Horace, like any admirable figure, seeks both to model – and teach – what excellence is in his field….
We end our review of The Works of Horace as translated into English prose by the redoubtable Christopher Smart with a look at the work that has been the anchor for his reputation over at least the last 200 years or so. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” is, as I mentioned last time, considered one of the classic works in the history of literary criticism. Like all of Horace’s work, “Ars Poetica” is personal and idiosyncratic. Like all of Horace’s work, it is filled with moments of pathos, bathos, and brilliance.
Some critics have found cause to dispute with Horace, noting that he focuses his critique on epic and dramatic poetry – neither of which he wrote – and that, unlike, say, Aristotle, he is not orderly and systematic in his discussion, wandering from topic to topic, often abruptly. There are a couple of ways of responding to that.
One point that I think Horace would try to make clear to his critics is that “Ars Poetica” is a lesson itself: by that, I mean that Horace might ask calmly:
Horace: What type of poetry is “Ars Poetica”?
Critics: A verse epistle.
Horace: As verse epistles go, how would you rate “Ars Poetica”?
Critics: It is clearly one of the greatest. A brilliant example.
Horace: And what do you think of my odes and satires.
Critics: Oh, they are superb also.
Horace: Ah. You see now, of course, why it is unnecessary for me to write about how to write – oh, verse epistles? Or odes? Or satires?
Critics: Uh, no.
Horace: No. I suppose you wouldn’t. [Sigh]
Horace is arguing (unsuccessfully) that one can teach what great literature is and one can model great literature in one’s own work. It is a subtle but important differentiation – and, gentle soul that he is generally, Horace would not suggest, as Juvenal might, that such critics would better serve literature as bear bait in the Colosseum. Though Horace might be tempted to dash off some lines to his great and good friend Maecenas suggesting that a stint in the legions on the Germanic frontier would be very helpful in grounding some critics in reality.
“Ars Poetica” itself is really simply a great poet recounting what it takes write great poetry. It easily divides into three major areas: 1) what makes a good poem; 2) why dramatic poetry is trickier than other genres; 3) what the qualifications of a poet ought to be. One important note: while Horace addresses himself to poetry specifically in “Ars Poetica,” his observations apply to writers of all sorts. That’s part of the work’s greatness: one can safely extrapolate and apply principles Horace discusses regarding poets and poetry to writing of all genres. Kind of a good lesson in that, methinks.
On what makes a good poem, Horace notes that choosing one’s subject wisely is always a plus. He notes, too, that matching language to subject is the difference between success and failure – as is using appropriate meter and style. The master of masters that any aspiring poet should consult as a model of managing these issues poets face is, of course, Homer:
Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what you strength declines, and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style, nor a perspicuous disposition, shall desert the man, by whom the subject matter is chosen judiciously….In the choice of words, too, the author of the projected poem must be delicate and cautious, he must embrace one and reject the other: you will express yourself eminently well, if a dexterous combination should give an air of novelty to a well-known word…. [For example] Homer has instructed us in what measure the achievements of kings, and chiefs, and direful war might be written…. Pathetic accents suit a melancholy countenance; words full of menace, an angry one; wanton expressions a sportive look; and serious matter, an austere one.
Horace’s interest in dramatic poetry seems driven by a desire to see consistency. He warns about “propriety of representation” (i.e., don’t make the comic tragic and the tragic comic); he agrees with Aristotle that there should be certain “unities” – of time, place, action – and he has specific suggestions for the number of actors and when the chorus should speak. Here again, he refers to the Greeks as models:
If you offer to the stage anything unattended, and venture to form a new character; let it be preserved to the last such as it is set out at the beginning, and be consistent with itself…. If you are desirous of an applauding spectator…the manners of every age must be marked by you, and a proper decorum assigned to men’s varying dispositions and years…. You must not, however, bring upon the stage things fit only to be acted behind the scenes…. Let not [for example] Medea murder her sons before the people [i.e., audience]…. Ye [who are desirous to excel] turn over the Grecian models by night, turn them by day.
Finally, Horace gets to the big issue: who should try to be a poet? He is very clear about what he thinks a poet’s qualifications should be – certainly talent is important, but study and acquisition of knowledge are equally important. A poet should be able to discern character in people. A poet should be able to take impartial criticism and use it to improve his/her work. Above all, a poet should be willing to work at poetry:
To have good sense is the first principle and fountain of writing well…. He who has learned what he owes to his country, and what to his friends; with what affection a parent, a brother, and a stranger are to be loved; what is the duty of a senator, what of a judge; what the duties of a general sent out to war; he [I say] certainly knows how to give suitable attributes to every character…. A good and sensible man [one giving feedback] will censure spiritless verses, he will condemn the rugged, on the incorrect he will draw across a black stroke with his pen…he will arraign what is expressed ambiguously; he will mark what should be altered….
Horace ends with a warning about poets who have gone mad. His description – one who thinks his/her work is so necessary to humanity that it must be inflicted on the public no matter how unwelcome, holds a warning for us all.
From “Ars Poetica” come a number of literary terms that almost anyone who’s been to school has encountered: in medias res, ab ovo, “instruct and delight.” In fact, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism notes:
It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of Horace’s Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry) for the subsequent history of literary criticism. Since its composition in the first century BCE, this epigrammatic and sometimes enigmatic critical poem has exerted an almost continual influence over poets and literary critics alike – perhaps because its dicta, phrased in verse form, are so eminently quotable. Horace’s injunction that poetry should both ‘instruct and delight’ has been repeated so often that it has come to be known as the Horatian platitude.
Instructing and delighting. Certainly worthy goals – goals that scholar-rogues (Scrogues) strive for. And certainly justification of why Horace deserves to be a pre-eminent Scrogue.