Poetical Works of John Oldham/Horace’s Art of Poetry, imitated in English

HORACE’S ART OF POETRY, IMITATED IN ENGLISH.[1]

ADDRESSED BY WAY OF LETTER TO A FRIEND.

SHOULD some ill painter, in a wild design,
To a man's head a horse's shoulders join,
Or fish's tail to a fair woman's waist,
Or draw the limbs of many a different beast,
Ill matched, and with as motley feathers dressed;
If you by chance were to pass by his shop,
Could you forbear from laughing at the fop,
And not believe him whimsical or mad?
Credit me, sir, that book is quite as bad,
As worthy laughter, which throughout is filled
With monstrous inconsistencies, more vain, and wild
Than sick men's dreams, whose neither head, nor tail,
Nor any parts in due proportion fall.
But 'twill be said, 'None ever did deny
Painters and poets their free liberty

Of feigning anything.' We grant it true,
And the same privilege crave and allow;
But to mix natures clearly opposite,
To make the serpent and the dove unite,
Or lambs from savage tigers seek defence,
Shocks reason, and the rules of common sense.
Some, who would have us think they meant to treat
At first on arguments of greatest weight,
Are proud, when here and there a glittering line
Does through the mass of their coarse rubbish shine.
In gay digressions they delight to rove.
Describing here a temple, there a grove,
A vale enamelled o'er with pleasant streams,
A painted rainbow, or the gliding Thames.
But how does this relate to their design?
Though good elsewhere, 'tis here but foisted in.
A common dauber may perhaps have skill
To paint a tavern sign, or landscape well;
But what is this to drawing of a fight,
A wreck, a storm, or the last judgment right?
When the fair model and foundation shews,
That you some great Escurial would produce,
How comes it dwindled to a cottage thus?
In fine, whatever work you mean to frame,
Be uniform, and everywhere the same.
Most poets, sir, ('tis easy to observe)
Into the worst of faults are apt to swerve;
Through a false hope of reaching excellence,
Avoiding length, we often cramp our sense,
And make 't obscure; oft, when we'd have our style
Easy and flowing, lose its force the while;
Some, striving to surmount the common flight,
Soar up in airy bombast out of sight;
Others, who fear to a bold pitch to trust
Themselves, flag low, and humbly sweep the dust;
And many fond of seeming marvellous,
While they too carelessly transgress the laws

Of likelihood, most odd chimeras feign,
Dolphins in woods, and boars upon the main.
Thus they who would take aim, but want the skill,
Miss always, and shoot wide, or narrow still.
One of the meanest workmen in the town
Can imitate the nails, or hair in stone,
And to the life enough perhaps, who yet
Wants mastery to make the work complete.
Troth, sir, if 'twere my fancy to compose,
Rather than be this bungling wretch, I’d choose
To wear a crooked and unsightly nose,
'Mongst other handsome features of a face,
Which only would set off my ugliness.
Be sure all you that undertake to write,
To choose a subject for your genius fit;
Try long and often what your talents are;
What is the burthen which your parts will bear,
And where they'll fail; he that discerns with skill
To cull his argument and matter well,
Will never be to seek for eloquence
To dress, or method to dispose his sense.
They the chief art and grace in order show
(If I may claim any pretence to know)
Who time discreetly what's to be discoursed,
What should be said at last, and what at first;
Some passages at present may be heard,
Others till afterward are best deferred;
Verse, which disdains the laws of history,
Speaks things not as they are, but ought to be;
Whoever will in poetry excel,
Must learn, and use his hidden secret well.
'Tis next to be observed, that care is due,
And sparingness in framing words anew.
You show your mastery, if you have the knack
So to make use of what known word you take,
To give 't a newer sense; if there be need
For some uncommon matter to be said,

Power of inventing terms may be allowed,
Which Chaucer and his age ne'er understood;
Provided always, as 'twas said before,
We seldom, and discreetly use that power.
Words new and foreign may be best brought in,
If borrowed from a language near akin.
Why should the peevish critics now forbid
To Lee and Dryden, what was not denied
To Shakespeare, Ben, and Fletcher heretofore,
For which they praise, and commendation bore?
If Spenser's Muse be justly so adored
For that rich copiousness wherewith he stored
Our native tongue, for God's sake why should I
Straight be thought arrogant, if modestly
I claim and use the self-same liberty?
This the just right of poets ever was,
And will be still, to coin what words they please,
Well fitted to the present age and place.
Words with the leaves of trees a semblance hold
In this respect, where every year the old
Fall off, and new ones in their places grow;
Death is the fate of all things here below:
Nature herself by art has changes felt,
The Tangier mole (by our great monarch built)
Like a vast bulwark in the ocean set,
From pirates and from storms defends our fleet;
Fens every day are drained, and men now plough,
And sow, and reap, where they before might row;
And rivers have been taught by Middleton[2]
From their old course within new banks to run,
And pay their useful tribute to the town.

