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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Is the “poet” born or does he make himself? is poetry a godsend or an emery board, "limae labor”?

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The weighted response to the question if whether the poet is born or he is made claim that the poet must come into this world endowed with special qualities that constant daily exercise will develop and consolidate. Probably that's the way but the matter admits some thought.

First, the etymology itself of the word "poet" can help us to elucidate the dilemma. "Poeta" from the Greek ποιητής, "poietes" is the creator, writer, producer, maker, poet (maker of verses); and, of course, not everyone has creative ability for that. So poetry, from its origins, is connected with the gods. Poetry is "a gift of the gods." The poet is a "insanus" or crazy be taken by the "furor poeticus", by the "divine inspiration."

Remember yourself that the word "carmen" means "poem, verse," but also "spell, song, singing and enchantment, prophecy, prediction,  magic filter, religious formula, moral judgment ...".

The poet is also called "vates” in Latín, bard,  seer, prophet, poet inspired by the gods (curiously,  the Vatican is the hill of the "predictions" (vaticinia) or prophecies according to an etymology that not all admit, we are accurate, but that seems plausible).

So the poet is a person touched by divinity, which originally aired "carmina", poems, verses, judgments which are prophecies and messages from the gods. The poet sings and produces spells. I mentioned all this some time ago in another article; see: http://en.antiquitatem.com/aut-insanit-homo-aut-versus-facit-horace

This belief has been extended over time until today. We can remember  Cervantes and his reference to poetry as "the grace that the heaven  would not give me".

I work and I am always sleepless
to appear that I have as  poet
the grace that the heaven would not give me

Yo, que siempre trabajo y me desvelo
por parecer que tengo de poeta
la gracia que no quiso darme el cielo [...]

(Viaje del Parnaso, Journey to Parnassus, vv. 25-27)

From this perspective it is fair to say that "the poet is born."

But not everyone thinks the same since antiquity. So Horace disagrees in his literary  and prescriptive theory in letter form, Epistula ad Pisones, The Art of Poetry: To the Pisos
289-97
, with Democritus, who required poets some madness; Horace relies more on the exacting work  of polishing and correction,  in the "labor limae et mora",  in the work and perseverance of the emery board:

Nor would Italy be raised higher by valor and feats of arms, than by its language, did not the fatigue and tediousness of using the file disgust every one of our poets. Do you, the descendants of Pompilius, reject that poem, which many days and many a blot have not ten times subdued to the most perfect accuracy. Because Democritus believes that genius is more successful than wretched art, and excludes from Helicon all poets who are in their senses, a great number do not care to part with their nails or beard, frequent places of solitude, shun the baths. For he will acquire, [he thinks,] the esteem and title of a poet, if he neither submits his head, which is not to be cured by even three Anticyras, to Licinius the barber. (Horace. The Works of Horace. C. Smart. Theodore Alois Buckley. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1863.)

Nec virtute foret clarisve potentius armis,
quam lingua Latium, si non offenderet unum
quemque poetarum limae labor et mora. Vos, o
Pompilius sanguis, Carmen reprehendite, quod non
multa diez et multa litura coercuit atque
praesectum decies non castigavit ad unguem.
Ingenium misera quia fortunatius arte
credit et excludit sanos Helicone poetas
Democritus, bona pars non ungues ponere curat,
non barbam, secreta petit loca, balnea vitat.
Nanciscetur enim pretium nomenque poetae,
si tribus Anticyris caput insanabile numquam
tonsori Licinio commiserit.

Note: The Helicon is a mountain near Parnassus dedicated to the god Apollo and the Muses. The three Anticiras are three Greek cities with this name in which it is supposed to be raised hellebore, medicinal plant that is believed appropriate  to cure madness.

Some episodes and moments of Roman poets, who were for the inner strength of his decision, confirm the reality of this statement.

In general in past time and today the task of poetry enjoyed considerable prestige but little compensation money. They are numerous, as now, the examples of extraordinary poets misunderstood by their parents, who would have liked for them more lucrative jobs. This is the case of Ovid, Martial, etc.

An anecdote on Ovid in this respect, apocryphal by the way but interesting, is counted. Son of a traditional landowning family, he was sent to Rome with his brother to study rhetoric and become a good lawyer. Ovid was more interested in poetry than on the right. His father reproached him to devote himself to a task that already from Homer, who died in poverty, did not produce any profit.

Ovid himself tells us all this in his Tristia, IV, 10, 21 to 26 in which gives us a few autobiographical details. I play some verses and encourage the reader to do a complete reading.

