to recommend the banterers and the cheeky Satyrs, and so to turn (things) of a serious (nature) into a jest, that, whatever God and whatever hero shall be introduced (on to the stage), he may, having (until) recently been seen in regal gold and purple, not descend, through vulgar language, to (the level of) obscure taverns, nor, while he spurns the ground, snatch at clouds and vacant (spaces). Tragedy, disdaining to spout trivial verses, like a matron, compelled to dance around on festal days, will mingle with wanton Satyrs, (while preserving) some degree of modest (reserve). (As a writer), I shall not, (you) Pisones, be obliged (to employ) only plain and familiar names and words, nor shall I struggle to deviate so (widely) from the tragic style, that it does not matter (to me) at all whether the speaker is Davus (i.e. a slave), the brazen Pythias (i.e. a slave-girl), who has gained a talent by wiping Simo's (i.e. an old man's) nose, or Silenus, the guardian and attendant of his pupil God (i.e. Bacchus). From a well-known (subject), I shall produce such a fictional story that anyone you can think of might hope (to do) the same (thing): such (power) does a (proper) arrangement and linkage (of events) possess, (and) so much grace comes from (subjects) taken from the masses. In my opinion, the Fauns that are brought out of the woods should always take care neither to play about with over-emotional verses or to loose off (volleys of) obscene and shameful words, as if they had been brought up on street corners and almost in the forum. (At this all) will take offence who have a horse (i.e. knights), a father (i.e. nobles) or estates (i.e. the wealthy), nor, whatever the purchaser of roasted chick-peas and nuts (i.e. the common people, who consume these articles during performances) approves of, do they receive (it) with favourable minds or award (it) the (winner's) garland.

A long syllable placed after a short (one) is called an Iambus, (that is) a quick foot; from here also it commanded the name of trimeter to be added to iambics, although it delivered six beats (i.e. an iambic meter consists of two feet), being like itself from first to last (i.e. they were pure iambic lines). Not so long ago, in order that it might come somewhat slower and with more weight upon the ear, it obligingly and patiently received the steadfast spondees (i.e. feet consisting of two long syllables) into its family heritage, (but) not (being so) understanding as to relinquish the second and fourth position; this (iambus in the second and fourth feet) rarely appears in Accius' noble trimeters, and stamps the verses of Ennius, brought on to the stage with a heavy weight, (as) work (which is) too hasty and lacking in care, or with the damaging charge of artistic ignorance.

Not every critic discerns unrhythmical poems, and an unmerited indulgence has been granted to Roman poets. Shall I, on this account, run riot, and write without licence? Or should I suppose that everyone will see my faults, (while I am) safe and secure with the expectation of a pardon? In short, I have avoided censure, (but) haven't earned any praise. You (who wish to excel,) turn (the pages) of your Greek models night, (and) day. But our ancestors praised both the rhythms and the witticisms of Plautus, admiring both of these too readily, I will not say foolishly, if only you and I know how to distinguish a coarse (joke) from a witty remark, and understand the proper sound (of a verse) with (the aid of) our fingers and ears.

Thespis is said to have invented a type (of drama) unknown to the tragic Muse, and to have conveyed (his actors) in wagons, and these, with the lees (of wine) smeared all over their faces, sang and performed. After him (came) Aeschylus, the inventor of the face-mask and the decent robe, and he covered the stage with boards of a moderate size, and taught (his actors) to speak in a lofty voice and to wear the buskin (i.e. to perform tragedies). The old comedy followed these (tragedies), not without considerable applause, but its freedom degenerated into excess and violence, needing to be regulated by law: a law was approved, and the chorus, its right to abuse having been removed, became shamefully silent.

Our poets have left nothing untried, nor have they merited the least honour, when they ventured to forsake the footsteps of the Greeks and to celebrate domestic exploits, whether they have instructed (us) in (plays) with robes (i.e. tragedies) or (plays) with togas (i.e. comedies). Nor would Latium (i.e. Italy) (have been made) stronger through its valour and its glorious (feats of) arms, than by its language, if the labour and hindrance of the file (i.e. the process of correction and revision) had not deterred every single one of our poets. O you, the offspring of Pompilius (i.e. Numa, the second king of Rome, from whom the Calpurnii Pisones claimed descent), condemn that poem which many a day and many a blot have not refined and corrected (right down) to the pared nail (i.e. absolute perfection).


