History of Literature


"Ars Poetica"






Horace, Latin in full Quintus Horatius Flaccus (b. December 65 bc, Venusia, Italy—d. Nov. 27, 8 bc, Rome), outstanding Latin lyric poet and satirist under the emperor Augustus. The most frequent themes of his Odes and verse Epistles are love, friendship, philosophy, and the art of poetry.

Horace was probably of the Sabellian hillman stock of Italy’s central highlands. His father had once been a slave but gained freedom before Horace’s birth and became an auctioneer’s assistant. He also owned a small property and could afford to take his son to Rome and ensure personally his getting the best available education in the school of a famous fellow Sabellian named Orbilius (a believer, according to Horace, in corporal punishment). In about 46 bc Horace went to Athens, attending lectures at the Academy. After Julius Caesar’s murder in March 44 bc, the eastern empire, including Athens, came temporarily into the possession of his assassins Brutus and Cassius, who could scarcely avoid clashing with Caesar’s partisans, Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus), the young great-nephew whom Caesar, in his will, had appointed as his personal heir. Horace joined Brutus’ army and was made tribunus militum, an exceptional honour for a freedman’s son.

In November 42, at the two battles of Philippi against Antony and Octavian, Horace and his fellow tribunes (in the unusual absence of a more senior officer) commanded one of Brutus’ and Cassius’ legions. After their total defeat and death, he fled back to Italy—controlled by Octavian—but his father’s farm at Venusia had been confiscated to provide land for veterans. Horace, however, proceeded to Rome, obtaining, either before or after a general amnesty of 39 bc, the minor but quite important post of one of the 36 clerks of the treasury (scribae quaestorii). Early in 38 bc he was introduced to Gaius Maecenas, a man of letters from Etruria in central Italy who was one of Octavian’s principal political advisers. He now enrolled Horace in the circle of writers with whom he was friendly. Before long, through Maecenas, Horace also came to Octavian’s notice.

During these years, Horace was working on Book I of the Satires, 10 poems written in hexameter verse and published in 35 bc. The Satires reflect Horace’s adhesion to Octavian’s attempts to deal with the contemporary challenges of restoring traditional morality, defending small landowners from large estates (latifundia), combating debt and usury, and encouraging novi homines (“new men”) to take their place next to the traditional republican aristocracy. The Satires often exalt the new man, who is the creator of his own fortune and does not owe it to noble lineage. Horace develops his vision with principles taken from Hellenistic philosophy: metriotes (the just mean) and autarkeia (the wise man’s self-sufficiency). The ideal of the just mean allows Horace, who is philosophically an Epicurean, to reconcile traditional morality with hedonism. Self-sufficiency is the basis for his aspiration for a quiet life, far from political passions and unrestrained ambition.

In the 30s bc his 17 Epodes were also under way. Mockery here is almost fierce, the metre being that traditionally used for personal attacks and ridicule, though Horace attacks social abuses, not individuals. The tone reflects his anxious mood after Philippi. Horace used his commitment to the ideals of Alexandrian poetry to draw near to the experiences of Catullus and other poetae novi (New Poets) of the late republic. Their political verse, however, remained in the fields of invective and scandal, while Horace, in Epodes 7, 9, and 16, shows himself sensitive to the tone of political life at the time, the uncertainty of the future before the final encounter between Octavian and Mark Antony, and the weariness of the people of Italy in the face of continuing violence. In doing so, he drew near to the ideals of the Archaic Greek lyric, in which the poet was also the bard of the community, and the poet’s verse could be expected to have a political effect. In his erotic Epodes, Horace began assimilating themes of the Archaic lyric into the Hellenistic atmosphere, a process that would find more mature realization in the Odes.

In the mid-30s he received from Maecenas, as a gift or on lease, a comfortable house and farm in the Sabine hills (identified with considerable probability as one near Licenza, 22 miles [35 kilometres] northeast of Rome), which gave him great pleasure throughout his life. After Octavian had defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, off northwestern Greece (31 bc), Horace published his Epodes and a second book of eight Satires in 30–29 bc. In the first Satires Horace had limited himself to attacking relatively unimportant figures (e.g., businessmen, courtesans, and social bores). The second Satires is even less aggressive, insisting that satire is a defensive weapon to protect the poet from the attacks of the malicious. The autobiographical aspect becomes less important; instead, the interlocutor becomes the depository of a truth that is often quite different from that of other speakers. The poet delegates to others the job of critic. The denunciations do not always seem consistent with Horace’s usual point of view, and sometimes it is hard to tell when Horace is being ironic and when he is indulging in genuinely serious reflection.

While the victor of Actium, styled Augustus in 27 bc, settled down, Horace turned, in the most active period of his poetical life, to the Odes, of which he published three books, comprising 88 short poems, in 23 bc. Horace, in the Odes, represented himself as heir to earlier Greek lyric poets but displayed a sensitive, economical mastery of words all his own. He sings of love, wine, nature (almost romantically), of friends, of moderation; in short, his favourite topics.

The Odes describe the poet’s personal experiences and familiarize the reader with his everyday world; they depict the customs of a sophisticated and refined Roman society that is as fully civilized as the great Hellenistic Greek cities. The unique charm of Horace’s lyric poetry arises from his combination of the metre and style of the distant past—the world of the Archaic Greek lyric poets—with descriptions of his personal experience and the important moments of Roman life. He creates an intermediate space between the real world and the world of his imagination, populated with fauns, nymphs, and other divinities.

Some of the Odes are about Maecenas or Augustus: although he praises the ancient Roman virtues the latter was trying to reintroduce, he remains his own master and never confines an ode to a single subject or mood. When he was composing the Odes, Horace was solidly linked to Maecenas and his circle, and Horace’s political verse seems to express the ideological commitments of the principate, Augustus’s government. He denounces corrupt morals, praises the integrity of the people of Italy, and shows a ruler who carries on his shoulders the burden of power. Other Augustan themes that appear in Horace’s lyric verse include the idea of the universal character and eternity of Roman political dominion and the affirmation of the continuity of the republican tradition with the Augustan principate. At some stage Augustus offered Horace the post of his private secretary, but the poet declined on the plea of ill health. Notwithstanding, Augustus did not resent his refusal, and indeed their relationship became closer.

