On Advice to Young Poets: an excerpt from The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis

‘My verses, my Lord?’
‘Nay, I am sure that you have been writing some, for nothing else could have kept you awake till this time of the morning. Where are they, Theodore? I shall like to see your composition.’
Theodore’s cheeks glowed with still deeper crimson: He longed to show his poetry, but first chose to be pressed for it.
‘Indeed, my Lord, they are not worthy your attention.’
‘Not these verses, which you just now declared to be so charming?
Come, come, let me see whether our opinions are the same. I promise that you shall find in me an indulgent Critic.’
The Boy produced his paper with seeming reluctance; but the satisfaction which sparkled in his dark expressive eyes betrayed the vanity of his little bosom. The Marquis smiled while He observed the emotions of an heart as yet but little skilled in veiling its sentiments. He seated himself upon a Sopha: Theodore, while Hope and fear contended on his anxious countenance, waited with inquietude for his Master’s decision, while the Marquis read the following lines.

The night was dark; The wind blew cold;
Anacreon, grown morose and old,
Sat by his fire, and fed the chearful flame:
Sudden the Cottage-door expands,
And lo! before him Cupid stands,
Casts round a friendly glance, and greets him by his name.
‘What is it Thou?’ the startled Sire
In sullen tone exclaimed, while ire
With crimson flushed his pale and wrinkled cheek:
‘Wouldst Thou again with amorous rage
Inflame my bosom? Steeled by age,
Vain Boy, to pierce my breast thine arrows are too weak.
‘What seek You in this desart drear?
No smiles or sports inhabit here;
Ne’er did these vallies witness dalliance sweet:
Eternal winter binds the plains;
Age in my house despotic reigns,
My Garden boasts no flower, my bosom boasts no heat.
‘Begone, and seek the blooming bower,
Where some ripe Virgin courts thy power,
Or bid provoking dreams flit round her bed;
On Damon’s amorous breast repose;
Wanton-on Chloe’s lip of rose,
Or make her blushing cheek a pillow for thy head.
‘Be such thy haunts; These regions cold
Avoid! Nor think grown wise and old
This hoary head again thy yoke shall bear:
Remembering that my fairest years
By Thee were marked with sighs and tears,
I think thy friendship false, and shun the guileful snare.
‘I have not yet forgot the pains
I felt, while bound in Julia’s chains;
The ardent flames with which my bosom burned;
The nights I passed deprived of rest;
The jealous pangs which racked my breast;
My disappointed hopes, and passion unreturned.
‘Then fly, and curse mine eyes no more!
Fly from my peaceful Cottage-door!
No day, no hour, no moment shalt Thou stay.
I know thy falsehood, scorn thy arts,
Distrust thy smiles, and fear thy darts;
Traitor, begone, and seek some other to betray!’
‘Does Age, old Man, your wits confound?’
Replied the offended God, and frowned;
(His frown was sweet as is the Virgin’s smile!)
‘Do You to Me these words address?
To Me, who do not love you less,
Though You my friendship scorn, and pleasures past revile!
‘If one proud Fair you chanced to find,
An hundred other Nymphs were kind,
Whose smiles might well for Julia’s frowns atone:
But such is Man! His partial hand
Unnumbered favours writes on sand,
But stamps one little fault on solid lasting stone.
‘Ingrate! Who led Thee to the wave,
At noon where Lesbia loved to lave?
Who named the bower alone where Daphne lay?
And who, when Caelia shrieked for aid,
Bad you with kisses hush the Maid?
What other was’t than Love, Oh! false Anacreon, say!
‘Then You could call me — “Gentle Boy!
“My only bliss! my source of joy !” —
Then You could prize me dearer than your soul!
Could kiss, and dance me on your knees;
And swear, not wine itself would please,
Had not the lip of Love first touched the flowing bowl!
‘Must those sweet days return no more?
Must I for aye your loss deplore,
Banished your heart, and from your favour driven?
Ah! no; My fears that smile denies;
That heaving breast, those sparkling eyes
Declare me ever dear and all my faults forgiven.
‘Again beloved, esteemed, carest,
Cupid shall in thine arms be prest,
Sport on thy knees, or on thy bosom sleep:
My Torch thine age-struck heart shall warm;
My Hand pale Winter’s rage disarm,
And Youth and Spring shall here once more their revels keep.’ —
A feather now of golden hue
He smiling from his pinion drew;
This to the Poet’s hand the Boy commits;
And straight before Anacreon’s eyes
The fairest dreams of fancy rise,
And round his favoured head wild inspiration flits.
His bosom glows with amorous fire
Eager He grasps the magic lyre;
Swift o’er the tuneful chords his fingers move:
The Feather plucked from Cupid’s wing
Sweeps the too-long-neglected string,
While soft Anacreon sings the power
and praise of Love.
Soon as that name was heard, the Woods
Shook off their snows; The melting floods
Broke their cold chains, and Winter fled away.
Once more the earth was deckt with flowers;
Mild Zephyrs breathed through blooming bowers;
High towered the glorious Sun, and poured the blaze of day.
Attracted by the harmonious sound,
Sylvans and Fauns the Cot surround,
And curious crowd the Minstrel to behold:
The Wood-nymphs haste the spell to prove;
Eager They run; They list, they love,
And while They hear the strain, forget the Man is old.
Cupid, to nothing constant long,