Because Democritus believes genius (is) more successful than wretched study, and excludes sane poets from Helicon (i.e. a mountain in Greece sacred to Apollo and the Muses), a good section (of them) do not care to cut their nails or their beard, seek secluded spots, and avoid the baths. For he will (certainly) obtain the reward and name of a poet, if he never submits to Licinius, the barber, a head which is not curable by three Anticyras (i.e. producers of hellebore, the traditional remedy for madness). O, how unlucky am I, who purges away my bile at the season of springtime. No one else can compose better poems; however, there is nothing (in it) of such great value (as to make it worthwhile). So, I shall act like a grindstone, which is able to make steel sharp, (but is) itself free of cutting; (while) writing nothing myself, I shall teach the duty and business of a poet, from where resources may be procured, what nourishes and shapes a poet, what is proper, (and) what (is) not, to where (moral) virtue, (and) to where error, leads. 

Wisdom is both the beginning and the source of writing well. The writings of Socrates will be able to indicate your subject, and words will readily follow the subject, once it has been provided. (He,) who has learned what he owes to his country and what (he owes) to his friends, with what affection a parent, a brother and a guest should be loved, what is the function of a senator and of a judge, (and) what (are) the duties of a general sent to war, that (man) will certainly know how to give suitable (attributes) to every character. I shall instruct a learned imitator to look for an ideal way of life and behaviour, and from this to draw expressions of real life. Sometimes, a play (which is) striking in its (moral) topics and proper in its character, (but) without any charm, (and) without (poetic) authority and skill, delights the people a good deal more than verses (which are) devoid of any substance and tuneful trifles. The Muse bestowed genius on the Greeks, and (the ability) to speak in an eloquent voice, and they were desirous of nothing else but praise. Roman boys learn by long computations to divide a pound (i.e. an 'as') into a hundred parts. "Let the son of Albinus (i.e. a well-known usurer) tell (me): if an ounce (i.e. an 'uncia') is taken from a quincunx (i.e. five ounces or 'unciae'), what is left over? You would have said: 'a third (of a pound) (i.e. because there were twelve 'unciae' to an 'as').' Well (done), you will be able to take care of your own affairs. (If) an ounce is added, what is the result? 'Half (a pound).' " When this avarice and craze for coppers has once tainted their minds, can we expect verses to be fashioned (such as) can be daubed with cedar (oil) and preserved in (cases of) polished cypress (n.b. the ancients used these kinds of wood to preserve their manuscripts, because they were not liable to corruption)

Poets want either to to benefit or delight (their audiences), or to address at the same time both the pleasures and the necessities of life. Whatever advice you give, let it be brief, so that the minds of the learners may quickly understand what is said, and keep hold of (it). Every superfluous (word) emanates from a heart (that is too) full. Let what is made up for the sake of entertainment be very close to reality: let not your play demand whatever it wants to be believed, nor extract a living child from the belly of the witch who has eaten (it). Hundreds of old people rail against (plays) which lack moral substance, and the lofty tribe of knights disregard solemn poems: (he) who mixes the wholesome with the sweet wins every vote, by delighting and admonishing his reader at the same time. Such a book earns money for the Sosii (i.e. well-known booksellers in Rome); it both crosses the sea, and extends its renowned writer a long duration (of fame).

Yet, there are faults which we should be ready to disregard: for neither does the string (always) make the sound which the hand and the mind (of the performer) intends, and frequently emits a sharp (note)
when he requires a flat (one), nor will a bow always hit whatever (target) it is aiming at. But, when there are many splendid (things) in a poem, I shall not be offended by a few blemishes, which either carelessness has effected or human nature has insufficiently guarded against. So what is (the conclusion we are to draw)? As a copying clerk, if he continually makes the same mistake, although he has been warned, is without an excuse, and a harpist, who always blunders on the same string, is laughed at, so (the poet) who makes many mistakes becomes for me a very Choerilus (i.e. an epic poet from Caria, who attached himself to Alexander the Great), whom, (when he is) tolerable in two or three (instances), I wonder at with laughter; in the same way I even feel aggrieved whenever good Homer nods off; however, it is acceptable that sleep should suddenly steal up upon a lengthy work.

In the same way, I even feel aggrieved, whenever good Homer nods off; however, it is acceptable that sleep should suddenly steal up upon a lengthy work. As (is) painting, so (is) poetry: there will be (some paintings) which will capture your (imagination) more if you stand nearby, and others (will do so) if you stand at some distance away; one loves the gloom, another, which does not fear the acute shrewdness of the critic, wishes to be seen in the light; the one is pleasing on one occasion, the other will please if seen again ten times. O (you), the elder of the young (Pisos), although you may be pointed towards a right (judgment) by your father's voice, and you are wise in yourself, take this precept along with you, and remember (it): in certain fields (of activity), mediocrity and a tolerable (degree of ability) are rightly allowed: (a man) experienced in the law and a pleader of causes is far removed from the excellence of the eloquent Messalla, and does not know as much as Aulus Cascellius, but yet he is of value: (but) neither men, nor Gods, nor (even) booksellers' shops have allowed poets to be mediocre. As, at an agreeable dinner, an out-of-tune orchestra, heady perfume, and poppy-seeds in Sardinian honey cause offence, because the dinner could be prolonged without those (things), so, a poem, created and invented to please our minds, if it falls a little short of the summit, sinks to the bottom.

