Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

TREMENDOUS excitement has been generated by the announcement of Professor Motion as the new Poet Laureate, especially among all the poets who missed out. The wicked Roman epigrammatist Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. AD 40-104) perfected the epigram with a sting in the tail. Among the roughly 1,500 epigrams Martial composed, quite a few are about fellow poets. Amazingly, he couldn't stand them.

Possessor of a chair in creative literature, Professor Motion must have the same feelings as Martial when his eager students line up for his comments, '"Please, Marcus, tell the truth," you say,/"That's all I want to hear!"/If you read a poem or plead a case/You din it in my ear:/"The truth, the honest truth!" you beg./It's damned hard to deny/Such a request./So here's the truth:/You'ld rather have me lie' (tr. Wender).

But fellow professionals are even worse. Poets down the millennia have always pretended to be captivated by the work of their rivals, but Martial knew the truth: `You wonder, Theo, why I don't/Send you my books. The cause/Is really very simple:/In case you send me yours.' Poets went for each other with just as much enthusiasm as they do today: `Cinna is said to attack me in verse. …

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