Letter of Vincent Obsopoeus to John Petreius (1537)

John (Johannes) Petreius (source: Wikipedia)

The first edition of The Art of Drinking came out in 1536. The next year, Obsopoeus published a second edition with John (Johannes) Petreius, a Nuremberg-based printer (his most famous work would be the original edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in 1543).

At the front of the second edition, Obsopoeus added this charming, even hilarious, little poem to his printer. It seems Petreius had sent Obsopoeus a letter asking that he fix the typos in the first edition of De Arte Bibendi in preparation for a second edition; to do so, however, he apparently used the words ebrietatem emendare (“correct your drunkenness.”)

As you’ll see, Obsopoeus takes him at his word. He then proceeds to give a fascinating little backstory to writing his poem–how sincere or true, of course, each of us will decide for ourselves.

Click here for the Latin text. It was later reprinted in part here.
This is the first translation into any language; scroll down for a few notes.

To the most humane and learned gentleman,
John Petreius,
printer in Nuremberg and a very dear friend,
Vincent Obsopoeus sends greetings.

This letter you’re reading reaches you from the city of Ansbach, 
        my learned Petreius, and it’s cast in elegiac couplets.  
If you have time, give these rough verses a good, thorough reading; 
        You’ll find something I bet you’ll enjoy— 
although, if that promise doesn’t come true, it’s no great loss            5 
        to waste a little time in reading.

Recently, when I published my Rules for Drinking,
	I thought my being an idiot that one time was enough.
But you say my being an idiot that one time (by writing a stupid
	and silly poem) isn’t enough for you;                                       10
you’re telling me to “Correct my drunkenness...!”
	How could I possibly refuse an order as beneficial as that?!
“…obviously, so that it can be republished out here in an improved edition,
	as well as enlarged with new verses.”
If you don’t know, though, it's easy for a little drunkenness to           15 
        snowball--to go from a trickle to a flood.
Still, remember: not any old person can correct 
	drunkenness overnight, and easily.
Drunkenness isn’t usually correctible by any art
	once she puts down roots, like a tree.                                    20

