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Document number: 3734
Date: 01 Oct 1838
Recipient: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Author: MACAULAY Thomas Babbington
Collection: British Library, London, Manuscripts - Fox Talbot Collection
Collection number historic: LA38-026
Last updated: 1st September 2003

3 Clarqes Street Octr 1. 1838

Dear Talbot,

Thank you for your present. I have lost no time in making use of it. I have read it through with very great interest. All your theories are ingenious; – some, I think, are unquestionably sound; – and there are not more than two or three which I should venture positively to pronounce unsound. About the etymology of the word ποιητης I cannot agree with you. The care, even as you have put it, is not a strong one. The resemblance between the words αεοιδος and ποιητης is but faint. And I do not feel so strongly as you appear to do the improbability that the general work maker should be applied to the species of versemaker. Surely all languages abound with parallel cases. The word tailor, that is cutter, might be applied to a surgeon, to a barber, to a reaper, to a sawyer. But it is used specially for a person who cuts out clothes – and not all clothes – but men’s clothes, and only a particular portion of those. The word joiner might be applied to a cobbler, to a bricklayer, to a coachmaker, to a follower of the honorable vocation of Sir Pandarus of Troy. But it is used specially for an artisan who works on wood. We have a still stronger case in point. The word troubadour or trovador, – finder, – is one of as wide an original signification as ποιητης, maker. – Yet we know that the word troubadour was specially used for a finder of rhymes.

I therefore do not think that your case even as you put it, is a very strong one. But I think that you put it far too favourably for your theory. For you never once advert to the fact that the verb ποιειν was used for the act of Poetical composition, and that without any noun following it. And I doubt whether you can shew that this use of the verb ποιειν is not quite as ancient as the kindred use of the substantive ποιητης. ορδως μοι δοκεει Πινδαρος ποιησαι – says Herodotus – And Aristophanes in his oldest extant play αναβάδην ποεις, εξόν καταβάδην. Is there any older instance of the word ποιητης? <illegible deletion> There may be. But I do not remember one: and my impression is that <illegible deletion> the use of the verb in this sense is as old, for any thing that appears, as the use of the noun. Now if this be so, it is merely a most daring hypothesis to suppose gratuitously that ποιητης was first formed by corruption from αεοιδος- that then ποιητης gave its sense to a verb in such common use as ποιε<ω?>, so that ποιειν, put absolutely, came to mean to make verses.

The only other theory in this most amusing and ingenious little work to which I have strong objections is that above the etymology of εξεστω. I do not feel clear that the sense of lex esto and εξ εστω is by any means the same. Lex esto seems to me to imply something more than the mere absence of prohibition, which is all that εξ εστω implies. The passage which you quote is an instance. If the magistrate imposes a fine, lex esto – let the decree be good in law – But if a man wishes to walk down to the Pirœus, – εξ εστω, – let him be at liberty to do so. The effect of <illegible deletion> the two <illegible deletion> phrases, as they strike me, may be illustrated from Agnew’s absurd Lord’s – day Bill. if a man travel on the Sunday he is to be fined 10£ on conviction before a magistrate – Lex esto – Provided always that nothing herein shall extend to works of charity or necessity – εξεστω. And this leads me to my own etymology of εξεστω. It means literally – “Let it be an excepted case”. And by a very natural association it comes to mean “Let it be a case excepted from penal and prohibitory enactments,” and by consequence Let it be lawful. I can conceive that a Greek state may have had laws drawn in something of this form.

ου φονευσεις.

το κτεινειν τον τυραννον εξ εστω.

το κτεινειν τον μοιχευοντα εξ εστω.

And so on. At all events this illustration shews by what mental process I think that εξ εστω came to mean licito. The principle of all legislation is that everything is lawful which is not prohibited. All the unlawful acts are in the law. Whatever is not mentioned, whatever is out of the law is the lawful.

I have run on to a most unmerciful length – And there are matters about which I ought not to venture to give an opinion; for I have paid no attention to them; and have been <illegible deletion> so much buried by other things that , though I still read Aristophanes and Démothenes with as much zest as ever, I have never been able to attend to the deeper parts of philology, and have always been, as Wordsworth somewhere says,

“Content as I may but enjoy the things which others understand.”

I am truly glad to see such promise of great services to literature as your Hermes exhibits. I wish that you would undertake some extensive work. Give us a translation of Herodotus, – not like Beloe’s <1> wretched performance, – but in the style of our old English chronicles with all the poetical naiveté of the original: and fill the notes, as you well know how, with curious information and ingenious speculations. Courier tries his hand on such a work in French, and the specimen which he has left, short and imperfect as it is, seems to me a model in its kind.

By the bye should you like to review Arnold, History of Rome <2> for the Edinburgh I know that a few weeks ago Napier was in great distress about it – looking everywhere for a fit critic and finding none. Now if you have no objection I will undertake to arrange the matter in such a way that, if Napier is already provided he shall never know that I have spoken to you on the subject, and that, if he is not provided, he shall make the first overtures.

Believe me, dear Talbot,
Yours very truly

T B Macaulay

H F Talbot Esq
T B Macaulay


1. William Beloe, The History of Herodotus, first published in 1791.

2. Thomas Arnold, History of Rome, 3 vols. (London: 1838–1843).

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