[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]

From The Silvae of Statius translated with Introduction and Notes, by D. A. Slater; Oxford: The Clarendon Press; 1908; pp. 19-30.





The Silvae do not profess to be more than vers d’occasion. The title itself stamps them with this limitation. They are impromptu, composed in the first instance at high speed under the sudden impatient spur of the moment. ‘Afterwards,’ says Quintilian, ‘the author (of a rough draft like this) will take up his tablets once more and retouch his work. But only the rhythms and expressions are amended. The subject-matter has been put together at random, and retains after revision its original triviality.’1 Statius is at pains to tell us in the Preface to the First Book that not one of the six poems it contains took more than two days to complete. The lightest and prettiest — on the Baths of Etruscus — was composed at a supper party in acknowledgment of his host’s hospitality! It is not without some hesitation that he publishes these fugitive pieces: but they are being pirated by others, and a desire to send them out into the world in the best shape he can give them, and a recollection that the great maters — Homer and 20 Virgil — have been guilty of similar trivialities, leads him to collect and dedicate the poems to his friend Stella, a poet like himself, who may therefore be expected to prove a kindly critic.

This is the gist of the initial preface. Each of the four following books is ushered in with a somewhat similar introduction. Nor is there any real reason to doubt the truth of the author’s assertions, especially if they are read in the light of Quintilian’s comment. The volume contains thirty-two pieces in all; and these vary very much in theme and in merit. Nearly all are addressed to friends. Dr. Härtel has pointed out that the best of them are, as indeed we should expect, addressed to his best friends — Stella, Pollius, Melior, Abascantus, Celer.2 Acquaintances receive but poor and perfunctory tributes.3 In a sense it is unfortunate for the poet’s reputation that the volume has survived almost entire.4 If only a selection remained, scholars would be slow to call in question Niebuhr’s emphatic verdict. ‘The Silvae,’ he says, ‘are genuine poetry, imprinted with the true character of the country and constituting some of the most graceful productions of Roman literature.’5 But when Niebuhr wrote thus, he was not thinking of the pieces 21 which the poet composed, it may be presumed, with a view to the advancement of his interests in high places, the pieces which brought him in his Alban freehold:6 not, for instance, of the Poet Laureate’s verses on the Equestrian Statue of Domitian, which the obligation to begin by paying tribute to Caesar thrusts to the front. ‘We must begin,’ says the Preface, ‘by singing of Jove’ — Domitian, it will be remembered, insisted on being addressed as our Lord God Domitian! — The position of these lines on the threshold may well have driven away many a reader from the volume. ‘This ode was dreadful to us’ (writes Harry Richmond on a similar occasion), ‘and all the court people pretended they liked it. When he waved his right hand towards the statue there was a shout from the rustic set; when he bowed to the Margravine, the ladies and gentlemen murmured agreeably and smiled. We were convinced of its being downright hypocrisy, rustic stupidity, court flattery.’ The same criticism applies to the other laureate effusions. But no poet laureate — from Horace to Tennyson — has ever been judged by his official performances. Tennyson’s great ode, he is careful to record, was not a poem written to order, but the expression of ‘a genuine admiration’ for the Duke.7 The court poems include such performances as The Lion8 and The Dedication of the Lock, 22 and they number seven in all. If we leave them out of consideration and judge the writer by the twenty-five that remain, it is easier to form a fair opinion of his talent. But we shall still find ourselves wishing that he had left Horatian metres to his friend Passennus Paulus,9 and confined himself to the hexameter, which he had made his own, and to the hendecasyllabic metre, which he handles with not less skill and perhaps even more effect than his rival Martial, for ‘the moulds of the Alcaic and Sapphic were broken at Horace’s death’.10