(He) who does know how to compete in field sports keeps away from the weapons of the Campus (Martius), and he who is unskilled in ball-games, quoits, or hoops, keeps quiet, lest the crowded ring (of spectators) safely raises a laugh; Yet, he (who) knows nothing about verses, presumes to compose (them). (And) why not? (He is) a freeman and well-born, (and) above all he is assessed at an equestrian income, and (is) free from every vice. You will say or compose nothing against the will of Minerva (i.e. against the natural bent of your genius): such is your judgment, such (are) your feelings. But, if you ever do write anything, let it be submitted to the ears of (i.e read aloud to) Metius (Tarpa), (who is) a critic, and your father's and mine, and let it be held back (from publication) until the ninth year, while you deposit your papers in (your letter-case); you can destroy what you have not published, (but) a word, (once) released, can never be returned.

Orpheus, the priest and interpreter of the Gods, deterred the savage (race of) men from slaughter and foul food, (and,) on account of this, (he is) said to have tamed tigers and raging lions; Amphion, the founder of the city of Thebes, (is) also said to have moved rocks by the sound of his lyre, and to have led (them) wherever he wished by his engaging appeal. (For) this was once (considered to be) wisdom: to distinguish public from private (matters), (and) the sacred from the profane, to prohibit promiscuous sexual relations, to give rules to married (people), to build towns, (and) to inscribe laws on wooden (tablets). Thus, honour and renown came to the divine poets and their songs. After these, the excellent Homer and Tyrtaeus inflamed, through their verses, the spirits of men in the direction of martial campaigns; oracles (were) delivered, and the road of life was pointed out, by means of poems, the favour of kings was sought by Pierian strains (i.e. the tunes of the Muses), and games were also devised (as) an end to the long toils (of the harvest): do not, (then,) let the Muse, skilled on the lyre, and the singer Apollo, perchance, bring a blush to your cheek.

Do not (then) let the Muse, (who is) skilled on the lyre and the singer Apollo perchance bring a blush to your cheek. (The question) is asked, (whether) praiseworthy poetry arises from nature or from art: I do not see what either study without a rich (natural) vein, or untutored genius, can achieve (by itself): thus, the one circumstance requires the assistance of the other, and conspires amicably (towards the same end). (He) who is eager to reach the longed-for turning post on the course has borne and done much (as) a boy: he has sweated and shivered with cold, he has refrained from love-making and from wine; the flute-player who sings the Pythian strains was formerly a learner, and greatly feared his master. It is now enough for (a poet) to have said (of himself), "I compose wonderful poems; let a plague of spots take hold of the hindmost; it is shameful for me to lag behind, and, indeed, to confess that I am ignorant of (something) which I have not learned".

Like a crier, who collects a crowd (of people) to buy his goods, (so) a poet, rich in land and rich in money placed at interest, bids flatterers come (to praise his poetry) for a financial reward. But, if he is (the sort) who can serve sumptuous dinners well, and give security on behalf of a poor (and) shiftless (man), and come to his rescue (when he is) entangled in vexatious lawsuits, I'll be surprised if our wealthy (bard) will know how to distinguish between true and false friends. Whether you have given, or intend to give, something to anyone, do not lead (him, when he is) full of joy, (to hear) the verses (which) you (have) composed; for he will exclaim, "Fine! Lovely! Great!" he will turn pale; on top of this, he will even distil dew from his friendly eyes, he will jump about, he will stamp the ground with his feet (in ecstasy). As (those) who lament at funerals, (after) having been hired (to do so), say and do almost more than (those who are) grieving from (the bottom of) their hearts, so the fake is more moved than the sincere admirer. (Certain) kings are reputed to ply with many goblets, and to put to the rack with wine, (a man) whom they are keen to know whether he is worthy of their friendship; if you intend to compose poems, never let the thoughts lying hidden beneath the fox's (skin) deceive you.

If you recited some (piece of writing) to Quintilius (Varus) (i.e. a friend of Horace and Virgil, who died in 24 B.C.), he would say, "Please correct this and that." (If) you said that you could not (do any) better, having tried in vain (to make an improvement) two or three times, he would tell (you) to rub (it) out, and return your poorly turned verses to the anvil. If you chose to defend your fault (rather) than to correct (it), he would expend no further word or wasted effort (to stop you) from admiring yourself and your (work) alone without a rival. A good (man) and a sensible (one) will censure feeble verses, he will condemn clumsy (ones), he will affix a black mark to those (verses that are) poorly constructed by drawing his pen across (them), he will lop off ostentatious ornaments, he will insist that (the author) gives clarity to (lines where the meaning is) insufficiently clear, he will highlight an ambiguous statement, (and) he will mark (the things) that need to be altered: he will be a (true) Aristarchus (i.e. the celebrated grammarian of antiquity, famed for his critical power and for his impartiality as a judge of literary merit); he will not say, "Why should I give offence to my friend about (mere) trifles?" (For) these trifles will involve (a man) in serious trouble, once he is mocked and poorly received (by the world).

