Horace for students of literature


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Horace for students of literature the "Ars poetica" and its tradition
Physical Description:
xviii, 395 p. : ; 24 cm.
Hardison, O. B
Golden, Leon, 1930-
University Press of Florida
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Subjects / Keywords:
Epistolary poetry, Latin -- History and criticism   ( lcsh )
Literature -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc   ( lcsh )
Didactic poetry, Latin -- History and criticism   ( lcsh )
Aesthetics, Ancient -- Poetry   ( lcsh )
Criticism -- Poetry -- Rome   ( lcsh )
Poetics -- Poetry   ( lcsh )
Criticism   ( lcsh )
Poesía latina -- Historia y crítica
Literatura -- Historia y crítica -- Teoria, etc
Poesía didáctica latina -- Historia y crítica
Crítica -- Poesia -- Roma
Epistulae (Horatius)   ( gtt )
Epistola ad Pisones (Horatius)   ( gtt )
Receptie   ( gtt )
Einführung   ( swd )
Aufsatzsammlung   ( swd )
Rezeption   ( swd )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (p. 375-379) and index.
Statement of Responsibility:
edited by O.B. Hardison Jr. and Leon Golden.

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Resource Identifier:
oclc - 31900798
lccn - 95002623
isbn - 0813013542 (alk. paper)
lcc - PA6393 .H67 1995
ddc - 871/.01
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Horace for
Students of Literature

Horace for

Students of Literature


0. B. Hardison, Jr.
and Leon Golden

University Press of Florida
Gainesville [Tallahassee / Tampa / Boca Raton
Pensacola / Orlando / Miami / Jacksonville

Copyright 1995 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
All rights reserved
"Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" copyright 1942 by Wallace
Stevens. Reprinted from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,
by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Poetria Nova, by Geoffrey of Vinsauf, trans. Margaret F. Nims,
pp. 15-93, reprinted by permission of the publisher; copyright 1967
by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.

Index by Mary Frances Hardison

oo9998979695 6 5 4 3 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication

Horace for students of literature: the "Ars poetica" and its
tradition / [edited by] 0. B. Hardison Jr. and Leon Golden.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Contents: Ars poetica / Horace Poetria nova / Geoffrey of
Vinsauf L'art poetique / Boileau An essay on criticism / Pope
English bards and Scotch reviewers / Byron Notes toward a
supreme fiction / Stevens.
ISBN 0-8130-1354-2 (alk. paper)
i. Horace. Ars poetica. 2. Epistolary poetry, Latin History and
criticism. 3. Literature History and criticism Theory, etc.
4. Aesthetics, Ancient Poetry. 5. Horace Influence. 6. Poetics -
Poetry. 7. Criticism. I. Hardison, O.B. II. Golden, Leon,
PA6393.H67 1995 95-2623


O. B. Hardison, Jr.
g198-1990 -


Preface ix

Second Preface xi

General Introduction xiii

I. Ars Poetica by Horace
Introduction 3
Ars Poetica, translated by Leon Golden 7
Life and Work of Horace 23
Commentary 42

II. Poetria Nova by Geoffrey of Vinsauf
Introduction 91
Poetria Nova, translated by Margaret F. Nims 93
Commentary 149

III. L'Art poetique by Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux
Introduction and Commentary 159
L'Art pobtique, translated by Sir William Soames
(revised by John Dryden) I80

IV. An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
Introduction and Commentary 213
An Essay on Criticism z16
New Standards 236

V. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
and Hints from Horace by Lord Byron
Introduction and Commentary 257
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers 263
Hints from Horace 291
The Kantian Revolution 313

VI. Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction by Wallace Stevens
Introduction and Commentary 325
Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction 337


Horace 356
Geoffrey of Vinsauf 358
Boileau 359
Pope 362
Byron 364
Stevens 372

Bibliography 375

General Index 381

Index of Foreign Terms 393




This volume devoted to Horace's Ars Poetica and its tradition is a
companion to Aristotle's "Poetics," A Translation and Commentary for
Students of Literature. Like that volume, it is a collaboration. As in the
earlier volume, the translation of the classical work, in this case the Ars
Poetica, is by Leon Golden and the commentary by O.B. Hardison.
Translations of the nonclassical works are by the authors indicated for
each work.
Our debts to previous translators and commentators will be evident
to anyone who is familiar with the territory. Of special value are the
two most recent commentaries on Horace's Art: C.O. Brink's three-
volume study (1963-82) and Niall Rudd's Epistles Book II and Epistle
to the Pisones (1989).
The reader will also encounter several positions that have not been
developed in previous studies. Among these are the analysis of the Ars
Poetica as a dramatic monologue, the corollary analysis of the speaker
as persona, comment on Horace's problematic attitudes to Augustan
values, suggestions concerning the skeptical bent of the Art and the
deeper meaning of the care diem motif in the Odes, the relevance of
convenientia (Greek akolouthia) as a dominant theme of the work, the
complex relations of the work to later imitations, and the varying facets
of Horace's work revealed by these imitations. In a very real sense, the
later texts included in the present volume are best understood as critical
comments on the Art, and this is truest for the work that is least explic-
itly an "imitation"-Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fic-
We are grateful to many individuals for suggestions and encourage-
ment. Our hope is that this volume will be as useful to the students of
literature for whom it is intended as our Aristotle's "Poetics" has proved
to be.


Second Preface

O.B. Hardison, Jr., died suddenly just after he had completed work on
his commentary and notes for this book. On the model of our spirited
discussions of Aristotle's Poetics several years earlier, it was his inten-
tion that we would engage in similar discussions of the works included
here. His untimely death made that rewarding enterprise impossible. It
was also impossible for him to make direct use of my translation in his
references to the text of the Ars Poetica in the commentary. I do not
think the reader will experience any serious problem because of slight
variations between O.B.'s translations of Horatian passages and mine,
and have decided that it is best not to make any alterations in O.B.'s
text other than technical corrections.
This is O.B.'s book in design and execution. He imaginatively con-
ceived of its scope and provided the insightful commentary. My princi-
pal task was to translate Horace's Ars Poetica and provide explanatory
notes for that work. Sadly, that task has been enlarged to seeing the
work through to its final publication on my own. I take on that respon-
sibility as an act of pietas for a good and generous friend, for a brilliant
scholar, and for an extraordinary teacher whose influence will be felt
for generations to come.
In carrying out my responsibilities I am grateful to Professor George
Kennedy for many valuable suggestions that have improved the text. I
also thank George and Bobby Harper, close friends of O.B. Hardison
and of mine for many years, for their important assistance in proof-
reading the original manuscript. In closing, I would like to express my
gratitude to Matthew Hardison for his valuable assistance in locating
and copying on disk the text of his father's manuscript.

Leon Golden


General Introduction

This is an era of dynamic, vigorous activity in the field of literary the-
ory and criticism. New modes of analysis of literary form and function
have stimulated intense interest in the nature and significance of artistic
creation. While the focal point of critical theory has moved today some
distance away from the center of attention of the great classical critics,
the time-tested importance and ongoing influence of those critics is still
easily recognized. The goal of this volume is to make available to the
community of literary scholars and critics a demonstration of the strength
and continuing validity of the Horatian tradition of literary criticism,
which has been almost continuously present in our culture since the first
century B.C. This is accomplished through the presentation of a series of
texts, from the Ars Poetica itself to the twentieth-century masterpiece
Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction by Wallace Stevens. The poet-critics
included in this volume all reflect Horace's influence, sometimes in a
direct and obvious way and sometimes in an indirect and subtle manner.
What has lasted in Horace's poetic theory and what has been adapted
from it by his successors as poet-critics across time are themes of per-
manent value to students of literature and criticism. History clearly
attests to the fact that, whatever the developments and fashions of crit-
icism at any given time, the Horatian tradition remains continuously
operative as a significant instrument of literary analysis. In criticism, as
in other areas of cultural experience, we benefit by exposure to the di-
versity of legitimate voices seeking our attention. In this volume the el-
oquent voice of the Horatian tradition, at some times more and at
other times less influential in our culture, can, in a unique and effective
way, be heard clearly.
In the Ars Poetica Horace maps out three critical directions that have
been followed by later critics. One of these paths relates to form and
style; another to methods of evaluating success and failure in poetry;

and a third investigates the essential purpose of poetic activity and the
psychology of the creative artist. The impact of these investigations has
been felt in different ways by the critics represented in this volume as
well as by many others.
In the Ars Poetica we should note Horace's sharp focus on consis-
tency, unity, and appropriateness as defining formal elements in a work
of art. His emphasis also is on the difficult but necessary aesthetic goal
of achieving both clarity and vigor in presentation and success in choos-
ing an appropriate subject matter. Horace is both the preserver of tradi-
tion and the guarantor of the poet's right to change that tradition in
terms of theme and diction. Horace also emphasizes the difficulty, the
dignity, and the painfulness of the poet's craft.
For Horace "the foundation and source of literary excellence is wis-
dom," and he asserts that "the works written about Socrates are able to
reveal the true subject matter of poetry." He urges later poets to look to
the great Greek poets as models of the highest artistic achievement, and
he castigates his contemporaries who will not work hard and sacrifice
greatly to reach the highest standards of performance available topoets.
Eloquently he denounces the corrosive power of materialism, which cor-
rupts the soul of poetry, and states that when this rank materialism
"has stained the human spirit can we really hope that poems will be
written worth anointing and protecting with oil of cedar, and preserv-
ing in chests of polished cypress?" He shows in his famous line "poets
wish to either benefit or delight us" that he considers poetry both il-
luminating and useful to the human condition. The unique demands
and standards of poetry, in contrast to all other human activities, are
seen in his comment that the field of law has room for practitioners of
varying degrees of ability, but poetry, "if it misses true excellence by
only a little, verges toward deepest failure." In line with this is his ad-
vice for poets to subject their work first to the harshest criticism avail-
able and then not to publish a word they have written "until the ninth
year comes around" so that they can be certain that their work will
genuinely have lasting value. Horace's commitment to excellence in po-
etry leads him to aim bitter and harsh criticism at mediocre poets who
lack the energy and talent to attain the high standards he sets for poetic
For Horace, poetry has been an instrument for the dissemination of
civilization, which requires the highest respect. The discipline of poetry,
he emphasizes over and over again, is of great dignity and requires both


General Introduction

significant natural ability and much hard work. Poetry's importance is
such that it demands the most intense criticism because it is too impor-
tant to be subverted by mediocrity. The final scene of the poem that de-
scribes the "mad" poet has been variously interpreted, but without doubt
it affirms the unique total commitment of the poet to the craft of po-
etry in a way not matched by any other profession. To Horace we are
indebted for an assessment of the poet's role in society as a skilled
craftsman, teacher, and civilizing force whose communicated knowledge
is of great importance to our culture.
The Ars Poetica was an important text during the medieval period al-
though it was not equally well known at all times and places during
this time. A large number of manuscripts of the poem from this period
have been identified, and there exist many commentaries on it and im-
itations of it. The Poetria Nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf, which is in-
cluded in this volume, is one of the most important works written
under the influence of the Ars Poetica and explicitly indicates its debt
to that work. Like the Ars Poetica, the Poetria Nova aims to provide
guidance in recognizing and creating poetic excellence. It does, however,
go beyond the rhetorical analysis of poetry offered by Horace to provide
a more comprehensive and systematic framework for discussion of sty-
listic elements in poetry. It attributes, as does the Ars Poetica, an ele-
vated status to the poet but interprets that status in a rather different
way than Horace. For these reasons and because it contains numerous
paraphrases and reminiscences of the Ars Poetica, the Poetria Nova il-
lustrates the forceful impact of Horace's treatise in the Middle Ages.
The direct influence of the Ars Poetica in the Renaissance and the
seventeenth century was even greater than in the medieval period. Well
over fifty printed editions of the works of Horace appeared in Europe
before 15oo, and numerous versified "arts of poetry" were written in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the most important
editions of this period was produced in the early sixteenth century by
lodocus Badius Ascensius for school use in literary analysis. In addition
to editions of the Latin text, important translations were made of the
Ars Poetica into Italian, French, and Spanish in the sixteenth century.
After the recovery of Aristotle's Poetics attempts were made to fuse the
Horatian and Aristotelian traditions into a powerful critical influence.
During the Renaissance numerous, quite different, schools of criticism
emerged, with each of them claiming Horace as its source. Horace's au-
thority reached an extremely high level of influence in the seventeenth

General Introduction


century, when the intellectual currents of scientific rationalism, neoclas-
sicism, the Poetics of Aristotle, and the Ars Poetica were fused. Boileau's
L'Art poetique (1674), represented in this collection in the Soames-
Dryden translation, was one of the most important and influential re-
sults of the powerful Horatian influence during this period. It applied
Horatian critical principles to French literature of the time. The Soames
translation of this work (1680), revised by Dryden (i68z), made use of
examples from English literature in place of the French examples used
by Boileau. Once again it is clear, as it was in the medieval period, that
Horace's Ars Poetica was not just a subject of antiquarian research but
a living influence and guide for poets and critics from the Renaissance
to the eighteenth century.
The eighteenth century opened with another powerful testimony to
the influence of Horace: Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711).
Pope's focus was not on the rules for writing good poetry, as in the Ars
Poetica, but, rather, on the standards for good criticism of poetry. This
latter topic is, to be sure, an important theme in Horace's poem, but
it is not the central theme, as it is in the Essay on Criticism. Under
Horace's influence, Pope presents his own account of the errors that
poets are liable to make, and it is here that we will most fully recognize
Horatian influence.
The Poetria Nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf and the edition of the Ars
Poetica by Badius Ascensius were both textbooks for school use that
helped train students to write well by the application of the rules for
good writing that Horace presents. Boileau's L'Art poetique and Pope's
Essay on Criticism were not designed as school texts but as guides for
mature writers and readers. Increasingly, over time, the Ars Poetica
moved out of the classroom and into the arena of scholarly debate. Sig-
nificant scholarly resources were and are still being devoted to establish-
ing the best possible text of the Ars Poetica, uncovering the various
sources of its doctrines, and interpreting its meaning. Justification for
the relevance of the work to artists and readers, however, was left to
those poets who responded to its influence with their own adaptations
of Horace's poem. Thomas Gray's The Progress of Poesy (1757) adapts
important Horatian concepts to his own world view; James Beattie in
The Minstrel, or, The Progress of Genius (1771) responds to the Hora-
tian theme of nature as the source of poetry; and the Horatian discus-
sion of the role of natural talent and artistic training in achieving excel-
lence in poetry finds an important echo in Goethe's Natur und Kunst.


General Introduction

General Introduction xvii

In I809 Byron published English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and
later a work entitled Hints from Horace (1811, not published until
1831), which appear to be the last poems to be written directly in a Ho-
ratian manner. In English Bards and Scbtch Reviewers Byron adapts to
his own time and place Horace's sharp criticism of mediocrity in po-
etry, and he extends that sharp criticism to an even more bitter evalua-
tion of insensitive critics of poetry. Hints from Horace is an extremely
skillful creative adaptation of the Ars Poetica that accurately interprets
several of Horace's original insights by finding imaginative parallels in
Byron's own literary world.
Although after Byron we find no poems directly imitating the Ars Po-
etica, we do find important works that are influenced by it. Horatian
themes are found in Tennyson's The Palace of Arts (1832) and also in
Paul Verlaine's Art poitique (1874), a poem showing the direct influ-
ence of Horace's discussion of meter, diction, and poetic purpose. Most
important in Verlaine's adaptation is his acceptance of one of the most
critical points in Horace's aesthetic theory-the requirement that poetry
achieve the highest level of excellence or else fail in its essential purpose.
The final selection in this volume is Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward
a Supreme Fiction. On the surface the poems of Horace and Stevens are
vastly different in structure and tone. Yet at the deepest levels of mean-
ing the Ars Poetica shares an important common ground with Notes
Toward a Supreme Fiction. More than other works represented in this
volume they celebrate the profound importance of poetry to human be-
ings and the important contribution of poetry to civilization. In the Ars
Poetica Horace speaks of the capacity of poetry to benefit and delight
us; of the best of poetry that is "worth anointing and protecting with
oil of cedar, and preserving in chests of polished cypress"; of poetry's
almost impossibly high standards that make every artistic effort a fail-
ure that does not achieve "true excellence"; of the great poets of the
past who led human beings to high civilization; and of the intense per-
sonal demands on the poet illustrated in the scene of the "mad" poet at
the end of the poem. Stevens tells us that "the poem refreshes life so
that we share, for a moment, the first idea"; that it is the task of the
poet to express the inexpressible, to try "by a peculiar speech to speak
the peculiar potency of the general, to compound the imagination's
Latin with the lingua franca et jocundissima"; that it is the struggle of
the poet "to find the real, to be stripped of every fiction except one, the
fiction of an absolute"; that the poet, like the soldier, is at war, "a war

xviii General Introduction

between the mind and the sky, between thought and day and night .
a war that never ends." Careful readers of the Ars Poetica and Notes
Toward a Supreme Fiction will note the common bond of intense se-
riousness and deep commitment to a most demanding discipline, which
is a central theme of both works.
Whoever writes a verse essay on poetry must do so with an eye on the
Ars Poetica, the first great work of this kind. Some of Horace's succes-
sors have consciously imitated specific aspects of the Ars Poetica while
others write in a spirit of deep artistic kinship with the great Roman
poet and critic. The Horatian influence is ever present in our culture
and can be viewed effectively in the works represented in this volume.