The last ode of the first three books suggests that Horace did not propose to write any more such poems. The tepid reception of the Odes following their publication in 23 bc and his consciousness of growing age may have encouraged Horace to write his Epistles. Book I may have been published in 20 bc, and Book II probably appeared in 14 bc. These two books are very different in theme and content. Although similar to the Satires in style and content, the Epistles lack the earlier poems’ aggressiveness and their awareness of the great city of Rome. They are literary letters, addressed to distant correspondents, and they are more reflective and didactic than the earlier work. Book I returns to themes already developed in the Satires, while the others concentrate on literary topics. In these, Horace abandoned all satirical elements for a sensible, gently ironical stance, though the truisms praising moderation are never dull in his hands. The third book, the Epistles to the Pisos, was also known, at least subsequently, as the Ars poetica.

The first epistle of Book II, addressed to Augustus, discusses the role of literature in contemporary Roman society and tells of changing taste. The second, addressed to the poet and orator Julius Florus, bids farewell to poetry, describes a day in the life of a Roman writer and discourses on the difficulty of attaining true wisdom. Horace in these works has become less joyful and less poetic. Poets are quarreling, and Rome is no longer an inspiration. It is time for him to abandon poetry for philosophy.

The third book, now called Ars poetica, is conceived as a letter to members of the Piso family. It is not really a systematic history of literary criticism or an exposition of theoretical principles. It is rather a series of insights into writing poetry, choosing genres, and combining genius with craftsmanship. For Horace, writing well means uniting natural predisposition with long study and a solid knowledge of literary genres.

The “Epistle to Florus” of Book II may have been written in 19 bc, the Ars poetica in about 19 or 18 bc, and the last epistle of Book I in 17–15 bc. This last named is dedicated to Augustus, from whom there survives a letter to Horace in which the Emperor complains of not having received such a dedication hitherto.

By this time Horace was virtually in the position of poet laureate, and in 17 bc he composed the Secular Hymn (Carmen saeculare) for ancient ceremonies called the Secular Games, which Augustus had revived to provide a solemn, religious sanction for the regime and, in particular, for his moral reforms of the previous year. The hymn was written in a lyric metre, Horace having resumed his compositions in this form; he next completed a fourth book of 15 Odes, mainly of a more serious (and political) character than their predecessors. The latest of these poems belongs to 13 bc. In 8 bc Maecenas, who had been less in Augustus’ counsels during recent years, died. One of his last requests to the Emperor was: “Remember Horace as you would remember me.” A month or two later, however, Horace himself died, after naming Augustus as his heir. He was buried on the Esquiline Hill near Maecenas’ grave.

During the latter part of his life, Horace had been accustomed to spend the spring and other short periods in Rome, where he appears to have possessed a house. He wintered sometimes by the southern sea and spent much of the summer and autumn at his Sabine farm or sometimes at Tibur (Tivoli) or Praeneste (Palestrina), both a little east of Rome. A short “Life of Horace,” of which the substance apparently goes back to Suetonius, a biographer of the 2nd century ad, quotes a jocular letter he received from Augustus, from which it emerges that the poet was short and fat. He himself confirms his short stature and, describing himself at the age of about 44, states that he was gray before his time, fond of sunshine, and irritable but quickly appeased.

Influences, personality, and impact
To a modern reader, the greatest problem in Horace is posed by his continual echoes of Latin and, more especially, Greek forerunners. The echoes are never slavish or imitative and are very far from precluding originality. For example, in one of his satires Horace wrote what looks at first like a realistic account of a journey made to Brundisium (Brindisi, on Italy’s “heel”) in 37 bc. Two of the incidents, however, prove to have been lifted—and cleverly adapted—from a journey by the earlier Latin satirist Lucilius. Often, however, Horace provides echoes that cannot be identified since the works he was echoing have disappeared, though they were recognized by his readers.

Another disconcerting element is provided by Horace’s own references to his alleged models. Very often he names as a model some Greek writer of the antique, preclassical, or Classical past (8th–5th centuries bc), whom he claims to have adapted to Latin—notably, Alcaeus, Archilochus, and Pindar. Modern critics have noticed that what unites Horace to Alcaeus is a particular kind of allusion: Horace begins his poem with a translation of lines from his model. The critical term is motto. Similarly, Horace has a subtly allusive relationship to Archilochus, which can be seen in the aggressively iambic character of the ending of some of the Epodes and the placing of Archilochean mottoes (usually at the beginning) in other Epodes. Horace’s relationship to Pindar, the greatest exponent of the choral lyric, is not so easy to define. It seems that Horace admires Pindar for his sublime style and aspires to that ideal in his most serious poems. Yet Horace’s style of writing is much nearer to that of the more “modern,” refined, and scholarly Greek writers of the Hellenistic, Alexandrian period (3rd and 2nd centuries bc), though to these (as to certain important Latin predecessors) his acknowledgments are selective and inadequate.

If this continuous relationship with the literary tradition is borne in mind, together with certain other factors that preclude wholly direct expression, such as the political autocracy of the time and Horace’s own detached and even evasive personality, then it does become possible, after all, to deduce from his poetry certain conclusions about his views, if not about his life. The man who emerges is kindly, tolerant, and mild but capable of strength; consistently humane, realistic, astringent, and detached, he is a gentle but persistent mocker of himself quite as much as of others. His self-portrait is also a confession of an attitude that descends from melancholy to depression. Some modern critics believe that he may have been clinically depressed.

His attitude to love, on the whole, is flippant; without telling the reader a single thing about his own amorous life, he likes to picture himself in ridiculous situations within the framework of the appropriate literary tradition—and relating, it should be added, to women of Greek names and easy virtue, not Roman matrons or virgins. To his male friends, however—the men to whom his Odes are addressed—he is affectionate and loyal, and such friends were perhaps the principal mainstay of his life. The gods are often on his lips, but, in defiance of much contemporary feeling, he absolutely denied an afterlife. So “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is an ever recurrent theme, though Horace insists on a Golden Mean of moderation—deploring excess and always refusing, deprecating, dissuading.

