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The Young Humanist of Ravenna

The Young Humanist of Ravenna

To Boccaccio

A year after your departure I had the good fortune to secure the services of a fine, generous, young lad, whom I am sorry you do not know. He knows you well, for he has often seen you, at Venice, in your house, where I am now living, and also at the home of our friend Donato, and on such occasions has observed you very carefully, as is natural at his age. I want you to know him, too, so far as that is possible at such long range, and to see him with the mind's eye, when you read my letters, and so I will tell you a little about him. He was born on the coast of the Adriatic, at about the time, if I am not mistaken, when you were living there, with the former lord of that region, the grandfather of him who now holds sway. The lad's own family and fortune are humble. But he is well endowed, nevertheless. He has a force of character and a power of self-control that would be praiseworthy even in old age; and a mind that is keen and flexible; and a memory that is rapacious, and capacious, and, best of all, tenacious. My bucolics, which are divided off into twelve eclogues, as you know, he committed to memory within eleven days, reciting one section to me each evening and two the last time, repeating them without a single hitch, as if he had the book before his eyes. Besides that, he has himself a great deal of invention,---a rare thing in these days,---and a fine enthusiasm, and a heart that loves the Muses; and he is already, as Maro hath it, making new songs of his own; and if he lives, and his development keeps pace with his years, as I am confident it will, he surely will be something great, as was prophesied of Ambrose by his father. There is much to be said for him even now, at an age when usually there is very little to say. Of one of his good tendencies you have just heard. You shall hear now of another, a trait that constitutes the best possible foundation for sound character and solid intellectual attainments. As the common herd loves money and longs to possess it, even so, and more, does he hate it and spurn it. To 'add to golden numbers golden numbers' he considers labour worse than lost. He is scarcely willing to acquire the necessaries of life. In his love of solitude, his fasting, his vigils, he vies with me, often surpasses me. In brief, his character has so recommended him to me that he is every bit as dear to me as a son whom I had begotten; perhaps dearer, because a son---such alas! are the ways of our young men nowadays---would wish to rule, while all his study is to obey, to follow not his own inclinations but my will, and this not from any selfish motive, such as the hope of reward, but solely from love and, possibly, an expectation of being benefited by association with me. . . .

And now I come, at the close, to what really was first in my thoughts. The lad has a decided leaning toward poetry; and if he perseveres in his efforts, till in due time he learns to think clearly and vigorously, he will compel your wonder and your congratulations. But so far he is vague and uncertain, because of the feebleness of youth, and does not always know what he wants to say. What he does want to, however, he says very nobly and beautifully. So it frequently happens that there falls from him some poem that is not only pleasing to the ear but dignified and graceful and well-considered, the sort of work that you would ascribe, if you were ignorant of the author, to some writer of long experience. I am confident that he will develop vigour of thought and expression, and work out, as the result of his experiments, a style of his own, and learn to avoid imitation, or, better, to conceal it, so as to give the impression not of copying but rather of bringing to Italy from the writers of old something new. Now, however, imitation actually is his greatest joy, as is usual at his time of life. Sometimes his delight in another's genius seems to lend to his spirit wings, and he defies all the restraints of his art and soars aloft, so high that he cannot continue his flight as he should, and has to descend in a fashion that betrays him. The strongest of all these admirations is for Virgil. It is marvellously strong. He thinks very many of our poets worthy of praise, but Virgil worthy almost of worship. He loves him so, is so fascinated by him, that he often takes pains to weave bits from his poems into his own verse. I, rejoicing to find that he is overtaking me and longing to see him press on and become what I have always aspired to be, warn him, in a fatherly and friendly fashion, to consider carefully what he is about. An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should be not like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, and yet after all there is a shadowy something,---akin to what our painters call one's air,---hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness that immediately, upon our beholding the child, calls the father up before us. If it were a matter of measurement every detail would be found to be different, and yet there certainly is some subtle presence there that has this effect.

In much the same way we writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined. In brief, we may appropriate another's thought, and may even copy the very colours' of his style, but we must abstain from borrowing his actual words. The resemblance in the one case is hidden away below the surface; in the other it stares the reader in the face. The one kind of imitation makes poets; the other---apes. It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many very different flavours into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.

I often say such things, and he always listens as he would to his own father. It happened the other day, though, as I was advising him in this fashion, that he offered the following objection. "I see your meaning," he said, "and I admit the truth of all that you say. But the occasional, sparing, use of others' words,---that is a thing for which I have abundant warrant, in the practice of very many of our poets, and of yourself above all." I was amazed, and replied, "If ever you have found such things in my works, my son, you may be sure that it is due to some oversight, and is very far from being my deliberate intention. I know that cases of this sort, where a writer makes use of another's words, are to be found by the thousand in the poets; but I myself have always taken the utmost pains, when composing to avoid every trace both of my own work and, more particularly, of my predecessors', difficult though such avoidance is. But where, pray, is this passage of mine, by which you justify yourself?'' "In your bucolics, number six, where, not far from the end, there is a verse that concludes with these words: atque intonat ore.'' I was astounded; for I realised, as he spoke, what I had failed to see when writing, that this is the ending of one of Virgil's lines, in the sixth book of his divine poem. I determined to communicate the discovery to you: not that there is room any longer for correction, the poem being well known by this time and scattered far and wide, but that you might upbraid yourself for having left it to another to point out this slip of mine; or, if it has chanced to escape your own notice so far, that you might learn of it now, and at the same time might be led to reflect on the fact that we mortals, all of us,---not I alone, who with all my zeal and industry am handicapped by insufficiency of talent and literary training, but all other men as well, however great their learning and their abilities,---are so limited in our powers that all our inventions have some element of incompleteness, perfection being the prerogative of him alone from whom proceeds the little that we know and are able to do. Then, in conclusion, I want you to join me in praying Virgil to pardon me, and not harden his heart against me for unwittingly borrowing---not stealing---these few words from him,---who himself has stolen outright, many and many a time, from Homer, and Ennius, and Lucretius, and many another poet. Farewell.

PAVIA, Oct. 28, [1365].

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