Often my father said, " Why do you try a profitless pursuit ?
Even the Maeonian left no wealth." I was influenced
by what he said and wholly forsaking Helicon I tried
to write words freed from rhythm, yet all unbidden
song would come upon befitting numbers and what-
ever I tried to write was verse.

(The Loeb Classical Library, Translation by Arthur Leslie Wheeler)

Saepe pater dixit: “Studium quid inutile temptas?
Maeonides nullas ipse reliquit opes”
Motus eram dictis, totoque Helicone relicto
Scribere conabar verba soluta modis.
Sponte sua Carmen números veniebat ad aptos,
Et quod temptabam dicere, versus erat.

Well, probably the verse "quidquid temptabam dicere versus erat" (everything that was trying to say was verse) is the one that gave rise to the apocryphal story, but endlessly repeated undemanding way, that I refer below.

It is an appointment undoubtedly apocryphal (hidden, unsigned, which is what it means the Greek word ἀπόκρυφος, ἀπό, apó, away from, private, and κρυπτός, kryptos hidden) which  says that Ovid answered to his father's counterclaim:

Forgive me, I will never again write verse, my father

Parce mihi, nunquam versificabo, pater!

But this answer itself was the denial of what he claimed, because it itself is a verse.

It confirms its apocryphal character of the story some other parallel version, with some variation, provided precisely because the aforementioned verse is not among these of Ovid. So

I swear you, I swear you, father, I will never again write verse.

Iuro, iuro, pater numquam componere versus

Iuro tibi pater numquam componere carmen

Nunc tibi promitto nunquam componere uersus

Horace is also a good example of the internal force with which the gods touch  the poets. It is true that his father, a freedman who made a fortune, insisted on his son to study with the best teachers in Rome and then in Greece. Theirs, of course, were the letters, although being in Greece he participated in the Battle of Filippos on the losing army of the Republican Brutus,  one of the murderers of Caesar. He lived as he could until he entered the circle of the great Maecenas and Augustus himself, but never he left the poetry that opened the door of immortality.

The aforementioned text of the Epistula ad Pisones is a clear expression of the work that must accompany all inspiration.

Another similar example is this one of the witty, sometimes acid, sometimes tender Martial, who was born in Bilbilis next to the current Calatayud, in Spain. He went to Rome, the Eternal City, to succeed as a poet. Tired of bad life in the shadow of the powerful, he returned to his native Bilbilis, hosted by a wealthy widow. As peculiar thing, I will say that Pliny the Younger gave him the necessary support for the trip; aid so called Viaticum, from “via”,  way, road. Well, during his stay in Rome his friends advised him again and again to devote himself to the "forum", to the litigation, which is what then and now give money.

The epigram I reproduce draws perfectly the hard Roman atmosphere in which poets must survive.

Epigrams III, 38 a

What cause or what presumption, Sextus, brings you to Rome? what do you expect or seek here? Tell me. "I will plead causes," you say, "more eloquently than Cicero himself, and in the three forums  there shall be no one to equal me." Atestinus pleaded causes, and Civis; you knew both of them; but neither made enough to pay for his lodging. "If nothing is to be gained from this pursuit, I will write verses: when you have heard them, you will say they are Virgil's own." You are mad; all that you see here shivering in threadbare cloaks are Ovids and Virgils. "I will push my way among the great." That trick has found support for but two or three that have attempted it, while all the rest are pale with hunger. "What shall I do? advise me: for I am determined to live at Rome." If you are a good man, Sextus, you will have to live by chance. (Bohn's Classical Library (1897) edition)

Quae te causa trahit vel quae fiducia Romam,
Sexte? quid aut speras aut petis inde? refer.
'Causas' inquis 'agam Cicerone disertior ipso
Atque erit in triplici par mihi nemo foro.'
Egit Atestinus causas et Civis—utrumque
Noras—; sed neutri pensio tota fuit.
'Si nihil hinc veniet, pangentur carmina nobis:
Audieris, dices esse Maronis opus.'
Insanis: omnes gelidis quicumque lacernis
Sunt ibi, Nasones Vergiliosque vides.
'Atria magna colam.' Vix tres aut quattuor ista
Res aluit, pallet cetera turba fame.
'Quid faciam? suade: nam certum est vivere Romae.'
Si bonus es, casu vivere, Sexte, potes.

These poets and many others are examples of people who succumbed to the inner passion that consumed them, the poetry, and confirm the view whose claims to be born poet to be it, but it is also necessary to work hard with the emery board (labor limae et mora) .

The life of the great Virgil confirms us this need for constant improvement of the work of poetic. He spent the last years of his life to composing the Aeneid, the great epic song dedicated to the history and grandeur of Roman people and of the Emperor Augustus, who lived at the same time and  protected him.