Some of his modern admirers see him as the poet of the lighter side of life; others see him as the poet of Rome and Augustus. Both are equally right, for this balance and diversity were the very essence of his poetical nature. But the second of these roles is, for modern readers, a harder and less palatable conception, since the idea of poetry serving the state is not popular in the West—and still less serving an autocratic regime, which is what Horace does. Yet he does it with a firm, though tactful, assertion of his essential independence. Not only is he unwilling to become Augustus’ secretary, but, pleading personal inadequacy, he also gracefully sidesteps various official, grandiose poetic tasks, such as the celebration of the victories of Augustus’ admiral Agrippa. And he refers openly to his own juvenile military service against the future Augustus, under Brutus at Philippi. He himself ran away, he characteristically says, and threw away his shield. But that, equally characteristically, turns out to be copied from a Greek poet—indeed from more than one. It is not autobiography; it is a traditional expression of the unsuitability of poets—and of himself—for war. The whole poem absolves Horace of any possible charge of failing, because of his current Augustan connections, to maintain loyalty to his republican friends.

Horace’s intellectual formation had to a large extent been completed before the Augustan regime began; yet he came to admire Augustus sincerely and deeply, owing him many practical benefits. But, above all, he deeply admired him for ending a prolonged, nightmarish epoch of civil wars. So great was that achievement that Horace, at least, had no eye for any crudities the new imperial regime might possess. This was one of the ages when people wanted order more than liberty, though Augustus was an adept at investing his new order with a sufficient respect for personal freedom and a sufficient facade of republican institutions to set most men’s minds at rest. He also restored the temples, and to Horace, though he probably did not believe in the gods whose names he called upon, the religious traditions and rituals of the Roman state seemed an integral, venerable part of Rome’s greatness. The Emperor was on more delicate ground when he sought, by social legislation, to purify personal morals and to protect and revive the Roman family. But here, too, Horace, in spite of his own erotic frivolity, was with him, perhaps because of the famous austerity of his Sabine stock. And so the Secular Hymn contains a specific allusion (poetically not altogether successful) to these reforms.

Yet, before the hymn, Horace had already written the magnificent Roman Odes, numbers one to six of Book III—a great tribute to Augustus’ principate, perhaps the greatest political poetry that has ever been written. But these Odes are by no means wholly political, for much other material, including abundant Greek and Roman mythology, is woven into their dense, compact, resplendent texture. This cryptic, riddling sonority is the work of a poet who saw himself as a solemn bard (vates), a Roman reincarnation of Pindar of Thebes (518–438 bc), a stately Greek lyricist. Pindar increasingly becomes Horace’s model in the further state odes of his fourth and last book.

After Horace’s Secular Hymn, his works were known and appreciated by all educated Romans. Already at the time of Horace’s death, his Odes were suffering the fate he deprecated for them and had become a school textbook. But their excellence was so great that they had few ancient lyrical successors, until some early Christian writers—Ambrose, Prudentius, and Paulinus—occasionally echoed Horace’s forms, though with a difference in spirit. Thereafter, the medieval epoch had little use for the Odes, which did not appeal to its piety, although his Satires and Epistles were read because of their predominantly moralistic tones. The Odes came into their own again with the Renaissance and, along with the Ars poetica, exerted much influence on Western poetry through the 19th century. The English Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, hailed the lines of the Odes as:

Jewels five-words-long

That on the stretch’d forefinger of all Time

Sparkle for ever.

The many-facetted intricacy of these “jewels” has challenged translators throughout the centuries; in spite, or because, of their not wholly conquerable problems, every ode has been translated hundreds—perhaps thousands—of times. And still new versions, some of them admirable, continue to appear.

Michael Grant



Type of work: Poem
Author: Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 B.C.)
First published: Epistula ad Pisones, after 23 B.C.