If man's and nature's works submit to fate,
Much less must words expect a lasting date;
Many, which we approve for current now,
In the next age out of request shall grow;
And others, which are now thrown out of doors,
Shall be revived, and come again in force,
If custom please, from whence their vogue they draw,
Which of our speech is the sole judge and law.
Homer first showed us in heroic strains,
To write of wars, of battles, and campaigns,
Kings and great leaders, mighty in renown,
And him we still for our chief pattern own.
Soft elegy, designed for grief and tears,
Was first devised to grace some mournful hearse;
Since to a brisker note 'tis taught to move,
And clothes our gayest passions, joy and love.
But who was first inventor of the kind,
Critics have sought, but never yet could find.
Gods, heroes, warriors, and the lofty praise
Of peaceful conquerors in Pisa's race,
The mirth and joys which love and wine produce,
With other wanton sallies of a muse,
The stately ode does for its subjects choose.
Archilochus to vent his gall and spite,
In keen iambics first was known to write;
Dramatic authors used this sort of verse
On all the Greek and Roman theatres,
As for discourse and conversation fit,
And aptest to drown the noises of the pit.
If I discern not the true style and air,
Nor how to give the proper character
To every kind of work, how dare I claim,
And challenge to myself a poet's name?
And why had I, with awkward modesty,
Rather than learn, always unskilful be?

Volpone and Morose will not admit
Of Catiline's high strains; nor is it fit
To make Sejanus on the stage appear
In the low dress which comic persons wear.
Whate'er the subject be on which you write,
Give each thing its due place and time aright.
Yet comedy sometimes may raise her style,
And angry Chremes is allowed to swell;
And tragedy alike sometimes has leave
To throw off majesty, when 'tis to grieve:
Peleus and Telephus in misery,
Lay their big words and blustering language by,
If they expect to make their audience cry.
'Tis not enough to have your plays succeed,
That they be elegant; they must not need
Those warm and moving touches which impart
A kind concernment to each hearer’s heart,
And ravish it which way they please with art.
Where joy and sorrow put on good disguise,
Ours with the person's looks straight sympathize.
Would'st have me weep? thyself must first begin;
Then, Telephus, to pity I incline,
And think thy case and all thy sufferings mine;
But if thou'rt made to act thy part amiss,
I can't forbear to sleep, or laugh, or hiss.
Let words express the looks which speakers wear;
Sad, fit a mournful and dejected air;
The passionate must huff, and storm, and rave;
The gay be pleasant, and the serious grave.
For nature works, and moulds our frame within,
To take all manner of impressions in;
Now makes us hot, and ready to take fire,
Now hope, now joy, now sorrow does inspire,
And all these passions in our face appear,
Of which the tongue is sole interpreter;
But he whose words and fortunes do not suit,
By pit and gallery both is hooted out.

Observe what characters your persons fit,
Whether the master speak, or Todelet;
Whether a man, that's elderly in growth,
Or a brisk Hotspur in his boiling youth;
A roaring bully, or a shirking cheat,
A court-bred lady, or a tawdry cit;
A prating gossip, or a jilting whore,
A travelled merchant, or a homespun boor;
Spaniard or French, Italian, Dutch, or Dane,
Native of Turkey, India, or Japan.
Either from history your persons take,
Or let them nothing inconsistent speak;
If you bring great Achilles on the stage,
Let him be fierce and brave, all heat and rage,
Inflexible, and headstrong to all laws,
But those which arms and his own will impose.
Cruel Medea must no pity have,
Ixion must be treacherous, Juno grieve,
Io must wander, and Orestes rave;
But if you dare to tread in paths unknown,
And boldly start new persons of your own,
Be sure to make them in one strain agree,
And let the end like the beginning be.
'Tis difficult for writers to succeed
On arguments which none before have tried;
The Iliad, or the Odyssey, with ease
Will better furnish subjects for your plays,
Than that you should your own invention trust,
And broach unheard of things yourself the first.
In copying other works, to make them pass,
And seem your own, let these few rules take place:
When you some of their story represent,
Take care that you new episodes invent;
Be not too nice the author's words to trace,
But vary all with a fresh air and grace;
Nor such strict rules of imitation choose,
Which you must still be tied to follow close,