Like (the man) whom a bad skin disease, or kings' sickness (i.e. jaundice), or religious frenzy and a raging Diana (i.e. lunacy, as Diana was the lunar goddess) distresses, (those) who are wise are afraid to touch the crazy poet, and they avoid (him), (while) children worry (him), and unwisely pursue (him). If, like a fowler watching his blackbirds, while he belches forth his verses and roams around with his head in the air, he should fall down into a well or a ditch, although he may cry out in a long (drawn-out voice), "Help (me), Oh, my (fellow-)citizens," no one would be bothered to lift (him) out. If anyone were to take the trouble to offer him assistance and let down a rope, I should say, "How do you know, perhaps he threw himself down there on purpose, and doesn't wish to be saved?" and I should recount the death of the Sicilian poet. "Empedocles, while wishing to be considered an immortal god, leapt into fiery Etna in cold blood (i.e. deliberately). May poets have the right, to die and may they be permitted (to do so): (he) who saves (a man) against his will, does the same (thing) to (a man when) killing (him). Neither has he acted in this way for the first time, nor, if he were dragged back now, would he become a human being and set aside his desire for a celebrated death. Nor is it sufficiently clear why he keeps on writing poetry, whether he has pissed on his father's ashes or has disturbed with polluted (hands) some place which was struck by lightning. He is evidently mad, and, if, like a bear, he manages to smash the bars enclosing his cage, this pitiless reciter puts to flight (both) the unlearned and the learned; indeed, whomsoever he has seized, he holds fast and slays with reading, (like) a leech that will not let go of the skin, until (it is) full of blood."


1.  'Pictoribus atque poetis / quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas.' / scimus, et hanc veniam petimusque damusque vicissim.  'Painters and poets alike, (you may say), have always had the right to attempt any such thing as this.' We know this, and we seek this privilege for ourselves, and grant it to others in turn. (10-11.)

2.  Inceptis gravibus plerumque et magna professis / purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter / adsuitur pannus.  To lofty introductions, often promising great things, a purple patch or two is tacked on to give a striking effect. (14-17.)        

3.  Brevis esse laboro, / obscurus fio.  It is when I labour to be brief that I become obscure. (25-26.)

4.  Grammatici certant et adhuc sub iudice lis est.  Scholars dispute and the case is still before the courts. (78.)

5.  Proiicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba.  He casts aside inflated expressions and words a foot and a half long. (97.)

6.  Si vis me flere, dolendum est / primum ipsi tibi.  If you wish me to weep, you must first show grief yourself. (102-103.)

7.  Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.  The mountains are in labour, and a ridiculous mouse will be born. (139.)

8.  Semper ad eventum festinat et in mediis res / non secus ac notas auditorem rapit.  He always hastens to the issue, and hurries his listener into the midst of the situation as though it were well-known. (148-149.)

9.  Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti se puero.  Testy, querulous, and given to praising past times, when he was a boy. (173-174.)

10.  Vos exemplaria Graeca / nocturna versate manu, versate diurna.  You (who wish to excel), turn the pages of your Greek models by night and by day. (268.)

11.  Grais ingenium, Grais dedit ore rotundo / Musa loqui.   The Muse bestowed genius on the Greeks, and the ability to speak in an eloquent voice. (323-324.)

12.  Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci, / lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.  The man who mixes the wholesome with the sweet wins every vote, by delighting and admonishing the reader at the same time. (343-344.)

13.  Indignor, quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus. I feel aggrieved whenever good Homer nods off. (359.)

14.  Ut pictura poesis.  As is painting, so is poetry. (361.)

15.  Mediocribus esse poetis / non homines, non Di, no concessere columnae.  Neither men, nor Gods, nor even bookstalls have ever allowed poets to be mediocre. (372-373.)

16.  Nonumque prematur in annum. Let it be held back from publication until the ninth year (i.e. until the twelfth of never). (388.)

17.  Delere licebit, quod non edideris, nescit vox missa reverti.  You can destroy what you have not published, but a  word, once released, can never be returned. (389-390.)

18.  Non missura cutem, nisi plena cruoris, hirudo.  A leech will not let go of the skin, until it is full of blood. (476.)

Last modified onThursday, 02 February 2017 21:04
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