The Ars Poetica, the longest poem written by the Roman lyric poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, is one of the foremost documents on ancient literary criticism in the Western world. Although this 476-line poem has profoundly influenced literature (especially drama) throughout the centuries, it has also sparked substantial controversy. Scholars have debated its title, its date of composition, and the identity of the Pisones, to whom the poem is addressed. Whether Horace originally titled his work Epistula ad Pisones de arte poetica (letter to the Pisones about the art of poetry) or simply Epistula ad Pisones (letter to the Pisones), the title had been abbreviated to Ars poetica by the first century A.D., as the Roman rhetorician and critic Marcus Fabius Quintilianus attests. No evidence exists within the poem or in other works that would allow its composition to be assigned to a specific year. While a few scholars have argued for a date early in Horace's poetic career, most critics believe that he probably wrote the poem sometime after the publication of his first three books of odes in 23 B.C. The identities of Piso and his two sons have also come into question. Pomponius Porphyrion, an early third century scholar who wrote a commentary on Horace, identifies the men as Lucius Calpurnius Piso and his two sons, but their dates do not coincide with the poem's internal evidence. Later commentators have suggested Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and his sons, but their identities are subject to question as well. Although the ancient manuscripts display the Arspoetica by itself, its longer title and casual tone argue for its inclusion in book 2 of Horace's Epistles, where editors have long placed it.
Scholars also argue over more substantial matters, including the poem's exact purpose, its structure, and the question of its value as literary criticism. While the main theme of the Ars poetica is agreed to be poetry, scholars view its points of emphasis differently. Some contend that its treatment of poetry is opposed to works on rhetoric. Others state that Horace is presenting his ideas on what he considers great poetry and which of that great poetry is supreme. To others, the poem deals foremost with the unique difficulties of being a good poet.
Horace's desultory style of address makes it difficult to see any coherent organization in the poem. Although some critics have denied any deliberate arrangement, most scholars argue for either a bipartite or tripartite structure. One authority has suggested that, depending on the focus of study, the structure in the Ars poetica will appear different. The critical triad of poema (the technique of writing verse), poesis (the subject matter as organized in long poems), andpoeta (the skill, training, and talent of the poet) reveals a division into three parts. A second, more balanced tripartite arrangement derives from the single unit of style and content, followed by the major Greek and Roman dramatic genres, and finally poetic theory. A case may also be made for a bipartite division, as the poem is first concerned with poetry as a technical craft, then with general poetic theory. Still other constructions are evident, and Horace may have intended the poem to be understood on different levels.
In his intent to write a poem rather than a textbook, Horace develops a seeming incoherence to his narrative. Gradual transitions, recurring themes, and a well-concealed philosophical framework all contribute to the poetry. Each section is connected to the preceding by a passage that can belong to either; in this way the end of one passage and the beginning of another are camouflaged. Character, propriety, training, and unity are the most outstanding among a larger number of recurring topics, crossing divisional barriers throughout and helping to maintain the poem's claim to literature. The philosophical structure surfaces in very few places.
In the first forty-one lines of the Ars poetica, Horace introduces his discussion of poetry by showing how laughable and repulsive are badly made works of art or poetry. The poem's first major axiom preaches simplicity in and unity to one's creation: "Finally, let it be whatever you wish, as long as it is simple and unified." The poet must choose a topic that is equal to his abilities, and if "the subject is capably chosen, then style and arrangement will never desert him" (lines 40-41). In this way Horace introduces the major components of subject matter (res), style (facundia), and arrangement (ordo). Since Horace has previously demanded unity in composition, these three elements come to support each other in Horace's own work to produce that unity.
In reverse order and increasing depth, Horace discusses subject, style, and structure. He briefly describes arrangement as occurring when the poet says what needs to be said at the time and puts off or omits other topics as the occasion demands (lines 43-44).
The next seventy-four lines focus on style. The poet must use words sparingly, but unusual circumstances make the creation of new words acceptable. Such words carry more conviction if they are formed from Greek. Meter, the second aspect of style, should remain in its appropriate genre. Comedy and tragedy exemplify the complete inability of one meter to substitute for another. Finally, the expression of various emotions in the proper phrasing is necessary to elicit the desired response from the audience. Language must fit not only the emotional circumstances, but also the character's age, sex, social class, and nationality.
So far, Horace's discussion has been of technical skill. He has avoided the prosaic role of a writer of textbooks by referring to historical figures, nature vignettes, and literary genres—especially comedy and tragedy—which will be quite familiar to his audience.
The next 176 lines (slightly more than one-third of the Ars poetica) explore a poem's subject matter. The abrupt change of topic appears at line 119, where Horace enjoins the poet either to keep to traditional stories or, if he must create a story, to invent something that is consistent within its own fictional realm. Familiar literary characters, such as Achilles and Medea, illustrate these principles since their characters must reflect the legends about them. While a writer should keep to familiar stories, such as those found in Homer, one must not simply imitate them; one should rework them to make them one's own. Nor must a story begin at an inappropriate place, but the poet must ensure that beginning, middle, and end are compatible. Next, the poet should create characters in their proper age and station of life. A substantial passage depicting the four ages of man (boy, youth, adult, old man) identifies the characteristics befitting each.
An even longer sequence of verses follows in which the qualities necessary to support a play's content are set forth. Actions must be proper to the stage and not offend the audience. The production of the play, its division into five acts, the use of only three speaking characters, the chorus' active participation in the plot, all further support the content. The satyr play must also be appropriately written and produced in order to fit at the end of a tragic performance. Meter likewise plays an important role. The section ends with a comparison of Greek and Roman drama.
Again, Horace avoids the tone of a textbook in his list of literary precepts. He interweaves elements of history and legend, repeats his maxim of writing about familiar themes, and again uses the Greeks as the standard of excellence. The theme of propriety (decorum) reappears and allows Horace to criticize or moralize about past events and playwrights.
The final 182 lines of the Ars poetica focus upon the function (munus) and obligations (officium) of the poet. In typica] fashion, an eleven-line passage on insane poets, beginning at line 295, serves to conclude the previous section and to usher in Horace's last major theme. In the next two lines poetic function and obligation expand to include the origin of the poet's resources, his nourishment and shaping, the qualities befitting him, and the direction in which his virtues and faults will lead him. Next, wisdom appears a the primary fountainhead of good writing. Acquired knowledge of human nature is as important to a poet as acquired knowledge of business is to an ordinary citizen. Another major axiom states that a poet must instruct as well as entertain in pleasing and suitable words if he is to appeal to the greatest number of people. Brevity and close adherence to truth aid poetic instruction. The perfection of the poet's skill is arrived at through revision of his verses, but he must avoid the advice of friends and instead seek impartial criticism even in the smallest details. Another maxim surfaces at lines 408 through 411: Talent (natura) and training \urs) must strike a balance in a writer. The poem concludes with a description of the mad poet whom all should a\oid.
In this final third of the Ars poetica. Horace has maintained his penchant for familiar themes to illustrate literary points and to unite the section with the previous ones. He reiterates in slightly altered form his belief that words will follow logically from a chosen subject. He again portrays Greeks as models of genius. Mediocrity in everyday activities—book production, тимс. painting, law, parties, sports—serves to illustrate the necessity for perfection in the poet. Legend and history, from Orpheus to Homer, afford further examples of ancient perfection, and the story of Empedocles' suicide corroborates Horace's argument that the mad poet should be avoided.
Although authorities disagree about the locations of divisions in the early part of the Ars poetu u. all concur that the final one takes place at line 295, The uncertainty regarding thematic division may derive in part from Horace's adaptation of Aristotelian and Alexandrian philosophical literary doctrine.
From the time of Aristotle, the fourth century Greek philosopher, certain literary principles had predominated in the field of literary criticism. The Ars pnctica echoes many of those tenets. The importance of unity, the balance between a poet's talent and training, and pleasure and instruction as the aim of poetry are themes present in both authors. Horace follows Aristotle in discussion of subject, style, and arrangement and in focusing on tragedy and epic as the two preeminent literary genres. Like Aristotle, Horace believes in the superiority of tragedy. Horace's arrangement of topics and his emphasis on poetry differ so markedly from Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics, however, that scholars have supposed an intermediate source between the two. Porphyrion. in another statement on the Ars poetica, says that Horace brought together the most outstanding literary precepts of Neo-ptolemusof Parium, a third century B.C. Hellenistic writer. Thus, later critics have supposed that Horace borrowed Aristotelian rhetorical principles from the writings of Neoptolemus, following more closely the thematic structure and poetic emphasis of the Alexandrian than the rhetorical outlook of the Greek philosopher.
The impact of the Ars poetica on European literature since the fourteenth century has been substantial. From the time of the Italian Renaissance, literary authorities accepted the poem as a manual of classical standards in the fine arts and relied upon it as well as Aristotle's works for their discourses on literary criticism. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ars poetica was a major contributor to the development of the neoclassical movement. Authors of that time tended to ignore the poem's apparent inconsistencies, instead focusing on the precepts and advice it gives.
Since that time, scholars have valued the poem primarily for what it tells them of the history of literary criticism in classical times. From the maxims, rules, and conclusions of the Ars poetica critics have been able to understand more clearly the evolution from ancient to modern literary criticism.





