1. believermag:

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    To celebrate the NYRB Classics reprint of John Williams’ Augustus, we’re excerpting a section from the book: a letter from the poet Gaius Maecenas to the historian Livy. See more about the book here.

    IX. Letter: Gaius Cilnius Maecenas 

    To Titus Livius (13 B.C.)

    Some years ago my friend Horace described to me the way he made a poem. We had had some wine and were talking seriously, and I believe that his description then was a more accurate one than that contained more recently in the so-called Letter to the Pisos—a poem upon the art of poetry which, I must confess, I am not particularly fond. He said: “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so—but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I conceive an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so. And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command. I borrow from others if I have to—no matter. I invent if I have to—no matter. I use the language that I know, and I work within its limits. But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first. For every solution entails new choices, and ever choice made poses new problems to which solutions must be found, and so on and on. Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”

    I thought of that conversation this morning when I sat down to write you once again of those early days; and it occurred to me that Horace’s description of the making of a poem had certain striking parallels to our own working out of our destinies in the world itself (though if Horace heard this, and recalled what he said, he would no doubt scowl dourly and say that it was all nonsense, that you made a poem by discovering a topic, disposing the topic properly, by playing this figure against that, by this disposition of the meter against that sense of the language, and so forth and so on).

    For our feeling—or, rather, Octavius’s feeling, in which we were caught up as the reader is caught in a poem—was occasioned by the incredible murder of Julius Caesar, an event which seemed more and more to have simply destroyed the world; and the end that we conceived was to have revenge upon the murderers, for the sake of our honor and the state’s. It was as simple as that, or it appeared to be. But the gods of the world and the gods of poetry are wise, indeed; for how often they save us from the ends toward which we think we strive!

    My dear Livy, I do not wish to play the father with you; but you did not even come to Rome until our Emperor had fulfilled his destiny and was master of the world. Let me tell you a little of those days, so that you might reconstruct, these many years later, the chaos that we confronted in Rome.

    Caesar was dead—by the “will of the people,” the murderers said; yet the murderers had to barricade themselves in the Capitol against those very people who had “commanded” the act. Two days later, the Senate gave its thanks to the assassins; and in the next breath approved and made law those very acts of Caesar for the proposal of which he had been killed. However terrible the deed, the conspirators had acted with bravery and force; and then they scattered like frightened women after they had taken their first step. Antonius, as Caesar’s friend, roused the people against the assassins; yet the night before the Ides of March he had entertained the murderers at dinner, was seen speaking intimately with one of them (Trebonius) at the instant of the murder, and dined again with those same men two nights later! He aroused the populace again to burn and loot in protest against the murder; and then approved their arrest and execution for that lawlessness. He made Caesar’s will to be read publicly; and then opposed it enactment with all his power.

    Above all, we knew that we could not trust Antonius, and we knew him to be a formidable foe—not because of his shrewdness and skill, but because of his thoughtlessness and reckless force. For despite the sentimental regard in which some of the young now hold him, he was not a very intelligent man; he had no real purpose beyond the moment of his will; and he was not exceptionally brave. He did not even perform his own suicide well, and he did it long after his situation was hopeless, so that it was too late for it to be done with dignity.

    How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable—and yet who, out of animal energy and the accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power? (Looking back on it it is odd to remember that once we construed Antonius to be our foe rather than the Senate, though our most obvious enemies were there; I suppose instinctively we felt that if such a bungler as Antonius could manage them, we should not have that much trouble with him either, when the time came.) I do not know how you oppose him; I only know what we did. Let me tell you of that.

    We had seen Antonius and had been brusquely dismissed by him. He was the most powerful personage in Rome; we had nothing except a name. We determined that our first necessity was to get recognition from him. We had not been able to get that by overtures of friendship; thus we had to try the overtures of enmity.

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