Study Greek models night and day.

Whatever advice you give, be brief, so that the teachable mind can take in your words quickly and retain them faithfully.

Whatever you invent for pleasure, let it be near to truth. We don’t want a play to ask credence for anything. The elder citizens chase things off the stage if there’s no substance in them, and the high-spirited youngsters won’t vote for dry poetry.  Combine pleasure with usefulness.

There are some mistakes we forgive. The string doesn’t always give the note that the hand and the mind intended: it often returns a high note when you ask for a low. The bow won’t always hit what it threatens to hit. But when most features of a poem are brilliant, I shan’t be offended by a few blemishes thrown around by carelessness or human negligence. But what then?  If a copyist goes on making the same mistake however much he is warned, he is not forgiven; if a lyre-player always gets the same note wrong, people laugh at him. I’m even angry when Homer nods, though a doze is OK in a long work.

Poetry is like painting. Some attracts you more if you stand near, some if you’re further off.


Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familiarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.

Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And Things unknown propos’d as Things forgot:
Without Good Breeding, Truth is disapprov’d;
That only makes Superior Sense belov’d.

Some positive persisting Fops we know,
Who if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,
And make each Day a Critic on the last.

Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
In every Work regard the Writer’s End,
Since none can compass more than they Intend.

Music resembles Poetry; in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.

Pope (b. 1688) was keenly aware of Psychology before it became a ubiquitous and pedantic school subject in the early 20th century: “Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do; Men must be Taught as if you Taught them Not” is Psychology in a nutshell. Nothing more needs to be understood, for coming at Psychology directly always fails; if great authors teach anything, it is that all Wisdom is profoundly indirect. And yet intention is all—as flexible as Pope is, you will be held to that.

Alexander Pope also earns points by praising Horace, his opponent.

Team Pope really wants to win this thing.

We moderns like to flatter ourselves that we are more easy-going and flexible than our predecessors, but it depends on who one reads; Pope and Horace are not rigid pedants: stand back from this poem/painting, you’ll like it better; don’t hanker after perfection; there are some beauties no method can reach—Pope learned from Horace’s nonchalant wit. And yet the easy-going can have high standards, too, and intimidating terms Genius, Master, and God in Pope’s context serve, with gentleness and suavity, beauties which continue to please.




  1. Jerry Parker said,

    March 24, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    The beauty and grace of Horace’s odes and epodes surpasses the more brittle charms of Pope’s verse. Both are great, but Horace is among those who stride the clouds!

    I suppose, though, that this really has little to do with your intention. I just ADORE Horace’s poetry, in Latin or in a really fine English rendering.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    March 24, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Jerry, please recommend a good translation of Horace! The translations have always seemed terrible to me.

    • Jerry Parker said,

      March 24, 2014 at 10:37 pm

      I know that the man is horribly (but just mostly justly) out of fashion, but Bulwer-Lytton’s 19th century translation has some real poetic quality to it.

      I hope that the very mention of Bulwer-Lytton does not make you upchuck!

  3. thomasbrady said,

    March 25, 2014 at 9:35 am

    I really need to read Lord Lytton, only if because he sold well in his day, and that Edgar Poe, whose opinion I trust, pronounced him one of the best novelists of historical fiction. Thanks. How interesting he also translated Horace. But not surprising. He settled in Italy I hear.

    • Jerry Parker said,

      March 25, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Whew! I thought that I might put you into high dudgeon at the very mention of Bulwer-Lytton’s name. Truth to tell, I never have read any of his novels. It is possible (though I cannot witness to such) that Bulwer-Lytton was a better poet than he was novelist. Maybe I should read some of his prose, too! Dawson’s “Makers of English Fiction” has a good chapter on this figure.

      • Jerry Parker said,

        March 25, 2014 at 2:19 pm

        W,J, Dawson’s comments in “Makers of English Fiction” do not constitute a full chapter, at least not in the second edition of it which I have read; sorry perhaps to have misled you about that. Dawson’s own book is very uneven; there is a lot of dross in that book, but what he says about Bulwer-Lytton is interesting and reflects the tastes of his times (late Victorian-Edwardian).

        Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a dramatist as well as writer of fiction; in fact, he himself put his dramatic productions foremost in his ambitions, according to Dawson, but it is the novels for which he is remembered. It could be that in writing for the theatre (and for his political oratory, too), he sharpened many of the same skills that are so important in writing good poetry.

        • thomasbrady said,

          March 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm

          Lytton’s Horace translations came late in his career.

          Unlike the overrated Henry James, who bombed when he tried to write for the stage, Lytton was a successful playwright. And a poet. And a liberal MP. Yet Lytton’s reputation is in tatters.

          • Jerry Parker said,

            March 25, 2014 at 4:21 pm

            Yes, it is sad that Literary Fashion and Trendiness condemn such talented and imaginative writers to oblivion (apart, in the case of Bulwer-Lytton, to films and operas based on his famous volcano-novel!). I think that Bulwer-Lytton and writers so important in their own times who suffer similar neglect need at least to be sampled in literary studies to let their writing make its own impression on literature students.

            As for Bulwer-Lytton’s Horace, one needs to keep in mind that Classical studies in Victorian and Edwardian times were basic to education and that sophistication in Latin and Greek was expected of a cultured man, who Bulwer-Lytton certainly was. Presently, that respect and widespread classical literary culture is infinitely less common and tends to become too specialist and crabbed.

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