Ars Poetica


Translated by A. S. Kline

On unity and harmony

If a painter had chosen to set a human head

On a horse’s neck, covered a melding of limbs,

Everywhere, with multi-coloured plumage, so

That what was a lovely woman, at the top,

Ended repulsively in the tail of a black fish:

Asked to a viewing, could you stifle laughter, my friends?

Believe me, a book would be like such a picture,

Dear Pisos, if it’s idle fancies were so conceived

That neither its head nor foot could be related

To a unified form. ‘But painters and poets

Have always shared the right to dare anything.’

I know it: I claim that licence, and grant it in turn:

But not so the wild and tame should ever mate,

Or snakes couple with birds, or lambs with tigers.

Weighty openings and grand declarations often

Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam

Far and wide, when Diana’s grove and her altar,

The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,

Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.

There’s no place for them here. Perhaps you know how

To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given

Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck

In despair? It started out as a wine-jar: then why,

As the wheel turns round does it end up a pitcher?

In short let it be what you wish, but whole and natural.

Most poets (dear sir, and you sons worthy of your sire),

Are beguiled by accepted form. I try to be brief

And become obscure: aiming at smoothness I fail

In strength and spirit: claiming grandeur he’s turgid:

Too cautious, fearing the blast, he crawls on the ground:

But the man who wants to distort something unnaturally

Paints a dolphin among the trees, a boar in the waves.

Avoiding faults leads to error, if art is lacking.

The humblest craftsman, down by Aemilius’ School,

Who moulds finger-nails in bronze, imitates wavy hair,

Is unhappy with the result, because he’s unable

To create a whole. Now if I wished to cast something,

I’d no more wish to be him, than live with a crooked

Nose, though admired for my jet-black eyes and black hair.


The writer’s aims

You who write, choose a subject that’s matched by

Your powers, consider deeply what your shoulders

Can and cannot bear. Whoever chooses rightly

Eloquence, and clear construction, won’t fail him.

Charm and excellence in construction, if I’m right,

Is to say here and now, what’s to be said here and now,

Retaining, and omitting, much, for the present.

Moreover as the author of the promised work,

Liking this, rejecting that, cautious and precise,

Weaving words together, you’ll speak most happily,

When skilled juxtaposition renews a common word.

If you need to indicate abstruse things by novel terms,

It’s your chance to invent ones the kilted Cethegi

Never heard: licence will be given you if wisely used:

Indeed, new-minted words will gain acceptance

That spring from the Greek fount, and are sparingly used.

Why should Romans deny to Virgil and Varius

What they allowed to Caecilius and Plautus?

And why begrudge me adding a few if I can,

When Cato’s and Ennius’ speech revealed new terms,

Enriched our mother-tongue,? It’s been our right, ever

Will be our right, to issue words that are fresh-stamped.

As the forests shed their leaves, as the year declines,

And the oldest fall, so perish those former generations

Of words, while the latest, like infants, are born and thrive.

We’re destined for death, we and ours: no matter if

Neptune, harboured inshore, guards our ships from northerlies,

A royal project, no matter if an old barren marsh, that knew

The oar, feels the plough’s weight, and feeds the towns nearby,

Or that a river which ruined crops has changed its course,

And learnt better ways: our mortal works will vanish,

The beauty and charm of speech no more like to live.

Many words that are now unused will be rekindled,

Many fade now well-regarded, if Usage wills it so,

To whom the laws, rules, and control of language belong.


What the tradition dictates

Homer’s shown the metre in which the deeds of captains

And kings, and the sorrows of war, may be written.

First, lament was captured in elegiac couplets,

Then, expressions of thanks for prayers granted, too:

Scholars dispute, though without final agreement,

As to who first composed short elegies in this metre.

Anger armed Archilochus with his own iambus:

His foot fitted both comic sock and tragic buskin,

Suited to dialogue, able to overcome the noise

Of the pit, and naturally appropriate to action.

The Muse granted the lyre tales of gods, and their sons,

Of the victor in boxing, the winning horse in the race,

The sorrows of youth, and the freedoms of wine.

How can I be called a poet if I ignore, or fail to observe,

The established functions and styles in my work?

Why from diffidence would I prefer not to know,

Than to learn? Comedy can’t be played in tragic mode.

Likewise Thyestes’ feast scorns being related

In everyday terms suited to the comic sock.

Let each thing keep to the proper place, allotted.

Yet Comedy may sometimes elevate its voice,

When an angry Chremes storms in swelling phrase:

And often in tragedy, Peleus and Telephus,

One exiled, one a beggar, lament in common prose,

Eschewing bombast, and sesquipedalian words,

When they want their moaning to touch the listener’s heart.

It’s not enough for poems to have beauty: they must have

Charm, leading their hearer’s heart wherever they wish.

