*The Poetic Art
The Poetic Art
by Horace, written c. 12–8 BCE
The centrality of the poetic epistle to the Pisos by Horace (65–8 BCE), Epistula ad Pisones, popularly known as Ars poetica or The Poetic Art, to Western literary theory is partly adduced by the number of concepts and phrases from it that have passed into standard usage by critics, often unacknowledged. Whenever we speak of a misplaced eloquence as a “purple patch,” or of epic poets beginning “in medias res”; whenever we speak of poetry’s purpose to “delight and instruct,” or excuse a poet’s error by saying that “Homer nods,” or refer to the revision process as taking the writing “back to the anvil,” we are borrowing from Horace’s Ars poetica.
Ars poetica is cast in the form of a sermo, or verse epistle, which gives the poem a remarkably conversational style. It seems to ramble, as conversation does, though many readers have discerned a structure beneath the apparent randomness. If an early commentator was right in asserting that the work originated as an informal commentary on the maxims of Neoptolemus of Parium, then that may account for its unstructured appearance. Addressed to the aristocratic Piso family, a father and two sons (although there is some debate as to which Pisos are meant), the verse essay offers practical advice on poetry to would-be poets. It is important to keep in mind the practical nature of its putative intention, for while it has rightly taken its place as a classic of literary criticism, it pretends to be more of a how-to manual for writers.
The admonitory nature of the work heightens its sense of audience. Many lines are simple imperatives: “Don’t begin like this”; “let no god intervene”; “handle your Greek models day and night.” Periodic vocatives keep the intended audience in the text, referring to all three as “Pisos,” “writers,” or “Sons of Pompilius.” Horace’s frequent use of second-person pronouns and verb forms creates an intimate tone, especially when he uses the vos to distinguish his chosen readers from the rabble, as in his discussion of Plautus, whom “your ancestors praised” though “you and I know how to tell crudity from wit.”
Yet as much as these techniques contributed to conversational effect, and as much as Ars poetica is ultimately a poem and not a treatise, it yields to most readers a coherent rhetorical structure beneath the seemingly random talk. Because his transitions are gradual, and bridge topics by seeming to apply now to the preceding, now to the following, the divisions in Horace’s treatise are not universally agreed upon. But allowing some leeway of a few lines in either direction, general sections can be distinguished. The first 40 lines are an introduction of sorts, but introduce a critical principle of unity. The wouldbe poet is advised to leave out of his poem any element that is inconsonant with the poem as a whole. Lines 40–118 discuss order and style: Horace rejects a reigning dictim against neologisms, though he urges caution in coining new words; metrical patterns should be appropriate to the poetic type; the poet must truly feel what he wants his reader to feel.
Lines 119–294 suggest how to organize larger poems, and categorize their generic types. Much of the structural advice echoes Aristotle’s Poetics: begin in the middle of the action; insure a beginning, middle, and end; keep violence offstage; avoid the artificial deus ex machina. The poet’s models for subject and meter should be Greek, says Horace; revise carefully over a long period of time. The final section, lines 295 to the end, entertains specific questions about literary criticism. This section begins with Horace’s relinquishing of the title of poet, in order to introduce the distinction between poet and critic—an irony since, as a work of criticism, the letter to the Pisos takes a writer’s point of view rather than a critic’s. After a lament that Romans can count money better than poetic meter, Horace lays down his famous principle: poetry must delight and instruct.
He admits, however, that even Homer fails to delight at times; it is inevitable in longer poems.
The concluding pronouncements (if indeed the poem as we have it is complete) concern revision: the Pisos are enjoined to put each work away for nine years, to avoid making public something that will embarrass them later; the poem should be “returned to the anvil” for reshaping. The issue of revision brings in the controversy of art versus nature: is the hard work of revision necessary for a work of genius? Is poetic skill inborn or acquired? To Horace, both innate genius and craftsmanship are needed to make great poetry.
The poem ends rather abruptly with a satiric attack on mad poets who inflict their poetry on unwilling readers. The suddenness of the ending has led many readers to consider the poem a fragment, yet the end comes no more suddenly than the ends of Horace’s other epistles; the abruptness is a part of the conversational style. When we consider also that The Poetic Art is longer than any other poem by Horace, there is no reason to believe that we do not have the whole of it.
The sound, practical advice in Horace’s Poetic Art dominated literary theory in Europe into the 19th century. It continues to exert a strong influence, and its easy, intimate style makes it more accessible to the modern audience than virtually any other classical essay.
See also Classical Influences
Ars poetica, edited and translated by A.F.Watt, 1905, and edited by C.O.Brink, 1971; as Ars poetica, translated by H.R. Fairclough (Loeb Edition), 1926, R.C.Trevelyan, 1940, Burton Raffel, 1974, and Niall Rudd, 1989; as The Poetic Art, translated and adapted by C.H.Sisson, 1975
Brink, C.O., Horace on Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963
Commager, Steele, The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1962
Costa, C.D.N., editor, Horace, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973
Fraenkel, Eduard, Horace, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957
Lee, M.Owen, Word, Sound, and Image in the Odes of Horace, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, and Toronto: Clark Irwin, 1969
Rudd, Niall, The Satires of Horace: A Study, Berkeley: University of California Press, and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966
West, David Alexander, Reading Horace, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1967
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