Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the 1911.
The epigram, written shortly after DGR had learned of the death of Flaubert (8 May 1880), gives DGR's judgment on the ambivalent significance of Flaubert's work. DGR was a great admirer of Flaubert, but the cold and cruel beauties of Salammbô appalled him, and he read them a sign of the extreme decadence of the Second Empire. His acute sense of the horror of the book did not mitigate in any way his judgment about its greatness, a fact brilliantly carried in the epigram, and especially in the shrewd—and cruel—pair of allusions on whiich it chiefly turns. The lives, works, and deaths of both Vitellius and Nero are for DGR antithetical emblems—the one glorious, the other shameful. Applying them to Flaubert, whose literary greatness is assumed in the poem, implicitly comments on the revelatory function of art in any age, as Nero's dying words emphasize (“Qualis artifex pereo”). Art as a vehicle of truth—the view that DGR longed to take—gets undermined in its passage through this epigram.
The epigram has yet another level of cruel truth since DGR's judgment of Flaubert is self-reflexive. That DGR came to harbor a similar view of himself and his Victorian world is certain, as his later work in particular clearly shows.
The lines should be compared with his translation from Petronius, “I saw the sibyl of Cumae”.
WMR dates the epigram 1880 and this corresponds well with the text of the poem as DGR copied it into one of his late notebooks. The first version is less elaborate than the second.
The poem should be compared with the painting DGR made in 1874 with the same title.
The epigram is also, explicitly, an epitaph, a fact of some significance since the poem involves a comment on the status and authority of aesthetic work.