Leon Golden


Ars Poetica




The Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65
B.C.-8 B.C.) is the only classical essay on literary criticism that has been
known with something like continuity from the date of its composition
to the present day. It was read and cited throughout the Middle Ages,
although there are centuries without references and the work was better
known in some areas of Europe than others. Its status was further en-
hanced by the revival of classical learning associated with the Renais-
sance. By the later fifteenth century it was widely considered the defini-
tive guide to classical literary traditions and to the imitation of these
traditions by modern authors. Elaborately annotated editions began to
appear in Italy almost as soon as printing was introduced. From Italy,
interest rapidly spread to France, England, Spain, Germany, and else-
When Aristotle's Poetics was rediscovered around 1535, it did not
displace The Art of Poetry. In spite of what seem today obvious differ-
ences in theory and specific information, the two works were regarded
as complementary, and where differences occurred that were impossible
to paper over-as for example, the difference between Aristotle's theory
of catharsis and Horace's idea that poetry should profit (or instruct)
and delight-the problem was usually resolved by bending Aristotle's
ideas to fit the more familiar ideas of Horace.
The belief that Horace and Aristotle were complementary allowed
Horace to continue to reign supreme in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. During gth.nclassical period, he was recognized as a prophet
of reason, imitation, and "rules" in lifierajire aiddthe~"ormof
The Art of Poetry was imitated in numerous verse essays on poetry in
Latin, Italian. French. Spanish, and .dE .isb..I.,he nineteenth century
the Art of Poetry ceased to be a direct influence on the way poetry was
written, but it continued to be quoted for its pithy observations about

4 Ars Poetica by Horace

good and bad poetry and as a guide to understanding classical litera-
ture. Today, it remains central in the study of Latin literature and in
the history of literary criticism. Although it is not usually consulted for
its advice on how to write, it is familiar enough to have provided the
model for at least one well-known comment on the state of twentieth-
century American poetry, Karl Shapiro's Essay on Rime, published in
In spite of its influence on two thousand years of literary theory and
practice, The ArtgjPeoetryremains elusive. Readers who come to it for
th-irst time are prepared for a work that sparkles and challenges in
every line. Although they find lines that sparkle, they also find a work
that seems to wander from subject to subject and that frequently dis-
cusses topics remote from modern interests.
The translation and commentary that follow are intended to assist
these readers. They are based on three premises. First, much of The Art
of Poetry is entirely understandable and immensely entertaining and
still relevant to the understanding of literary art. Horace is a literary
conservative, not an avant-garde artist, but his conservatism is the ge-
nial sort from which anyone can learn. Second, much of The Art of
Poetry becomes clearer with an understanding of the background against
which it was written. Its central ideas are variations, shaped by the so-
cial and intellectual conditions of Augustan Rome, of ideas about liter-
ary art that are still being debated. Third, because of its sustained popu-
larity over the centuries, The Art of Poetry is a kind of critical litmus
test. Each age has stressed different aspects and found different truths in
it. To be familiar with it is to have a key for identifying the central
critical ideas of different periods in the history of literature.
Most readers of The Art of Poetry will be interested in it primarily as
criticism. However, Horace was a poet even more than a critic, and the
Art is a poem as well as a presentation of critical theory. Although
most commentaries struggle to present it as a formal treatise on literary
art, and the present one will make its own gestures in that direction, it
is actually a dramatic monologue in which the situation of the speaker
(the term is preferable to "writer," even though the Art is technically a
"letter") shapes what the speaker says.1 Read in this way it becomes

1. O.B. Hardison's discussion of the character of the narrator in this introduction
reflects what critics today would call "persona theory." Bernard Frischer, Shifting Para-

Introduction 5

less like Aristotle's Poetics and more like some of the later works in-
cluded with it in this volume in which social conditions decisively in-
fluence the speaker. In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, for example,
the prevailing literary culture encourages destructive attacks on new poets
and the speaker lashes out against it. Again, the Second World War rag-
ing beyond the poet's study provides the context within which the
speaker of Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction fights his
own war "between the mind and the sky."
These observations do not require an "either/or" understanding of
the Art. The work does not have to be understood "either" as a treatise
on poetry "or" as a dramatic monologue. It has elements of both.
Literary theory supplies much of its content, but the character of the
speaker determines the tone of the comments, the order in which they
are made, and the lapses and omissions and contradictions and abrupt
transitions; or, to put the matter in terms more appropriate to criti-
cism, abrupt transitions and lapses and omissions and the like are the
means whereby the poem represents the character of the speaker.
Finally, it may be noted that this way of presenting critical theory
makes a modern and quite significant literary point. It is a common-
place today that each age reads its own predilections and taboos into
the past. Thus the past is in part, at least, a mirror of the present rather
than an otherness in which we find ideas different from the ones we
hold. If this is so, no critical position can be called "objective," much
less "true" in an absolute sense. Each position is relative to the circum-
stances that gave rise to it. A "treatise" falsifies this situation by pre-
tending to be "objective analysis." This is precisely what the Art does
not claim to be. Its use of the dramatic monologue enacts the truth that
no critic is (or can be) objective. All critical theories-in fact, all
theories-are shaped by the political and social and personal contexts
within which they are developed. As the contexts change, they change.

digms: New Approaches to Horace's Ars Poetica (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), makes
an explicit application of "persona theory" to the interpretation of the Ars Poetica but
with results that are quite different from those of Hardison. For Frischer the narrator in
the poem does not give voice to Horace's own views but is, rather, the subject of a
parody by the poet. For Hardison the narrator, while different from Horace, does rep-
resent, in a dramatic manner, a position more closely in harmony with Horace's own

6 Ars Poetica by Horace

Wallace Stevens agreed. He titled the second part-of his Notes Toward
a Supreme Fiction "It must change."
The interplay between critical theory and the voice of the speaker in
the Art thus suggests skepticism about the possibility of absolute criti-
cal "truths." The suggestion is appropriate. Horace's general philosophy
combines elements of Epicureanism and Stoicism, and the philosophy
of Epicurus as presented in Lucretius's poem De rerum natural, which
Horace knew well, questions many of the basic tenets of ancient reli-
gion. A more formal skepticism that questions the basis of knowledge
itself was also current in Rome in the first century B.C. Shortly before
Horace began writing, Cicero offered an exposition of the academic
skepticism of Carneades in the first book of his Academic Disputations.
Carneades argues that human knowledge is probable rather than cer-
tain. He is said to have delivered two brilliant orations during a visit to
Rome in 156 B.C. In the first he praised justice as the source of order in
human affairs. In the second he praised injustice as the only practical
way of forcing order on irrational humans.
Arguments pro and con are one way to express a philosophy of doubt.
They are also inherent in the dialogue form of works like Cicero's Aca-
demic Disputations because the form permits questions under discus-
sion to remain unresolved. The speaker of The Art of Poetry frequently
engages in pro and con debate with himself, but the most striking em-
bodiment of the idea of doubt in the poem is the contrast between pur-
portedly objective doctrine being presented and the emotion of the
speaker presenting it. The effect is wonderfully effective and very much
in accord with the dramatic monologue form.
Skepticism was reborn in Europe in the sixteenth century with Mon-
taigne's Essays and was a powerful influence on seventeenth- and eigh-
teenth-century thought. However, the popularity of The Art of Poetry
during the Enlightenment rested on the idea that it stands for the norms
of reason and nature and offers certainties in the form of "rules" rather
than on its skepticism. Not until the romantic period do we find an im-
itation of Horace's Art in which the speaker is a distinct personality
rather than an impersonal voice for official doctrine, and not until Wal-
lace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction do we encounter a poet
who is fully attuned to Horace by skeptical temperament as well as by
an approach to criticism simultaneously playful, personal, and philo-

O. B. Hardison, Jr.

Ars Poetica

Translated by Leon Golden

If a painter were willing to join a horse's neck to a human head and
spread on multicolored feathers, with different parts of the body brought
in from anywhere and everywhere, so that what starts out above as a
beautiful woman ends up horribly as a black fish, could you my friends,
if you had been admitted to the spectacle, hold back your laughter? Be-
lieve me, dear Pisos, that very similar to such a painting would be a
literary work in which meaningless images are fashioned, like the dreams
of someone who is mentally ill, so that neither the foot nor the head
can be attributed to a single form. "Painters and poets," someone ob-
jects, "have always had an equal right to dare to do whatever they
wanted." We know it and we both seek this indulgence and grant it in
turn. But not to the degree that the savage mate with the gentle, nor
that snakes be paired with birds, nor lambs with tigers.1

Often, one or two purple patches are stitched onto works that have
begun in high seriousness, and that profess important themes, so that
they sparkle far and wide; as when the grove and altar of Diana and the
circling of swiftly flowing waters through the pleasant fields or the
Rhine river or the rainbow are described. But this was not the place
for such embellishments. And perhaps you know how to draw a cypress
tree. What does that matter if you have been paid to paint a desperate
sailor swimming away from a shipwreck? You started out to make a
wine-jar. Why, as the wheel turns, does it end up as a pitcher? In short,
let the work be anything you like, but let it at least be one, single thing.

8 Ars Poetica by Horace

Most of us poets, o father and sons who are worthy of that father, de-
ceive ourselves by an illusion of correct procedure. I work at achieving
brevity; instead I become obscure. Striving for smoothness, vigor and
spirit escape me. One poet, promising the sublime, delivers pomposity.
Another creeps along the ground, overly cautious and too much fright-
ened of the gale. Whoever wishes to vary a single subject in some strange
and wonderful way, paints a dolphin into a forest and a boar onto the
high seas. The avoidance of blame leads to error if there is an absence
of art.

Near the gladiatorial school of Aemilius, a most incompetent craftsman
will mold toenails and imitate soft hair in bronze but he is unsuccessful
with his complete work because he does not know how to represent a
whole figure. If I wished to compose something, I would no more wish
to be him than to live with a crooked nose although highly regarded for
my black eyes and black hair.

Pick a subject, writers, equal to your strength and take some time to
consider what your shoulders should refuse and what they can bear.
Neither eloquence nor clear organization will forsake one who has chosen
a subject within his capabilities. Unless I am mistaken this will be the
special excellence and delight of good organization-that the author of
the promised poem, enamored of one subject and scornful of another,
says now what ought to be said now and both postpones and omits a
great deal for the present.

Also in linking words you will speak with exceptional subtlety and care
if a skillful connection renders a well-known term with a new twist. If,
by chance, it is necessary to explain obscure matters by means of new
images it will turn out that you must devise words never heard by the
kilted Cethegi, and license for this will be given if claimed with modesty.

Words that are new and recently coined will be received in good faith if
they are sparingly diverted from a Greek source. Why then will the
Roman grant to Caecilius and Plautus what is denied to Vergil and
Varius? If I am capable of doing it, why am I grudged the acquisition
of some few words when the tongue of Cato and Ennius enriched our an-
cestral language and revealed new names for things? It has always been
permitted, and it always will be permitted to bring to light a name
stamped with the mark of the present day.2

Just as forests change their leaves year by year and the first drop to the
ground, so the old generation of words perishes, and new ones, like the
rising tide of the young, flourish and grow strong. We, and everything
that is ours, are destined to die; whether Neptune, hospitably received
on land, keeps our fleets safe from the north winds, a task worthy of a
king, or a marsh, barren for a long time, and suitable for oars, nour-
ishes nearby cities and feels the heavy plough, or a river has changed its
course that was hostile to crops and has discovered a better route to fol-
low, all things mortal will perish; much less will the glory and grace of
language remain alive. Many terms will be born again that by now have
sunk into oblivion, and many that are now held in respect will die out
if that is what use should dictate in whose power is the judgment and
the law and the rule of speech.

Homer has demonstrated in what meter we should describe the deeds of
kings and leaders as well as gloomy wars. Lament, first, was enclosed in
unequally paired verses and later also our grateful thoughts for answered
prayer. Scholars disagree about who originally published these brief ele-
giac verses, and it still is before the court as a matter of dispute. Fury
armed Archilochus with his own iambus: both the comic sock and the
grand tragic boot took possession of this foot, suited as it was for alter-
nating dialogue and able to conquer the raucous shouts of the audience
as well as naturally suited to action. The muse granted the lyre the task
of reporting about the gods, the children of the gods, the victorious
boxer, and the horse who was first in the race, as well as to record
youthful anguish and wine's liberating influence. Why am I greeted as a

Ars Poetica


poet if I have neither the ability nor the knowledge to-preserve the vari-
ations and shades of the literary works that I have described? Why, per-
versely modest, do I prefer to be ignorant than to learn?


The subject matter of comedy does not wish to find expression in tragic
verses. In the same way the feast of Thyestes is indignant at being rep-
resented through informal verses that are very nearly worthy of the
comic sock. Let each genre keep to the appropriate place allotted to it.
Sometimes, however, even comedy raises its voice and an angered
Chremes declaims furiously in swollen utterances; and often the tragic
figures of Telephus and Peleus grieve in pedestrian language when, as a
pauper or exile, each of them, if he should care to touch the heart of
the spectator with his complaint, abandons bombast and a sesquipedal-
ian vocabulary.


It is not enough for poems to be "beautiful"; they must also yield de-
light and guide the listener's spirit wherever they wish. As human faces
laugh with those who are laughing, so they weep3 with those who are
weeping. If you wish me to cry, you must first feel grief yourself, then
your misfortunes, O Telephus or Peleus, will injure me. If you speak in-
eptly assigned words, I shall either sleep or laugh. Sad words are fitting
for the gloomy face, words full of threats for the angry one, playful
words for the amused face, serious words for the stern one. For Nature
first forms us within so as to respond to every kind of fortune. She de-
lights us or impels us to anger or knocks us to the ground and torments
us with oppressive grief. Afterward she expresses the emotions of the
spirit with language as their interpreter. If, however, there is discord be-
tween the words spoken and the fortune of the speaker, Romans, whether
cavalry or infantry, will raise their voices in a raucous belly laugh.4


It will make a great difference whether a god is speaking or a hero, a
mature old man or someone passionate and still in the full flower of

Ars Poetica by Horace


youth, a powerful matron or a diligent nurse, an itinerant merchant or
the cultivator of a prosperous field, a Colchian or an Assyrian, one
raised in Thebes or in Argos.

Either follow tradition or devise harmonious actions. O writer, if you
by chance describe once again honored Achilles, let him be weariless,
quick to anger, stubborn, violent; let him deny that laws were made for
him, let him claim everything by arms. Let Medea be wild and uncon-
querable, Ino doleful, Ixion treacherous, Io a wanderer in mind and
body,s Orestes filled with sorrow. If you commit anything untested to
the stage and you dare to fashion a novel character, let it be maintained
to the end just as it emerged at the beginning and let it be consistent
with itself. It is difficult to speak uniquely of common themes; and yet
you will more properly spin the song of Troy into acts than if you are
the first to bring to light what has not been known or recorded in liter-
ature. Material in the public domain will come under private jurisdic-
tion if you do not loiter around the broad, common poetic cycle,6 and
do not strive, as a literal translator, to render texts word for word, and
if you will not, as an imitator, leap down into a narrow space from
where shame or the rules applying to the work forbid you to extricate
your foot; nor should you begin your work as the cyclic poet once did:
"Of Priam's fate and renowned war I shall sing." What might someone
who makes this pledge bring forth that will be worthy of his big mouth?
Mountains will go into labor, but an absurd mouse will be born. How
much more skillful is the one who does not toil foolishly: "Tell me, O
Muse, of the man, who, after the capture of Troy, viewed the customs
and cities of many different peoples." He does not aim to extract smoke
from the flaming light but rather light from the smoke, so that he
might then describe spectacular marvels-Antiphates and the Scylla and
Charybdis along with the Cyclops. Nor does he begin the return of
Diomedes from the death of Meleager nor the Trojan War from the
twin eggs. He always moves swiftly to the issue at hand and rushes his
listener into the middle of the action just as if it were already known,
and he abandons those subjects he does not think can glitter after he has
treated them. Thus does he invent, thus does he mingle the false with
the true that the middle is not inconsistent with the beginning, nor the
end with the middle.

Ars Poetica


Listen to what I and the general public along with me desire, if indeed
you wish applauding listeners to wait for the final curtain and to re-
main seated until the singer says "Give us a hand now"; you must note
the characteristics of each stage of life and you must grant what is ap-
propriate to changing natures and ages. A child who just now has learned
to repeat words and to stamp the ground with a firm footstep takes
great pleasure in playing with other children and heedlessly conceives7
and abandons anger as well as changes moods hour by hour. The beard-
less youth, with his guardian finally removed, rejoices in horses and
dogs and in the grass of the sunny Campus; supple as wax to be fash-
ioned into vice, he is rude to those who give him advice, slow at provid-
ing for what is useful, extravagant with money, filled with lofty ideas
and passionate, but also swift to abandon the objects of his affection.
When one has reached manhood in age and spirit, the objects of his en-
thusiasm are altered, and he seeks wealth and connections, becomes a
slave to the trappings of honor, is hesitant to have set into motion what
he will soon struggle to change. Many troubles assail an old man,
whether because he seeks gain, and then wretchedly abstains from what
he possesses and is afraid to use it, or because he attends to all his
affairs feebly and timidly; a procrastinator, he is apathetic in his hopes
and expectations, sluggish and fearful of the future, obstinate, always
complaining; he devotes himself to praising times past, when he was a
boy, and to being the castigator and moral censor of the young. The
years, as they approach, bring many advantages with them; as they re-
cede, they take many away. To ensure that, by chance, roles appropriate
for old men are not assigned to the young and those designed for ma-
ture men are not given to children, you shall always spend time on the
traits that belong and are suitable to the age of a character.8

Either a scene is acted out on the stage or someone reports the events
that have occurred. Actions that have been admitted to our conscious-
ness through our having heard them have less of an impact on our
minds than those that have been brought to our attention by our trusty
vision and for which the spectator himself is an eyewitness. You will
not, however, produce onstage actions that ought to be done offstage;

Ars Poetica by Horace


and you will remove many incidents from our eyes so that someone
who was present might report those incidents; Medea should not slaugh-
ter her children in the presence of the people, nor abominable Atreus
cook human organs publicly, nor Procne be turned into a bird, Cadmus
into a snake. Whatever you show me like this, I detest and refuse to

A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts if, once it has been
seen, it wishes to remain in demand and be brought back for return en-
gagements. Nor should any god intervene unless a knot show up that is
worthy of such a liberator; nor should a fourth actor strive to speak.
,Let the chorus sustain the role of an actor and the function of a man,
and let it not sing anything between the acts that does not purposefully
and aptly serve and unite with the action. It should favor the good and
provide friendly counsel; it should control the wrathful and show its
approval of those who fear to sin; it should praise modest meals, whole-
some justice and laws, and peace with its open gates; it should conceal
secrets and entreat and beg the gods that fortune return to the down-
trodden and depart from the arrogant.

The double pipe not, as now, bound with brass and a rival of the
trumpet, but thin and simple, with few holes, was sufficient to assist
and support the chorus and to fill still uncrowded benches with its
breath; where, indeed, the populace, easy to count since it was small in
number, honest, pious, and modest came together. After a conquering
nation began to extend its lands and a more extensive wall began to
embrace the city,9 we started to appease our guardian spirit10 freely
with daylight drinking on holidays, and then greater license arrived on
the scene for rhythms and tunes. For what level of taste might an uned-
ucated audience have, freed of toil and composed of a mixture of rustic
and urban elements, of low life and aristocrats? Thus the flute player
added bodily movement and excessive extravagance to the venerable art
of past times and trailed a robe behind him as he wandered around the
stage. So also the tonal range of the austere lyre increased, and a reck-

Ars Poetica


less fluency brought with it a strange eloquence whose thought, wise in
matters of practical wisdom and prophetic of the future, was not out of
tune with that of oracular Delphi.


