On License

John J. Parman
5 min readMay 5, 2022


Walter Benjamin playing chess with Bertoldt Brecht in the late 1930s.

“Pictoribus atque poetis
quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas.” (Horace, Ars Poetica)

License is traditionally granted to artists and poets, Horace notes, passing over the perils they face from power and the crowd. The boundaries each sets out are inexact and fluid. Sudden, unexpected shifts are prompted by offense taken, displeasure felt, if an artist or poet oversteps the bounds — deliberately, by flouting convention, or as the byproduct of her creativity, unaware that she’s trespassing on the sensibilities and good will of others.

Despite the imbalance between power or the crowd and the individual artist or poet, the pretense of license is kept up lest a desired stasis slips into actual stagnation — the rot that sets in when time is called on progress and anything that isn’t top-down is immediately suspect as lèse-majesté. Art and poetry are patronized by power and the crowd, but official artists and poets are rarely innovators and almost never provocateurs. Apostasy is their one exit, opening frequently onto a blind alley from which rescue is often posthumous. This being so, an early choice for artists and poets in times and places of oppression is to embrace apostasy wholeheartedly. In the wake of a revolution, dilemmas can arise around such choices.

Following the Russian Revolution, artists and poets sought to lend their support. In the 1930s, Stalin had many of them murdered, and those he kept alive were regularly made aware of the cat-and-mouse nature of their survival. In such situations, opprobrium rather than neglect is the flip side of patronage. Neglect can be fatal once an artist or poet has experienced fame, but others work on, buoyed by a small circle of admirers or by their own faith in themselves and their work. Opprobrium actively seeks to suppress them and their work.

This gets you Osip Mandelstam, for example, writing for a small circle but more specifically for a Russia in which creative license is restored and broadened — a Russia not just without Stalin, but without Putin, either.

Lass dir Alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken.
Man muss nur gehn: Kein Gefühl ist das fernste. (Rilke, “Gott spricht zu jedem nur eh er ihn…”)

Here, Rilke gives support to Mandelstam’s willingness to work on regardless, putting his own feelings aside as unreliably transient. In discussing the Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone, Seamus Deane notes a similar wariness in Tone of his own emotions, giving precedence to the cause for which he worked and, in the end, gave his life. Deane also records Tone’s desire to be executed by a firing squad in order to hasten his death. Unable to work, his life was untenable. His apparent suicide in prison was criticized by some Catholic contemporaries as paganly Greek or Roman in its stoicism, Deane writes — a Christian would presumably prefer to be martyred for his beliefs.

Sit ius liceatque perire poetis;
inuitum qui seruat, idem facit occidenti. (Horace, Ars Poetica)

According to Jennifer Ferriss-Hill, Horace warns his readers that the license granted to artists and poets, et al, can lead them to be carried away owing to their human nature. They experience what he calls facundia praecops, “rushing fluency” in her translation, which brings the risk of endangering themselves and others. He argues against this, she says, but is aware that it is inevitably part of the creative process when humans embark on it. Inevitable, but at the same time unlawful for those insufficiently experienced to know their limits or constitutionally incapable of doing so. Robert Lowell at full tilt, in bipolarity’s manic phase, comes to mind, along with the many suicides.

Yet Horace condones this, arguing that it is as much a transgression to try to save such poets as it is for them to be carried away. License is license — and when it comes to human creativity, there is no natural limit.

For a poet like Sylvia Plath, for whom suicide was something of a leitmotif, or an artist like Francesca Woodman, who took her life at 22, her work prolific but even less securely in the world, Horace’s critique of taking license too far is pertinent. Even Lyndall Gordon, considering Virginia Woolf as a writer, was moved to ask how her work might have evolved had she lived on. As readers, we fall invariably on the side of longevity. Katherine Mansfield dies young and Woolf, honest about envying her talent, misses the spur her presence provided.

What then do artists and poets owe? The younger their departure, the more it pains us, robbed of work “on our behalf” that we foresaw. Horace’s license admits the hermetic nature of creativity — how concern for its reception taints it, even as a sense of its effect on others is an intrinsic part of its making. Yet making a full stop is also a creative act, and we deprive it of meaning by relegating it to madness, even when madness figures. If we take an artist or poet seriously, then finding meaning — however elusive — in their acts is a necessity.

We draw the outer boundaries of license very liberally with regard to gender, for example, yet we categorize suicide as out of bounds, a sign of madness. This is understandable in human terms, as such deaths are often devastating for the immediate survivors, surfacing all sorts of psychic undergrowth but seeming to give it no place to go except to the grave. It takes real courage to read it otherwise, expose the work in process, and take from the act itself meanings that unfold in light of what can be known and intuited from the life and works.

We owe this to them, Horace says, or we will kill as surely as the artist or poet herself. Granting her license is to grant her an afterlife — future reception, empathy, and admiration that sees past her excesses.

Sources and translations

Horace (1): “Painters and poets always had equal opportunities to venture.” (Quotes in the original)

Rilke: Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Deane: “Imperialism and Nationalism,” Small World: Ireland 1798–2018, Cambridge, 2021, pp. 74–93.

Ferris-Hill: Horace’s Ars Poetica, Princeton, 2019, p. 54 and following.

Gordon: Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, Norton, 2001.

Horace (2): Let the poet be permitted to perish; he who saves her against her will does the same as the slayer.



John J. Parman

Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.