As the human face smiles at a smile, so it echoes

Those who weep: if you want to move me to tears

You must first grieve yourself: then Peleus or Telephus

Your troubles might pain me: speak inappropriately

And I’ll laugh or fall asleep. Sad words suit a face

Full of sorrow, threats fit the face full of anger,

Jests suit the playful, serious speech the solemn.

Nature first alters us within, to respond to each

Situation: brings delight or goads us to anger,

Or weighs us to the ground, tormented by grief:

Then, with tongue interpreting, shows heart’s emotion.

If the speaker’s words don’t harmonise with his state,

The Romans will bellow with laughter, knights and all.

Much depends on whether a god or man is speaking,

A mature old man, or one still flush with first youth,

A powerful lady, or perhaps a diligent nurse,

A wandering merchant, or tiller of fertile fields,

Colchian or Assyrian, from Argos or Thebes.


Be consistent if you are original

Either follow tradition, or invent consistently.

If you happen to portray Achilles, honoured,

Pen him as energetic, irascible, ruthless,

Fierce, above the law, never downing weapons.

Make Medea wild, untameable, Ino tearful,

Ixion treacherous, Io wandering, Orestes sad.

If you’re staging something untried, and dare

To attempt fresh characters, keep them as first

Introduced, from start to end self-consistent.

It’s hard to make the universal specific:

It’s better to weave a play from the poem of Troy,

Than be first to offer something unknown, unsung.

You’ll win private rights to public themes, if you

Don’t keep slowly circling the broad beaten track,

Or, pedantic translator, render them word for word,

Or following an idea, leap like the goat into the well

From which shame, or the work’s logic, denies escape.

And don’t start like the old writer of epic cycles:

‘Of Priam’s fate I’ll sing, and the greatest of Wars.’

What could he produce to match his opening promise?

Mountains will labour: what’s born? A ridiculous mouse!

How much better the man who doesn’t struggle, ineptly:

‘Tell me, Muse, of that man, who after the fall of Troy

Had sight of the manners and cities of many peoples.’

He intends not smoke from flame, but light from smoke,

So as then to reveal striking and marvellous things,

Antiphates, Charybdis and Scylla, the Cyclops.

He doesn’t start Diomede’s return from Troy with his

Uncle Meleager’s death, or the War with two eggs:

He always hastens the outcome, and snatches the reader

Into the midst of the action, as if all were known,

Leaves what he despairs of improving by handling,

Yet so deceptive, in blending fact with fiction,

The middle agrees with the start, the end with the middle.


On characterisation

Hear now what I, and the public also, expect:

If you want us to stay in our seats till the curtain

Call, when the actor cries out ‘All applaud’,

You’re to note the behaviour of every age-group,

Give grace to the variation in character and years.

The lad who can answer now, and set a firm foot

To the ground, likes to play with his peers, loses but

Quickly regains his temper, and alters with the hour.

The beardless youth, free of tutors at last, delights

In horse and hound, and the turf of the sunlit Campus,

He’s wax malleable for sin, rude to his advisors,

Slow in making provision, lavish with money,

Spirited, passionate, and swift to change his whim.

Manhood’s years and thoughts, with altering interests,

Seek wealth and friendship, devoted to preferment,

Wary of doing what they may soon labour to change.

Many troubles surround the aged man, because he

Seeks savings, yet sadly won’t touch them, fears their use,

And because in all he does he’s cold and timid,

Dilatory, short on hope, sluggish, greedy for life,

Surly, a moaner, given to praising the years when

He was a boy, chiding and criticising the young.

The advancing years bring many blessings with them,

Many, departing, they take away. So lest we chance

To assign youth’s part to age, or a boy’s to a man,

Always adopt what suits and belongs to a given age.

Events are either acted on stage, or reported.

The mind is stirred less vividly by what’s heard

Than by what the eyes reliably report, all that

The spectator sees for himself. But don’t reveal

On stage what should be hidden, keep things from sight

That eloquence can soon relate to us directly:

Folk shouldn’t see Medea slaughter her children,

Impious Atreus mustn’t openly cook human flesh,

Nor Procne turn into a bird, or Cadmus a snake.

Any such scenes you show me, I disbelieve, and hate.


On the gods, chorus and music

No play should be longer or shorter than five acts,

If you hope that, once seen, it’ll be requested, revived.

And no god should intervene unless there’s a problem

That needs that solution, nor should a fourth person speak.

The Chorus should play an actor’s part, energetically,

And not sing between the acts unless it advances,

And is also closely related to the plot.

It should favour the good, and give friendly advice,

Guide those who are angered, encourage those fearful

Of sinning: praise the humble table’s food, sound laws

And justice, and peace with her wide-open gates:

It should hide secrets, and pray and entreat the gods

That the proud lose their luck, and the wretched regain it.

The flute, once, not bound with brass as now to rival

The trumpet, but simple and slender with few stops,

Was used to lead and support the Chorus, and to fill

The not over-crowded benches with its breath,

While the people gathered were few indeed, easily

Counted, and honest, and innocent, and modest.

Later when victory enlarged their territory,

Ringed their cities with wider walls, when placating

The Genius with daylight drinking went unpunished,

Then tempo and melody possessed greater freedom.

What taste could the illiterate show, freed from toil,

Where country mingled with city, noble with base?

The flute-player trailing his robe across the stage

Added interest and movement to an ancient art:

The range of the lyre, once so grave, was extended,

And an urgent delivery brought it new eloquence,

While the words, practical wisdom and prophecy,

Was not out of line with the Delphic oracles.


On style

The man who once competed for a lowly he-goat

With tragic verse, soon stripped the wild Satyrs,

And tried coarse jests without loss of seriousness,

Since only the attractions and charms of novelty

Held the spectator, drunken and lawless, after the rites.

But to gain acceptance for cheeky, raucous Satyrs

You need to pass from serious mood to light,

Without the gods or heroes you’ve brought on stage

Whom we’ve just seen dressed in royal purple and gold,

Appearing in dingy taverns with vulgar language,

Or, scorning the ground, grasping at air and clouds.

