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Melanchthon’s Poetic Commendation of Cicero

Did you know Melanchthon wrote poetry? Well, did you? And did you know he wrote a lot of it? I didn’t realize until recently that he did, and until very recently just how much of it there was.

Last week The Imaginative Conservative ran a piece of mine on one of Melanchthon’s prefaces to Cicero’s On Duties (it’s not the only one). But Melanchthon also wrote verse-prefaces that are hortatory to a study of the work. Here is one, written perhaps in 1535, in hendecasyllables:

Today we shall read Tully’s best book,

which polishes the tender breast and unformed

tongue with a god’s art.1

Tully shows you the lofty promontory

of virtue, and a more steadfast

port, which the wanton south winds

and the southeast wind and the raging north winds

strike in vain, and which cares nothing about the threats

of Fortune, and procures for you

calm quiet and a more serene mind.2

Just a few quick remarks:

  1. The most famous poem from antiquity in hendecasyllables is Catullus 1, also about a book–though in that case it is his own book of poems that Catullus is introducing (though he goes on to praise Cornelius’ literary production), rather than a book by someone else. Melanchthon skillfully alludes to it with libellum in final position in l. 1 and with expolit in l. 3. Compare Catullus 1.1-2: Cui dono lepidum novum libellum/ arida modo pumice expolitum?
  2. Melanchthon describes the book’s power with a natural metaphor: the image is one of a safe harbor surrounded by great hills or mountains that protect it from the battering winds. They beat on the rocks frustra, to no purpose.
  3. Note the words that receive special emphasis through enjambmentarcem, juxtaposed effectively with Tullius, creating a forceful juncturaportumfrustra; and Fortunae.
  4. In l. 8, Melanchthon begins to shift the image more explicitly back to book and reader, the one now safe in the port of the other, by psychologizing the metaphor. The book teaches the reader, Melanchthon says, how to control one’s self and one’s own turbulence through the rational practice of virtue–he speaks, that is, of inner peace or calm–and this fortifies him against the volatile Fortune that attacks one from without.
  5. Thus we are reminded by the poem’s last three lines that Cicero’s chief sources for On Duties are Stoic, though Cicero was no Stoic himself.
  1. The genitive divini could also be taken with rudem, but this would leave linguam with two modifiers and arte with none, which would be odd Latin.
  2. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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