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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

A Discourse of Poets

By Giordano Bruno (1548–1600)

From ‘The Heroic Enthusiasts’

CICADA—Say, what do you mean by those who vaunt themselves of myrtle and laurel?

Tansillo—Those may and do boast of the myrtle who sing of love: if they bear themselves nobly, they may wear a crown of that plant consecrated to Venus, of which they know the potency. Those may boast of the laurel who sing worthily of things pertaining to heroes, substituting heroic souls for speculative and moral philosophy, praising them and setting them as mirrors and exemplars for political and civil actions.

Cicada—There are then many species of poets and crowns?

Tansillo—Not only as many as there are Muses, but a great many more; for although genius is to be met with, yet certain modes and species of human ingenuity cannot be thus classified.

Cicada—There are certain schoolmen who barely allow Homer to be a poet, and set down Virgil, Ovid, Martial, Hesiod, Lucretius, and many others as versifiers, judging them by the rules of poetry of Aristotle.

Tansillo—Know for certain, my brother, that such as these are beasts. They do not consider that those rules serve principally as a frame for the Homeric poetry, and for other similar to it; and they set up one as a great poet, high as Homer, and disallow those of other vein and art and enthusiasm, who in their various kinds are equal, similar, or greater.

Cicada—So that Homer was not a poet who depended upon rules, but was the cause of the rules which serve for those who are more apt at imitation than invention, and they have been used by him who, being no poet, yet knew how to take the rules of Homeric poetry into service, so as to become, not a poet or a Homer, but one who apes the Muse of others?

Tansillo—Thou dost well conclude that poetry is not born in rules, or only slightly and accidentally so: the rules are derived, from the poetry, and there are as many kinds and sorts of true rules as there are kinds and sorts of true poets.

Cicada—How then are the true poets to be known?

Tansillo—By the singing of their verses: in that singing they give delight, or they edify, or they edify and delight together.

Cicada—To whom then are the rules of Aristotle useful?

Tansillo—To him who, unlike Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, and others, could not sing without the rules of Aristotle, and who, having no Muse of his own, would coquette with that of Homer.

Cicada—Then they are wrong, those stupid pedants of our days, who exclude from the number of poets those who do not use words and metaphors conformable to, or whose principles are not in union with, those of Homer and Virgil; or because they do not observe the custom of invocation, or because they weave one history or tale with another, or because they finish the song with an epilogue on what has been said and a prelude on what is to be said, and many other kinds of criticism and censure; from whence it seems they would imply that they themselves, if the fancy took them, could be the true poets: and yet in fact they are no other than worms, that know not how to do anything well, but are born only to gnaw and befoul the studies and labors of others; and not being able to attain celebrity by their own virtue and ingenuity, seek to put themselves in the front, by hook or by crook, through the defects and errors of others.

Tansillo—There are as many sorts of poets as there are sentiments and ideas; and to these it is possible to adapt garlands, not only of every species of plant, but also of other kinds of material. So the crowns of poets are made not only of myrtle and of laurel, but of vine leaves for the white-wine verses, and of ivy for the bacchanals; of olive for sacrifice and laws; of poplar, of elm, and of corn for agriculture; of cypress for funerals, and innumerable others for other occasions; and if it please you, also of the material signified by a good fellow when he exclaimed:

  • “O Friar Leck! O Poetaster!
  • That in Milan didst buckle on thy wreath
  • Composed of salad, sausage, and the pepper-caster.”
  • Cicada—Now surely he of divers moods, which he exhibits in various ways, may cover himself with the branches of different plants, and may hold discourse worthily with the Muses; for they are his aura or comforter, his anchor or support, and his harbor, to which he retires in times of labor, of agitation, and of storm. Hence he cries:—“O Mountain of Parnassus, where I abide; Muses, with whom I converse; Fountain of Helicon, where I am nourished; Mountain, that affordest me a quiet dwelling-place; Muses, that inspire me with profound doctrines; Fountain, that cleansest me; Mountain, on whose ascent my heart uprises; Muses, that in discourse revive my spirits; Fountain, whose arbors cool my brows,—change my death into life, my cypress to laurels, and my hells into heavens: that is, give me immortality, make me a poet, render me illustrious!”

    Tansillo—Well; because to those whom Heaven favors, the greatest evils turn to greatest good; for needs or necessities bring forth labors and studies, and these most often bring the glory of immortal splendor.

    Cicada—For to die in one age makes us live in all the rest.