Poetry as Art and Inspiration


1 Introduction


Caelius Aurelianus on furor; others on Plato and mania?

2 Aphthonius, On All Meters 5, pp. 158–160 (ed. Keil)

Now that I have gone through all kinds of meters of this art¹ from the very beginning, which great authors gave their names and made much use of, I do not think that I can reach the conclusion of this work I have labored over until I produce a treatise about the meters contained in the poems of our lyric poet (Horace) – which I saw fit to go through individually in sequence to satisfy the studious reader – because many, asking earnestly just as is necessary for erudition and deep knowledge, demand to know where the elements of the meters and of all music have originated, from what author, what origin, by what beginnings these arts first arose.

Nor is this enough: the same people ask who differentiated articulated speech (vox articulata) out of indistinct sound (vox confusa), who first produced the syllables with a thick pronunciation or a soft aspiration, who arrived at the long and short measure in the expression of our voice (vox).²

I wish that those who desperately want to know these things would also tell us who originally showed us, when we first saw the light, how to gesticulate, to crawl, to laugh – which belongs (proprium) to the human being alone³ –, who, to reach for the nourishment of milk with an open mouth, and who, to split the sound of indistinct speech into words, or to conceive now mourning and grief, now joy and cheerfulness, as a condition of the mind and intellect towards itself. For these things also appear appropriate to a proposition equal to their questions!

To these, we must respond as follows, that this music exists with us innately, no differently than do affects with the mind, and motions with the body, and that, with nature as its originator, it was granted together with the light of life and with our senses, born together with the human being itself, and (fully) formed when it came into being – based on the following things, which are easy to understand when they are placed before us. For, to make belief attend my opinion through examples: do we not see that the mute animals, soon after they draw in the light of life, each according to their nature seek the lofty air by beating their wings, or variously roam below the waters with their swimming motions; some passing over the earth with a slow gait, others in jumps and sprints?


more notes

I shall not omit the opinion of Theophrastus, which agrees and accords with these things, […]

For he enumerates desire, anger and enthusiasm, that is, the impulse of sacred madness (sacri furoris instinctus), as the Greeks call it, by which the presaging diviners (fatidici vates) are inspired. Nor do I reject these affects, but somewhat more even than them I approve (of the idea that) every talent whose application is to musical poetry is raised towards something greater by nature, which has prefashioned it for this, and with nature, as was said above, as its originator and principle, and (it is by nature that), quite auspiciously, it flourishes through the urging of a mind of this kind. For these teach music, which is innate and inborn in our senses, they assist it and draw it into something greater than the ability of each (person’s) talent.

That this is so and is considered so, we are taught by the example of those who by the inspiration of sacred madness (sacri furoris spiratio), as I said, intone with a full tragic mouth, and what they sing does not sound mortal (nec sonat mortale quod canunt). Because of their mind and likeness (to the Greek poets?), the poets have been attributed the name of diviners (vates) among us, as being driven to compose poems by the same heat. Plato is a witness to this as well, when he asserts that a poet can never produce a memorable poem without the impulse of madness. Hence, among the ancients, most of the poets and orators approached the writing of the work they intended with a drink of wine, to arouse the heat of the mind (animus), as a means to arouse a nature sleeping within them, or a more ancient talent, after they had learned […]

Horace too is a witness to this, since we read in him: “It is told that even the virtue of ancient Cato often grew hot through wine.”


1: The poetic meters (such as the iambic pentameter in English) used in poetry.
2: In less florid language: who determined the sounds or letters used in Latin and how they are put together, who introduced the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated, and who determined that some vowels or syllables are long and others short.
3: In ancient logic, being ‘able to laugh’ is said to be a defining attribute or proprium of the human being.

Plato. Platonists? Aristides