But what’s the argument? the bards of Greece
And those of Rome must needs be of a piece;
As there the oldest hold the foremost place,
So here, ’twould seem, the same will be the case.
Is this their reasoning? they may prove as well
An olive has no stone, a nut no shell.
Soon, flattered by such dexterous logic, we
Shall think we’ve gained the summit of the tree;
In art, in song our rivals we outdo,
And, spite of all their oil, in wrestling too.
Or is it said that poetry’s like wine
Which age, we know, will mellow and refine?
Well, let me grant the parallel, and ask
How many years a work must be in cask.
A bard who died a hundred years ago,
With whom should he be reckoned, I would know?
The priceless early or the worthless late?
Come, draw a line which may preclude debate.
“The bard who makes his century up has stood
The test: we call him sterling, old, and good.”
Well, here’s a poet now, whose dying day
Fell one month later, or a twelvemonth, say:
Whom does he count with? with the old, or them
Whom we and future times alike contemn?
“Aye, call him old, by favour of the court,
Who falls a month, or e’en a twelvemonth short.”
Thanks for the kind permission! I go on,
And pull out years, like horse-hairs, one by one,
While all forlorn the baffled critic stands,
Fumbling a naked stump between his hands,
Who looks for worth in registers, and knows
No inspiration but what death bestows.
Ennius, the stout and wise, in critic phrase
The analogue of Homer in these days,
Enjoys his ease, nor cares how he redeems
The gorgeous promise of his peacock dreams.
Who reads not Naevius? still he lives enshrined
A household god in every Roman mind.
So as we reckon o’er the heroic band
We call Pacuvius learned, Accius grand;
Afranius wears Menander’s robe with grace;
Plautus moves on at Epicharmus’ pace;
In force and weight Caecilius bears the palm;
While Terence—aye, refinement is his charm.
These are Rome’s classics; these to see and hear
She throngs the bursting playhouse year by year:
’Tis these she musters, counts, reviews, displays,
From Livius’ time to our degenerate days.
Sometimes the public sees like any lynx;
Sometimes, if ’tis not blind, at least it blinks.
If it extols the ancient sous of song
As though they were unrivalled, it goes wrong:
If it allows there’s much that’s obsolete,
Much hasty work, much rough and incomplete,
’Tis just my view; ’tis judging as one ought;
And Jove was present when that thought was thought.
Not that I’d act the zealot, and desire
To fling the works of Livius on the fire,
Which once Orbilius, old and not too mild,
Made me repeat by whipping when a child;
But when I find them deemed high art, and praised
As only not perfection, I’m amazed,
That here and there a thought not ill expressed,
A verse well turned, should carry off the rest;
Just as an unfair sample, set to catch
The heedless customer, will sell the batch.