But you don’t mean correct her; you want me to correct the typos 
	in the books on The Art of Drinking I gave you to print!
Why, though, are you forcing me to keep killing 
	the poor trees and torturing my tired hands?
Are you worried that fish don’t have enough wrappings                    25
	or that incense sellers need more packaging?
Or is it you’re afraid that crooked peddlers are running out 
	of cheap cloth to cover up their wares?
If that’s the problem, then you’re upsetting yourself over nothing
	and wasting your time worrying about it:                                 30
the world is simply bursting with writers
	who know just how to relieve you of those fears.
No shopkeeper or chef can seriously complain
	that packaging for pepper is hard to come by.
Look, if you do want to group me in with poets like that,                  35
	then I’ll do as you say, my dear Petreius;
I’ll write you all the doggerel poems you can handle,
	if it’s a crow, not a nightingale, you’d rather hear.
Instead of a swan’s song, get ready for the squawking, honking 
	bleating a goose lets out its beak.                                           40
I myself <hadn't? wouldn't? supply> anything all that polished,
        nor <a new edition?> very enriched with new verses.
I dabbled off my poem, warts and all, quickly;
	I didn’t seriously intend to teach anybody anything.
I’ll repeat it: I dabbled off my poem to make people laugh—              45
	assuming there are any laughs in my alcoholic poem.
You see, moderate drinkers don’t need my system;
	they live their sober lives automatically.
I didn’t give any rules to the Leontini crowd,
	who get drunk only by continuous drinking.                              50
Drinking contests at daytime, at nighttime—
	Come on, give me a break: who couldn’t compete without my system?
And would I want to write anything for out-of-control alcoholics?
	Drunks don’t follow my rules.
With this poem, I made my good friends smile—                               55
	those friends who ask my advice (not that it’s worth much).
Ignoring the pen they issue from, they look upon my verses
	as compositions by the very muses of Homer.
They live near me, in Healing-Spring (Heilsbronn) Abbey,
	and always cherish me with bromantic affection.                      60
I especially pleased Johannes Hartung, who acts as Heilsbronn’s judge
	and does his job justly, like a regular Rhadamanthus,
adorned with every virtue, and distinguished by
	a noted intellect and bodily strength.
Thyrsus in hand, I also wrote my poem for our friend Harmatopoeus.  65
	 He is a true, unswerving friend of mine.
The Muses made him a poet,
	but he doesn’t resent my own efforts.
He has learned the minds of many men and their cities;
	in that respect, Ulysses, he’s every bit as impressive as you.       70
That’s to pass over the abbot, John (Schopper), who's distinguished for his piety,
	and whose praises I ought to have celebrated first;
my brief letter can’t properly proclaim such great fame; 
	you'd need a big book to sing of his great virtue. 
 He, too, thinks my poem is worth something;                                    75
	such is the extent of the candor in his candid heart.
The bountiful spring (Bronn) with the sweet name of “Healing” or “Saving” (Heils)
	gives me him as a patron, as well as these other friends.
This spring has often saved me, my good Petreius;
	it has often poured out waters that have healed me.                  80
At the same time, this same spring frequently causes me problems, too,
	every time I enjoy its strong waters too much,
just as the best medications often do me harm,
	if I don’t take them as prescribed.
It's also like eating a big bowl of honey: the sweetness                       85
	of the honey overpowers the bitterness of bile.
If you take just a single taste of that spring’s water,
	you’ll fall over yourself agreeing with my words,
swearing, “This spring is sweeter than our waters—
	this spring is better than the waters of Castalia!”                       90
Would you like to win these men over as your own patrons, Petreius?
	You can do that -- by your virtue.
They don’t offer a handshake to just anyone who stops by,
	but once they do embrace a man, they love him reverently.  
Let me say it again: my poem was designed to humor those friends,   95
	although a hillbilly muse wasn’t worthy of them.
I once promised them a poem on that theme as a joke,
	a poem to teach the proper way to drink wine.
If you want to reprint this enlarged version in moveable type,
	 then here you go: print and reprint my book as you like.           100

Lastly, please pass along my greetings
	to your circle of scholars and humanists:
our dear Ketzmann, Laetus, and Sebald his relative,
	and all the rest, the sweet members of our circle,
especially Thomas [Delius], to whom Diana of Delos gave her name,    105
	Mercury his tongue, and Apollo his divine breast,
as well as Pomgartner, if he’ll deign to be counted 
	in that group; he’s a man worthy of a better lyre.
And now, since there’s nothing left I’d like to say, 
	I bid you too, my learned Petreius, a fond farewell.                     110


Lines 41-2 are missing a first-person verb: Haud equidem, limā nimium purgata, severa / versiculis multum, nec cumulata novis. Unless Obsopoeus forgot to add one (he does make mistakes), the likeliest corruption is severa (rough around the edges).

Line 49: Like New Orleans or Las Vegas, the inhabitants of Leontini in Sicily (modern Lentini) were proverbial in Renaissance times for their love of drink.

Line 65: I haven’t been able to discover anything about this Harmatopoeus (he is not to be confused with Johannes Harmatopoeus, who became Professor of Music in Basel a generation later).

Line 60: “Bromantic affection” is literally “the love of Theseus,” the allusion being to that hero’s instant bromance with Pirithous; Plutarch tells the story in his Life of Theseus, 30.

Line 96: By “a hillbilly muse,” Obsopoeus means himself, a poet from Bavaria. In his 1529 collection of translations from Lucian, Obsopoeus complains that some people had been criticizing him for being a Bavarian (“= barbarian to them”), semipaganus (a peasant), and, perhaps, for being a cook in his prior career. Worst of all, though, they criticized him for being too prolific, and hence presumptuous, in churning out his many translations from Greek.

Line 103: For liminary poems by Georg Laetus and Sebald Heyden, click here.

Interestingly, this lighthearted preface to the second edition bears a striking resemblance to Placentius’ preface in his second edition of The Pig War — the book Obsopoeus was falsely suspected of writing.