The poet who contended in tragic song for the sake of an insignificant
goat soon also stripped wild Satyrs of their clothes and in a rough
manner, with his dignity unharmed, attempted jokes because it -was
only by enticements and pleasing novelty that the spectator, having per-
formed the sacred rites and having become drunk and reckless, was go-
ing to remain in the audience. But it is appropriate to render the Satyrs
agreeable in their laughter and mockery and to exchange the serious for
the comic so that no god, no hero is brought on who, having just been
seen in regal gold and purple, then moves into the humble hovel of low-
class diction; or, while avoiding the lowly earth, reaches for empty
clouds. Tragedy, indignant at spouting frivolous verses, like the matron
who is asked to dance on a holiday, appears with some shame, among
the impudent Satyrs. I shall not, O Pisos, were I a writer of Satyric
drama, be fond only of unadorned and commonly used nouns and verbs;
nor shall I strive so much to differ from the tone of tragedy that it
makes no difference if Davus is speaking with audacious Pythias who,
having swindled Simo, now has gained for herself a talent's worth of
silver, or the speaker is Silenus, guardian and servant of his divine foster-
child.1 I shall aim at fashioning a poem from quite familiar elements
so that anyone might anticipate doing as well, might sweat profusely at
it, and yet labor in vain after having ventured to do what I have done:
so great is the power of arrangement and linkage, so great is the grace
that is added to words that are adapted from ordinary language. When
Fauns of the forest are brought onstage, in my judgment, they should
avoid behaving as if they had been born at the crossroads and were al-
most denizens of the forum or act ever as adolescents with their all-too-
wanton12 verses or rattle off their dirty and disgraceful jokes. That sort
of thing gives offense to an audience of knights, respectable heads of
households, and men with substantial fortunes, nor do they accept with
a patient spirit, or bestow a crown on, whatever the consumer of roasted
chick-peas and nuts approves.

Ars Poetica by Horace


A long syllable adjacent to a short one is called an Iambus, a "quick"
foot; for that reason Iambus commanded that the name trimeter be at-
tached to the lines bearing his name although he delivers six beats a line
and from first to last is the spitting image of himself. Not so long ago,
in order that the trimeter reach the ears with somewhat greater dignity
and deliberation, Iambus admitted the stately spondee into his ancestral
rights, obligingly and tolerantly, but not so sociably as to withdraw
from the second and fourth foot of the line. This Iambus appears rarely
in the "noble" trimeters of Accius and, as for the verses of Ennius,
hurled onto the stage in their ponderous sluggishness, he pursues them
with the shameful charge of excessively hasty and slipshod workman-
ship or of sheer ignorance of the poet's craft.


It is not just any critic who will notice rhythmically flawed lines, and
indulgence, far more than is merited, has been granted to our Roman
poets. Because of that should I ramble around and write without any
discipline at all? Or should I consider that everyone is going to see my
faults and, warily playing it safe, remain within the hope of pardon? I
have then, in short, avoided blame, but I have not earned praise. Your
mandate is to hold Greek models before you by day and to hold them
before you by night. But (you say) your ancestors praised the meters and
wit of Plautus; well (I reply), they admired both with excessive toler-
ance, not to say stupidity-if you and I just know how to distinguish a
tasteless expression from an elegant one, and we have the skill to recog-
nize the proper sound with our ears and fingers.

We are told that Thespis discovered the tragic muse's genre, which was
unknown until then, and hauled his verse dramas around in wagons;
these dramas, actors, their faces thoroughly smeared with wine-lees,
sang and performed. After him Aeschylus, the inventor of the mask and
the elegant robe, laid down a stage on modestly sized beams and taught
the art of grandiloquent speech and of treading the boards in the high

Ars Poetica


16 Ars Poetica by Horace

boot of the tragic actor. Old comedy followed in the footsteps of these
tragic poets and not without much praise; but the license it assumed for
itself descended into vice, and its force was justifiably tamed by law;
the law was received with approval, and the chorus in disgrace became
silent since its right to cause harm was abolished.

Our own poets have left nothing untried nor have they earned the least
glory when they have dared to abandon the tracks of the Greeks and to
celebrate domestic situations either by producing serious Roman dramas
or native Roman comedies. Nor would Latium be more powerful in
courage and in illustrious arms than in literature if the time-consuming
effort required for a truly polished revision of the text did not give
offense to every single one of our poets. O you, who are descendants of
Pompilius, denounce any poem that many a day and many a correction
has not carefully pruned and then improved ten times over to meet the
test of the well-trimmed nail.13

Because Democritus believes that native talent is a more blessed thing
than poor, miserable craftsmanship and excludes from Helicon, the home
of the muses, rational poets, quite a number do not trouble to cut their
nails or shave their beards; they seek out lonely spots; they avoid the
baths. One will obtain the reward and the name of a poet if he never
entrusts his head, incurable even by three times Anticyra's output of
hellebore,14 to the barber, Licinus. O what an unlucky fool I am! I have
my bile purged just before spring arrives! No one else could write a bet-
ter poem. But nothing is worth that effort! Instead, I shall serve in place
of a whetstone that has the power to render iron sharp but itself lacks
the ability to cut; while not writing anything myself, I will teach what
nurtures and forms the poet, from what source his power springs, what
his function and duty are, what is proper and what is not and in what
direction poetic excellence leads and in what direction failure beckons.s1

The foundation and source of literary excellence is wisdom. The works
written about Socrates are able to reveal the true subject matter of

poetry and, once the subject matter has been provided, words will freely
follow. He who has learned what he owes to his country, what he owes
to his friends, by what kind of love a parent, a brother, or a guest
should be honored, what is the duty of a senator, what is the function
of a judge, what is the role of a general sent into war-he, assuredly,
knows how to represent what is appropriate for each character. I bid
the artist, trained in representation, to reflect on exemplars of life and
character and to bring us living voices from that source. Sometimes a
tale that lacks stylistic elegance, grandeur, and skill but is adorned with
impressive passages and characters who are accurately drawn is a greater
source of pleasure and better holds the interest of an audience than
verses that lack a vision of reality and are mere trifles to charm the ear.

To the Greeks, covetous of nothing except glory, the Muse granted in-
spired talent, to the Greeks she gave eloquence in full measure. Roman
youths, on the other hand, learn by means of lengthy calculations how
to divide a sum of money into a hundred parts. "You, there, Albinus's
son, solve the following problem: If one-twelfth is subtracted from five-
twelfths, how much is left? Come on, you should have given me the
answer by now!" "It's one-third!" "Well done, my boy, you'll surely be
able to protect your investments." "Now suppose that one-twelfth is
added to five-twelfths, what does that make?" "I've got it-one-half!"
When once this corruption and avid concern for material wealth has
stained the human spirit, can we really hope that poems will be written
worth anointing and protecting with oil of cedar, and preserving in
chests of polished cypress?

Poets wish to either benefit or delight us, or, at one and the same time,
to speak words that are both pleasing and useful for our lives. Whatever
lessons you teach, let them be brief, so that receptive spirits will quickly
perceive and faithfully retain what you have said. Everything superfluous
seeps out of the well-stocked mind. In order to create pleasure, poetic
fictions should approximate reality so that a play should not claim, on
its own behalf, that anything it wishes must be believed nor should it
extract a living child from the stomach of the ogress, Lamia, after she

Ars Poetica


has dined. The centuries of elders drive away whatever is without serious
value; the high and mighty Ramnes keep their distance from gloomy
poems. He gets every vote who combines the useful with the pleasant,
and who, at the same time he pleases the reader, also instructs him.
That book will earn money for the Sosii, this one will cross the sea and
extend immeasurably the life of a famous writer.16

There are, however, mistakes that we are willing to forgive. For the
string does not always return the sound that the hand and mind desire,
and although you seek a low note, it very often sends back a high one.
Nor will the bow always strike whatever it threatens. But where many
qualities sparkle in a poem, I will not find fault with a few blemishes,
which either carelessness introduced or human nature, too little vigilant,
did not avoid. What then? Just as the scribe who copies books, if he
always makes the same mistake no matter how much he is warned, has
no claim on our indulgence, and a lyre-player is mocked who always
strikes the same false note, so the poet who is frequently found wanting
turns into another Choerilus17 who, amidst my scorn for his work,
astonishes me the two or three times he is really good; I am also offended
when great Homer falls asleep on us, but it is permitted for some drows-
iness to creep into a long work.

Poetry resembles painting. Some works will captivate you when you
stand very close to them and others if you are at a greater distance. This
one prefers a darker vantage point, that one wants to be seen in the
light since it feels no terror before the penetrating judgment of the
critic. This pleases only once, that will give pleasure even if we go back
to it ten times over.

And you, the older brother, although you have been molded by your fa-
ther's voice to know what is correct and you are wise in your own
right, take and hold in your memory this warning: only in certain activ-
ities are we justified in tolerating mediocrity and what is just passable.

Ars Poetica by Horace


A run-of-the mill expert in the law or pleader of cases is a long way
from the skill of the eloquent Messala and doesn't know as much as
Aulus Cascellius, but nevertheless he has a value.18 But neither men nor
gods nor booksellers have ever put their stamp of approval on mediocre
poets. Just as at a gracious meal a discordant musical performance or a
thick perfume or Sardinian honey on your poppy seeds give offense be-
cause the meal could have been put together without them; in the same
way a poem that comes into existence and is created for the gratifica-
tion of our mind and heart, if it misses true excellence by only a little,
verges toward deepest failure.

The person who does not know how to play forgoes the athletic equip-
ment in the Campus Martius, and someone who does not know any-
thing about the ball, the discus, or the hoop stays away from the action
in order to prevent the packed crowd of spectators from raising their
voices in unrestrained laughter: But the person who has no idea how to
create poetry still has the audacity to try. Why not? He is a free citizen,
and was born that way, and especially because he is both rich (his prop-
erty assessment places him in the equestrian class) and he has never been
convicted of a crime.

Never will you say or do anything if Minerva, the goddess of wisdom,
forbids it; you have good judgment, you have good sense. But if you
shall, one day, write something let it first penetrate the ears of a critic
like Maeciust9 or your father or myself; and then keep a lid on it until the
ninth year comes around by storing your pages inside your house. You
will always be able to destroy anything you haven't published; a word,
once released, does not know how to return.

When men still roamed the forests, Orpheus, the priest and prophet of
the gods, deterred them from slaughter and from an abominable way of
life. On account of this he is said to have tamed savage tigers and lions.
Amphion, the founder of the city of Thebes, also is said to have moved

Ars Poetica


stones wherever he wished by the sound of his lyre and his seductive en-
treaties. Once it was deemed wisdom to keep what was public separate
from what was private, what was sacred from what was not, to issue
prohibitions against promiscuity, to set down laws for those who are
married, to build towns, to inscribe laws on wooden tablets. In this
way honor and renown came to poets, inspired by the gods, and their
songs. After these, Homer achieved fame and Tyrtaeus, with his poems,
sharpened men's minds for the wars of Mars; oracles were given in
poetry, and the way of life was demonstrated, and the grace of kings
was tested by Pierian songs;20 and entertainment was discovered, that
entertainment which brought to a close periods of extended labor. I say
this21 so that you will not in any way feel shame for the skilled muse of
the lyre and the divine singer of songs, Apollo.

Is it nature or art, the question is put, that makes a poem praiseworthy:
I do not see what study, without a rich vein of natural ability, or raw
talent alone, would be able to accomplish. Each asks for assistance
from the other and swears a mutual oath of friendship. He who is eager
to reach the desired goal at the race-course has endured much and ac-
complished much as a boy. He has sweated and he has frozen; he has
abstained from sex and wine. The flute-player who plays the Pythian
piece22 first learned his skill under a master he feared. Now it is enough
to say: "I fashion wonderful poems; may the mangy itch take the hind-
most; it's a disgrace for me to be left behind and to admit that what I
did not learn, I simply do not know."

Just like the herald at an auction who collects a crowd in order to sell
his merchandise, the poet who is rich in lands, rich in money lent out
for interest, bids flatterers with an eye on profit to assemble. If in fact
he is someone who can properly serve up a lavish banquet and go bail
for a fickle, poverty-stricken client and can extricate someone from dis-
tressing lawsuits, I will be surprised if the blessed fellow can tell a liar
from a true friend. You, then, if you have given, or plan to give, a gift
to someone, must refuse to invite him, full of joyful gratitude, to a
reading of poems you have written. For he will shout, "Beautiful!"

Ars Poetica by Horace


"Great!" "Right on!" He will turn pale over them, he will even let dew
drip from his friendly eyes, he will dance and pound the pavement with
his foot. Just as hired mourners at a funeral almost say and do more
than those who grieve from the heart, so a mocking critic will more
easily be aroused than a true admirer. Kings are said to ply with many
a cup and test with wine the person they strive to examine with regard
to his worthiness of their friendship. If you plan to write poetry, the
thoughts concealed within the fox should never deceive you.

If you ever read something to Quintilius,23 he used to say, "Please cor-
rect this point and that." If you said that you could not improve them
after two or three vain attempts, he would advise you to blot them out
and to return the badly formed verses to the anvil. If you chose to de-
fend your error rather than change it, he would expend not a word
more nor waste any useless effort to stop you, alone, from loving your
work and yourself without a rival. An honest and judicious man will be
critical of dull verses and disapproving of harsh ones; next to those
completely lacking in art he will smear a black line witha horizontal
stroke of the pen;24 he will excise pretentious decoration; he will com-
pel you to shed light on what lacks clarity; he will expose the obscure
phrase; he will note what must be changed and will turn out to be a
veritable Aristarchus. He will not say, "Why should I displease a friend
because of trivialities?" These "trivialities" will lead that friend into
serious trouble once he has been greeted with unfavorable reviews and
mocking laughter.

As when the evil itch or the disease of kings or the frenzied madness
and wrath of Diana oppress someone, so sensible people are afraid to
touch the mad poet, and run away from him. Inconsiderate children
pursue and torment him. He, his head in the clouds, belches out his
poems and loses his way; if, like a fowler whose attention is riveted on
the blackbirds, he falls into a well or pit, no one will care to raise him
up no matter how long he shouts, "Hey, fellow-citizens, look over here!"
But if anyone takes the trouble to come to his aid and to lower a rope
to him, I will say, "how do you know that he didn't throw himself

Ars Poetica


zz Ars Poetica by Horace

down there on purpose and doesn't want to be saved?" Then, I'll tell
the story of how the Sicilian poet perished. When Empedocles felt the
desire to be considered an immortal god, cool as a cucumber he leaped
into the burning fires of Aetna. Let the right be given, let permission be
granted for poets to die. Whoever saves someone against his will does
exactly the same thing as the person who murders him. Not just once
has he done this, and if he is extricated now he will not become a mere
mortal and put aside his infatuation with a death that will make him
famous. Nor is it sufficiently clear why he practices the poet's trade.
Did he sacrilegiously urinate on the ashes of his ancestors or disturb a
gloomy plot of consecrated land that had been struck by lightning?
Whatever the cause he is certainly mad and just like a bear-if he has
succeeded in smashing the restraining bars of his cage-his morose pub-
lic recitations frighten off the educated and the ignorant alike; once he
gets his hands on a person, he doesn't let go until he kills him with his
reading-a leech who will not release the skin unless gorged with blood.

Life and Work of Horace

Horace was born in 65 B.c. in the provincial town of Venusia, about
three-fourths of the way down the Italian peninsula and about halfway
between the western and eastern seacoasts. Horace's father was appar-
ently a freed slave who became a tax collector and acquired a small
estate. He was prosperous enough to send his son to school in Rome.
Around 46 B.c., after completing his Roman education, Horace traveled
to Athens to study philosophy and literature.
Two years later the civil war between Brutus and Mark Anthony
erupted. Horace was recruited into the army of Brutus. The fact that he
was made a military tribune-an important office-in spite of his mod-
est social station and lack of military experience suggests both Brutus's
dire need for educated military administrators and the probability that
Horace had already made some influential friends. Horace's military ca-
reer came to a swift and inglorious end with the defeat of Brutus at
Phillipi in 42 B.c. He admits freely that he was among those who fled
the battlefield rather than courting death in defeat. By the following
year he was back in Rome. His father had died, and his estate had been
confiscated in reprisal for his support of Brutus.
Horace's immediate difficulties were solved by a job in Rome as a
records clerk and scribe. He began writing poetry. To judge from his
earliest poems, he saw a good deal of the dark underside of Roman
society. He also met and became friends with Vergil, later the author of
the Aeneid, and Varius, a prominent epic poet and tragedian whose
works have been lost. In 39 B.c. he met Vergil's patron Maecenas, a
wealthy and powerful adviser of Octavian. It was the beginning of a re-
lationship that lasted throughout his life. Around 33 B.C. Maecenas
gave Horace a small farm about twenty-five miles northeast of Rome.
This "Sabine farm" became a favorite retreat, and Horace repeatedly
celebrated it and the simple rural life it represented.