Or, forced to a retreat for want of room,
Give over, and ridiculous become.
Do not, like that affected fool, begin,
'King Priam's fate, and Troy's famed war, I sing!'
What will this mighty promiser produce?
You look for mountains, and out creeps a mouse.
How short is this of Homer's fine address
And art, who ne'er says anything amiss?
'Muse, speak the man, who, since Troy's laying waste,
Into such numerous dangers has been cast,
So many towns and various people passed.'
He does not lavish at a blaze his fire,
To glare awhile, and in a snuff expire;
But modestly at first conceals his light;
In dazzling wonders then breaks forth to sight,
Surprises you with miracles all o'er,
Makes dreadful Scylla and Charybdis roar,
Cyclops, and bloody Lestrygons devour;
Nor does he time in long preambles spend,
Describing Meleager's rueful end,
When he's of Diomed's return to treat;
Nor when he would the Trojan war relate,
The tale of brooding Leda's eggs repeat;
But still to the designed event hastes on,
And at first dash, as if before 'twere known,
Embarks you in the middle of the plot,
And what is unimprovable leaves out,
And mixes truth and fiction skilfully,
That nothing in the whole may disagree.
Whoe'er you are, that set yourselves to write,
If you expect to have your audience sit
Till the fifth act be done, and curtain fall,
Mind what instructions I shall further tell,
Our guise and manners alter with our age,
And such they must be brought upon the stage.
A child, who newly has to speech attained,
And now can go without the nurse's hand,

To play with those of his own growth is pleased,
Suddenly angiy, and as soon appeased,
Fond of new trifles, and as quickly cloyed,
And loathes next hour what he the last enjoyed.
The beardless youth from pedagogue got loose,
Does dogs and horses for his pleasure choose;
Yielding, and soft to every print of vice,
Resty to those who would his faults chastise,
Careless of profit, of expenses vain,
Haughty, and eager his desires to obtain,
And swift to quit the same desires again.
Those, who to manly years and sense are grown,
Seek wealth and friendship, honour and renown;
And are discreet, and fearful how to act
What after they must alter and correct.
Diseases, ills, and troubles numberless
Attend old men, and with their age increase;
In painful toil they spend their wretched years,
Still heaping wealth, and with that wealth new cares;
Fond to possess, and fearful to enjoy;
Slow, and suspicious in their managery;
Full of delays and hopes, lovers of ease,
Greedy of life, morose, and hard to please;
Envious at pleasures of the young and gay,
Where they themselves now want a stock to play;
Ill-natured censors of the present age,
And what has passed since they have quit the stage;
But loud admirers of Queen Bess's time,
And what was done when they were in their prime.
Thus, what our tide of flowing years brings in,
Still with our ebb of life goes out again;
The humours of fourscore will never hit
One of fifteen, nor a boy's part befit
A full-grown man; it shows no mean address,
If you the tempers of each age express.
Some things are best to act, others to tell;
Those by the ear conveyed do not so well,

Nor half so movingly affect the mind,
As what we to our eyes presented find.
Yet there are many things which should not come
In view, nor pass beyond the tiring-room;
Which, after in expressive language told,
Shall please the audience more than to behold;
Let not Medea show her fatal rage,
And cut her children's throats upon the stage;
Nor Œdipus tear out his eyeballs there,
Nor bloody Atreus his dire feast prepare;
Cadmus, nor Progne their odd changes take,
This to a bird, the other to a snake;
Whatever so incredible you show,
Shocks my belief, and straight does nauseous grow.
Five acts, no more nor less, your play must have,
If you'll a handsome third day's share receive.[3]
Let not a god be summoned to attend
On a slight errand, nor on wire descend,
Unless the importance of the plot engage;
And let but three at once speak on the stage.
Be sure to make the chorus still promote
The chief intrigue and business of the plot;
Betwixt the acts there must be nothing sung
Which does not to the main design belong;
The praises of the good must here be told,
The passions curbed, and foes of vice extolled;
Here thrift and temperance, and wholesome laws,
Strict justice, and the gentle calms of peace,
Must have their commendations and applause;
And prayers must be sent up to heaven to guide
Blind fortune's blessing to the juster side,
To raise the poor, and lower prosperous pride.