Six poems in hexameters may be grouped together under the title of Laments or Consolatory Verses. Four are descriptive of buildings or temples. The subject of one is a plane-tree in the park of a friend, and, like Ovid and Cowper, Status too has some playful verses on a parrot. Other themes are Lucan’s birthday and the praises of an admirer, Bolanus. The collection also includes an Epithalamium, a letter, a sketch of a famous statuette, and a short poem on Sleep, which is admitted to be a masterpiece. Mackail compares this last to a sonnet by Wordsworth or Keats, attributes it to the writer’s youth, and applies to it the words of Doctor Johnson on Gray — ‘Had he often written this, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him.’ The Silvae as a whole lose so much by being divorced from their metrical form that 23 I am glad to able to quote here a verse translation of the poem by an anonymous contributor to the Oxford Magazine,11 who, by the way, has excised what Mackail considers a blemish in the original, the allusion to Argus of the thousand eyes. [See this poem, tr. by Hodgson, with this ‘blemish’ HERE.] — Elf.Ed.]

What sin was mine, sweet, silent, boy-god Sleep,
Or what, poor sufferer, have I left undone,
That I should lack thy guerdon, I alone?
Quiet are the brawling streams: the shuddering deep
Sinks, and the rounded mountains feign to sleep.
The high seas slumber pillowed on Earth’s breast;
All flocks and birds and beasts are stilled in rest,
But my sad eyes their nightly vigil keep.

O! if beneath the night some happier swain,
Entwined in loving arms, refuse thy boon
In wanton happiness, — come hither soon,
Come hither, Sleep. Let happier mortals gain
The full embrace of thy soft angel wing.
But touch me with thy wand, or hovering
Above mine eyelids sweep me with thy train.

Side by side with this ‘invocation’ may be set a second rendering in verse, — which the kindness of my friend Mr. Garrod enables me to print, — from the close of a Lament on the death of the boy Glaucias, the adopted son of Atedius Melior. The illustration will show better than many words with what skill Statius can 24 handle a commonplace theme, the Universality of Death.12

And so Death took him. Yet be comforted:
Above this sea of sorrow lift thy head.
Death — or his shadow — look, is over all;
What but an alternating funeral
The long procession of the nights and days?
The starry heavens fail, the solid earth
Fails and its fashion. Why, beholding this,
Why with our wail o’er sad mortality
Mourn we for men, mere men, that fade and fall?
Battle or shipwreck, love or lunacy,
Some warp o’ the will, some taint o’ the blood, some touch
Of winter’s icy breath, the Dogstar’s rage
Relentless, or the dank and ghostly mists
Of Autumn — any or all of these suffice
To die by. In the fee and fear of Fate
Lives all that is. We one by one depart
Into the silence — one by one. The Judge
Shakes the vast urn: the lot leaps forth: we die.
     But he is happy and you mourn in vain.
He has outsoared the envy of gods and men,
False fortune and the dark and treacherous way,
— Scatheless: he never lived to pray for death,
Nor sinned — to fear her, nor deserved to die.
We that survive him, weak and full of woes,
Live ever with a fearful eye on Death —
The how and when of dying: ‘Death’ the thunder,
‘Death’ the wild lightning speaks to us,
                                                               In vain, —
Atedius hearkens not to words of mine.
Yet shall he hearken to the dead: be done,
Sweet lad he loved, be done with Death, and come,
25 Leaving the dark Tartarean halls, come hither;
Come, for thou canst, ’tis not to Charon given,
Nor yet to Cerberus, to keep in thrall
The innocent soul: come to thy father, soothe
His sorrow, dry his eyes, and day and night
A living voice be with him — look upon him,
Tell him thou art not dead (thy sister mourns,
Comfort her, comfort as a brother can)
And win thy parents back to thee again.’13