Horace's first publication was Book I of his Satires in 35 B.c. Book II
followed in 30 B.c. and the Epodes in 29 B.c. All these works are char-
acterized by racy diction, bohemian delight in wine and love affairs
(both homosexual and heterosexual), and frequent glimpses of the un-
savory aspects of life in the bustling, cynical, and corrupt city of Rome.
The Satires, however, show that Horace gradually changed. The tone of
the later satires is less sensational and more genial, and the suggestions
of frequent dissipation give way to an interest in the pleasures of the
simple life (II.z), the delights of the country in contrast to those of the
city (11.6, which includes the fable of the town mouse and the country
mouse), and the Stoic idea that only the philosopher is truly free (II.7).
Six years after the Epodes, in 23 B.c., Horace published three books
of Odes. These lyric poems are among the loveliest and most finished
lyrics in the Latin language. They treat various subjects, including love,
the fondness of poets for wine, the virtuous life, the brevity of life, the
ever-present shadow of death, and the greatness of Augustus and the
new Roman state. Running through them is a haunting sense of the
brevity of life. We must grasp the pleasures of life now because they
will soon be gone. Poetry not only laments the swift passage of time
but also celebrates those moments when life seems most real and most
By 23 B.C. Horace had become friends with Octavian, now Augustus
Caesar. Octavian was the great nephew and heir of Julius Caesar and
the final winner in the wars that began with Caesar's assassination in
44 B.c. Although he carefully preserved the fiction of the importance of
the Roman Senate, he had, in fact, become Rome's first emperor and
had thus established the form of government that would continue until
the fall of Rome. His assumption of the title "Augustus" ("Most
(_High") and his tacit encouragement of the cult of emperor-worship
were steps on the road to the imperial system.
The arts were enlisted in his program. Vergil's Aeneid contributed b
popularizing the myth that the Julian clan (gens Julia), to which Au
gustus was related, descended from Aeneas, who came to Italy after
escaping the massacre that followed the fall of Troy. Horace also cele-
brated the new order in lyrics (e.g., Odes, I.z, III._4 andat the request
of Augustus, in an official poem (Carmen..sculareL. celebrating the
"Secular Games" of 17 B.C. By dedicating a long verse epistle (II.i) on
poetry to Augustus he publicized the emperor's literary interests. In other
words, in spite of his protestations of love for tee simple life and rural

Ars Poetica by Horace


independence, Horace was a court poet dependent on the patronage of
Maecenas and Augustus.
He seems to have managed his duties well, although readers have
remarked on the fact that his official poems, and especially the Carmen
saeculare, are sometimes all-too-obviously official. They suggest that
even though Horace supported the new order of Augustus, he had deep
reservations about it.
In zo B.C. Horace turned from satires pure and simple to longer,
more thoughtful poems that he called epistless" or "letters." The second
book of Epistles, which appeared in 14 B.C., is especially interesting for
its extended treatment of the achievement of the "modern" Roman
poets in contrast to the "ancients" and its summary of the history of
drama (II.i). Horace also announces (II.z) that he has given up poetry
for philosophy. The announcement was premature. A fourth book of
Odes appeared in 13 B.c. This book concludes with a poem praising
Augustus as the bringer of virtue and peace.
The date of The Art of Poetry is uncertain. It has sometimes been
considered Horace's last poem, left incomplete, perhaps, at the time of
his death in 8 B.c., or, at any rate, his poetic last will and testament to
future generations. If so, the Pisos for whom it is written must be the
family of the Lucius Piso who was consul in 15 B.c. and returned to
Rome from a military campaign around 1o B.c. This is the identifica-
tion made by Porphyrion, one of the earliest annotators of Horace's
poetry. Many scholars, however, have preferred the Piso who was con-
sul in 23 B.C. Current opinion is divided. C.O. Brink (Prolegomena
[1963], 2.39-43) reviews several efforts to date the Art and concludes
that none is clearly superior to the others. G.M.A. Grube (The Greek
and Roman Critics [1965], 231) leans toward around zo B.c. Niall
Rudd (Epistles Book II and Epistle to the Pisones [1989], 19-2.0) argues
for around 1o B.C. Fortunately, the date is unimportant for those inter-
ested in the Art primarily in relation to criticism.
The genre of the Art is also sometimes questioned, although here
there is more agreement. It is in the same general form as the Epistles
and is thus, like them, a modified form of Horatian satire. The fact
that its treatment of literature is related to the treatment of literary
themes in the first epistle of Book II supports the idea that its Horatian
title was Epistle to the Pisos. Whatever else it does, the Art continues
to use the device that Horace had developed in his Satires-the satiric

Life and Work of Horace


Titles: Ars, satura, epistula

The usual title for the work is Ars Poetica. The term ars (Greek techne)
means something like "handbook" or "statement of the principles of."
Many ancient works titled ars are textbooks, as, for example, the Ars
Grammatica of Donatus. Ovid's Ars Amatoria uses the term ironically.
It is an "art of love"-that is, a "handbook of seduction." Other works
that can be considered "arts" are philosophical and sophisticated. Al-
though Aristotle's Poetics is not formally titled ars, it is most appropri-
ately considered a philosophical treatise-that is, an ars or techne-on
the principles of literary art.
The title Ars Poetica appears for the first time in the Institute of Ora-
tory of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian ("Preface," z; and VIII.3.6o)
about a century after Horace's death. It has encouraged readers to look
for the logical organization, systematic coverage of the major topics,
and combination of traditional theories with creative innovations that
one would expect from a treatise on poetry written by a great poet.
This understanding of the Art is implicit in the standard medieval title
for the work-Poetria, meaning, roughly, "poetry manual." Between
the sixteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century, the under-
standing of the work as a treatise hardened further. Readers tended to
interpret it as a set of rules governing all aspects of poetry. This under-
standing is reflected in the formal and logical organization of the poems
from the period that imitate it.
Roman tradition traces the term satire to satura-originally, a dish
of mixed ingredients and later, a loosely organized work in poetry, prose,
or a mixture of the two (Menippean satire) having a satiric, ironic, or
didactic intent. Horace's model was the Roman poet Lucilius (180-103
B.C.), who is supposed to have written thirty books of satires. Judging
from the fragments that have survived, they were roughly finished, lively,
and colloquial. Many of them are recognizably satiric in the sense of be-
ing denunciations of human vice and folly; others, however, do not
seem particularly satiric in this sense. They are chatty, descriptive, quasi-
dramatic vignettes of everyday life. Horace borrowed the dactylic hex-
ameter meter and an easygoing form from Lucilius. Surviving fragments
of Lucilius show that Horace also imitated, and in some cases para-
phrased, specific satires. There was probably a Lucilian model for the
Ars Poetica. Horace felt that although Lucilius was lively, his work-
manship was often crude. As he matured, he moved from the "muddy

Ars Poetica by Horace


stream" of Lucilius (Satires 1.10.50) toward a more polished style, but
he continued to honor the earlier poet and even compares his faults to
the occasional lapses in Homer.
The satires of Lucilius can be dialogues or monologues or straight-
forward descriptions of the passing scene, but they avoid formal organi-
zation. They move with the ebb and flow of conversation, the mood of
the speaker, and chance incidents. Throughout, the personality of the
speaker is important to the effect; or, to put the point more precisely,
the selection of materials and the ebb and flow of mood objectify quali-
ties of character. Horace felt that Lucilius was in the same tradition as
the writers of "Old Comedy" (Satires, 1.4.1-9). The obvious parallel is
the ridicule of vice and folly, but the dramatic form is also important.
To the degree that The Art of Poetry is in the Lucilian tradition, its
dramatic form and lack of clearcut logical organization are therefore
not accidental but direct consequences of its genre. This does not mean
that there is no organization under the apparently artless succession of
its topics. Horace, himself, agreed that the highest achievement of art is
to conceal art-ars celare artem.
Another term that Horace used to characterize his satires is sermones.
Sermo means "speech." The term calls attention to the fact that Hora-
tian satire avoids the formality of Vergilian verse and seeks instead the
tone of living speech. Frequently it uses dialogue, and when formal dia-
logue is not used, the speaker is usually understood to be addressing a
listener and interacting with him. As practiced by Lucilius (and in more
polished verse by Horace) the language of the sermo is like the collo-
quial speech of Roman comedy and is explicitly contrasted by Horace
(Satires I.10.30-40) to the elevated language of tragedy and epic.
In 23 B.C., Horace turned from satire to a closely related form that he
called "letters" or epistless" (epistulae). Like the satires that preceded
them, the "letters" are colloquial in tone, informal in organization, and
often humorous or ironic. Unlike the satires, they are longer, more
thoughtful, and more even tempered. However, there is still a clearly
identified speaker-supposed in the metaphor of "letters" to be ad-
dressing a correspondent-and the tone of the speaker's (or writer's)
voice remains central to the effect created. Much attention is given in
Book II of the Epistles to literary theory. The two poems in that book
are usually called "literary epistles," and they share many interests with
the Ars Poetica. The satirical edge of the first epistle in Book II is pro-
vided by the battle between admirers of older Roman authors and mod-

Life and Work of Horace


ern ones. Horace sees virtues on both sides of the argument. The old
writers were often noble but deficient in art. Much of the new, espe-
cially in drama, is cheap sensationalism. On the other hand, Vergil and
Varius (in the fields of epic and tragedy respectively) show the heights
to which the moderns can rise. As for Horace, he makes no claim to
elevated poetic status. He writes only "conversation pieces" (sermones)
"that crawl along the ground" (Epistles
The alternative title of The Art of Poetry is Epistula ad Pisones,
meaning "Letter to the Pisos." The Pisos are a father and two sons
who are directly addressed in the work and for whom it is supposed to
have been written. As noted during the discussion of the dating of the
Art, two families of Pisos, an earlier and a later one, have been pro-
posed, and there is no way of deciding for sure which is intended.
Probably Horace, himself, thought of the poem as an epistlee." The
term accurately identifies the generally serious and didactic quality of
the poem, even though it has its waspish moments, especially in the last
hundred or so lines. In terms of organization, although the poem seems
to flow without a clear master plan, the sequence of its topics is often
quite logical, and most commentators agree that it has a fairly well
defined three-part structure. In terms of style, it is in the tradition of
the sermo in that it uses a standard rather than a poetically elevated vo-
cabulary and often catches the living tones of colloquial speech. Whether
the protagonist is a "speaker" or "writer" of a letter is probably not
important, but for what the observation is worth, his relation to the
Pisos is so close that he seems to be speaking to them rather than
addressing them in a letter.

The social context of The Art of Poetry is a moment that has always
been recognized as pivotal in the history of Western culture. Between
the fifth and the first century B.C. Rome was a republic. True, it was
governed by a patrician class and it accepted slavery, but within limits
Romans could (and did) take pride in the fact that after the expulsion
of the Tarquin kings, they had participated in shaping their own des-
tiny. In the years before Horace's birth in 65 B.C. the republican order
began to disintegrate in a series of violent civil wars that ended with the
triumph of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Generally speaking, the republican
faction was conservative and patrician. It was unsympathetic to the


Ars Poetica by Horace

middle class, opposed to reform of an increasingly inequitable agricul-
tural system, and committed to preserving the authority of the Senate,
which was its power base. Its chief representative in the crucial period
around 44 B.c. was Marcus Junius Brutus. Ranged against the republi-
can party was what could be called a populist party, led until his assas-
sination by Julius Caesar and afterward by Octavian, Caesar's great-
nephew and heir. The populists called for economic and political reform
and greater representation of the middle class, but they were carried ir-
resistibly beyond political reform to revolution and from revolution to
the establishment of an absolutist government.
For conservative Romans, the victory of Caesar over his political and
military rivals was a tragedy. In the year of his triumph, 44 B.C., he was
assassinated by republican conspirators. As everyone knows who has
read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the conspirators were, in turn, defeated
at Phillipi in 42 B.c. by a pro-Caesar faction led by Mark Anthony and
Octavian. The brief peace that ensued was prelude to a new round of
civil wars that ended with the defeat of Anthony by Octavian at the
Battle of Actium in 31 B.c. At that point Octavian was the undisputed
ruler of the Mediterranean world. He was also the military strongman
of Rome.
Augustus brought peace, expansion, and economic prosperity. His
reign was, from one point of view, a golden age symbolized by the clos-
ing of the doors of the Temple of Janus in 29 B.C. (They were kept
open in time of war-cf. Odes IV.i5.8-9, Epistles 1.2.255.) But under
the surface, tensions remained. Was Rome a free society or a well-run,
extremely comfortable police state? Satirists claim in every age that the
old days were better. Were the old values of independence, moderation,
patriotism, and honor still valued in Augustan Rome, as the imperial
propaganda machine claimed, or were they being replaced by avarice,
the pursuit of power, and political manipulation?
Horace was the son of a freedman-a farmer and presumably a hard-
working, honest public official. He never ceased praising the simple
values of the country and contrasting them with the moral swamp of
Rome. He was, however, a poet not a farmer, and his readers were so-
phisticated city-dwellers, not farmers. For most of his adult life he was
dependent on the favor of patrons, including the Emperor. At the same
time he was exposing the vices of the city, he was forced by his position
to write propaganda celebrating the patriotism, piety, and honor of
Rome's citizens, including the very citizens who were gradually under-

Life and Work of Horace


mining such republican institutions as had survived Phillipi. Publicly
Horace lamented "civil strife" and praised the Emperor-how could he
do otherwise? But he had been born during the republic, and he had de-
fended it in the army of Brutus.
The dilemma must have been more wrenching because the case for the
republic was weak. The Senate had proved unable to rise above faction-
alism in times of crisis. The civil wars had been devastating. Augustus
had brought political unity and peace. Along with them, he had brought
new territories and immense wealth to Rome. Are not peace and pros-
perity worth the sacrifice of a political institution of dubious value?
A deep conflict is evident in all of Horace's poetry. He praises the
moderation of the old Romans and the simple delights of the country,
but at the same time he writes poems describing his drinking contests,
his enjoyment of fancy banquets, and his numerous love affairs. Carpe
diem-"seize the day"-is an important theme in his lyrics (see Odes
I.11.8). It implies that there are no higher values in life than the plea-
sures of the moment. The loss of belief in higher values-what has al-
ready been called Horace's skepticism-stems partly from philosophies
of doubt that were circulating in Horace's Rome, but it must have been
intensified by his repeatedly stated belief that Rome had sold out to the
pragmatists. There is a parallel between Horace's celebration of the
fleeting beauty of life and Wallace Stevens's insistence in Notes Toward
a Supreme Fiction that the poet must be in love with the world because
it is the only reality that humans can know. The parallel is obviously
unintentional. It is a corollary of the fact that both poets confront their
cultures at moments of crisis.
Like its age and its author, the Ars Poetica is ambivalent. It takes
with one hand what it offers with the other. The speaker, for example,
begins as a friendly and helpful member of the fraternity of poets. The
Pisos have asked for advice about writing poetry, and as a professional,
he will give it to them. Later, however, when the speaker considers the
abuses of poetry in Augustan Rome, he vows to give up poetry and be-
come a critic. At the same time, his tone changes from friendly to
angry. He complains of being besieged by incompetent would-be poets,
who, he says, are half-crazy and probably better off dead. The last im-
age in the poem is that of a bore who has attached himself to the
speaker like a bloodsucking leech. Is the speaker a genial mentor or an
angry victim? Does he believe in the future of Rome or does he want to
escape? Does he like the Pisos or consider them Philistines?

Ars Poetica by Horace


The ambivalence extends to the subjects treated. About three-fourths
of the long comment on the history of poetry is devoted to epic and
drama. Yet epic and drama are the two literary forms that Horace ex-
plicitly and repeatedly announced he would not write, while the forms
he often boasts of having domesticated into Roman poetry-satire and
lyric-are all but ignored. Commentators have suggested that Horace
emphasizes drama because the Pisos (or the oldest son) planned to write
a comedy (or a tragedy), but this is unpersuasive if only because the dis-
cussion treats epic as well as drama, and the discussion of drama in-
cludes Satyr Play along with comedy and tragedy.
A better explanation is suggested by the nature of the genres involved.
The genres preferred by Horace himself are personal rather than public.
The speaker in a typical satire is an outsider, a lonely critic or ridiculer
of the vices of the times. Although Horace used satire, especially in the
blander form of the epistle, to praise Augustus and the status quo, he is
constantly being drawn back to the position of outsider and critic of
things as they are. Lyric, Horace's other preferred genre, is not necessar-
ily an outsider's form, but it is personal and introverted. Even though
Horace wrote patriotic and moral lyrics, his typical themes are care
diem, wine, and erotic pleasure. Like the comments of the "outsider"
of satire, they are subversive of the official values professed by-among
others-Horace himself.
Both satire and Horatian-style lyric would probably have seemed ques-
tionable to a former consul of Augustan Rome like the elder Piso. On
the other hand, epic and drama are public and impersonal. Their for-
mulas are well established, and Horace gives a rich sampling of the
standard lore about them. Most important, epic and tragedy celebrate
the history of the state and comedy mirrors its civic life. Horace's friend
Vergil had shown how effective epic could be as propaganda for the re-
gime's official values. Tragedy could also present great moments in his-
tory and could be equally noble in style. Epic and tragedy could also be
understood as "useful" in the sense of teaching official morality. By
concentrating on public genres like epic and drama and downplaying
personal genres like satire and lyric, Horace's speaker is giving the Pisos
what they want.
Another example of ambivalence in The Art of Poetry is the treat-
ment of the ancient contrast, first explored in Plato's Ion, between in-
spiration and technique or "art." Roman criticism favored the idea that
the poet is at times possessed by a force more powerful than rational

Life and Work of Horace


calculation. Horace exclaimed of his Muse Melpomene (Odes IV.3),
"O you, who taught the swan to sing it is through you entirely
that I am pointed out as the singer of the Roman lyre That I
breathe out my songs and please, if I please, is your doing." He later
confessed of Apollo (Odes IV.6), "Phoebus inspired me; Phoebus gave
me the name and the art of poet." There are four references to the
Muse in The Art of Poetry (11. 83, 141, 323, 407), and there are also
references to the earliest poets as holy (1. 391) and as prophets (1. 400).
In spite of these references, Horace's Art emphasizes technique and
learning and says little about inspiration. In other words, whatever
Horace may have believed, the Art is an essentially rationalistic discus-
sion of poetry. The speaker not only fails to give much credit to the pos-
itive contribution of inspiration to poetic creation (including the creation
of Horace's odes) but suggests, like Socrates in the Ion, that poets who
claim to be inspired are probably drunk or crazy.
Is the speaker rejecting the idea of an essential, though mysterious,
source of true poetry? Or is he again giving the Pisos what they want-
"how to do it" formulas? If he is simply giving the Pisos what they
want, Horace's poem might be understood as a satire of the Philistine
attitudes toward art implicitly held by the Pisos.
These observations lead back to the fact that Horace's speaker is a
character-a persona. The root meaning of "persona" is "mask." The
speaker is different from the poet. He is involved in a specific dramatic
situation-he is speaking to the Pisos-and his attitude toward them
and their implicit responses to him influence what he says. He says little
about the genres that most interested Horace the poet. He is divided in
his own mind about his status as an artist and about the society in
which he lives, and he pointedly contrasts the artistic Greeks with the
money-grubbing Romans. As the poem moves forward, he seems in-
creasingly aware of his isolation from the society around him and in-
creasingly baffled as to what should be done about the fact. Poetry
civilizes, he says, but he vows to give up poetry in favor of criticism,
and in the last episode of the poem he seems to reject even the critic's
In other words, Horace's speaker is a complex, fully developed char-
acter like the "Chaucer" who is a pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales and
who is quite different from Chaucer the author. Yet the question of the
relationship between the speaker and Horace remains more elusive than
the relationship between Chaucer the pilgrim and Chaucer the author.

Ars Poetica by Horace


The psychological tensions exhibited by Horace's speaker are clearly
tensions experienced by Horace himself. We have already noted, for ex-
ample, that Horace was a veteran of Phillipi who wrote poems flatter-
ing the emperor; a praiser of the simple values of the countryside who
wrote for a sophisticated Roman audience; a propagandist for official
morality who expressed his skepticism about this morality by celebrating
dissipation; and a consummate artist who felt he lived in a society that
had little respect for art. Horace was, in short, a bundle of contra-
dictions, and in this respect he closely resembles the speaker in The Art
of Poetry.
One of the characteristics of the Art is that the speaker frequently
doubles back on himself, qualifying and sometimes apparently contra-
dicting statements almost as soon as he has made them. If the Art is
read as a treatise, such moments are confusing even though they can oc-
casionally be understood dialectically as the establishing of a position
followed by qualifications intended to soften it. Conversely, if the Art
is read as monologue intended to reveal the character of the speaker,
the continual vacillation can be understood as a way of objectifying
psychological ambivalence, or, alternately, a process of groping forward
through uncertainties by a dialectical method of statement and counter-
To preserve the distinction between poet and persona, in the com-
mentary that follows the poet-critic of the poem will be referred to as
"the speaker" rather than as "Horace."