His method is to dictate to his amanuensis and freedman Eros, morning dozens of verses that on the afternoon he  reduced to a few units. It seems he had a prose script more or less defined than it  would be the  work and he completed the various books according the  inspiration came to him. Even he left incomplete verses  to finish later if the hemistich (half verse) expressed the whole idea.

Suetonius tells us in the Life of Virgil, one of the lives of his De poetis, which in turn is part of the De viris illustribus:

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 p473remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape. 23 In the case of the "Aeneid," after writing a first draft in prose and dividing it into twelve books, he proceeded to turn into verse one part after another, taking them up just as he fancied, in no particular order. 24 And that he might not check the flow of his thought, he left some things unfinished, and, so to speak, bolstered others up with very slight words, which, as he jocosely used to say, were put in like props, to support the structure until the solid columns should arrive. (Published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1914)

Cum "Georgica" scriberet, traditur cotidie meditatos mane plurimos versus dictare solitus ac per totum diem retractando ad paucissimos redigere, non absurde carmen se more ursae parere dicens et lambendo demum effingere. "Aeneida" prosa prius oratione formatam digestamque in XII libros particulatim componere instituit, prout liberet quidque, et nihil in ordinem arripiens. Ac ne quid impetum moraretur, quaedam inperfecta transmisit, alia levissimis verbis veluti fulsit, quae per iocum pro tibicinibus interponi aiebat ad sustinendum opus, donec solidae columnae advenirent.

Aulus Gellius in XVII, 10 also remembers how he  produces his verses:

I remember  that the philosopher Favorinus, when he had gone during the hot season to the villa of a friend of his at Antium, and I had come from Rome to see him, discoursed in about the following manner about the poets Pindar and Virgil. “The friends and intimates of Publius Vergilius,” said he, “in the accounts which they have left us of his talents and his character, say that he used to declare that he produced verses after the manner and fashion of a  bear. For he said that as that beast brought forth her young formless and misshapen, and afterwards by licking the young cub gave it form and shape, just so the fresh products of his mind were rude in form and imperfect, but afterwards by working over them and polishing them he gave them a definite form and expression. (English Translation by John C. Rolfe.  Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1927.)

Favorinum philosophum, cum in hospitis sui Antiatem villam aestu anni concessisset nosque ad eum videndum Roma venissemus, memini super Pindaro poeta et Vergilio in hunc ferme modum disserere:  “Amici,” inquit, “familiaresque P. Vergilii, in his quae de ingenio moribusque eius memoriae tradiderunt, dicere eum solitum ferunt parere se versus more atque ritu ursino.  Namque ”  ut illa bestia fetum ederet ineffigiatum informemque lambendoque id postea quod ita edidisset conformaret et fingeret, proinde ingenii quoque sui partus recentes rudi esse facie et inperfecta, sed deinceps tractando colendoque reddere iis se oris et vultus liniamenta.

Note: This comparison with to lick the wolf had remarkable success and is naturally used in our Renaissance and Baroque.

In 19 B.C. when he already had finished the Aeneid but definitely not corrected, he went to Athens to review it. There he met with Augustus, who convinced him to return with him to Rome. He visited Megara under the scorching sun and fell ill. Just landed in Brindisi, he died on September 21, at age 51. Before dying, he asked the boxes containing the manuscripts of the Aeneid to burn it; previously he had already ordered it so in his will and asked his executors Varius and Tucca. No doubt this desire was due to his passion for perfection. It is said  it was the intervention of Augustus which prevented the poet's desire was fulfilled and the poem was saved for posterity that has always been a model of epic poetry. To Virgil it did not seem still presentable; It lacked the last hand.

The first tells us or the first and main source is Pliny in his Naturalis Historia VII 114 (alii 29, 30 or 31):

The Emperor Augustus, now deified, forbade the works of Virgil to be burnt, in opposition to the modest directions to that effect, which the poet had left in his vill: a prohibition which was a greater compliment paid to his merit, than if he himself had recommended his works. (Translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley)

Divus Augustus carmina Vergili cremari contra testamenti eius verecundiam vetuit maiusque ita vati testimonium contigit quam si ipse sua probavisset..

Donatus also in his Life of Virgil, XIV, 52 reflects the fact

When he sensed that his illness was getting worse, he asked  often and with great urgency for his cases (with writing roll), intending to burn the Aeneid . When no one complied, he ordered in his will that it should be burned, as a work uncorrected and unfinished.