At first the music of our stage was rude,
Whilst in the cockpit and Blackfriars it stood;
And this might please enough in former reigns,
A thrifty, thin, and bashful audience,
When Bussy d’Ambois[4] and his fustian took,
And men were ravished with Queen Gordobuc.[5]
But since our monarch, by kind heaven sent,
Brought back the arts with him from banishment,
And by his gentle influence gave increase
To all the harmless luxuries of peace;
Favoured by him, our stage has flourished too,
And every day in outward splendour grew;
In music, song, and dance of every kind,
And all the grace of action 'tis refined;
And since that opera 's at length come in,
Our players have so well improved the scene
With gallantry of habit, and machine,
As makes our theatre in glory vie
With the best ages of antiquity;[6]
And mighty Roscius were he living now,
Would envy both our stage and acting too.[7]
Those who did first in tragedy essay,
(When the vile goat was all the poet's day)

Used to allay their subjects' gravity
With interludes of mirth and raillery;
Here they brought rough and naked satyrs in,
Whose farce-like gesture, motion, speech and mien,
Resemble those of modern harlequin;
Because such antic tricks, and odd grimace,
After their drunken feasts on holidays,
The giddy and hot-headed rout would please:
As the wild feats of merry-andrews now,
Divert the senseless crowd at Bartholomew.
But he that would in this mock-way excel,
And exercise the art of railing well,
Had need with diligence observe this rule,
In turning serious things to ridicule:
If he an hero, or a god bring in,
With kingly robes and sceptre lately seen,
Let them not speak, like burlesque characters,
The wit of Billingsgate and Temple-stairs;
Nor, while they of those meannesses beware,
In tearing lines of Bajazet appear.
Majestic tragedy as much disdains
To condescend to low and trivial strains,
As a court-lady thinks herself disgraced
To dance with dowdies at a May-pole feast.
If in this kind you will attempt to write,
You must no broad and clownish words admit;
Nor must you so confound your characters,
As not to mind what person 'tis appears.
Take a known subject, and invent it well,
And let your style be smooth and natural;
Though others think it easy to attain,
They'll find it hard, and imitate in vain:
So much does method and connexion grace
The commonest things, the plainest matters raise.
In my opinion, 'tis absurd and odd
To make wild satyrs, coming from the wood,
Speak the fine language of the Park and Mall,
As if they had their training at Whitehall.

Yet, though I would not have their words too quaint,
Much less can I allow them impudent;
For men of breeding and of quality
Must needs be shocked with fulsome ribaldry,
Which, though it pass the footboy and the cit,
Is always nauseous to the box and pit.
There are but few, who have such skilful ears,
To judge of artless and ill-measured verse.
This till of late was hardly understood,
And still there's too much liberty allowed.
But will you therefore be so much a fool
To write at random, and neglect a rule?
Or, while your faults are set to general view,
Hope all men should be blind, or pardon you?
"Who would not such foolhardiness condemn,
Where, though perchance you may escape from blame,
Yet praise you never can expect, or claim?
Therefore be sure you study to apply
To the great patterns of antiquity;
Ne'er lay the Greeks and Romans out of sight,
Ply them by day, and think on them by night.
Rough hobbling numbers were allowed for rhyme,
And clench for deep conceit in former time;
With too much patience (not to call it worse)
Both were applauded in our ancestors;
If you or I have sense to judge aright,
Betwixt a quibble and true sterling wit;
Or ear enough to give the difference
Of sweet well sounding verse from doggrel strains.
Thespis, 'tis said, did tragedy devise,
Unknown before, and rude at its first rise;
In carts the gypsy actors strolled about,
With faces smeared with lees of wine and soot,
And through the towns amused the wondering rout;
Till Æschylus appearing to the age,
Contrived a playhouse, and convenient stage,
Found out the use of vizards, and a dress,
(A handsomer, and more genteel disguise)

And taught the actors with a stately air
And mien to speak, and tread, and whatsoe'er
Gave port and grandeur to the theatre.
Next this, succeeded ancient comedy,
With good applause, till too much liberty,
Usurped by writers, had debauched the stage,
And made it grow the grievance of the age;
No merit was secure, no person free
From its licentious buffoonery;
Till for redress the magistrate was fain
By law those insolencies to restrain.
Our authors in each kind their praise may claim,
Who leave no paths untrod that lead to fame;
And well they merit it, who scorned to be
So much the vassals of antiquity,
As those who know no better than to cloy
With the old musty tales of Thebes and Troy,
But boldly the dull beaten track forsook,
And subjects from our country-story took.
Nor would our nation less in wit appear,
Than in its great performances of war,
Were there encouragements to bribe our care,
Would we to file and finish spare the pains,
And add but justness to our manly sense.
But, sir, let nothing tempt you to belie
Your skill and judgment, by mean flattery;
Never pretend to like a piece of wit,
But what you're certain is correctly writ;
But what has stood all tests, and is allowed
By all to be unquestionably good.
Because some wild enthusiasts there be,
Who bar the rules of art in poetry,
Would have it rapture all, and scarce admit
A man of sober sense to be a wit;
Others by this conceit have been misled
So much, that they're grown statutably mad;
The sots affect to be retired alone,
Court; solitude, and conversation shun,