Tragedy, to whom spouting low verse is unworthy,

Like a lady forced to dance at a festival,

Will join the insolent Satyrs with no small shame.

As a writer of Satyr plays, dear Pisos, I’d not

Embrace only tame and simple verbs and nouns,

Nor strain so hard to avoid the tragic style

Davus might as well be speaking, to shameless

Pythias who’s just milked Simo of a talent,

As Silenus, guardian and servant of his god.

I’ll pursue poetry made of what’s known, so anyone

Could hope to do it, yet, trying it, sweat and toil

In vain: such is order and juxtaposition’s power,

Such may its beauty crown the commonplace.

In my opinion, Fauns introduced from the woods

Shouldn’t rattle out indiscreet erotic verses,

Or filthy and shameless jokes, almost as if they

Were born at the crossroads, or in the marketplace:

Some take offence, men with horses, ancestry, wealth,

Who don’t take kindly to, or grace with a crown,

What the buyer of roasted nuts and chickpeas approves.


On metre

A long syllable after a short is called an iambus:

A swift foot, therefore it ordered the name trimeter

To be associated with iambics making six beats,

First pair to last being alike. Not so long ago,

Obliging and tolerant, it received the solid

Spondee into the family inheritance, though not

Kind enough to cede fourth place, or sixth, in its ranks.

The iambus is rare in Accius’ noble trimeters,

And it levels the shameful charge at the verses

Ennius trundled ponderously onto the stage

Of careless and hasty work, or ignorance of art.

Not every critic can detect unmusical verse,

So Roman poets have been granted unearned licence.

Should I run wild then, and write freely? Or, reflecting

That all will see my faults, play safe, still courting hope

Of pardon? At best I’d dodge censure, yet earn

No praise. As for yourselves, have Greek models

In your hands at night, and in your hands each day.

But your ancestors praised Plautus, metres and wit?

Too accepting and foolish, then, their admiration

Of both, if you and I can in any way distinguish

Unpolished from witty speech, and can mark

The correct measures with our ears and fingers.


Greeks and Romans

Thespis, they say, discovered the Tragic Muse,

An unknown form, presenting his plays from carts,

Sung and acted by men, faces smeared with wine-lees.

Aeschylus, after him, introduced masks, fine robes,

Had a modest stage made of planks, and demanded

Sonorous speech, and the effort of wearing buskins.

Old Comedy came next, winning no little praise,

But its freedoms led to excess, to unruliness

Needing legal curb: the law was obeyed, the chorus,

Shamefully, fell silent, losing its rights of attack.

Our own poets have left nothing unexplored,

And have not won least honour by daring to leave

The paths of the Greeks and celebrate things at home,

Whether in Roman tragedies or domestic comedies.

And Latium would be no less supreme in letters

Than in courage and force of arms, if all her poets

Weren’t deterred by revision’s time and effort.

O scions of Numa, condemn that work that many

A day, and many erasures, have not corrected,

Improving it ten times over, smoothed to the touch.


How to be a good poet

Because Democritus believed talent a greater

Blessing than poor old technique, and barred sane poets

From Helicon, a good few don’t care to trim their nails,

Or beards, haunting secluded spots, shunning the baths.

Surely a man will win the honour and name of poet

If only he doesn’t entrust Licinus the barber,

With a noddle that three Anticyras couldn’t affect!

Ah, fool that I am, taking purges for madness each spring!

Though no one composes better poetry: it’s really

Not worth it. Instead let me play the grindstone’s role,

That sharpens steel, but itself does none of the cutting:

Writing nothing myself, I’ll teach the office and function,

Where to find resources, what feeds and forms the poet,

What’s right, what’s not, where virtue and error lead.

Wisdom’s the source and fount of excellent writing.

The works of the Socratics provide you with content,

And when content’s available words will quickly follow.

Whoever knows what he owes his country and friends,

What love is due to a parent, brother, or guest,

What’s required of a senator or a judge in office,

What’s the role of a general in war, he’ll certainly

Know how to represent each character fittingly.

I’d advise one taught by imitation to take life,

And real behaviour, for his examples, and extract

Living speech. Often a play with fine bits, good roles,

Though without beauty, substance or art, amuses

The public more, and holds their attention better,

Than verses without content, melodious nonsense.

The Muse gave the Greeks talent, rounded eloquence

In their speech, they were only greedy for glory.

Roman lads learn long division, and how to split

A pound weight into a hundred parts. ‘Then, tell me

Albinus’ son, if I take an ounce from five-twelfths

Of a pound, what fraction’s left? You should know by now.’

‘A third.’ ‘Good! You’ll look after your wealth.’ Add an ounce,

What then?’ ‘A half.’ When this care for money, this rust

Has stained the spirit, how can we hope to make poems

Fit to be wiped with cedar-oil, stored in polished cypress?


Combine instruction with pleasure

Poets wish to benefit or to please, or to speak

What is both enjoyable and helpful to living.

When you give instruction, be brief, what’s quickly

Said the spirit grasps easily, faithfully retains:

Everything superfluous flows out of a full mind.

Fictions meant to amuse should be close to reality,

So your play shouldn’t ask for belief in whatever

It chooses: no living child from the Lamia’s full belly!

The ranks of our elders drive out what lacks virtue,

The Ramnes, the young knights, reject dry poetry:

Who can blend usefulness and sweetness wins every

Vote, at once delighting and teaching the reader.

That’s the book that earns the Sosii money, crosses

The seas, and wins its author fame throughout the ages.

There are faults of course that we willingly ignore:

The string doesn’t always sound as hand and mind wish,

You call for a bass and quite often a treble replies:

The arrow won’t always strike the mark it’s aimed at.

Yet where there are many beauties in a poem,

A few blots won’t offend me, those carelessly spilt,

Or that human frailty can scarcely help. So what?

As a copyist has no excuse if he always

Makes the same mistake, no matter how often he’s told,

As a harpist is mocked who always fluffs the one note:

So to me one who often errs is a Choerilus,

Whose one or two fine lines prompt startled smiles:

And yet I’m displeased too when great Homer nods,

Somnolence may steal over a long work it’s true.