Statius is seldom introspective and never didactic. — For criticism of life and rules of conduct we must go to Horace. — His muse is above all descriptive. The life of the hour is everything to him. Even the beauty and the pathos of the consolatory verses yield to the descriptive pieces. Perhaps this is what M. Nisard means when he says that verses came to Statius before thoughts, and that verse was, in fact, part of his system ‘comme toute autre faculté, comme le grand nerf sympathique, comme la poche de l’estomac’. We might retort in the words of a great critic, ‘that mere expression is to an artist the supreme and only mode of life,’ and that, at least as an artist in language, Statius deserves a high place in literature. Yet in the Silvae is mirrored a vivid and faithful reflection of Flavian Rome, — of the people and their doings, of their homes and their environment. It is from the Surrentine Villa14 that Dean Merivale reconstructs the typical Mansion of the period. Not a point is missed in the 26 Statian description. The situation, the approach, the outlook over the Sirens’ Bay, the art-collections disposed in the galleries within. Nor is the picture of the villa which Vopiscus owned at Tivoli drawn with a less faithful and discriminating touch. A series of photographs15 could hardly reproduce the effect of the whole or the charm of the details more vividly. If the pictures of people are as a rule less distinct, though some of these, too, are lifelike enough, at least as outlines; witness the gracious and adorable Polla or the frank and impetuous Bolanus, — yet the same skill appears in the treatment of a ’function’ or a crowd.

The Epithalamium is as full of animation and reality as Sir John Suckling’s famous Ballad. It is true that we have first to read how the marriage was made in heaven; how the Cupids pleaded Stella’s cause with their mother; how she debated his claims; and how the deities interested brought their presents to the wedding. But the group of pictures that emerges is true to the life. The gathering of the invited guests; the stir of the preparation; the beat of the wands on the doors; the happy bride, the anxious bridegroom; the storm of flowers; the remarks of the onlookers; and, in the background of the whole scene, the cool vistas of marble colonnades, with the shady trees and the jetting fountains in the courtyard; and the suggestion, as night falls, of the Fescennines, which were an essential characteristic of a Roman marriage, 27 though they shock the English reader — of to-day. Yet even the most puritanical censor can find little here, and nothing elsewhere, in Statius to expurgate; for in striking contrast to his contemporary Martial, whose epigrams are described by Dr. Tyrell as ‘a pathological museum of vice’, Statius is remarkable in a corrupt age for the refined purity both of his life and of his poetry.16

It may be doubted whether M. Nisard is not too hard upon the poet for his employment of mythological machinery. Cette froide mythologie étouffe tous les inspirations de Stace. Certes il était né avec quelque génie; il aimait les champs, les oliviers, les fontaines, l’azur du ciel et de la mer, premières et dernières amours des natures poétiques. Mais les usages de la Grèce, les dieux de la Grèce’ — and so on. It is true that almost throughout we are in a kind of fairyland which might belong to any century. Whatever the occasion, some god or goddess, some hero or heroine, steps down from the machine, now to praise, now to moralize, now to console. The erection of the statue to Domitian in the Forum elicits Mettius Curtius from the lacus Curtius hard by, to deliver a panegyric on the Emperor’s virtues. The river-god Vulturnus and the Sibyl of Cumae arise to bless the building of the Emperor’s Road. Envy and Fate stand over the cradle of Glaucias and are busy about the death-bed of Philetus. Dryad and Faun, Muse 28 and Mercury meet us everywhere. It might be argued that this mythological machinery was imposed upon Statius by a literary convention as binding in its way as that which drove an Elizabethan poet to produce a sonnet-sequence. From the prologue of Persius and the first satire of Juvenal we know that the cult of mythology was carried to excess, but less perhaps by Statius than by his imitators. Everything depends on the taste and skill with which it is applied. No one, for instance, is likely to find serious fault with the legend of Pholoe and her love as told in The Plane-tree of Atedius Melior. And it is open to us to defend the practice on the same grounds on which we might defend the fairy-tale or fairy-poem of to-day. Nobody believes in fairies now, but the old legends still retain their beauty even in this age of scientific enlightenment. The Muses and the Nymphs are the fairies of Greek and Roman literature. And if Statius peoples his world with such phantoms, we can hardly blame him; for in real life under the Flavians there must have been strangely little to admire and love. The supernatural plays a conspicuous part in many poems and stories. Lycidas, to take an instance at random, is not left upon the shelf because impossible personages file through the lines. Indeed Milton — himself a writer of Silvae — may be thought to have derived from Statius his application of mythology as well as his appreciation of the metrical value of musical and sonorous names. It is not altogether clear that the mythological actors in the scene are incongruous or impossible. To the 29 advocates of stern matter-of-fact, the Gradgrinds of society, with their ’Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else! You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts . . . In this life we want nothing but Facts, sir, nothing but Facts,’ any touch of fancy or of fairyland is odious. Those who can bear with ‘cette froide mythologie’ will find much in the Silvae that will arrest and hold their attention. There is, it is true, some mawkishness, some grotesqueness. There is the emotional excitement of the hot-blooded Italian, which is foreign to our colder temperament. Sometimes, in the description of painful scenes, there is even a realism altogether repugnant to modern reticence and self-restraint. But with it all the reader finds also passages of deep feeling and rare sympathy: a surprising skill and variety in the treatment of difficult and occasionally hackneyed topics. There are not only fine pictures but fine touches of minute and faithful portraiture. The style is the style of a master. Above all, Statius realizes more than any other writer after Virgil the manifold possibilities of the heroic hexameter, a metre which Frederick Myers described as ‘perhaps the most compact and majestic that has ever been invented’. In Statius the verses move easily yet rapidly. They are both vigorous and musical. They have often the weighty opening and the sonorous close of the Virgilian Hexameter itself, the varying caesura, the frequent overflow, the studied introduction in successive lines of elements of varying 30 weight and character. It is the verse that carries the reader along. and many students of the metre will have felt this, and echo as they read the preference which Mr. Gilbert Murray expressed in the motto prefixed to his Oxford prize poem, Olympia, twenty-three years ago —