In dirty clothes and a wild garb appear,
And scarce are brought to cut their nails and hair,
And hope to purchase credit and esteem,
When they, like Cromwell's porter,[8] frantic seem;
Strange! that the very height of lunacy,
Beyond the cure of Allen,[9] e'er should be
A mark of the elect in poetry.
How much an ass am I that used to bleed,
And take a purge each spring to clear my head!
None otherwise would be so good as I,
At lofty strains, and rants of poetry;
But, faith, I am not yet so fond of fame,
To lose my reason for a poet's name.
Though I myself am not disposed to write,
In others I may serve to sharpen wit;
Acquaint them what a poet's duty is,
And how he shall perform it with success;
Whence the materials for his work are sought,
And how with skilful art they must be wrought;
And show what is, and is not, decency,
And where his faults and excellencies lie
Good sense must be the certain standard still,
To all that will pretend to writing well;
If you'll arrive at that, you needs must be
Well versed and grounded in philosophy;
Then choose a subject which you thoroughly know,
And words unsought thereon will easy flow.
Whoe'er will write, must diligently mind
The several sorts and ranks of human kind;
He that has learned what to his country's due,
What we to parents, friends, and kindred owe,
What charge a statesman or a judge does bear,
And what the parts of a commander are,
Will ne'er be at a loss (he may be sure)
To give each person their due portraiture.

Take human life for your original,
Keep but your draughts to that, you'll never fail,
Sometimes in plays, though else but badly writ,
With nought of force or grace of art or wit,
Some one well-humoured character we meet,
That takes us more than all the empty scenes,
And jingling toys of more elaborate pens.
Greece had command of language, wit, and sense,
For cultivating which she spared no pains;
Glory her sole design, and all her aim
Was how to gain herself immortal fame.
Our English youth another way are bred,
They're fitted for apprenticeship and trade.
And Wingate's all the authors which they've read.
'The boy has been a year at writing school,
Has learned division and the golden rule;
Scholar enough!' cries the old doting fool,
'I'll hold a piece, he'll prove an Alderman,
And come to sit at church with 's furs and chain.'
This is the top design, the only praise,
And sole ambition of the booby race.
While this base spirit in the age does reign,
And men mind nought but wealth and sordid gain,
Can we expect or hope it should bring forth
A work in poetry of any worth,
Fit for the learnèd Bodley to admit
Among its sacred monuments of wit?
A poet should inform us, or divert,
But joining both he shows his chiefest art.
Whatever precepts you pretend to give,
Be sure to lay them down both clear and brief;
By that, they're easier far to apprehend,
By this, more faithfully preserved in mind;
All things superfluous are apt to cloy
The judgment, and surcharge the memory.
Let whatsoe'er of fiction you bring in,
Be so like truth, to seem at least skin;

Do not improbabilities conceive,
And hope to ram them into my belief;
Ne'er make a witch upon the stage appear,
Riding enchanted broomstick through the air;
Nor cannibal a living infant spew,
Which he had murdered, and devoured but now.
The graver sort dislike all poetry
Which does not (as they call it) edify;
And youthful sparks as much that wit despise,
Which is not strewed with pleasant gaieties;
But he that has the knack of mingling well
What is of use with what's agreeable,
That knows at once how to instruct and please,
Is justly crowned by all men's suffrages:
These are the works, which, valued everywhere,
Enrich Paul's Churchyard, and the stationer;
These, admiration through all nations claim,
And through all ages spread their author's fame.
Yet there are faults wherewith we ought to bear;
An instrument may sometimes chance to jar
In the best hand, in spite of all its care;
Nor have I known that skilful marksman yet
So fortunate, who never missed the white.
But where I many excellencies find,
I'm not so nicely critical to mind
Each slight mistake an author may produce,
Which human frailty justly may excuse.
Yet he, who having oft been taught to mend
A fault, will still pursue it to the end,
Is like that scraping fool, who the same note
Is ever playing, and is ever out;
And silly as that bubble every whit,
Who at the self-same blot is always hit.
When such a lewd incorrigible sot
Lights by mere chance upon some happy thought,
Among such filthy trash I vex to see't,
And wonder how the devil he came by't.

