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If you offer to the stage any thing unattempted, and venture to form a new character; let it be preserved to the last1 such as it set out at the beginning, and be consistent with itself. It is difficult to write with propriety2 on subjects to which all writers have a common claim; and you with more prudence will reduce the Iliad into acts, than if you first introduce arguments unknown and never treated of before. A public story will become your own property,3 if you do not dwell upon the whole circle of events, which is paltry and open to every one; nor must you be so faithful a translator, as to take the pains of rendering [the original] word for word; nor by imitating throw yourself into straits, whence either shame or the rules of your work may forbid you to retreat. Nor must you make such an exordium, as the Cyclic4 writer of old: "I will sing the fate of Priam, and the noble war." What will this boaster produce worthy of all this gaping? The mountains are in labor, a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth. How much more to the purpose he, who attempts nothing improperly "Sing for me, my muse, the man who, after the time of the destruction of Troy, surveyed the manners and cities of many men." He meditates not [to produce] smoke from a flash, but out of smoke to elicit fire, that he may thence bring forth his instances of the marvelous with beauty, [such as] Antiphates, Scylla, the Cyclops, and Charybdis. Nor does he date Diomede's return from Meleager's death, nor trace the rise of the Trojan war from [Leda's] eggs: he always hastens on to the event; and hurries away his reader in the midst of interesting circumstances, no otherwise than as if they were [already] known; and what he despairs of, as to receiving a polish from his touch, he omits; and in such a manner forms his fictions, so intermingles the false with the true, that the middle is not inconsistent with the beginning, nor the end with the middle. Do you attend to what I, and the public in my opinion, expect from you [as a dramatic writer]. If you are desirous of an applauding spectator, who will wait for [the falling of] the curtain, and till the chorus calls out "your plaudits"; the manners of every age must be marked by you, and a proper decorum assigned to men's varying dispositions and years. The boy, who is just able to pronounce his words, and prints the ground with a firm tread, delights to play with his fellows, and contracts and lays aside anger without reason, and is subject to change every hour. The beardless youth, his guardian being at length discharged, joys in horses, and dogs, and the verdure of the sunny Campus Martius; pliable as wax to the bent of vice, rough to advisers, a slow provider of useful things, prodigal of his money, high-spirited, and amorous, and hasty in deserting the objects of his passion. [After this,] our inclinations being changed, the age and spirit of manhood seeks after wealth, and [high] connections, is subservient to points of honor; and is cautious of committing any action, which he would subsequently be industrious to correct. Many inconveniences encompass a man in years; either because he seeks [eagerly] for gain,5 and abstains from what he has gotten, and is afraid to make use of it; or because he transacts every thing in a timorous and dispassionate manner, dilatory, slow in hope, remiss, and greedy of futurity. Peevish, querulous, a panegyrist of former times when he was a boy, a chastiser and censurer of his juniors. Our advancing years6 bring many advantages along with them. Many our declining ones take away. That the parts [therefore] belong ing to age may not be given to youth, and those of a man to a boy, we must dwell upon those qualities which are joined and adapted to each person's age.7

An action is either represented on the stage, or being done elsewhere is there related. The things which enter by the ear affect the mind more languidly, than such as are submitted to the faithful eyes, and what a spectator presents to himself. You must not, however, bring upon the stage things fit only to be acted behind the scenes: and you must take away from view many actions, which elegant descrition8 may soon after deliver in presence [of the spectators]. Let not Medea murder her sons before the people; nor the execrable Atreus openly dress human entrails: nor let Progne be metamorphosed into a bird, Cadmus into a serpent. Whatever you show to me in this manner, not able to give credit to, I detest.

1 The rule is, as appears from the reason of the thing, and from Aristotle, "Let a uniformity of character be preserved, or at least a consistency": i. e. either let the manners be exactly the same from the beginning to the end of the play, as those of Medea, for instance, and Orestes; or, if any change be necessary, let it be such as may consist with, and be easily reconciled to, the manners formerly attributed, as is seen in the case of Electra and Iphigenia.

2Difficile est proprie communia dicere.Hor. Ars 128 Lambin's comment is, “Communia hoc loco appellat Horatius argumenta fabularum a nullo adhuc tractata: et ita, quae cuivis exposita sunt et in medio quadammodo posit, quasi vacua et a nemino occupata.” And that this is the true meaning of communia is evidently fixed by the words ignota indictaque, which are explanatory of it.

3Publica materiesHor. Ars 131 is just the reverse of what the poet had before styled communia: the latter meaning such subjects or characters as, though by their nature left in common to all, had yet, in fact, not been occupied by any writer; the former, those which had already been made public by occupation. In order to acquire a property in subjects of this sort, the poet directs us to observe the three following cautions: 1. Not to follow the trite, obvious round of the original work; i. e. not servilely and scrupulously to adhere to its plan of method. 2. Not to be translators, instead of imitators, i. e. if it shall be thought fit to imitate more expressly any part of the original, to do it with freedom and spirit, and without a slavish attachment to the mode of expression. 3. Not to adopt any particular incident that may occur in the proposed model, which either decency or the nature of the work would reject.

4Scriptor cyclicus.Hor. Ars 136 Some author of the cyclus, described above, 1, 132. The chief Cyclic poems are the following: 1. τὰ Κύπρια, of Stasinus or Hegesinus. 2. The Αἰθιοπίς of Arctinus. 3. The Ἰλιὰς μικρά, by Lesches. 4. The Ἰλίου πέρσις of Arctinus. 5. The Νόστοι attributed to Agias. 6. The Τηλεγονία of Eugammon. These were collected, more for the sake of philology than poetry, by the Alexandrine grammarians.

5Quaerit” = quaestus facit, as in Virg. Georg. i.In medium quaerebant.

6 He returns to his first division of human life into two parts. “"Anni venientes,"” the years preceding manhood; “"anni recedentes,"” the years going back toward old age and death. The ancients reckoned the former by addition: the latter by subtraction. The French have an expression like this of “"recedentes anni."” They say, "il est sur son retour," "he is upon his return," when a person is declining in years.

7Semper in adjunctis.Hor. Ars 178 "Adjuncta aevo," every thing which attends age; "apta aevo," every thing proper to it.

8Facundia praesens.Hor. Ars 184 The recital of an actor present, which ought to be made with all the pathetic; facundia; or a recital instead of the action, facundia facti vicaria, quae rem quasi oculis praesentem sistit.

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