Poetry, Our Oldest Pursuit

Cristoforo Landino, Preface to Vergil in a Florentine Gymnasium (Part 3)

We have said therefore both what the art of poetry is and where the poet got a name for himself, and from where that name drew its origins. But now take this in the briefest possible words about the antiquity of poetry itself. You will find no nation so old, nor any republic so antique in the monuments of literature that it didn’t flourish from its very beginning with poets. Greece had no historians still, when heroic times and the Trojan War were being described by Homer. No philosophers were yet disputing about life and ethics when that same poet was explaining all the precepts which urge us on to living well and blessedly. Nor did he explain only those things which make us more learned in governing the republic or leading an army, but he also set out most excellently those things which set us up in private and leisured life. That most celebrated land of Greece was not yet glorying in its Seven Sages when it had already been made illustrious by Orpheus, Linus, Musaeus, and Amphion. Nor was any theologian found in this most learned nation who set down divine things in letters before the birth of Hesiod and some other poets. So, if we wish to speak more truly and to follow the thought of Aristotle, a poet is nothing other than a theologian. The faculty of speech did no sooner show how much skill in speaking, how much sweetness in delighting, nor indeed how much strength in persuading it had, before the speeches of Ulysses, and Phoenix, and the other heroes had been expressed in a poetic composition.

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Diximus ergo et quid ars poetica sit et unde sibi nomen vendicaverit poeta, unde etiam originem suam traxerit. Nunc vero de antiquitate ipsius brevissimis accipite. Neque enim ullam aut nationem adeo vetustam aut rem publicam adeo priscam litterarum monumentis reperies, quae vel ab ipso statim initio poetis non floruerit. Nullos enim adhuc Graecia historicos habuerat, quando ab Homero heroica tempora et Troiana bella describebantur. Nulli adhuc philosophi de vita et moribus disputabant, cum vel idem vates omnia praecepta, quae ad bene beateque vivendum nos adhortantur, explicabat; neque solum quae aut in re publica temperanda aut in exercitu ductitando nos doctiores reddunt, verum et ea quae in privata atque ociosa vita nos instituunt, optime exposuerat. Nondum septem sapientibus celebratissima illa Graecia gloriabatur, et iam ab Orpheo, Lino, Musaeo, Amphione illustrata fuerat; neque apud hanc tam doctam nationem quisquam theologus invenitur qui, nisi post natum Hesiodum et non nullos alios poetas, divinas res litteris mandasset. Quin, si verius loqui et Aristotelis sententiam sequi volumus, nil aliud poeta est quam theologus. Facultas vero oratoria neque quantum acuminis in dicendo neque quantum suavitatis in delectando neque postremum quantum vehementiae in permovendo habeat, antea ostendit quam orationes Ulyssis et Phoenicis aliorumque heroum poetico carmine expressae essent.

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