In works of bulk and length we now and then
May grant an author to be overseen;
Homer himself, how sacred e'er he is,
Yet claims not a pretence to faultlessness.
Poems with pictures a resemblance bear;
Some, best at distance, shim a view too near;
Others are bolder, and stand off to sight;
These love the shade, those choose the clearest light,
And dare the survey of the skilfullest eyes;
Some once, and some ten thousand times will please.
Sir, though yourself so much of knowledge own
In these affairs, that you can learn of none,
Yet mind this certain truth which I lay down:
Most callings else do deference allow,
Where ordinary parts, and skill may do;
I've known physicians who respect might claim,
Though they ne'er rose to Willis's[10] great fame;
And there are preachers who have great renown,
Yet ne'er come up to Sprat, or Tillotson;
And counsellors, or pleaders in the Hall,
May have esteem and practice, though they fall
Far short of smooth-tongued Finch in eloquence.
Though they want Selden's learning, Vaughan's sense;
But verse alone does of no mean admit;
Whoe'er will please, must please us to the height;
He must a Cowley or a Flecknoe[11] be,
For there's no second-rate in poetry.
A dull insipid writer none can bear,
In every place he is the public jeer,
And lumber of the shops and stationer.
No man that understands to make a feast,
With a coarse dessert will offend his guest,

Or bring ill music in to grate the ear,
Because 'tis what the entertained might spare:
'Tis the same case with those that deal in wit,
Whose main design and end should be delight;
They must by this same sentence stand, or fall,
Be highly excellent, or not at all.
In all things else, save only poetry,
Men show some signs of common modesty.
You'll hardly find a fencer so unwise,
Who at Bear-garden e'er will fight a prize,
Not having learnt before; nor at a wake
One, that wants skill and strength, the girdle take,
Or be so vain the ponderous weight to sling,
For fear they should be hissed out of the ring.[12]
Yet every coxcomb will pretend to verse,
And write in spite of nature and his stars;
All sorts of subjects challenge at this time
The liberty and property of rhyme.[13]
The sot of honour, fond of being great
By something else than title and estate,
As if a patent gave him claim to sense,
Or 'twere entailed with an inheritance,
Believes a cast of footboys, and a set
Of Flanders[14] must advance him to a wit.
But you who have the judgment to descry
Where you excel, which way your talents lie,

I'm sure will never be induced to strain
Your genius, or attempt against your vein.
Yet (this let me advise) if e'er you write,
Let none of your composures see the light
Till they've been thoroughly weighed, and passed the test
Of all those judges who are thought the best;
While in your desk they're locked up from the press,
You've power to correct them as you please;
But when they once come forth to view of all,
Your faults are chronicled, and past recall.
Orpheus, the first of the inspired train,
By force of powerful numbers did restrain
Mankind from rage and bloody cruelty,
And taught the barbarous world civility;
Hence rose the fiction, which the poets framed,
That lions were by's tuneful magic tamed,
And tigers, charmed by his harmonious lays,
Grew gentle, and laid by their savageness.
Hence that which of Amphion too they tell,
The power of whose miraculous lute could call
The well-placed stones into the Theban wall.
Wondrous were the effects of primitive verse,
Which settled and reformed the universe;
This did all things to their due ends reduce,
To public, private, sacred, civil use;
Marriage for weighty causes was ordained,
That bridled lust, and lawless love restrained;
Cities with walls, and rampiers were enclosed,
And property with wholesome laws disposed;
And bounds were fixed of equity and right,
To guard weak innocence from wrongful might.
Hence poets have been held a sacred name,
And placed them with first-rates in the lists of fame.
Next these, great Homer to the world appeared,
Around the globe his loud alarms were heard,
Which all the brave to warlike action fired;
And Hesiod after him with useful skill
Gave lessons to instruct the ploughman’s toil.

Verse was the language of the gods of old,

In which their sacred oracles were told;
In verse were the first rules of virtue taught,
And doctrine thence, as now from pulpits sought;
By verse some have the love of princes gained,
Who oft vouchsafe so to be entertained,
And with a muse their weighty cares unbend.
Then think it no disparagement, dear sir.
To own yourself a member of that choir
Whom kings esteem, and Heaven does inspire.
Concerning poets there has been contest,
Whether they're made by art or nature best;
But if I may presume in this affidr.
Amongst the rest my judgment to declare.
No art without a genius will avail.
And parts without the help of art will fail:
But both ingredients jointly must unite
To make the happy character completa
None at Newmarket ever won the prize,
But used his airings and his exercise.
His courses and his diets long before,
And wine and women for a time forbore;
Nor is there any singing-man, we know,
Of good repute in a cathedral now,
But was a learner once, he'll freely own.
And by long practice to that skill has grown.
But each conceited dunce, without pretence
To the least grain of learning, parts, or sense.
Or anything but hardened impudence.
Sets up for poetry, and dares engage
With all the topping writers of the age:
'Why should not he put in among the rest?
Damn him I he scorns to come behind the best;
Declares himself a wit, and vows to draw
On the next man, whoe'er disowns him so.'
Scribblers of quality who have estate.