Tiberius Claudius Donatus, Vita Publii Virgilii Maronis, XIV, 52

Quo ut gravari morbo se sentiret scrinia saepe et magna instantia petivit
crematurus Aeneida. Quibus negatis testamento comburi iussit ut rem inemendatam imperfectamque.

It should be added Gellius XVII 10.7, after commenting that the poet himself said that he perfected his verses as the bears shape their puppies, informs us:

That this was honestly and truly said by that man of fine taste,” said he, "is shown by the result. For the parts that he left perfected and polished, to which his judgment and approval had applied the final hand, enjoy the highest praise for poetical beauty; but those parts which he postponed, with the intention of revising them later, but was unable to finish because he was overtaken by death, are in no way worthy of the fame and taste of the most elegant of poets. It was for that reason, when he was laid low by disease and saw that death was near, that he begged and earnestly besought his best friends to burn the Aeneid, which he had not yet sufficiently revised. (English Translation by John C. Rolfe.  Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1927.)

Hoc virum iudicii subtilissimi ingenue atque vere dixisse, res,” inquit, "indicium facit. [5] Nam quae reliquit perfecta expolitaque quibusque inposuit census atque dilectus sui supremam manum, [6] omni poeticae venustatis laude florent; sed quae procrastinata sunt ab eo, ut post recenserentur, et absolvi, quoniam mors praeverterat, nequiverunt, nequaquam poetarum elegantissimi nomine atque iudicio digna sunt. [7] Itaque cum morbo obpressus adventare mortem viderat, petivit oravitque a suis amicissimis inpense, ut Aeneida, quam nondum satis elimavisset, adolerent.

Macrobius also  in his Saturnalia, I,24,6

Who at the time of death did  bequeathed his poem, because I wanted subtract the shortcomings of its reputation to posterity?

Qui enim  moriens poema suum legavit igni, quid nisí famae suae vulnera posteritati subtrahenda curavit?

Also Suetonius in his Life of Virgil. Although redundant, I offer the text of Suetonius at the end of the article , which includes all of the above and quotes a certain Sulpicius  the Carthaginian, of whom we know nothing and who  also is quoted in Anthologia Latina 653.

Otherwise the story is also on the lives of Virgil, in the called Vita Serviana, 26-28 B

Aeneidem...scripsit...,sed nec emendavit nec edidit: unde eam moriens praeccpit
incendí.

and in Probiana it is also repeated as in Donatus and Servius

The Aeneid was preserved by Augustus, though he (Virgil) in his will had decreed that it should be retained nothing he had not edited:

Aeneis servata ab Augusto, quamvis ipse testamento damnaverit, ne quid eorum quod non edidisset extaret

This situation confirms the need to work tirelessly to it appear as fluid verses which are but the result of a huge effort and emotional stress.

So I will sign also the definition with which I begin the article: the poet is born and becomes poet with permanent effort, with a constant "labor limae" So I follow the wise counsel of Horace on his  treaty of literary composition  "Epistula ad Pisones" v. 408-411:

It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].( Translated by C. Smart. Theodore Alois Buckley. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1863.)

Natura fieret laudabile Carmen an arte,
quaesitum est: ego nec studium sine divite vena,
nec rude quid prosit video ingenium; alterius sic
altera poscit opem res et coniurat amice.

And if it is so, how is it possible that modern poets publish a book of poems every  year or even every  semester? Probably because neither they were touched by divinity or apply the daily needed emery board ; they only are cluttering up lines with empty sounds meaningless, vacuous, the ancients said “flatus vocis”. And to them it is necessary also to apply the advice of so much quoted Horace  in Epistula ad Pisones, 445-450:

A good and sensible man will censure spiritless verses, he will condemn the rugged, on the incorrect he will draw across a black stroke with his pen; he will lop off ambitious [and redundant] ornaments; he will make him throw light on the parts that are not perspicuous; he will arraign what is expressed ambiguously; he will mark what should be altered; [in short,] he will be an Aristarchus: he will not say, "Why should I give my friend offense about mere trifles?" These trifles will lead into mischiefs of serious consequence, when once made an object of ridicule, and used in a sinister manner. ( Translated by C. Smart. Theodore Alois Buckley. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1863.)

vir bonus et prudens versus reprehendet inertis,
culpabit duros, incomptis adlinet atrum
transverso calamo signum, ambitiosa recidet
ornamenta, parum claris lucem dare coget,
arguet ambigue dictum, mutanda notabit:
fiet Aristarchus; non dicet 'cur ego amicum
offendam in nugis?' hae nugae seria ducent
in mala derisum semel exceptumque sinistre
.

I now offer the previously announced text of Suetonius

Suetonius, Life of Virgil, 35 and ss.

