Writers Journey: Ancient Wisdom

The Roman poet Virgil spent a great deal of time thinking about the life of a writer. In fact, his first major work spends many lines just dwelling on it. It is called The Eclogues and young Virgil wrote this daunting piece of work while looking for his patron in the arts. He rose to the eye of Augustus shortly afterward so the work has held some merit in the eyes of history. Questions of the writer’s life or the validity of art in the big picture are themes to be found all over The Eclogues which are set in a pastoral, idealistic setting in order to help overcome place and time and project the reader into a tranquil state for reflection.

In Eclogue 3, two poets perform before a laboring farmer in the fields. Their names are Damoetas and Menalcas. They perform before the farmer named Palaemon. This farmer is busy irrigating his fields but he listens with some patience and attention to each poem recited by Damoetas and Menalcas. In the end, Palaemon can only admit that he likes both poems and then he wanders off to finish his tasks for the day because his fields are finally irrigated. Here, David R. Slavitt remarks in his discussion of Virgil, “Which doesn’t have an awful lot to do with art except to suggest that in the real world, it is difficult to get the attention of the public and almost impossible to hold on to it. The real world intrudes as represented by the farmer, who has practical concerns to deal with, is, at best, willing to listen but not much involved, and therefore – let us not kid ourselves – is not particularly knowledgeable either.”

This insight dates to about the 1st century BC and during Roman time yet it sounds much like today’s world. In this respect, we can say not much has changed since Virgil was out seeking a patron to support his living as a poet. It also seems that Virgil is ambivalent to this outcome for Damoetas and Menalcas. He allows Palaemon to continue working his fields. His poets have no decisive winner in this Eclogue, though in another with two more competing friends there is a winner later. Virgil spends this Eclogue reviewing the relationship between an artist and the audience, between creators and consumers, and he dwells on the imperfections of the arrangement.

It’s still striking to read something written in ancient times and feel the resonance alive today for working writers. Virgil takes the position that art is of value to society (and as he sought to make art as a living we know why) but he also spends time in the poem revealing two alternative points of view: the artist who believes that art is central to the human experience and the non-artist who cannot see that and considers art a whimsical addition or even irrelevant. It is Virgil’s sensitivity that takes precedence here in Eclogue 3 when he seems to emphasize that people must have security before they can appreciate art. Much like Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the need for shelter, food and security is much more pressing to the average citizen than the need for recited poetry.

As Slavitt states it in his own book: “Virgil is not delighted with Palaemon, but he is perfectly well aware that the man did stop, listen, and at least allow the two singers to take up some of his time as they performed. And that is about all the performer has a right to expect.”

These may come across as hard words and perhaps they are but if Virgil faced them, then today so can we. Writers must also be invested in the welfare of the people who support them. So if the economy is bad, for example, we must prepare for that eventuality. People must be fed and sheltered before they can stop to appreciate even traditional recitations at festivals that have been sung for thousands of years. It’s important as a writer to understand that your livelihood is tied to more than national bestseller lists and book tours and therefore a writer must look at what a realistic support network means in light of this.

A contemplation of resources and reciprocation must be weighed against the idea of artistic freedom. Here, everyone’s idea of sacrifice will be different. Personally, I’m willing to go without a lot of material needs for the freedom to continue writing stories and I’ve developed a personal support network able to achieve that goal. But some writers will want something different and yet a few writers will dream that there is no sacrifice in a life of art—and in the end be sorely disappointed.

Still, perhaps more important than this is the question that each writer must face in the light of social reciprocation: If you wish support for your work in the form of an audience, what do you give to the community to ensure that such support can be granted? Do you donate time or resources to charities or social welfare? Do you teach writing to aspiring students? Have you contributed in your community in some way? It isn’t about karma and it isn’t about having award-winning words. Virgil has been award-winning for two thousand years. What he pointed out is that a good writing environment is a delicate ecosystem that requires constant attunement and attentive cooperation.


Meditation for your journal: Echoing Slavitt’s words, ‘What do you have a right to expect?’