To gain applauding fools at any rate,

Practise as many tricks as shopkeepers
To force a trade, and put off naughty wares.
Some hire the house their follies to expose,
And are at charge to be ridiculous;
Others, with wine and ordinaries treat
A needy rabble to cry up their wit:
'Tis strange, that such should the true difference find
Betwixt a spunging knave and faithful friend.
Take heed how you e'er prostitute your sense
To such a fawning crew of sycophants;
All signs of being pleased the rogues will feign,
Wonder, and bless themselves at every line;
Swearing, ’Tis soft! ’tis charming! 'tis divine!’
Here they'll look pale, as if surprised,—and there,
In a disguise of grief, squeeze out a tear;
Oft seem transported with a sudden joy,
Stamp and lift up their hands in ecstasy;
But if by chance your back once turned appear,
You'll have 'em straight put out their tongues in jeer,
Or point, or gibe you with a scornful sneer.
As they who truly grieve at funerals, show
Less outward sorrow than hired mourners do,
So true admirers less concernment wear
Before your face than the sham flatterer.
They tell of kings, who never would admit
A confidant, or bosom favourite,
Till store of wine had made his secrets float,
And by that means they'd found his temper out.
'Twere well if poets knew some way like this,
How to discern their friends from enemies.
Had you consulted learnèd Ben of old,
He would your faults impartially have told:
’This verse correction wants,' he would have said,
'And so does this.' If you replied, you had
To little purpose several trials made—
He presently would bid you strike a dash
On all, and put in better in the place;

But if he found you once a stubborn sot,
That would not be corrected in a fault,
He would no more his pains and counsel spend
On an abandoned fool that scorned to mend;
But bid you in the devil's name go on,
And hug your dear impertinence alone.
A trusty knowing friend will boldly dare
To give his sense and judgment, wheresoe'er
He sees a fault: 'Here, sir, good faith, you're low,
And must some heightning on the place bestow;
There, if you mind, the rhyme is harsh and rough,
And should be softened to go smoothlier off;
Your strokes are here of varnish left too bare,
Your colours there too thick laid on appear;
Your metaphor is coarse, that phrase not pure,
This word improper, and that sense obscure.'
In fine, you'll find him a strict censurer,
That will not your least negligences spare
Through a vain fear of disobliging you.
They are but slight and trivial things, 'tis true;
Yet these same trifles (take a poet's word)
Matter of high importance will afford,
Whene'er by means of them you come to be
Exposed to laughter, scorn, and infamy.
Not those with ’Lord have mercy!' on their doors,
Venom of adders, or infected whores,
Are dreaded worse by men of sense and wit,
Than a mad scribbler in his raving fit;
Like dog, whose tail is pegged into a bone,
The hooting rabble all about the town
Pursue the cur, and pelt him up and down.
Should this poor frantic, as he passed along,
Intent on 's rhyming work amidst the throng,
Into Fleet-ditch, or some deep cellar fall,
And till he rent his throat for succour bawl,
No one would lend an helping hand at call;
For who, the plague! could guess at his design,
Whether he did not for the nonce drop in?

I'd tell you, sir, but questionless you’ve heard
Of the odd end of a Sicilian bard:
Fond to be deemed a god, this fool, it seems,
In 's fit leapt headlong into Etna's flames.
Troth, I could be content an act might pass,
Such poets should have leave, whene'er they please,
To die, and rid us of our grievances.
A God's name let 'em hang, or drown, or choose
What other way they will themselves dispose;
Why should we life against their wills impose?
Might that same fool I mentioned now revive,
He would not be reclaimed, I dare believe,
But soon be playing his odd freaks again,
And still the same capricious hopes retain.
'Tis hard to guess, and harder to allege,
Whether for parricide, or sacrilege,
Or some more strange, unknown, and horrid crime,
Done in their own, or their forefathers' time,
These scribbling wretches have been damned to rhyme:
But certain 'tis, for such a cracked-brained race
Bedlam, or Hogsdon, is the fittest place.
Without their keepers you had better choose
To meet the lions of the Tower broke loose,
Than these wild savage rhymers in the street,
Who with their verses worry all they meet;
In vain you would release yourself; so close
The leeches cleave, that there's no getting loose.
Remorseless they to no entreaties yield,
Till you are with inhuman nonsense killed.


