Sunday, August 22, 2004


Three Poets

Tennyson, sonnet entitled Poets and Their Bibliographies:
Old poets foster'd under friendlier skies,
Old Virgil who would write ten lines, they say,
At dawn, and lavish all the golden day
To make them wealthier in his readers' eyes;
And you, old popular Horace, you the wise
Adviser of the nine-years-ponder'd lay,
And you, that wear a wreath of sweeter bay,
Catullus, whose dead songster never dies;
If, glancing downward on the kindly sphere
That once had roll'd you round and round the sun,
You see your Art still shrined in human shelves,
You should be jubilant that you flourish'd here
Before the Love of Letters, overdone,
Had swampt the sacred poets with themselves.
Suetonius in his life of Vergil (22, tr. J.C. Rolfe) describes the poet's method of composition thus:
When he was writing the Georgics, it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning, and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape.
Suetonius also says (op. cit. 25) that it took Vergil 7 years to complete his Georgics. Since the Georgics contain 2188 lines, Vergil's rate of composition for this poem works out to less than a line per day.

In his Ars Poetica (386-390, tr. H. Rushton Fairclough), Horace "the wise adviser of the nine-years-ponder'd lay" wrote:
Yet if ever you do write anything, let it enter the ears of some critical Maecius, and your father's and my own; then put your parchment in the closet and keep it back till the ninth year. What you have not published you can destroy; the word once sent forth can never come back.
The "dead songster" who "never dies" is a reference to the third poem in Catullus' collection, a dirge for his mistress' dead pet sparrow (tr. F.W. Cornish):
Mourn, ye Graces and Loves, and all you whom the Graces love. My lady's sparrow is dead, the sparrow my lady's pet, whom she loved more than her very eyes; for honey-sweet he was, and knew his mistress as well as a girl knows her own mother. Nor would he stir from her lap, but hopping now here, now there, would still chirp to his mistress alone. Now he goes along the dark road, thither whence they say no one returns. But curse upon you, cursed shades of Orcus, which devour all pretty things! My pretty sparrow, you have taken away. Ah, cruel! Ah, poor little bird! All because of you my lady's darling eyes are heavy and red with weeping.
The dead songster never dies because Catullus has conferred immortality on it through his verses.

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