Fables of the Poets

[This is taken from The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury.]

All the varieties of attack directed against the poets by the lovers of naked truth may be repelled by a two-fold defence: either that even in an unseemly subject-matter we may learn a charming fashion of speech, or that where a fictitious but becoming subject is handled, natural or historical truth is pursued under the guise of allegorical fiction.

Although it is true that all men naturally desire knowledge, yet they do not all take the same pleasure in learning.  On the contrary, when they have experienced the labour of study and find their senses wearied, most men inconsiderately fling away the nut, before they have broken the shell and reached the kernel.  For man is naturally fond of two things, namely, freedom from control and some pleasure in his activity; for which reason no one without reason submits himself to the control of others, or willingly engages in any tedious task.  For pleasure crowns activity, as beauty is a crown to youth, as Aristotle truly asserts in the tenth book of the Ethics.  Accordingly the wisdom of the ancients devised a remedy by which to entice the wanton minds of men by a kind of pious fraud, the delicate Minerva secretly lurking beneath the mask of pleasure.  We are wont to allure children by rewards, that they may cheerfully learn what we force them to study even though they are unwilling.  For our fallen nature does not tend to virtue with the same enthusiasm with which it rushes into vice.  Horace has expressed this for us in a brief verse of the Ars Poetica, where he says:

All poets sing to profit or delight.

And he has plainly intimated the same thing in another verse of the same book, where he says:

He hits the mark, who mingles joy with use.

How many students of Euclid have been repelled by the Pons Asinorum, as by a lofty and precipitous rock, which no help of ladders could enable them to scale!  THIS IS A HARD SAYING, they exclaim, AND WHO CAN RECEIVE IT.  The child of inconstancy, who ended by wishing to be transformed into an ass, would perhaps never have given up the study of philosophy, if he had met him in friendly guise veiled under the cloak of pleasure; but anon, astonished by Crato’s chair and struck dumb by his endless questions, as by a sudden thunderbolt, he saw no refuge but in flight.

So much we have alleged in defence of the poets; and now we proceed to show that those who study them with proper intent are not to be condemned in regard to them.  For our ignorance of one single word prevents the understanding of a whole long sentence, as was assumed in the previous chapter.  As now the sayings of the saints frequently allude to the inventions of the poets, it must needs happen that through our not knowing the poem referred to, the whole meaning of the author is completely obscured, and assuredly, as Cassiodorus says in his book Of the Institutes of Sacred Literature:  Those things are not to be considered trifles without which great things cannot come to pass.  It follows therefore that through ignorance of poetry we do not understand Jerome, Augustine, Boethius, Lactantius, Sidonius, and very many others, a catalogue of whom would more than fill a long chapter.

The Venerable Bede has very clearly discussed and determined this doubtful point, as is related by that great compiler Gratian, the repeater of numerous authors, who is as confused in form as he was eager in collecting matter for his compilation.  Now he writes in his 37th section:  Some read secular literature for pleasure, taking delight in the inventions and elegant language of the poets; but others study this literature for the sake of scholarship, that by their reading they may learn to detest the errors of the Gentiles and may devoutly apply what they find useful in them to the use of sacred learning.  Such men study secular literature in a laudable manner. So far Bede.

Taking this salutary instruction to heart, let the detractors of those who study the poets henceforth hold their peace, and let not those who are ignorant of these things require that others should be as ignorant as themselves, for this is the consolation of the wretched.  And therefore let every man see that his own intentions are upright, and he may thus make of any subject, observing the limitations of virtue, a study acceptable to God.  And if he have found profit in poetry, as the great Virgil relates that he had done in Ennius, he will not have done amiss.





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