  1. Oldham, in his introduction to this translation, or rather, adaptation of the Art of Poetry, explains the object he kept in view throughout. He says that he thought of turning the work to an advantage which had not occurred to those who went before him in the translation, by making Horace speak as if he were then living. 'I therefore,' he adds, 'resolved to alter the scene from Borne to London, and to make use of English names of men, places, and customs, where the parallel would decently permit, which I conceived would give a kind of new air to the poem, and render it more agreeable to the relish of the present age.' And it may be added, that this is the feature which constitutes its chief attraction for the modern reader. Of his plan of translation, and the liberties he took with his original, he says, ’I have not, I acknowledge, been over nice in keeping to the words of the original, for that were to transgress a rule therein contained. Nevertheless I have been religiously strict to its sense, and expressed it in as plain and intelligible a manner as the subject would bear. Where I may be thought to have varied from it (which is not above once or twice, and in passages not much material), the skilful reader will perceive 'twas necessary for carrying on my proposed design, and the author himself, were he again alive, would (I believe) forgive me. I have been careful to avoid stiffness, and made it my endeavour to hit (as near as I could) the easy and familiar way of writing, which is peculiar to Horace in his Epistles, and was his proper talent above any of mankind.'
  2. Sir Hugh Middleton, goldsmith, and citizen of London. He procured an Act of Parliament, in 1608, to bring a supply of water to the City from the streams of Middlesex and Hertfordshire. He nearly ruined himself by the undertaking, the Corporation refusing to assist him; but prevailing at last upon the King to take a share in the concern, he completed his work in 1613, when the reservoir at Islington was opened with great ceremony. The value of a share in the New River, originally worth 100l., has since risen to 10,000l. Middleton was knighted for his labours, and created a baronet in 1622.
  3. The custom of paying writers for the stage by the profits of the third night prevailed generally at this period, and not many years have elapsed since it was finally abandoned. But the role was not arbitrary. At an earlier date, the second night's profits were assigned to the author, and, in Henslowe's time, plays were frequently purchased, and paid for in advance.
  4. By Chapman.
  5. By Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. The same mistake was made in the sex of Gordubuc by Dryden, from whom it was copied, probably, by Oldham.
  6. The improvements in scenery and machinery (of which the first magnificent example was the Aglaura of Suckling), and the introduction of foreign operas, noticed with such applause by Oldham, were reprobated by Dryden as one of the causes of the degeneracy oi the drama.
  7. While Oldham was thus recording the prosperity of the stage, the dramatists were bitterly deploring its decline. At this very time the theatres were on the verge of bankruptcy in consequence of the political agitation, and the actors were migrating from the metropolis to the provinces in the hope of bettering their fortunes. Thus Dryden, in an epilogue spoken towards the close of 1681, describes the state of the players:

    'We act by fits and starts, like drowning men,
    But just peep up, and then pop down again.
    Let those who call us wicked change their sense,
    For never men lived more on Providence.
    Not lottery cavaliers are half so poor,' &c.
    Dryden, Ann. Ed. iii. p. 257.

  8. A poor fellow, so called, who died in Bedlam.
  9. Dr. Thomas Allen, to whom some allusions will be found in Pepys
  10. Dr. Willis was the most celebrated physician of his day. Lower, with whom Oldham was intimate, was his pupil and friend, and succeeded him in his practice.
  11. The Irish priest immortalized by Dryden's satire. A curious sketch of him appears in Marvel's poems.
  12. Throwing for the hammer, leaping for slippers, and dancing for the ring were amongst the sports practised at wakes. See Brand's Antiquities, by Ellis: Herriot's Hesperides.
  13. Dryden had brought rhyme into universal fashion by his use and defence of it in his heroic plays. But he had renounced the heresy three years before this poem of Oldham's was published. His recantation dates from the production of All for Love (the only play, according to Dr. Johnson, he wrote to please himself), in 1678. It was not so easy, however, to check the impulse he had given to the use of rhyme, and we here learn from Oldham that it was the common vice of every coxcomb about town.
  14. Flemish barbs were in general request amongst people of quality, and are frequently mentioned in the comedies of the Restoration. Some of the nobility used to drive six Flemish horses in the time of Elizabeth. The custom is alluded to by Massinger.