Organization and Themes I: Decorum; "Fitting Together"
Opinions about the degree of organization of The Art of Poetry have
varied considerably over the centuries. If it is a satire in the tradition of
the Lucilian satura, there is no particular reason to look for formal or-
ganization. "There is a want of a system," wrote J. W. Duff (Literary
History [1928], 532), "[which is] fitting enough in what is half epis-
tolary, half didactic." G.M.A. Grube calls it "delightful but mystify-
ing," adding that the mystery arises from "the absence-or apparent
absence-of any systematic plan or structure" (The Greek and Roman
Critics [1965], 239-40).
On the other hand, even though The Art of Poetry does not seem to
be highly organized, important principles of organization may be con-
cealed under its surface. The apparent lack of organization is partly the

Life and Work of Horace


result of "gliding transitions," a term first used in 1906 by Paul Cauer,
which tend to conceal rather than emphasize the movement from one
topic to the next. Beneath the apparently free flow of ideas, Eduard
Norden felt he had discovered a two-part structure according to which
lines 1-294 are concerned with ars-the craft of poetry-while the re-
mainder of the poem is concerned with artifex-the nature of the poet.
More frequently, commentators have found a three-part structure in the
Art. This is the position taken by the most detailed of recent commen-
taries, C.O. Brink's Prolegomena to the Literary Epistles (1963) and the
Ars Poetica (1971), and it will be examined in more detail below.
One set of principles favored by early commentators was rhetorical.
The topics have been examined frequently, most explicitly, perhaps, by
George Fiske and Mary Grant (Cicero's "Orator" and Horace's "Ars
poetica" [1924]; Cicero's "De oratore" and Horace's "Ars poetica"
[1929]). The main divisions of ancient rhetoric are invention, organiza-
tion, and style. To these Cicero added a strong emphasis on the topic of
the training of the orator and an equal emphasis on decorum. Invention
(inventio) is developing the material; organization (dispositio; Horace
uses the term ordo) is presenting it in logical order; and style (elocutio)
is expressing it in effective language.
Decorum (Greek to prepon, Latin decorum) normally means "that
which is proper or becoming," as in Horace's famous observation "It is
sweet and proper to die for one's country" (Dulce et decorum est pro
patria mori). Decorum in this sense has moral overtones. Fiske and
Grant argue that in one way or another decorum enters every part of
Horace's Art from the introductory warning against mixing styles to
the comments on Greek and Roman drama that end on line 294. The
passage extending from line 295 to the end relates the standard rhetori-
cal topics of the role of natural talent (ingenium, natural, physis), train-
ing (exercitatio, melete), and knowledge doctrinea, episteme) in the
making of the orator to the making of the poet. Decorum is implicit in
this passage because it is concerned with appropriateness of moral char-
acter and experience. On the other hand, there are different concepts of
decorum. In general, Horace's concept was equated by Renaissance com-
mentators with the moral-rhetorical kind discussed by Cicero. However,
C. O. Brink argues that this concept is "a different thing altogether"
(Brink, Horace Poetry, 80) from the concept developed by Horace, which
emphasizes craftsmanship rather than moral values.
The late classical commentary of Porphyrion on The Art of Poetry

Ars Poetica by Horace


includes a famous remark that Horace used "not all but the most sig-
nificant" precepts in a treatise on poetry by a certain Neoptolemus
of Parium. Much has been made of the organizational scheme of Neo-
ptolemus, and that will be discussed below. The comment of Porphyrion
on line i of the Art may be even more important, but less has been
made of it. Porphyrion says that the first precept of Neoptolemus was
about consistency, for which he used the Greek word akolouthia-"going
with" (cf. Rudd, Epistles Book II and Epistle to the Pisones, 18). The
Greek term is close etymologically to the Latin term Horace often uses
for decorum-convenientia, which also means "going with" or "going
together" and is equivalent to the English "fitting." Neoptolemus ex-
plains further that the good poet adds "harmony" (harmonia) and "con-
tinuousness" or "coherence" (synecheia) to even the longest poems.
In Horace's Art, covenientia is the effect achieved by bringing things
together that are properly related either because they are related in nature
or because the principles of art establish their relationship. It is achieved
by craftsmanship-the conscious application of the rules of art to the
materials of art. The idea is drawn from crafts like carpentry that de-
pend for their success on the precise and elegant fitting of things to-
gether. A famous line in the Art refers to the overriding need for the art
work to be "simple and unified" (1. 23). When things "fit," the result
seems to a viewer to be "simple" and "unified," although the apparent
simplicity may in fact be the result of a complex process, in which "art
conceals art." A ship's hull, for example, looks simple, even inevitable,
to an untrained observer, but anyone who understands shipbuilding
knows how complex and elegant the shape actually is. A ship's hull is
also a pleasing shape, and the pleasure it gives is aesthetic, so that
workmanship and beauty seem related. Another term used in the Art
for the effect of elegant "fitting together" is "harmony." It is the term
used by Neoptolemus. Harmony is created by the proper fitting together
of musical notes. It is inherently pleasing, and in this sense it is a meta-
phor for the aesthetic pleasure that art gives along with its useful
The Art begins with examples of violation of decorum. Each is an
example of the disastrous result of "fitting together" two things that
conflict either in nature or art-a man's head and a horse's body (natu-
ral conflict), a cypress tree in a seascape (also natural conflict), fine
sculptural detail but poor overall plan (artistic conflict), and so forth.
These things are unpleasant and grotesque-they arouse laughter, which

Life and Work of Horace


is a response to "deformity," or abhorrence. Conversely, that which is
fitting is also pleasing. Later in the Art character is treated as the proper
"coming together" of circumstance (e.g., prosperous, tragic) and emo-
tion or of circumstance and status (e.g., age, sex). Later still, genre is
treated in terms of the proper "fitting together" of verse form (e.g.,
hexameter for epic) and subject (e.g., kings and generals), and, more
specifically, the "fitting" of the characteristics of a single verse form
(iambic trimeter) to the different conditions of tragedy and comedy.
Aesthetics enters the discussion of verse form and genre through ob-
servations that an improperly conceived character or verse form will
"put the audience to sleep" or arouse laughter or (in the case of the
characterization of Fauns) please the rabble but offend the educated.
Revision too is related to the process of "fitting together." The famous
advice to revise "to the fingernail" (ad unguem 1. 294) is based on a
metaphor from stoneworking. Acron, author of a late-classical com-
mentary on the Art, explains that stoneworkers tested the closeness of
the fit between two slabs of marble by trying to insert their fingernail in
the joint. If it could not be pushed between the slabs, the joint was
judged to be well made. Revision is thus like testing joints. Poetry is a
"fitting together" and its success is to be judged by how perfectly the
parts complement one another.
In sum, if decorum is a recurrent, perhaps a dominant theme in the
Art, it is made specific and given content by the concept of "fitting to-
gether" or convenientia. The concept is somewhat different in implica-
tion from decorum in the sense of "the seemly or the becoming," which
has moral overtones, and it appears to come from Neoptolemus. De-
corum in this sense has a good claim to being the theme that unifies the
first half (to 1. 294) of the Art.

Organization II: Grammar, Rhetoric
Much of the material that Horace offers on proper diction, usage, liter-
ary genres, the relation between genre and verse form, and characteris-
tics of iambic verse was discussed in ancient grammar. The section on
poetry of a full-scale ancient grammar like Diomedes's Three Books of
Grammar (Ars grammatica libri III; fourth century A.D.) was so detailed
that it was given its own special label-ars metrica ("art of meter").
The ars metrica included treatment of literary genres, the relation of

Ars Poetica by Horace


genre and verse form, the qualities of the standard meters, and the dif-
ferences between tragic and comic iambic verse in much the same way,
and in some cases in the same order, as Horace. Aristotle's Poetics shows
that the ars metrica was flourishing in Greece at the time the Poetics
was written, and two Greek treatises on the subject-by Hephaestion
and Aristides Quintilian-have survived. Grammar has not generally
been considered in relation to the Art, but in some areas the parallels
are striking.
Rhetoric has been much more thoroughly explored. Two and perhaps
three of the major divisions of rhetoric appear in the Art. Roughly the
first hundred lines of the Art are concerned with matters essentially
stylistic (elocutio). According to Fiske and Grant, the formal discussion
of organization (dispositio) is limited to 11. 40-44, but parts of the dis-
cussion of genre also deal with organization. Invention (inventio) is
treated explicitly in lines 38-41, but the topic is less easily defined than
either style or organization. Character, emotion, and meter in different
genres clearly relate to decorum but may also relate to poetic invention.
Fiske and Grant argue persuasively that imitation (119-52) should be
understood as a corollary of invention. The sections that relate to in-
vention are identified in the subheadings of the present commentary.
Niall Rudd (Epistles Book II and Epistle to the Pisones, zz) offers
one of the more ambitious applications of rhetoric to the analysis of the
Art. A standard topic of rhetoric was subject matter (res) and words
(verba). Cicero put these ideas into a formula for the training of an ora-
tor: copiousnesss of subject matter and language" (copia rerum ac ver-
borum). In Rudd's analysis the first third of the Art is a discussion of
these two topics. After an introductory comment on the need for unity
(11. 1-41), the Art settles down to a discussion of language (verba, 11.
48-118), followed by a discussion of "material" (res, 11. 119-52). A
discussion of drama follows (11. 153-294), and after that, a section on
"the poet."
Other standard rhetorical topics abound in the Art. Among them are
the idea of unity, the idea of stylistic virtues and their cognate vices, the
problem of pure diction (Latinitas), the concept of imitation in the
sense of "following the best models," the value to the orator (or poet)
of a solid grounding in philosophy, the usefulness of character stereo-
types like "male" and "female" and "young," "middle-aged" and
"old," and the social duty (officium) of the poet. C.O. Brink finds a

Life and Work of Horace


detailed parallel between the chapter on decorum in Aristotle's Rhetoric
(III.7) and the discussion of "appropriateness" in the Art (11. 89-118).
The parallel extends to the division of the subject in each work into
appropriateness in relation to (i) situation (Art, pp. 89-98), (z) emotion
(11. 99-107), and (3) character (11. o18-18). Taken with the rhetorical
topics mentioned earlier these instances confirm the pervasive influence
of rhetoric on the Art, though not, it should be stressed, the use of rhe-
torical concepts for its overall organization.
In general, rhetorical influence other than the idea of decorum is most
evident in the earlier sections of the Art (roughly, lines 42-71), the dis-
cussion on character (11. 153-78), the discussion of the "office" and
training of the poet (11. 304-60), and the problem of nature versus art
(11. 408-18). As for sources, the most often cited is Aristotle's Rhetoric.
It is, however, not clear that Horace knew this work firsthand, so the
claim for its influence is often qualified by the suggestion that there
were intermediary, usually Alexandrian, sources in which Aristotle's
rhetorical concepts were adapted to the discussion of poetry. Horace
undoubtedly studied many Greek rhetoricians during his stay in Athens.
However, rhetoric was studied intensely in the Roman schools, and
Horace certainly knew Cicero's rhetorical works well. Parallels between
the Art and Cicero's works, especially the Orator and the De oratore,
are easy to find. Does Horace owe his largest debt to Aristotle's Rhetoric
or to Alexandrian revisions or to Roman sources? The fact is that an-
cient rhetoric was standardized. Topics in one treatise appear in others.
Although it is often easy to decide when Horace is drawing on rhetorical
lore, it is often much harder to decide exactly where the lore comes

Neoptolemus of Parium
Consideration of Alexandrian influence on Horace reintroduces the sub-
ject of Neoptolemus of Parium. According to Porphyrion, Horace's Art
"incorporated the precepts of Neoptolemus of Parium about the
art of poetry, though not all of them but only the most striking."
Neoptolemus was known for centuries as a shadowy figure of the 3rd
century B.C. who wrote a book on poetry that presumably combined
some of Aristotle's ideas with theories of poetry common in Alexan-
dria. In 1918 the German scholar Christian Jensen published fragments


Ars Poetica by Horace

of a discussion of Neoptolemus in a papyrus of On Poems by Philode-
mus (fl. first century B.C.). According to these fragments, Neoptolemus
divided the treatment of poetry into three parts-poesis, poema, and
Since Jensen there have been many discussions of how (and if) this
triple division applies to Horace. Almost everyone agrees that the last
section of the Art (11. 295-476) treats "the poet." What about lines
1-294? Among recent scholars C.O. Brink and G.M.A. Grube believe
that these lines are divided into two sections more or less corresponding
to the first two divisions of Neoptolemeus. Conversely, Niall Rudd
(Epistles Book II and Epistle to the Pisones [1989]) rejects the theory of
Neoptolemus's influence, arguing that the Art is in two parts breaking
at line 294. Rudd adds, however, the suggestion that the first part in-
cludes two subdivisions based on the rhetorical distinction between
"words" and "things."
The simplest theory is that lines i-x18 treat poesis, by which is un-
derstood content, order, and style, and lines 119-294 treat poema, by
which is meant "genres." These divisions overlap the rhetorical divisions
already noted, including Rudd's division of parts of the first half of the
poem into verba and res. The overlap is not surprising. It is a by-
product of the conflation of poetic and rhetorical theory that was typi-
cal of Alexandrian literary scholarship and was, if anything, more em-
phatic in Roman than in Greek thought about literature.
Having summarized four systems of organization (Prolegomena, 31),
Brink concludes that the commonly accepted labels for the first two
topics should probably be reversed. His proposed outline is thus:

Introduction (Unity) 11. 1-41
Poema 42-118
Poesis 119-294
Poeta 294-476

This is as good a presentation of Horace's use of Neoptolemus of
Parium as is likely to be offered, short of new evidence. It will conclude
our summary of theories of large-scale organization. In sum, most
commentators favor a three-part structure, but there is by no means a
consensus that the Art falls logically into more than two parts, and
even those who argue for three parts disagree on what the labels of the
parts should be and where they begin and end.

Life and Work of Horace


Aristotle's Poetics

Since the mid-sixteenth century it has been recognized that many ideas
in Horace's Art are similar to ideas in Aristotle's Poetics. The question
has always been how similar. Did Horace know Aristotle's text or did
Aristotelian ideas find their way in much diluted and often distorted
forms into The Art of Poetry via Alexandrian criticism?
The consensus today is that Horace did not know the Poetics first-
hand and that the echoes of Aristotle in the Art come from Alexandrian
intermediaries, among whom Neoptolemus may well have been espe-
cially important. There is really no way, given present knowledge, to
improve on this conjecture. However, it will be helpful here to note
that the similarities between the Poetics and the Art include the idea of
unity, the difference between epics that seek unity by beginning "at the
beginning" and those that are truly unified, the importance of consis-
tency, the appropriateness of iambic meter for drama, the origin of
tragedy and comedy in rural festivals, and the need for the poet (or the
actor) to experience the emotions being represented in a play. Specifics
of the Aristotelian influence will be presented below as they occur. Some
passages in the Art are strikingly close to the Poetics; others are distant.
In general the examples of probable influence are clustered in the sec-
tion on literary genres (11. 119-284).
Differences between Aristotle and Horace should also be noted. Aris-
totle is systematic and deductive. He relates poetry to three factors-
means, method, and object of imitation. Horace has nothing like this.
Both Aristotle and Horace value imitation, but Aristotle's imitation is
best understood as "making plots," while Horace's is "following liter-
ary models," especially Greek models and "describing natural scenes."
Aristotle argues that the purpose of tragedy is to produce catharsis.
Horace argues that it is to "profit or delight" or to "mix utility with
sweetness." The similarities make it clear that whether the Aristotelian
influence was direct or indirect, it was important. The differences show
clearly that Horace was following a path quite different from that taken
by Aristotle.
The oldest manuscripts of The Art of Poetry are from the ninth cen-
tury. Thereafter numerous manuscripts survive, especially in France and
Germany. In spite of textual variants among the early manuscripts, the
key readings of the Art are fairly well established. A few emendations
are adopted in the present translation. These are identified in the notes.
For the most part, however, the present text is conservative.

Ars Poetica by Horace


Epigrammatic Comments

The Art has always been a mine of quotations about poetic art. Most
of these are effective in Latin but lose their flavor in English. Different
readers will be struck by different phrases, but the following, given in
Latin with English translation, are a sampling of the best known:

Line Latin English Translation

purpureus pannus
simplex duntaxet et unum
brevis esse labor, / obscurus fio

73 res gestae regumque ducumque et
tristia bella

o02 si vis me flere, dolendum esti
primum ipsi tibi
139 parturient montes, nascetur
ridiculous mus

147-48 ab ovo in medias res

268-69 Vos exemplaria Graeca/ nocturna
versate manu, versate diurna
309-10 Scribendi recte sapere est
principium et fons, rem tibi
Socraticae poterunt ostendere
333 aut prodesse volunt aut delectare

344 miscit utili dulci

bonus dormitat Homerus
ut picture poesis
mediocris esse poetis/ non
homines, non di, non concessere

471 minxerit in patriots cineres


"purple patch"
"simple and single"
"I try to be brief and become
"Histories of kings and generals
and the sorrows of war" (a
characterization of epic).
"If you want me to weep, you
must feel sorrow first."
"The mountains labor and bring
forth a ridiculous mouse." (To
describe inflated poetry.)
"From the beginning into
the middle of the action." (Alter-
nate ways to begin a long poem.)
"Review the Greek models night
and day."
"Knowing is the first principle and
fountainhead of writing well;/ The
writings of Socrates can teach the
matter to you."
"Poets strive to either profit or
delight." (Sometimes translated
"both profit and delight.")
"He [the poet] mixes the useful
with the sweet."
"Even Homer nods."
"A poem is like a picture."
"Not men nor gods nor the book-
sellers allow poets to be mediocre."