In the fifty-second year of his age, wishing to give the final touch to the "Aeneid," he determined to go away to Greece and Asia, and after devoting three entire years to the sole work of improving the poem, to give up the rest of his life wholly to philosophy. But having begun his journey, and at Athens meeting Augustus, who was on his way back to Rome from the Orient, he resolved not to part from the emperor and even to return with him; but in the course of a visit to the neighbouring town of Megara in a very hot sun, he was taken with a fever, and added to his disorder by continuing his journey; hence on his arrival at Brundisium he was considerably worse, and died there on the eleventh day before the Kalends of October, in the consulship of Gnaeus Sentius and Quintus Lucretius. His ashes were taken to Naples and laid to rest on the via Puteolana less than two miles from the city, in a tomb for which he himself composed this couplet:

"Mantua gave me the light, Calabria slew me; now holds me
Parthenope. I have sung shepherds, the country, and wars.

He named as his heirs Valerius Proculus, his half-brother, to one-half of his estate, Augustus to one-fourth, Maecenas to one-twelfth; the rest he left to Lucius Varius and Plotius Tucca, who revised the "Aeneid" after his death by order of Augustus. With regard to this matter we have the following verses of Sulpicius of Carthage:

"Vergil had bidden these songs by swift flame be turned into ashes,
Songs which sang of thy fates, Phrygia's leader renowned.
Varius and Tucca forbade, and thou, too, greatest of Caesars,
Adding your veto to theirs, Latium's story preserved.
All but twice in the flames unhappy Pergamum perished,
Troy on a second pyre narrowly failed of her doom."

He had arranged with Varius, before leaving Italy, that if anything befell him his friend should burn the "Aeneid"; but Varius had emphatically declared that he would do no such thing. Therefore in his mortal illness Vergil constantly called for his book-boxes, intending to burn the poem himself; but when no one brought them to him, he made no special request about the matter, 40 but left his writings jointly to the above mentioned Varius and to Tucca, with the stipulation that they should publish nothing which he himself would not have given to the world. 41 However, Varius published the "Aeneid" at Augustus' request, making only a few slight corruptions, and even leaving the incomplete lines just as they were. These last many afterwards tried to finish, but failed owing to the difficulty that nearly all the half-lines in Vergil are complete in sense and meaning, the sole exception being "Quem tibi iam Troia." (published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1914)

Anno aetatis quinquagesimo secundo inpositurus "Aeneidi" summam manum statuit in Graeciam et in Asiam secedere triennioque continuo nihil amplius quam emendare, ut reliqua vita tantum philosophiae vacaret. Sed cum ingressus iter Athenis occurrisset Augusto ab Oriente Romam revertenti destinaretque non absistere atque etiam una redire, dum Megara vicinum oppidum ferventissimo sole cognoscit, languorem nactus est eumque non intermissa navigatione auxit ita ut gravior aliquanto Brundisium appelleret, ubi diebus paucis obiit XI Kal. Octobr. Cn. Sentio Q. Lucretio conss. Ossa eius Neapolim translata sunt tumuloque condita qui est via Puteolana intra lapidem secundum, in quo distichon fecit tale:

"Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope; cecini pascua rura duces. "

Heredes fecit ex dimidia parte Valerium Proculum fratrem alio patre, ex quarta Augustum, ex duodecima Maecenatem, ex reliqua L. Varium et Plotium Tuccam, qui eius "Aeneida" post obitum iussu Caesaris emendaverunt. De qua re Sulpicii Carthaginiensis exstant huiusmodi versus:

"Iusserat haec rapidis aboleri carmina flammis
Vergilius, Phrygium quae cecinere ducem.
Tucca vetat Variusque; simul tu, maxime Caesar,
Non sinis et Latiae consulis historiae.
Infelix gemino cecidit prope Pergamon igni,
Et paene est alio Troia cremata rogo."

Egerat cum Vario, priusquam Italia decederet, ut siquid sibi accidisset, "Aeneida" combureret; at is ita facturum se pernegarat; igitur in extrema valetudine assidue scrinia desideravit, crematurus ipse; verum nemine offerente nihil quidem nominatim de ea cavit. Ceterum eidem Vario ac simul Tuccae scripta sua sub ea condicione legavit, ne quid ederent, quod non a se editum esset. Edidit autem auctore Augusto Varius, sed summatim emendata, ut qui versus etiam inperfectos sicut erant reliquerit; quos multi mox supplere conati non perinde valuerunt ob difficultatem, quod omnia fere apud eum hemistichia absoluto perfectoque sunt sensu, praeter illud: "quem tibi iam Troia."

   
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