Tene, gravis Stati, Cadmeorumque labores,
     Annaeine modos, Vergiliine sequar?
Ille Maro deus est: rapit ignea Lucanum vis:
     Papinius nostri carminis auctor erit.

[Very tentatively translated as:

Hold on! Is it grave Statius, and the labors of Cadmus,
     Or Annaeus’ mode, or Virgil I should follow?
Maro is divine, that fiery power carries to Lucan;
     Papinius will be the founder of all our songs.— Elf.Ed.]


1  De Institutione Oratoria, x. 3, § 17 ‘Diversum est huic eorum vitium, qui primo decurrere per materiam stilo quam velocissimo volunt et sequentes calorem atque impetum ex tempore scribunt; hanc silvam vocant. Repetunt deinde et compununt quae effuderant; sed verba emendantur et numeri, manet in rebus temere congestis quae fuit levitas.’ Quintilian, in this passage, is discussing composition in general, not poetical composition in particular, although Virgil’s methods have been mentioned in the immediate context. But it is quite possible that he wrote with special reference to the Silvae, which were the talk of the town at the time.

2  Studia Statiana (Leipzig, 1900), pp. 30 and 33.

3  Cf. e. g. II. vi, which Dr. Härtel contrasts with II. i.

4  At least one poem in honour of Flavius Sabinus has been lost. Sidonius Apollinaris, c. 22, p. 338 Sav. See Imhof, P. Papini Stati Ecloga ad Uxorem (Halis, 1863), p. 4.

5  As quoted in North Pinder’s Less Known Latin Poets, p. 374.

6  III. i. 61 sq.

7  Tennyson, a Memoir, p. 756 (popular edition).

8  ‘Puisque César ne veut pas que tu le flattes, eh bien! flatte son lion.’ — Nisard.

9  Cf. Pliny, Epp. IX. xxii. 19 ‘Nuper ad lyrica deflexit, in quibus ita Horatium ut in illis (i.e. elegis) illum alterum (i.e. Propertium) effingit.’

10  H. A. J. Munro.

11  November 25, 1903. The version turns out to be by Mr. W. H. Fyfe, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and it is with his kind consent and by the courtesy of the Editor that it is reproduced here.

12  Cf. M. Nisard, pp. 272-3, on Le Lieu commun.

13  II. i. 208 sqq.

14  II. 2. Merivale’s History of the Romans under the Empire, c. 64.

15  This phrase suggests at once the strength and the weakness of the poems.

16  See Lecky’s History of European Morals, vol. i. p. 107, vol. ii, p. 325.

[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]