"He urinated on his father's


Life and Work of Horace



Lines 1-23: Simplicity and Unity
(Poetry as Description and as Imitation of Nature)

The Art begins with examples of failure of unity and sums up the con-
clusions to be drawn from the examples with a famous rule: "In short,
whatever kind of poem you are creating let it be simple and unified."
Two kinds of violation of this rule are mentioned-unnatural combina-
tions and ornamental digressions. The first kind violates conditions that
occur in the real world (nature); the second violates the rules of art.
Under the heading of "unnatural combinations" are a human head on
the neck of a horse and a lovely woman with the lower parts of a fish.
Both of these sound like allusions to myth. The horse-man recalls cen-
taurs and the fish-woman recalls both mermaids and the monster Scylla,
whose lower parts were those of a sea-serpent.
Mythology is rich in such images. What is wrong with them? The
answer is "nothing" except to someone who thinks they are fantastic
and unnatural. Horace's speaker is obviously this kind of a person. He
considers the images faulty because they are made up of disparate ele-
ments and thus are not "simple" in the special meaning of "homogene-
ous" that is appropriate to the rule offered on line 23 that poetry should
be "simple and unified."
The speaker offers two judgments. In the first place, reasonable men
will laugh at such images. He is recalling the idea, suggested in Aris-
totle's Poetics (V.i-8), that "the ridiculous is a subdivision of
deformity." The norm of reason appears frequently in the Art. It is al-
lied to the norm of nature and the natural and is opposed to the idea
that through poetic inspiration artists can depart from or rise above the
merely "natural." The emphasis of the Art on reason and nature helps
to explain its appeal during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,

often called the age of reason. The norm of reason also explains the
origin of humor. What reasonable men know is unnatural seems ridicu-
lous and calls forth laughter.
In the second place, composite images resemble "idle fancies shaped
by a sick man's dreams." Here the speaker is repeating the suggestion,
found as early as Plato's Ion, that myths and other fantastic inventions
of poets are not inspired visions but the result of delirium or drunken-
ness. They are not only laughable but symptoms of mental disorder.
Horace's speaker is clearly on Plato's side, even though Horace, himself,
endorsed the idea of inspiration in the Odes and suggested in Odes
III.25 that drunkenness can contribute to inspiration-presumably by
creating something like an "altered mental state."
The theory that a mental faculty called fancy (phantasia) collects im-
ages but that the images are jumbled until properly united by reason
underlies Plato's position. When reason is not in charge, as in dreams or
drunkenness or madness or a delirium caused by a fever, the images get
mixed up, with the result, for example, that a man's head can be joined
to a horse's body even though such a combination cannot occur in na-
ture. Lucretius states categorically (De rerum natural V.877-IoIo) that
such composite monsters cannot exist in nature. Centaurs and Scyllas-
fabulous creatures much like those evoked in Horace's opening lines-
are prime examples because "creatures with a double nature and a bi-
partite body created out of parts taken from different species cannot
be" (V. 877-80). A fabulous image is thus something unnatural and
lower than reason, not something supranatural and above reason.
In addition to calling for unity, the opening passage of the Art im-
plies that the poet should stick to the real world-that is, nature. It an-
ticipates the later advice that to please, fictions should be "close to
truth" (1. 338) and avoid monstrosities like a Lamia (serpent) giving
birth to a child. It also complements the final passage in the poem (11.
453-76), which is a satirical description of the excesses of a mad poet.
On line 9 the speaker anticipates objections to his argument. Have
not poets always been allowed to invent freely by poetic license? Poetic
license is a valid principle, but it does not extend to blatant contradic-
tions. Mixings of savage with tame or of one species with another go
too far and must be avoided. Quintilian cites the opening passage of the
Art in the Institute of Oratory (VIII.3.6o) when condemning mixtures
of style: "The vice [I am discussing] is like mixing sublime with hum-



ble things, old with new, and poetic with prosy-like the monster
Horace depicts in his book Ars poetica when he says, 'If you should
join a man's head .'"
A different and essentially rhetorical violation of unity occurs when
the poet is carried away by "noble beginnings and great promise." This
sort of mood can lead to rhetorical excess-to ornamental passages that
have no necessary relation to the work. They are identified as "purple
patches." "Purple" suggests royalty and thus elevation; "patch" sug-
gests something obviously different from the fabric to which it is at-
tached. The examples cited are elegant but digressive passages of descrip-
tion-a sketch of Diana's grove or of the Rhine River or a rainbow.
They recall the harmful effect on poetry of school exercises in formal
description (ekphrasis) and ornament. By corollary they identify the
speaker as an advocate of artistic restraint. In this respect, the position
taken in the Art in reference to poetry resembles the position of moder-
ate advocates of the "Attic" style of oratory in contrast to the highly
ornamental "Asiatic" style. The merits of the Attic and Asiatic styles
had been much discussed in Rome, with Cicero (Orator 23-32) and
Quintilian (Institute XII.Io.Iz-14) strongly defending the Attic style.
Two other examples follow: a painter who includes a cypress tree (a
symbol of mourning) in a picture of a sailor swimming from a sinking
ship, and a potter who begins to make a wine jar and ends with a
pitcher. The first probably refers to a painter of "votive pictures," which
were created as thanks to the gods for the event they depicted (in this
case, escape from a shipwreck). The second is more problematic. The
emphasis may be on size: the potter begins with a large project, an am-
phora, and ends with something anticlimactic-a small pitcher. More
probably, according to C.O. Brink, the reference is to function, as
though a blacksmith should begin to make a pump handle and end with
a crowbar. The first possibility suggests a poet who begins to write an
epic and settles for the story of a preliminary skirmish, the second, a
poet who begins to write an epic and settles for an elegant description
of the walls of a city. In either case something has happened to the art
work in the process of being created. It lacks unity because it began as
one thing and ended as another.
The concluding advice emphasizes two aesthetic criteria. The term
"simple" implies uniformity or homogeneity rather than lack of com-
plexity. A woman should be entirely female, and a tiger must not mate
with a lamb. "Unified" means that everything should fit together. Aris-


Ars Poetica by Horace

totle argues strongly for unity in Poetics VIII and defines it as a situation
in which "if any one part is transposed or removed, the whole will be
disordered and disunified" (VIII.zI-23). The idea obviously applies to
the cypress tree in the picture of the shipwreck. It can be removed
without loss; and, in fact, if it is removed, the picture will be improved.
Aristotle is thinking in the Poetics of unity of action. Horace's speaker
seems to have this description in mind throughout and thus to be con-
sidering rhetorical and stylistic elements in the art work. The similarity
of doctrine is significant, but the differences illustrate the danger of
reading too much Aristotelian influence into the Art. The point is evi-
dent in another way. The passage in question includes a sustained com-
parison between painting and poetry. The comparison is important for
the Art. It is loosely associated with the later observation (1. 361) "a
poem is like a picture," although that comment is not about style. A
poet who believes poetry is like painting will think of "imitation" in
terms of verbal descriptions of things that exist in the world rather than
action, and description is exactly what the examples given in lines 1-23
suggest the speaker has in mind.
"Unity" is a much favored word in twentieth-century criticism. The
opening passage of the Art has received considerable attention because
it deals with unity. Is this emphasis appropriate? That is, does Horace
or his speaker intend to make unity the basic rule for the entire Art? Or
is unity merely the first of a succession of topics treated-one desirable
trait among many? It is tempting to take the former position, but the
reader of the Art should recognize that the second has many supporters.
A corollary of this issue is the question of how unity is to be achieved.
Here the answer is a bit easier. The emphasis of the first twenty-three
lines is on reason and imitation of things as they are. It follows that
unity is achieved by the imitation of nature, which is always properly
"fitted together," and by the application of reason to composition,
which is the use of the rules of art to "fit together" things that are not
found in nature. Horace's poet is first and foremost a craftsman. If the
question is raised, "Craftsman of what?" the answer must be that the
Art will explain this as it proceeds. In any case, the concept of "fitting
together" is fundamental to the theory of art being developed.
A final word should be said about the speaker as he appears at the
beginning of the Art. He begins abruptly. The implication is that he has
been discussing artistic questions with the Pisos for so long that no pre-
liminaries are necessary. His tone is assured and superior. He is an au-



thority, and he is confident of his position. He also regards the Pisos as
members of his own circle. Like him they are "reasonable men," and he
knows they will laugh at the same things that amuse him. His com-
ments are pithy and flow easily. The only break in the stream comes
when he mentions poetic license. Poetic license conflicts with the norm
of reason. The speaker dismisses the problem with the observation that
even poetic license must be used in a reasonable way.

Lines 24-45: Rhetorical Unity; Organization
The discussion of unity is now extended to specifically rhetorical topics.
They are presented through examples of error-being deceived "by the
appearance of doing the right thing." An author seeks a desirable effect
and slips into an allied error: the poet who tries to be brief becomes
obscure; the poet who aims at an easy style becomes flat; the heroic
poet becomes bombastic. The speaker is drawing on the well-worn rhe-
torical topic of virtues of style and cognate vices. His examples include
all three of the styles normally discussed in rhetoric. "Smoothness" (1.
z6) is associated with the "middle" style, "grandeur" (1. z7) with the
"elevated" style, and "over-cautious" with the "plain" or "humble"
style. The topic had often been treated in similar terms in Roman
rhetoric-for example, in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (IV.5)-and
Horace had no difficulty adapting it to poetry.
A new quality-"wholeness"-enters the discussion in the reference
to the sculptor who is good at details but does not know how to deal
with the work as a whole (11. 34-35). The speaker remarks, "I would
no more want to be like that artist" than have attractive eyes but a
crooked nose. Again the emphasis is on elements that do not "fit to-
The section is followed by direct advice in the plural-evidently to
the Pisos. "Consider your talent," the speaker advises, "and choose a
subject fitted to it." If you do, you will find that style and organization
(ordo) follow easily. The latter remark is a "sliding transition." It refers
to the discussion of unity and also forward to the discussion of organi-
zation. As for the advice to relate subject to talent, it is best illustrated
by what later became the proverbial example of Vergil. Vergil began his
artistic career by writing the Eclogues about shepherds in a mostly
humble style, moved to the middle style of the Georgics, four poems

Ars Poetica by Horace


about farming, and only then attempted the elevated style and noble
subject matter of the Aeneid.
The speaker concentrates on subject-matter and observes that with
the right choice, clear organization (ordo) and pleasing style will fol-
low. Organization per se is confined to lines 42-45. In spite of the fact
that the subject usually received extended treatment in manuals of rhe-
toric, Horace's speaker is brief and general. His main point is that the
poet should say what is appropriate for the moment and avoid saying
everything at the beginning. Early commentators on the Art explained
that Vergil, for example, said little about Aeneas building ships in Book
III of the Aeneid, when the ships were actually being constructed, but
included a passage on the subject in Book IX in connection with the
burning of the ships by Turnus (Aeneid IX.77ff.). The oblique treat-
ment of organization is bound to disappoint anyone who wants to find
a disguised full-scale treatment of rhetoric in the Art. It does not lead
to a detailed comment on strategies of introducing, developing, and
ending a poem but to a change of subject from organization to style.

Lines 46-72: Diction
Style has been introduced by the separation of subject matter into "or-
ganization" and "pleasing style" (11. 40-41). The first aspect of "pleas-
ing style" is diction. This section is associated by Niall Rudd with the
verba part of the res et verba formula of rhetoric. It might just as well
be associated with grammar, since discussions of diction were a regular
part of full-scale ancient grammars.
Greek and Roman rhetoric was much concerned with what would
today be called usage. Among treatments that may be relevant to the
Art are those by Aristotle (Rhetoric III.z-8), Cicero (De oratore I49ff.),
and Varro (De lingua Latina 9). Should vocabulary be limited to cur-
rent words or should authors be allowed to revive old ones and coin
new ones by borrowing from other languages? The topic was considered
under the term Latinitas, meaning something like "pure Latinity." Ac-
cording to Varro, the foremost authority on the subject during Horace's
lifetime, good usage depends on nature, analogy, custom, and authority.
Nature is essentially what is correct according to characteristics of the
language. "Analogy" is what is correct according to variations on sim-
ple and direct expression permitted by the rules of grammar. "Custom"



is what is correct according to the way language is actually used by rea-
sonably well-educated speakers, including generally accepted variations
from nature and analogy. "Authority" is the authority given to certain
words because they have been used by great-hence authoritative-
authors. Words justified by authority include archaisms, neologisms
(coinages), and borrowings from foreign languages, which, for Latin,
means words taken from Greek. It was proverbial that "authority" to
innovate was granted freely to early writers. Later writers had less au-
thority and felt unable to experiment as freely as they wanted.
The speaker sympathizes with the moderns. The best strategy is to
use familiar words so skillfully that they seem fresh. However, if a new
word or a borrowing is essential, license (licentia, 1. 51) will be granted,
especially if the word is derived from Greek. Since the old writers-
Plautus, for example-were permitted to do this, moderns like Vergil
should have the same right. The speaker now enlarges the scope of the
comment. Addressing those who, apparently, oppose new terms, he ar-
gues that language is like a great tree that is constantly shedding and
renewing its leaves. The same is true of even the most impressive human
endeavors like creating a new port or draining swamps or straightening
the course of a river. All three of these allusions to public works have
been interpreted as references to projects undertaken by Augustus, but
there are historical inconsistencies in this interpretation. Probably the
allusions are simply to monumental human projects and have no spe-
cific reference. Even monumental projects are subject to time. Since lan-
guage is human, it, too, is constantly dying and renewing itself, and
usage (usus, 1. 71) is the final "law and norm" of speech.

Lines 73-98: Genre and Meter
There is now an abrupt move from style to meter, or, more properly, to
the relation between style, meter, and genre. A typical ancient grammar
had a well-defined progression from parts of speech and inflections to
stylistic matters, including diction, to poetry, beginning with meter.
The metrical section of an ancient grammar, the ars metrica, explained
the concept of a metrical foot, the regular meters and their uses, and the
irregular meters used in lyric stanzas.
The discussion usually included a brief note on the history of each
meter and explained which meters were appropriate for which genres.

Ars Poetica by Horace


This was not a matter only of convention. Certain meters were felt to
be intrinsically suited to certain purposes. The meter "created" the real-
ity objectified by the subject matter in the sense of making it emotion-
ally credible. This idea is a heritage of the time when poetry was asso-
ciated with music because it was sung. Homer and Vergil recall this
heritage when they begin their epics with a command to the Muse to
"sing." The underlying reason for the ancient association between music,
meter, and the constitutive power of poetry is the belief that specific
musical modes create specific psychological effects-Dorian music, for
example, makes listeners warlike while Lydian music makes them sen-
suous and erotic. Since it explains which meters are constitutive of which
subjects, the ars metrica is the key to making poetic realities convinc-
ing. Horace's speaker draws heavily on the lore of the ars metrica, and
he returns to it when considering the relation of iambic meter to drama
(11. zSff.). His position is based on decorum. A poem becomes excel-
lent when the right meter is "fitted" to the right subject and presented
in the right language.
The noblest of ancient meters was dactylic hexameter. This is the me-
ter used by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the speaker credits
him with having been the first to use it for epic. A classical dactylic
foot consists of one long and two short syllables (-'). The combination
is striking and also artificial-it is rare in everyday speech. Six feet in a
line create a hexameter. The speaker describes the subjects of epic poems
as "the exploits of kings and generals and the grim events of war."
Dactylic hexameter was considered intrinsically elevated and sonorous
and thus well adapted to objectifying these subjects. Aristotle called it
"the stateliest and most dignified meter" (Poetics, XXIV.z5).
A dactylic hexameter line linked with a shorter (pentameter) line was
used in antiquity for the kind of poem called elegy. Originally an elegy
was any poem sung to the accompaniment of the flute; in Latin litera-
ture, for example in Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus, it came to be iden-
tified with love poetry.
An iambic foot is one short followed by one long syllable ('-). It was
used in lines of six iambic feet in the bitter satires of the Greek poet
Archilochus (ca. 65o B.c.). Horace's speaker now compresses into a few
lines a long and complex history that is presented more clearly in Chap-
ter IV of Aristotle's Poetics and also, with more details, in Horace's Sa-
tires (I.io) and Epistles (II.z). Iambic meter was felt to be inherently
"conversational," and critics from Aristotle on were fond of remarking



that people use iambs in everyday speech without even being aware of
the fact. Since iambic meter was associated with satire and also re-
sembled everyday speech, it was used by the early writers of comedy.
Aristotle says that tragedy originally used trochaic meter, which was
also used by Satyr Plays, but changed to iambic because of the appro-
priateness of iambic meter for dialogue.
Of this considerable tradition, Horace's speaker notes three elements:
(i) iambic meter is used in both tragedy and comedy because it is suited
to dialogue; (z) it can be heard easily; and (3) it is "fit for action." Pre-
sumably the fact that iambic meter can be heard easily is related to the
fact that it does not distort normal speech patterns. Some early com-
mentators claim that its "beat" is strong and thus stands out in a din.
Being "fit for action" is a little less obvious. "Action" may be simply a
synonym for "acting" or "actions that occur in the course of a play."
Later, for example, the speaker remarks (1. 179) that the story of a play
is "either acted out on the stage or the acts are reported." If that mean-
ing is assumed, the phrase further develops the idea that iambic meter
sounds natural and is easy to understand in dialogue. Conversely, "ac-
tion" may be a reference to the Aristotelian idea that a drama is an im-
itation of an action (praxis) that is whole and has a beginning, middle,
and end. Aristotle calls iambic meter "actionlike" (praktikon, Poetics,
XXIV.4o). If this interpretation is correct, the speaker may be drawing
attention to the relationship between iambic meter, dialogue, and the
Aristotelian basis of drama in "action."
Drama is followed by lyric poetry, which is traditionally sung to the
lyre. It is interesting that the speaker couples "lyric poetry" with the in-
fluence of a Muse. The allusion may be conventional, but it appears to
admit the importance of something higher than reason in at least one
kind of poetry, which is also the kind of poetry cultivated by Horace.
Ancient lyrics were written in complex metrical forms. The initial list
of lyric topics shows that the speaker thinks first of ornate and formal
lyrics like those of Pindar (ca. 500 B.c.), whose poems celebrate athletic
contests and praise the gods. The speaker then moves on to love and
wine, themes common in later Greek poetry and common in the lyrics
written by Horace.
The summary of the ars metrica ends with a series of rhetorical ques-
tions that underscore its importance to a would-be Roman poet. The
key lesson is that meter and content are complementary. They are "fit-

Ars Poetica by Horace


ting" in the sense that they fit together in an expressive and aestheti-
cally pleasing way. This is another way of saying the poet must observe
a decorum of meter to be successful. The speaker remarks that if he has
not mastered this lesson he does not deserve the name of poet.
He adds an interesting and unanticipated observation. Nominally,
tragedy and comedy are in the same (iambic) verse form, but the form
is treated differently in the two genres. What is omitted from this com-
ment is a familiar tradition that comic verse is so colloquial and so
riddled with exceptions to metrical rules that it is close to everyday
speech (e.g., Cicero, Orator 184), whereas tragic verse, though keeping
to the norm of speech, is more formal in meter and in diction. The dif-
ference stems from the different subject matters of the two genres. Com-
edy treats the actions of low- and middle-class people, whereas tragedy
treats the actions and destinies, usually fatal, of kings and princes. The
story of Thyestes, who was tricked by Atreus into eating his own chil-
dren, is a prime example. On the other hand, the rule differentiating
comic and tragic verse cannot be applied mechanically. Comedy has its
serious moments and tragedy is occasionally close to prose. The names
Chremes, Telephus, and Peleus, who are mentioned here, appear in sev-
eral plays. They may be referring to stock characters rather than to a
specific drama. Surprisingly, he suggests that the moments when the
tragic character speaks simply may be the most affecting. He also al-
ludes playfully to the tendency of writers of tragic verse to inflate their
style by using long compound words. The allusion makes it clear that
the subject is still genre and meter rather than-say-style and emo-
tion. Sesquipedalia (1. 97) does not have six "feet" but with six sylla-
bles it comes amusingly close.
The lesson is summarized in a very important rule: "Let each style
keep the proper (decens) place allotted to it." Decens is related to deco-
rum. As noted, the root meaning of this word, in contrast to covenien-
tia, is "seemly." The idea seems to be that each style should "know its
place." The idea of "fitting" style to subject is implicit but the lan-
guage does not emphasize craftsmanship. We are closer here to Cicero's
view of decorum than to convenientia.
If the passage from which this excerpt is taken is reviewed, decorum
in both senses will be seen to run through it. The elements in the poem
that have been mentioned and that must "fit together" include word
choice, genre, subject matter, and meter. The relation of "fitting to-



gether" to the comments on unity at the beginning of the Art has al-
ready been noted. C.O. Brink remarks, "Among the basic axioms of
the Ars, decorum ranks second only in importance to the basic distinc-
tion between style and content" (Prolegomena, zz8). Perhaps the
"second only" phrase should be modified.
Brink considers the discussion of comedy and tragedy (11. 89-98) the
first part of a continuous discussion of decorum based directly or indi-
rectly on chapter 7 of Book III of Aristotle's Rhetoric. Taking this posi-
tion he reads the lines in question as a discussion of decorum based on
situation. The second subject is decorum of emotion (11. 99-107) and
the third, decorum of character (11. zo8-18). This linkage to Aristotle is
persuasive, but it requires lines 89-98 to be part of a "gliding transi-
tion" that carries forward the discussion of meter and genre while in-
troducing the new topic of decorum of situation. The reading seems
forced, and the position taken in the present commentary is that lines
89-98 are best understood as what they seem to be-a continuation of
the discussion of ideas drawn from the ars metrica. As noted above, the
playful reference to sesquipedalia (1. 98) seems to confirm the interpre-
tation. This does not, of course, deny that the lines in question relate to
the master topic of decorum or reject the idea that they are influenced
by the discussion of "decorum of situation" in Aristotle's Rhetoric.
They do relate to decorum, specifically to adjusting the "fitting together"
of a single verse form (iambic trimeter) with two different genres (com-
edy and tragedy).
There has been no need to comment on the attitude of Horace's
speaker since the introductory lines of the Art. He has remained self-
confident and authoritative. In the present section, a suggestion of de-
fensiveness enters the tone of his comments for the first time. The dis-
cussion of the ars metrica ends on a personal note. The speaker is no
longer discussing rules objectively and sharing his insights with listeners
who agree with him. Instead, he asks the listeners, and perhaps himself,
"If I do not understand these poetic forms, why should I be called
a poet? Why do I prefer to be ignorant rather than to learn?"
The shift of mood is subtle but it is clearly marked by the personal ref-
erence and the rhetorical question. It is reinforced by observations that
seem to undercut the very "laws" that have just been summarized: the
simplest style is often the most affecting in tragedy in spite of the eleva-
tion of the form, and artificial diction sesquipedaliann words) leads to
bombast, not elevation.