Poetry’s like painting: there are pictures that attract

You more nearer to, and others from further away.

This needs the shadows, that to be seen in the light,

Not fearing the critic’s sharp eye: this pleased once,

That, though examined ten thousand times, still pleases.


No mediocrity: recall the tradition!

O Piso’s eldest son, though accustomed to virtue,

By your father’s voice, and wise yourself, take this

Dictum to heart, the middling and just tolerable

Is only properly allowed in certain fields. A lawyer,

A mediocre pleader of causes, may fall short

Of Messalla’s eloquence, know less than Aulus

Cascellius, yet have value: but mediocrity

In poets, no man, god or bookseller will accept.

Just as a tuneless orchestra, a heavy perfume,

Or poppy-seeds in tart Sardinian honey offend

At a good dinner, the meal being fine without them:

So a poem, born and created to pleasure the spirit,

Sinks to the depths if it falls short of the heights.

He who knows nothing of sport shuns the Campus’ gear,

Watches, if he’s unskilled with ball, hoop, or quoit,

Lest the ring of spectators burst out laughing freely:

Yet he who knows nothing of verse still dares to write.

Why not? He’s freeborn and free, his total wealth’s rated

As that of a knight, and he’s lacking in any defect.

You at least will say and do nothing without Minerva,

Such is your judgement and sense. Yet if you do ever

Scribble, let it enter Tarpa the critic’s ears,

Your father’s and my own, then put your manuscript

Away till the ninth year: you can always destroy

What you haven’t published: once out there’s no recall.

While men still lived in the woods, Orpheus, the gods’

Sacred medium, prevented bloodshed and vile customs,

Hence it’s said that he tamed tigers and raging lions.

It’s said too that Amphion, who built Thebes’ citadel,

Moved stones at the sound of his lyre, and set them

Where he wished with its charmed entreaty. Once it was

Wisdom to separate public and private, sacred

And profane, to bar chance union, set marriage rights,

Build towns, and inscribe the laws on pieces of wood.

So divine bards and their poems achieved honour

And fame. Following these, Homer was renowned,

And Tyrtaeus whose verses inspired men’s hearts

To battle in war: oracles were uttered in song,

The right way of living was shown, and royal favour

Wooed with Pierian measures, and tunes invented,

To help on tedious work: in case you’re ashamed

Of the Muse skilled with the lyre, or singing Apollo.


Nature plus training: but see through flattery

Whether a praiseworthy poem is due to nature

Or art is the question: I’ve never seen the benefit

Of study lacking a wealth of talent, or of untrained

Ability: each needs the other’s friendly assistance.

He who’s eager to reach the course’s longed-for goal,

Has done and suffered much as a lad, sweating, freezing,

Abstaining from wine and women: the flautist who pipes

At the Pythian Games, first learnt how: feared his master.

Now it’s enough to say: ‘I compose marvellous poems:

Let the itch take the last: I’ll not be left behind ,

Admitting I haven’t a clue about something I never learnt.’

Like an auctioneer drawing a crowd to the sale,

So a poet whose rich in land, with large investments,

Is bidding flatterers come to him, and profit.

If he can serve up a really fine dinner too,

Or go surety for a dodgy pauper, or save

A dismal lawsuit’s victim, I’d be amazed, if he,

The lucky man, could tell false friend from true.

You too, if you’ve given or mean to give someone

A gift, don’t induce him while filled with delight

To listen to your verse: he’ll cry: ‘Lovely! Fine! Grand!’

Now he’ll grow pale, now he’ll even force dew

From his fond eyes, leap, and strike the ground.

As those hired to mourn at funerals do and say

Almost more than those who are grieving deeply,

The hypocrite’s more ‘moved’ than the true admirer.

They say kings anxious to test someone, to see if

He’s worthy of friendship, urge on him many a glass,

Ply him with wine: so, if you should fashion verses,

Don’t be deceived by the fox’s hidden intent.


Know your faults and keep your wits

If you ever read Quintilius anything, he’d say:

‘Oh do change this, and this.’ If, after two or three

Vain attempts, you could do no better, he’d order

Deletion: ‘return the ill-made verse to the anvil’.

If you chose to defend your fault rather than change it,

He’d spend not another word or useless effort

To stop you loving you, and yours, unrivalled, alone.

An honest, sensible man will condemn lifeless verse,

Fault the harsh, smear the inelegant with a black

Stroke of the pen, cut out pretentious adornment,

Force you to elucidate where it’s not clear enough,

Denounce the ambiguous phrase, mark amendments,

Be an Aristarchus: not say: ‘Why should I offend

A friend for a trifle?’ Such trifles lead to serious

Trouble, once he’s been laughed at, or badly received.

The sensible fear to touch, they flee, a crazy poet,

As when the evil itch, or jaundice, plagues someone,

Or fanatical delusions, or plain lunacy,

Diana’s curse: children rashly follow and tease him.

He, inspired, goes wandering off, spouting his verses,

And if like a fowler intent on blackbirds, he falls

Into a well, or a pit, however much he cries:

‘Help me, citizens!’ none will bother to pull him out.

If anyone did choose to help, and let down a rope,

I’d say: ‘Who knows if he didn’t do that on purpose,

And doesn’t want to be saved?’ and I’ll tell the tale

Of the Sicilian poet’s death, how Empedocles

Keen to be an immortal god, coolly leapt into

Burning Etna. Grant poets the power and right to kill

Themselves: who saves one, against his will, murders him.

It’s not his first time, nor, if he’s rescued will he

Become human now, and stop craving fame in death.

It’s not too clear why he keeps on making verses.

Has he desecrated ancestral ashes, disturbed

A sad spot struck by lightning, sacrilegiously? Yes,

He’s mad: like a bear, that’s broken the bars of its cage

The pest puts all to flight, learned or not, with reciting:

Whom he takes tight hold of, he grips, and reads to death,

A leech that never looses the skin, till gorged with blood.




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