Perched on the Harp attends the song,
Or stifles with a kiss the dulcet notes:
Now on the Poet’s breast reposes,
Now twines his hoary locks with roses,
Or borne on wings of gold in wanton circle floats.
Then thus Anacreon — ‘I no more
At other shrine my vows will pour,
Since Cupid deigns my numbers to inspire:
From Phoebus or the blue-eyed Maid
Now shall my verse request no aid,
For Love alone shall be the Patron of my Lyre.
‘In lofty strain, of earlier days,
I spread the King’s or Hero’s praise,
And struck the martial Chords with epic fire:
But farewell, Hero! farewell, King!
Your deeds my lips no more shall sing,
For Love alone shall be the subject of my Lyre.
The Marquis returned the paper with a smile of encouragement.
‘Your little poem pleases me much,’ said He; ‘However, you must not count my opinion for anything. I am no judge of verses, and for my own part, never composed more than six lines in my life: Those six produced so unlucky an effect that I am fully resolved never to compose another. But I wander from my subject. I was going to say that you cannot employ your time worse than in making verses. An Author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an Animal whom everybody is privileged to attack; For though All are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment, contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its Author a thousand mortifications. He finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured Criticism: One Man finds fault with the plan, Another with the style, a Third with the precept, which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the Book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its Author. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the Man, since They cannot hurt the Writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is wilfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame; Indeed this circumstance contains a young Author’s chief consolation: He remembers that Lope de Vega and Calderona had unjust and envious Critics, and He modestly conceives himself to be exactly in their predicament. But I am conscious that all these sage observations are thrown away upon you. Authorship is a mania to conquer which no reasons are sufficiently strong; and you might as easily persuade me not to love, as I persuade you not to write. However, if you cannot help being occasionally seized with a poetical paroxysm, take at least the precaution of communicating your verses to none but those whose partiality for you secures their approbation.’
‘Then, my Lord, you do not think these lines tolerable?’ said Theodore with an humble and dejected air.
‘You mistake my meaning. As I said before, they have pleased me much; But my regard for you makes me partial, and Others might judge them less favourably. I must still remark that even my prejudice in your favour does not blind me so much as to prevent my observing several faults. For instance, you make a terrible confusion of metaphors; You are too apt to make the strength of your lines consist more in the words than sense; Some of the verses only seem introduced in order to rhyme with others; and most of the best ideas are borrowed from other Poets, though possibly you are unconscious of the theft yourself. These faults may occasionally be excused in a work of length; But a short Poem must be correct and perfect.’
‘All this is true, Segnor; But you should consider that I only write for pleasure.’
‘Your defects are the less excusable. Their incorrectness may be forgiven in those who work for money, who are obliged to compleat a given task in a given time, and are paid according to the bulk, not value of their productions. But in those whom no necessity forces to turn Author, who merely write for fame, and have full leisure to polish their compositions, faults are impardonable, and merit the sharpest arrows of criticism.’
The Marquis rose from the Sopha; the Page looked discouraged and melancholy, and this did not escape his Master’s observation.
‘However’ added He smiling, ‘I think that these lines do you no discredit. Your versification is tolerably easy, and your ear seems to be just. The perusal of your little poem upon the whole gave me much pleasure; and if it is not asking too great a favour, I shall be highly obliged to you for a Copy.’

Originally Published: January 13th, 2009

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. January 15, 2009
     unreliable narrator

    I guess the thing I enjoy most about this is that it's gayer than springtime. Also, WOW that's a lot of stanzas. Also, you can spell "Sopha" like that? It sounds so wise.
    "Their incorrectness may be forgiven in those who work for money....But in those whom no necessity forces to turn Author, who merely write for fame...faults are impardonable...."
    Where are those enthusiastic class-obsessed Harriet commenters when you really need 'em–

  2. January 23, 2009

    Maybe that's the original meaning of 'sofa' - somewhere set aside for purposes positive to Knowledge(sophi = knowledge). 'Stead of letting it ooze away in couch-potatoery.
    The verses are gayer than springtime, but not glove-suckily. Anyway from what I know of the book it probably bodes unwell for the naive young poet.
    I wonder if people agree with the Marquis - are all writers doomed to have people attempting to 'dig up dirt' on them?