Ars Poetica by Horace


Lines 99-127: Emotion, Character, Invention
(Line Ii9: A New Section?)

The next few lines are a clear instance of "gliding transition." Discus-
sion of meter has introduced the subject of emotion. Presumably, care-
ful attention to meter gives a poem "beauty" (1. 99), which is a matter
of observing the rules of art. Something more personal is needed to be
"charming." To be charming is to captivate the audience, and to do
this, the poet must feel the emotions being portrayed: "If you wish me
to weep, you must feel sorrow yourself" (11. oz2-3). There is a similar-
ity between this advice and the advice given in Aristotle's Poetics that
"those are most persuasive who are involved in the emotions they im-
itate; for example one who is distressed conveys distress" (XVII.ii-zo).
There is also a more general parallel between the discussion of emotion
on the stage and the instructions in Aristotle's Rhetoric (II.i-ii) on
how the orator communicates emotion (Greek pathos) and the charac-
teristics of various kinds of emotion. Most important, here and below
there is the continuing parallel between the present material and Aristot-
le's chapter on decorum (Rhetoric, III.7).
The preceding interpretation seems straightforward, but it is compli-
cated by the fact that the speaker has begun by addressing the listeners
(or readers, presumably the Pisos) and then turns abruptly to address
"Telephus and Peleus," who have just been cited above (1. 96) to illus-
trate the fact that tragic verse can be simple-almost prose-and yet
still be affecting. The repetition of names emphasizes the transitional
nature of the passage but confuses the reader. The Pisos seem to have
disappeared. Is the speaker now giving indirect advice to those who will
act the parts of Telephus and Peleus?
He is, at any rate, discussing the "fitting together" of emotion and
circumstance, or, as Horace puts it, "fortune." Different circumstances
cause us to experience different emotions like joy or anger or grief, and
nature teaches us words appropriately fitted to our feelings. That is pre-
sumably how the poet invents emotionally convincing dialogue and how
actors find the proper emotions to pour into the words when they are
Consideration of emotion leads the speaker to the circumstances that
shape character and thus to the large and well defined topic of decorum
of character based on gifts of nature and of fortune. Here some back-
ground will be useful. The word "character" is so common in modern



English that we assume, almost without thought, that we understand
what it means. In fact, it is a complicated, mostly intuitive concept.
Today we would probably emphasize psychological conditioning if asked
to explain it. The Greeks and Romans took a different position. In Po-
etics XV Aristotle lists four requirements of character in tragedy. They
are first, that character be "good"; second, that it be "appropriate";
third, that it be "like"; and fourth, that it be "consistent."
The requirement of goodness is related to Aristotle's idea that tragedy
imitates "the better sort" of men and need not be examined further
here since the Art contains no echo of it. The requirement that char-
acter be "appropriate" is more pertinent. Aristotle's word in the Poetics
is "harmottonta," which is related to "harmony" and has the root
meaning of "well joined," as in a carpenter's joint. It is probably this
idea that is transmuted in Neoptolemus's remark about the need for
harmony in a poetic composition (see above, p. 35). The requirement
means that a "character" should be composed of traits that fit naturally
together, as the notes in a musical chord fit together to form a harmony.
The idea is the obverse of what Horace's speaker has in mind at the
beginning of the Art when he warns against unnatural "mixes" and
composites. Horace's speaker uses an overtly musical metaphor for the
idea (11. 112-13): if a character's words sound "discordant" (absona)
the audience will "scoff."
Greeks and Romans tended to understand character in terms of stan-
dardized groups of traits related to large general categories. Female char-
acter, for example, is different from male character. Old people are dif-
ferent from young people. Kings are different from merchants, who are
different from slaves. Categories are determined by nature or fortune.
Being young, for example, is a matter of nature, since everyone must
pass through youth. The specifics of one's life, however, are a matter of
fortune. "By fortune," says Aristotle, "I mean birth, wealth, power, and
their opposites-in fact, good fortune and ill fortune" (Rhetoric, II.iz).
Differences based on fortune include differences arising from geography
and race (Cretan versus Athenian, Gaul versus Roman), social status
(landowner versus beggar), profession (merchant versus sailor), ruling
passion (miser, jealous husband), chance events (matron, widow), and
the like.
In the Rhetoric (II.xz-i8; also III.7) Aristotle offers thumbnail
sketches of several general character types, and his pupil Theophrastus

Ars Poetica by Horace


invented a minor genre, the "character," which consists of sketches of
specific types, usually with a witty or mildly satirical edge and made up
essentially of lists of traits "appropriate" to the type being described.
Such "characters" became stock types in Greek and later in Roman
comedy. The speaker in the Art has this tradition in mind when he ad-
vises that the way a character speaks in a play must be consistent with
his "fortunes" and adds by way of illustration brief references (11. 114-
17) to the characters of gods, heroes, old men, young men, noble ladies,
a nurse, a merchant, an Assyrian, a Greek.
Aristotle notes in his discussion of character in the Poetics that a
character should be "like." The question has always been "Like what?"
The best explanation of the requirement is "like tradition" or "like
life." "Like tradition" means like the character as presented in standard
literary works. Penelope, for example, has a character that is well defined
in the Odyssey. Penelope in a play about the suitors should be like
Penelope in Homer. "Like life" means like people one knows. A Nea-
politan in a play, for example, should be like Neapolitans one has met.
Finally, there is the requirement that characters be consistent, which in-
cludes the suggestion that if they are inconsistent, they should be con-
sistently inconsistent.
We now encounter a problem in interpretation. Line 119 is consid-
ered by many commentators the beginning of a new section of the Art.
Typically, line 119 is identified as the transition from the section that
Neoptolemus of Parium considers poesis (or in Brink's reading, poema)
to the section on poema (or poesis). In plain language, the transition is
from a discussion of general rules-unity, decorum, and the like-to a
discussion of rules for specific genres.
This is not the position taken in the present commentary. The argu-
ment against regarding line x19 as the beginning of a new section is
that the discussion of general rules for character development that pre-
cedes line Ii9 leads directly to the discussion of how the poet should
follow the rules in lines 119-27. If this observation is valid, it strength-
ens the argument of Niall Rudd and others that the influence of Neop-
tolemus's three categories on the organization of the Art has been exag-
gerated. If a major transition is essential, it might be located at line
128, where there is a turn from character to plot, but this option is
weakened by a later passage (11. 153-78) that returns to characteriza-
tion. Alternately, a major transition might be located at line 179, where



there is a clear and emphatic turning from methods of creating plot and
character to drama as a genre. This section is a likely candidate for
Neoptolemus's poema if one is necessary.
The passage on character that begins on line 119 depends on and fol-
lows from the notions of appropriateness, likeness, and consistency. In
line II9 the poet is given an option: follow tradition or invent. The
poet (in this case, pretty clearly, the dramatist) who follows tradition is
advised to stick to the characters as they have been established in earlier
literature. This is an echo of Aristotle's requirement that characters be
"like" the traditions established for them in earlier literature. A list of
famous personages from Homer and mythology is included: Achilles,
Medea, Ino, Ixion, Io, Orestes. Conversely, the poet who decides to in-
vent is told to make his characters "self-consistent." The requirement
echoes Aristotle's fourth requirement (consistency) and is related to the
general emphasis of the Art on decorum. The idea is so important that
it is repeated at the end of the passage (1. 127). No further advice is
given, however, on the specifics of invention.

Lines 128-52: Invention versus Imitation
("Common Themes" and Universals)
Again there is something like a gliding transition. The discussion of tra-
ditional versus invented characters leads to the traditional versus the in-
vented plot. Aristotle discusses invented plots in chapter IX of the Poet-
ics. Poetry is "more philosophical than history" because it is concerned
with universals rather than specifics. It can therefore create probable
plots and assign names at will to the agents (the figures who act out the
plot). This happens regularly in comedy, where the plots are freely in-
vented and the agents are given "any names that happen to occur" to the
poets. In tragedy the standard practice is to use a few well-known char-
acters and myths, but there is no objection in principle to a purely fic-
tional tragedy. Aristotle illustrates the point by citing the Antheus of
Agathon, an entirely fictional tragedy.
There is a distant echo of this line of reasoning in the Art. The speaker
remarks that "it is difficult to treat common themes in one's own way."
"Common themes" (communia) is notoriously ambiguous. Does it mean
"community property" or (as the Ars puts it) "public material" (1.
13I)--that is, the myths that everybody uses? Evidently not, since the
next clause suggests that to escape from "common themes," the poet

Ars Poetica by Horace


can write about Troy, which is, of course, at the center of the "public"
mythological material. What are "common themes" then? The best an-
swer is that "common" means "universal." The speaker is saying that
it is difficult to create plots based on universals-that is, fictional plots-
and that it is much easier to write about the standard mythological top-
ics. The term "universal" (Greek katholou) comes directly or indirectly
from chapter IX of the Poetics. According to Horace's speaker, because
of the difficulty of treating "common themes," the best formula for lit-
erary success is to treat well-known myths in new ways but to avoid
imitation so close to the original that it is almost word-for-word trans-
The background here would seem to be the contrast between free and
slavish imitation, and it is made relevant by the fact that earlier Roman
poets imitated Greek originals so closely that their compositions were
often essentially free translations. Their motive was to supply Latin lit-
erature with works as rich as those available to the Greeks. They were
determined to transform Roman culture, and copying seemed to be ac-
ceptable in view of the urgency of the task. In more or less the same
way, sixteenth-century English humanists undertook wholesale transla-
tions from Latin and Italian originals in order to enrich English culture.
By Horace's time, however, the limits of imitation by copying were ap-
parent. Vergil's Aeneid is the prime example of a work that "imitates"
Homeric originals while, at the same time, remaining uniquely Roman
and uniquely Vergilian.
Imitation in this sense is a compromise between following a model
closely and inventing from whole cloth. Variations on the model's style
or plot or list of characters or on the characters themselves require a cer-
tain degree of free invention.
The passage continues with illustrations of how to imitate while being
original (in contrast to invention based entirely on "common themes").
It incorporates an Aristotelian precept from Poetics VIII: do not write
your story "from the beginning." Concentrate instead on a single action
and bring in other material later. Like Aristotle (again Poetics VIII), the
Art cites the "cyclic poets" who wrote about the fall of Troy. It is clear
that before and after Homer there were numerous epics that, put to-
gether, formed an informal "cycle" that told the whole story of the fall
of Troy. In a similar way there are "cycles" of medieval stories and
poems about King Arthur and "cycles" of folk ballads about the border
wars between England and Scotland.



Aristotle's and Horace's speakers agree that unlike Homer, the cyclic
poets began their stories at the beginning and promised to tell every-
thing. A "cyclic" first line that includes Priam, his fate, and the whole
Trojan War is contrasted by the speaker with a Latin translation of the
first two lines of the Odyssey, which promise only a recounting of the
travels of Ulysses after Troy's fall. A good beginning, he says, is like
light shining in the darkness. Homer's beginning is modest (thus a kind
of darkness), but it is the prelude to fabulous and wonderful stories (the
The speaker cites the story of Scylla to illustrate fabulous stories. It is
an odd choice in view of the warning at the beginning of the Art against
"mixed" images like a woman with a fish's extremities. In spite of the
fact that such images are apparently part of the "light" shining from
the heart of Homer's poems, the speaker does not seem to approve of
them. He calls them "specious miracles" speciosaa miracula, 1. 144),
which is hardly complimentary. One justification for them may be that
in a primitive work-and Homer is to a degree primitive in spite of his
brilliance-fabulous monsters are acceptable in the same way that
witches are acceptable in fairy tales but would be out of place in a real-
istic novel. At any rate, the fact that Homer conceals his "light" at the
beginning returns the speaker to the subject of organization. The poet
should not follow chronological order. If he is treating the material of
Troy, he should not begin from the twin egg out of which Helen of
Troy was born (ab ovo, 1. 147) but should enter into the middle of the
action (in medias res, 1. 148).
The "twin egg" recalls the story that Leda was seduced by Zeus, who
came to her in the form of a swan, and gave birth to an egg from which
Helen appeared on the one hand and Castor and Polydeuces on the
other. The myth symbolizes the temptation to push back the beginning
of a story to its remotest beginnings. It is better to enter "into the mid-
dle of things." Homer does not tell the whole story of the fall of Troy,
only the part of it related to "the wrath of Achilles." Likewise, his Od-
yssey begins with a Ulysses who has already been wandering for nine
years after the fall of Troy and has been washed up on Calypso's island.
In the same way Vergil's Aeneid begins with Aeneas and his crew washed
up on the shores of Carthage. Largely because Horace's advice had be-
come almost a law of epic by the seventeenth century, Milton began
Paradise Lost with the bad angels in hell and only later (in Books V and


Ars Poetica by Horace

VI) does he have the angel Raphael tell how the bad angels were ex-
pelled from heaven.
We move from methods of beginning to the invention of episodes.
Creating new variations on old stories and shaping the result into effec-
tive plots require "mixing the false with the true." Presumably the
speaker means by "the false" what a poet adds to a received myth. It is
"false" because it is not recorded in the source. In much the same way,
Shakespeare invented Falstaff and added him to the English history that
is presented in Henry IV, Part I. The process is called "lying" (1. 151).
Plato had complained that poets lie, and this is one reason he banished
them from his republic. Horace's speaker treats the process as a virtue.
"Lying" here means something like "composing fiction." Aristotle had
already offered more or less the same answer to Plato and even remarks
at one point that Homer taught later poets the art of skillful lying (Po-
etics XXIV.65-70). Aristotle is also recalled (Poetics VII.i-io) in the
observation that the skillful poet will produce a work with a beginning,
middle, and end. Horace's speaker notes that the three should be blended
together and not be "discordant." The reference recalls the early injunc-
tions to avoid unnatural mixtures and to seek that which is "simple
and unified." The ultimate source, doubtless modified by Alexandrian
intermediaries, may be the rule that the beginning, middle, and end of
any work should be related by probability or necessity (Poetics VII).

Lines 153-78: Character: Four Ages of Man
The Art now returns to an earlier topic-character. To be successful,
the dramatic poet must make the speech of each character appropriate
in the sense of well fitted to the character's status. Here "appropriate-
ness" is specifically identified with decorum (1. 157), and status is in-
terpreted in terms of age. Four characters typifying four ages of man
(child, youth, mature man, old man) are sketched. Similar sketches are
common in Greek and Roman rhetoric beginning with chapters 12-I4
of the second book of Aristotle's Rhetoric, and the tradition was still
sufficiently lively in the sixteenth century to produce the well-known
speech on "the seven ages of man" by Jaques in Shakespeare's As You
Like It. The present sketches consist essentially of lists of related ("well-
fitted") traits that are associated with each general character type de-
scribed. They are skillful, although they do not improve on the sketches



of the three (or four) ages in Aristotle's Rhetoric and other ancient
sources. The main problem is that they seem to add nothing to what
has already been said about character (11. 1xx-30). Why are they added
One difference between the present sketches and those given earlier
(11. IIz-30) is the distinction between "traits based on nature," which
are independent of the circumstances of the individual's life, and those
based on "fortune," which vary with each individual's experiences. Here
the emphasis is on nature. Everyone who is born goes through "youth,"
and anyone who lives long enough will experience "old age." The ini-
tial discussion of character included the option of inventing or follow-
ing tradition. Since tradition supplies specifics about characters who
appear in myths (e.g., Penelope was faithful; Achilles was temperamen-
tal and had a vulnerable heel), it allows characterization based on "gifts
of fortune." Since "gifts of nature" are independent of fortune, they
are like "common themes" and permit invention independent of tradi-
tion. If this line of analysis is valid, the discussion of the ages of man
completes the topic of inventing characters introduced on line 119.

Lines 179-94: Characteristics and History of Drama
Over one hundred lines are devoted to drama. The sheer quantity of
this material in comparison to the Art as a whole has led commentators
to ask whether it is not included because the Pisos were especially inter-
ested in writing plays. This is possible, of course, but there is no way of
knowing. All that we know from the Art is that they wanted advice
about poetry in general. An odd aspect of this section on drama, how-
ever, is that in spite of its length and detail, it is devoted to a literary
genre that Horace never cultivated, although he undoubtedly enjoyed
going to plays and was pleased by the success of his friend Varius as a
tragedian. Odder still is the long comment to the Pisos (11. 234-50)
implying that the speaker takes seriously the idea of writing a Satyr
Play. If additional evidence were needed of the difference between Hor-
ace the poet and the speaker of the Ars this passage would supply it.
There is not a shred of evidence anywhere else in his work that Horace
was interested in writing Satyr Plays; and, in fact, the form was almost
totally ignored by Augustan authors.
Most of the information included in the section on drama is handbook
material. A good deal of it goes back in one way or another to Aristot-


Ars Poetica by Horace

le's Poetics, but here as elsewhere it has been modified by intermediate
sources. Some of these are close in time to Aristotle, including Aristotle's
own treatise "On Poets." Others are doubtless Alexandrian, including
Neoptolemus of Parium. Direct Roman sources such as Varro's On Poets
are also relevant, since much of the passage is concerned with specifically
Roman dramatic forms. In sum, the passage is a mosaic of mostly stan-
dard information. This does not mean it is insignificant. No extant
Roman discussion of drama before Horace is as comprehensive.

