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It was in his childhood only that he could make choice of so injudicious a writer as Statius to translate. It were to be wished that no youth of genius were suffered ever to look into Statius, Lucan, Claudian, or Seneca the tragedian ; authors, who, by their forced conceits, by their violent metaphors, by their swelling epithets, by their want of a just decorum, have a strong tendency to dazzle, and to mislead inexperienced minds, and tastes unformed, from the true relish of possibility, propriety, simplicity, and nature. Statius had undoubtedly invention, ability, and spirit; but his images are gigantic and outrageous, and his sentiments tortured and hyperbolical. It can hardly, I think, be doubted, but that Juvenal intended a severe satire on him in these well-known lines, which have been commonly interpreted as a panegyric:
“ Curritur ad vocem jucundam et carmen amicæ
Esurit." In these verses are many expressions, here marked with Italics, which seem to hint obliquely that Statius was the favourite poet of the vulgar, who were easily captivated with a wild and inartificial tale, and with an empty magnificence of numbers ; the noisy roughness of which may be particularly alluded to in the expression, fregit subsellia versu. One cannot forbear reflecting on the short duration of a true taste in poetry among the Romans. From the time of Lucretius to that of Statius was no more than about one hundred and forty-seven years; and if I might venture to pronounce so rigorous a sentence, I would say, that the Romans can boast of but eight poets who are unexceptionably excellent; namely, Terence, Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Phædrus. These only can be called legitimate models of just thinking and writing. Succeeding authors, as it happens in all countries, resolving to be original and new, and to avoid the imputation of copying, become distorted and unnatural : by endeavouring to open an unbeaten path, they deserted simplicity and truth; weary of common and obvious beauties, they must needs hunt for remote and artificial decorations. Thus was it that the age of Demetrius Phalereus succeeded that of Demosthenes, and the false relish of Tiberius's court the chaste one of Augustus. Among the various causes,
however, that have been assigned, why poetry and the arts have more eminently flourished in some particular ages and nations than in others, few have been satisfactory and adequate.
What solid reason can we give why the Romans, who so happily imitated the Greeks in many respects, and breathed a truly tragic spirit, could yet never excel in tragedy, though so fond of theatrical spectacles? Or why the Greeks, so fruitful in every species of poetry, never yet produced but one great epic poet ? While, on the other hand, modern Italy can shew two or three illustrious epic writers ; yet has no Sophocles, Euripides, or Menander ; and France, without having formed a single epopea, has carried dramatic poetry to so much excellence in Corneille, Racine, and Moliere.
Edipus King of Thebes having by mistake slain his father Laius, and married his mother Jocasta, put out his own eyes, and resigned his realm to his sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Being neglected by them, he makes his prayer to the Fury Tisiphone, to sow debate betwixt the brothers. They agree at last to reign singly, each a year by turns, and the first lot is obtained by Eteocles. Jupiter, in a council of the Gods, declares his resolution of punishing the Thebans, and Argives also, by means of a marriage betwixt Polynices and one of the daughters of Adrastus king of Argos. Juno opposes, but to no effect; and Mercury is sent on a message to the Shades, to the ghost of Laius, who is to appear to Eteocles, and provoke him to break the agreement. Polynices in the mean time departs from Thebes by night, is overtaken by a storm, and arrives at Argos; where he meets with Tydeus, who had fled from Calydon, having killed his brother. Adrastus entertains them, having received an oracle from Apollo that his daughters should be married to a Boar and a Lion, which he understands to be meant of these strangers, by whom the hides of those beasts were worn, and who arrived at the time when he kept an annual feast in honour of that God. The rise of this solemnity he relates to his guests, the loves of Phæbus and Psạmathe, and the story of Choræbus. He inquires, and is made acquainted with their descent and quality : The sacrifice is renewed, and the book concludes with a Hymn to Apollo.
The Translator hopes he need not apologize for his choice of this piece, which was made almost in his childhood. But finding the version better than he expected, he gave it some correction a few years afterward. P.
He was but fourteen years old.
P. STATII THEBAIDOS.
FRATERNAs acies, alternaque regna profanis Decertata odiis, sontesque evolvere Thebas, Pierius menti calor incidit. Unde jubetis Ire, Deæ ? gentisne canam primordia diræ ? Sidonios raptus, et inexorabile pactum Legis Agenoreæ ? scrutantemque æquora Cadmum ? Longa retro series, trepidum si Martis operti Agricolam infandis condentem prælia sulcis 10 Expediam, penitusque sequar quo carmine muris Jusserit Amphion Tyrios accedere montes : Unde graves iræ cognata in monia Baccho, Quod sævæ Junonis opus : cui sumpserit arcum Infelix Athamas, cur non expaverit ingens Ionium, socio casura Palæmone mater. Atque adeo jam nunc gemitus, et prospera Cadmi Præteriisse sinam : limes mihi carminis esto 20
Ver. 19. But wave whate'er] It is plain that Pope was not blind to the faults of Statius; many of which he points out with judgment and truth, in a letter to Mr. Cromwell, written 1708, vol. vii. p. 81.
The first attempt of Mr. Gray in English verse was a translation from Statius, sent to Mr. West 1736.
Juvenal was banished for commending the Agave of Statius. Both the exordium and the conclusion of the Thebais are too
THE FIRST BOOK OF
FRATERNAL rage the guilty Thebes alarms,
But wave whate'er to Cadmus may belong, And fix, O Muse! the barrier of thy song 20
violent and pompous, particularly the latter, in which he promises himself immortality from this poem.
Statius was a favourite writer with the poets of the middle