Horace Criticizes a Cyclic Poet: Ars Poetica 136-44

“Don’t begin, as a certain Cyclic poet once did, ‘I will sing the fortune of Priam and that noble war…’ What could he produce worthy of such an opening? The mountains would part, and out would pop a ridiculous mouse. How much more proper the poet who labored at nothing foolishly: ‘Tell me, Muse, about the man who, in the time after Troy was captured, saw the cities and ways of many men.’ He had a mind, not to produce smoke from lightning, but to let the fire come forth from the smoke…”

Nec sic incipies, ut scriptor cyclicus olim:
“Fortunam Priami cantabo et nobile bellum”.
Quid dignum tanto feret hic promissor hiatu?
Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.
Quanto rectius hic, qui nil molitur inepte:               140
“Dic mihi, Musa, uirum, captae post tempora Troiae
qui mores hominum multorum uidit et urbes”.
Non fumum ex fulgore, sed ex fumo dare lucem

2 thoughts on “Horace Criticizes a Cyclic Poet: Ars Poetica 136-44

  1. I love this passage. But, I wonder, is Horace merely following an Alexandrian habit of making bad poetry the province of cyclic poets in contrast to Homer, or do you think he actually had access to and read cyclic poems?

    1. I would imagine that, if the Cyclic poems were still available in the 1st century, then there is no doubt that he at least dipped into them. I am guessing that line 137 is his own translation of one of them, just as 141-2 are his own translation of the Odyssey. He studied in Athens when he was younger, and in his later years I imagine that the patronage of Maecenas and favor of Augustus could easily grant him access to any available literary material; at some point in his life, he must have read at least a little. Horace is, among the Golden Age poets, perhaps less influenced by the Alexandrians than Propertius and Ovid; much of Horace is either heavily Italic (Satires) or considerably more in the mode of archaic Greek poetry (Odes), while Propertius explicitly invokes the spirits of Callimachus and Philetas, and Ovid engages in long experiments of Callimachean copying (Ibis).

      Nevertheless, I have a fun post lined up for this topic!

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