Lines 195-zoI: Various Tragic Rules
The passage begins with a tragic convention: Scenes of horror and of
magic are narrated rather than acted out on the stage. The convention
stems from the feeling that cruel and bloody events like Medea's murder
of her children or Oedipus's self-blinding should be hidden from the
audience. It is ironic that at the time tragedies were avoiding public vio-
lence, spectacles in the Roman arena involving mortal combat of gladia-
tors and wild animals attacking humans were gaining popularity, but
Horace's speaker has nothing to say on this score. Seneca (d. A.D. 65)
observed the convention of offstage violence in his tragedies, and it be-
came standard in neoclassical tragedy as written, for example, by Cor-
neille and Racine. It is strikingly ignored in Shakespearean tragedy, in,
for example, the assassination scene in Julius Caesar and the blinding
scene in King Lear. In twentieth-century film and television, gratuitous
and graphic violence is the rule rather than the exception. Refusal to
stage magic scenes like the transformation of Procne into a nightingale
may reflect the dislike, evident at the beginning of the Art, for mixing
human and animal elements. However, the passage may be influenced
less by feelings of propriety than by the difficulty of managing the effect
onstage and the risk that a poor showing would be ludicrous.
Other rules are listed: plays should be five acts; the temptation to re-
solve the action by having a "god from a machine" intervene at the end
should be avoided; no more than three speaking characters should be on
the stage at one time. The list is miscellaneous. No principle unites the
three rules. They are not explained but baldly asserted. A determined
commentator might trace the five-act rule to a convention beginning
with Aristotle's suggestion in Poetics VII that a tragedy should be rea-
sonably compact ("have a certain magnitude") and add to this his dis-
cussion of the "quantitative parts" of drama (Poetics XII). However,



the fact is that the five-act rule is late in Greek tradition and only in-
termittently valid for earlier Roman drama. It is observed by Seneca,
who wrote after Horace, and it became a rule amounting to law for
neoclassical drama. Whether Shakespeare observed it or not is a matter
of dispute (the editions of the plays printed before 1623 usually have no
act divisions); in general, however, his plays divide into five units, and
most of the plays in the First Folio of 1623 are so divided. This evi-
dence suggests that Horace's Art was a primary influence in establishing
five acts as the normal length of a play.
The "god from the machine" rule can be traced quite specifically to
Aristotle's insistence that in the best tragedies events are controlled from
"within the plot" and should follow each other according to probabil-
ity and necessity, a condition that is violated by divine intervention, as
happens in the tragedy Medea (Poetics XV.z5-35). The three-character
rule is a reminiscence of an often-repeated tradition that Thespis in-
vented the tragic protagonist, Aeschylus added a second character (mak-
ing true dialogue possible), and Sophocles added a third, bringing trag-
edy, as Aristotle remarks (Poetics 4), to "its [proper] magnitude." The
meaning of the rule is not that only three characters can be in the
play-all extant Greek tragedies have more than three characters. It is,
rather, that no more than three characters can have speaking parts in a
given scene, although more can be onstage.
The chorus now catches the attention of Horace's speaker. Roman
comedies no longer included a chorus. Tragedy, however, retained it.
Ancient critics believed, probably rightly, that tragedy developed out of
choral liturgies and that the chorus was older than drama itself. When
drama had emerged, there was initially only one character, who carried
on an antiphonal dialogue with the chorus. In the tragedies of Aeschy-
lus, where two actors can be onstage at the same time, the chorus re-
mains important and often speaks directly to one of the characters. In
general, the early chorus speaks in passionate lyric tones and is deeply-
almost liturgically-involved in the action.
Gradually the chorus was rationalized. Horace's speaker lists typical
roles it played in later tragedy: giving advice, praising goodness, express-
ing shock over evil and grief over suffering, praying to the gods for sal-
vation of the protagonist or of the city. His main point is that the
chorus should behave like an actor, which is exactly the point made by
Aristotle near the end of Poetics XVIII: "It is necessary to consider the

Ars Poetica by Horace


chorus as one of the actors and as an integral part of the drama." Aris-
totle goes on to observe that the chorus is often superfluous and that
choral songs are often inserted arbitrarily. The advice may be recalled in
the remark by Horace's speaker that the chorus should not "sing" any-
thing between acts that is not related to the plot.

Lines zoz-19: Music
Mention of the chorus leads to the music that accompanied it. The
comments here are partly historical, but the history is heavily influenced
by the speaker's moral attitudes. Although historically the choruses of
the earliest tragedies to survive (those written by Aeschylus) are any-
thing but plain in diction, the speaker implies that florid diction and
elaborate lyricism were late developments and associated with moral
decline. Music reflects this situation. A sober and restrained form of
music is "fitted to" a sober and restrained audience. A loud and florid
music is "fitted to" a drunken and unruly audience and an inflated liter-
ary style. Associated with the decadent phase of drama are singers who
move over the stage in fancy robes and actors who speak in proverbs
and Delphic prophecies (11. z 5-18). Of interest in relation to the speak-
er's attitude toward the Augustan age is the fact that one of the causes
of moral decline is said to be expansion by "a conquering race" (1.
zo8). Nominally the topic is early Greek drama, but the parallel to
Augustan Rome is obvious and reinforced by the many references in
Horace's satires to the decadence of Roman life.
Again, the speaker deserves attention. He is becoming less detached
from his subject-less the friendly, self-assured mentor-and more in-
volved in what he is describing. His history of drama is the story of
movement from a morally upright rural community to an urban society
more interested in drinking and "luxurious movement" (1. 214) than in
serious drama. Neither Horace nor his speaker seem to have been anti-
imperialists, but military expansion is explicitly cited (1. zo8) as one of
the factors that led to social corruption. As society became corrupt,
drama followed, becoming loud, vulgar, and pretentious. Thus art,
which is properly a civilizing force, became another means of spreading
the general blight. The comments are about Greek drama, but the tone
of moral judgment is the speaker's. He is an outsider peering in at so-
ciety and unhappy with what he sees.



Lines 2zo-50: Satyr Play
The discussion of music is followed by a summary of the rise of the
Satyr Play from village festivals. Aristotle includes some of the same
details in Poetics IV.
The etymology of "tragedy" is tragos ("goat") and ode ("song").
The term is said to have originated because in village dramatic competi-
tions the winning poet was awarded a goat as the prize. Horace's speaker
associates these contests with Satyrs, and hence with comic raillery,
rowdy behavior, and drunkenness. The short, generally rowdy form of
drama known as "Satyr Play" was thought to be a remnant of this
stage of the history of drama. A Satyr Play was regularly presented at
the Greek dramatic festivals after three tragedies. Although the form
was popular, only one complete example has survived, The Cyclops by
Euripides. It was a minor, almost insignificant form in Rome. The early
commentator Acron says that a writer named Pomponius wrote Satyr
Plays, but the reference may be erroneous, and at any rate no Roman
Satyr Play has survived. A typical Satyr Play included comic and serious
elements. Roles were assigned to gods and heroes, and Horace's speaker
warns that they should be treated respectfully and not degraded. Ac-
cording to Aristotle and other ancient historians of drama, the Satyr
Play was a stage in the development of tragedy. Aristotle (Poetics IV)
says that it used brief plots, absurd diction, and trochaic verse-a form
more suited to dance than to speech. Horace's speaker agrees that tragedy
had to separate itself from the Satyr Play's "trivial verses" (1. 231) in
order to achieve its proper stature.
Having said all this, the speaker turns back to Satyr Plays as though
they were the stock-in-trade of the Roman dramatist. Addressing the
Pisos, he announces that if he writes a Satyr Play (implying that he very
well might) he will use somewhat elevated diction, will differentiate in
his dialogue between speakers who are essentially comic, like the stock
characters Davus and Simo, and speakers who are noble or divine, like
Silenus, the father of the Satyrs and, as the allusion to his having a di-
vine charge recalls (1. 239), guardian of the young Dionysus. Silenus is a
character in The Cyclops by Euripides. The play itself is brief and com-
bines serious moments with the grotesque drunkenness of Polyphemus.
Even when writing a Satyr Play, says the speaker, he will follow the
rule of decorum. For example, a Faun (i.e., a forest-bred Satyr) will not
behave like a city-bred punk. Even though the lower classes like crude

Ars Poetica by Horace



behavior, better-educated spectators find it offensive. The idea that only
the few are competent judges of art is implicit in much of the Art. It is,
in fact, the unstated assumption behind the relationship between the
speaker and the Pisos. It becomes overt here and later in the poem.

Lines 251-74: Versification; Iambic Trimeter

The speaker moves on to the verse form of comedy and tragedy. As we
have already learned (11. 8o-8z), the basic form is the iamb. Ancient
dramatic verse was regarded as "dipodal." That is, two iambs were
considered to make one foot. There were six iambs in a standard line of
dramatic dialogue, so it was called "iambic trimeter"-three units of
two iambs each. On the other hand the ictus occurs six times in an
iambic trimeter line. (To make things more complicated, Romans, in
contrast to Greeks, sometimes considered the trimeter line a line of six
iambic feet called a senarius.)
Another feature of dramatic verse is that substitution was allowed in
the predominantly iambic pattern. Very liberal substitution was allowed
in the comic line-so much so that the line written by the Roman
comic dramatist Terence was called by the grammarian Priscian "al-
most indistinguishable from prose." This line was thought to be close
to colloquial speech and hence appropriate to the lower- and middle-
class characters featured in ancient comedy. Substitution was also per-
mitted in the tragic line. However, since tragedy is more elevated than
comedy and features gods, heroes, and monarchs, its line should be
more formal. The substitution of a spondee (two long syllables: --) for
the first, third, or fifth iamb was considered "weighty" and therefore
appropriate for tragedy.
Horace's speaker summarizes all of this lore (11. 251-58) and relates
it to the work of the two most famous of the older Roman tragedians.
Accius (d. ca. 86 B.C.) wrote "noble" lines but seldom substituted a
spondee. Ennius (d. 169 B.c.) wrote bombastic and careless verses. We
never learn whether or not Ennius used spondees, but his carelessness
leads the speaker to note that so many Romans are indifferent to pros-
ody, Roman poets can be careless without fear of criticism. This makes
him indignant and leads to rhetorical questions directed to the Pisos.
"Should I do slipshod work, he says, merely because nobody will notice
it?" The answer is obvious.


Turning to the Pisos, he advises them to study Greek models "night
and day" (1. 269). The line is famous and is usually misunderstood. It
is not a call for full-scale imitation of Greek literary forms. Although
the speaker approves imitation of these forms and calls later (1. 310) for
the study of Greek philosophy, the present line urges imitation of Greek
versification, especially dramatic versification. Plautus, who wrote com-
edies (d. I84 B.c.), was among the most popular of all Roman writers.
The Pisos claim (or the speaker thinks they will claim) that what was
good enough for Plautus is good enough for them. Unfortunately, Plau-
tus does not measure up. His wit is coarse and, more to the point, his
verse is slipshod-an allusion to the freedom of comic versification.
The speaker again becomes a part of the statement. He explicitly criti-
cizes the Romans for their indifference to artistry (in this case, artistic
prosody). A defensive note can be heard in his rhetorical question about
doing slipshod work. The comment calls attention to the indifference of
most Romans to the effort of the artist on their behalf. Given this sit-
uation, it is understandable that the speaker should need to reassure
himself that the Pisos, at least, agree with him.

Lines 275-94: Tragedy and Comedy; Roman Poets
There follows a curiously brief comment on the development of tragedy
and comedy. Thespis (fl. 6th c. B.c.) is said to have invented tragedy
when he changed the leader of the Dionysian chorus into an historical
hero and, by extension, the liturgy of the god into plot about the hero's
mythic or historical deeds. Horace's speaker implies this in the reference
to discovering "the tragic Muse" (1. 275), but he concentrates on the
tradition that the original Thespians carried their plays about on wag-
ons and performed with their faces smeared with wine-lees. The latter
detail, odd to a modern reader, depends on a false etymology of "trag-
edy" from truges ("wine-lees") and ode ("song").
Next in the tragic line comes Aeschylus. Aristotle (Poetics IV) notes
that Aeschylus added a second actor, making true dialogue possible and
reducing the importance of the chorus. Horace's speaker ignores the
second actor and the chorus but mentions other innovations: the tragic
mask, the flowing tragic robe (Greek syrma, Latin pallium), a wooden
stage, and, most important, the magniloquence of great poetry. For
some reason the history of tragedy ends here. Sophocles and Euripides
are ignored. We turn directly to the form of comedy called Old Comedy.

Ars Poetica by Horace


In the handbooks Old Comedy is said to be characterized by bitter in-
vective directed at real people. Aristophanes (d. 385 B.c.) is not men-
tioned although he is the only writer of Old Comedy whose plays have
survived in more than fragments. His tone is flamboyant, often outra-
geous and ribald. Although the list of his characters includes gods, heroes,
clouds, birds, and frogs, he also includes historical characters, most no-
toriously, perhaps, Socrates in The Clouds.
According to Greek tradition, which simplifies history in this case,
Old Comedy grew so offensive that it was eventually replaced by New
Comedy, which abandoned satire of specific individuals and turned in-
stead to satirizing general types like the miser and the boasting soldier.
The chief Greek writer in this form is Menander (d. ca. 291 B.c.). The
Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence are based on Menander's work.
None of these details is included in the Art. The single detail noted is
that the New Comedy abandoned the chorus.
Turning to Rome the speaker boasts that native poets have tried all
Greek forms. He makes clear in his comments what Horace puts into a
memorable epigram in Epistles (II, r): "Captured Greece, captured her
savage victor and brought the arts to backward Italy." He has no diffi-
culty admitting that Roman culture rests on Greek achievement. How-
ever, he is proud that Romans have invented forms of their own. Trag-
edies that deal with Roman history rather than Greek mythology are
called fabulae praetextae (1. 288) because a Roman garment, the toga
praetexta, was worn by the actors. By the same token, comedies on spe-
cifically Roman themes were called fabulae togatae because the actors
wore togas. One problem remains. It has been mentioned in connection
with Ennius (1. 259) and Plautus (11. 270-71). Roman poets are in-
clined to be careless. Again the speaker turns to the Pisos to address
them directly. They should, he says, reject any poem that has not been
revised and polished "ten times" (1. 294) down to the finest detail ("to
the fingernail," 1. 294).

Lines 295-476: Overview-The Poet-Critic
Line 255 marks the beginning of a major new section of the Art. Almost
all commentators have recognized it. Eduard Norden regards it as the
second part of a treatise divided between art (ars) and artist (artifex).
Since the arrival of Neoptolemus of Parium on the scene of Horatian
criticism, the section has generally been identified with what Neoptole-



mus called "poet" (poeta). Etymologically, Greek poeta means "maker"
and Latin artifex means "craftsman." The labels are so close that it is
unnecessary to argue about them. They both recognize that the Art now
turns from poetry to the preparation of the poet and the task of the
critic. In the process, the focus shifts from the poet as creator to the poet
as authority on poetic matters and therefore to the poet as critic.
The mood of the speaker also changes. In the first part of the Art it is
neutral or friendly, with the speaker in the role of mentor or informal
teacher. Occasionally, as in his remarks about writing Satyr Plays, he
turns from art in general to his own artistic standards, and on such oc-
casions a defensive note sometimes can be heard in his comments. At
times, too, he becomes critical of Roman culture or of Roman artistic
In the second half of the Art the speaker distances himself from his
pupils. He becomes ironic, satirical, occasionally morose, and toward
the end downright indignant. He becomes less the teacher in the sense
of one who explains principles and encourages talent and more the critic
in the sense of one who identifies errors and vices. He also becomes in-
creasingly self-absorbed. Toward the end of the Art he expresses open
contempt for those who seek his advice.
Are these changes part of the character of the speaker or are they
comments by Horace the poet? The argument for a biographical inter-
pretation is supported by the fact that Horace announced plans to give
up poetry after the third book of his Odes, although he later changed
his mind. In like manner, the poet-critic of the Art announces (11. 305-6)
that he has given up writing.
The decision to give up writing may well have been accompanied by,
even caused by, a feeling of revulsion on Horace's part against the direc-
tion his art and life had taken. The Art might have been partly or
wholly composed while this feeling was strong. However, it is impossi-
ble to say for sure what Horace the poet felt. It is therefore safest to
note the change in the character of the speaker without insisting on bio-
graphical parallels. Whatever did or did not happen to Horace, the
speaker of the Art unquestionably changes. His concept of art becomes
exclusive and elitist: only the few who are truly creative appreciate art.
It also becomes self-contradictory. If only the few who are truly creative
can appreciate art and they appreciate it already, what is the point of
becoming a critic? Who will the critic teach? By corollary, if only a few
sensitive readers appreciate art, what difference can art make? Why make


Ars Poetica by Horace

such sacrifices to create it? This question is especially relevant if the few
sensitive readers of Augustan Rome are the same few who are systemat-
ically destroying the last vestiges of the republic and encouraging the
mumbo-jumbo of emperor worship.

Lines 295-332: Talent versus Art; Learning
The section on the poet-critic begins with a tradition central to' the idea
of how the poet, himself, contributes to the creative process. In most
primitive poetry, including the Hebrew psalms, the Homeric hymns, the
odes of Pindar and the Iliad and Odyssey, the poet attributes the poem
to a higher power called a Muse and equated, in general, with inspira-
Related to inspiration is another, imponderable talent (Latin inge-
nium, sometimes translated "genius" or "wit"). Talent is something
we are born with. It is a gift of nature and cannot be learned. Rhetoric
and poetics teach that writing is an art-a technique that can be mas-
tered by following rules. The Art of Poetry is in this tradition and
reflects the fact by the profusion of rules that the speaker lays down.
But what good are the rules if success depends on talent?
Another side of the argument about what the orator or poet needs to
be successful debated the value of technical rules in contrast to general
learning. The tradition that begins with Aristotle's Rhetoric emphasizes
mastery of technical rules. These can be used for any specific subject or
"content," and for that reason they are more important to the orator
than mastery of content. Isocrates and Cicero opposed this position.
They argued that general learning (or "doctrine") is essential to the
orator. The learning should include history and poetry, but ethical and
political philosophy are the most important subjects because the secret
of great oratory is a large vision of human life. Cicero's De oratore is
essentially a dialogue in which one speaker-Crassus-argues for general
learning, and another-Antonius-argues for rules and technique. The
debate is not resolved, but the balance is clearly in favor of learning,
even though the value of rules and technique is recognized.
The terms used in Roman rhetoric to discuss these ideas are "talent"
(ingenium), "art" (ars), and "doctrine" doctrinea). Two other relevant
terms are "imitation" in the sense of imitating models (imitatio) and
"exercise" (exercitatio), meaning experience gained from practice.
The treatment in the Art opens with the topic of talent versus art.



The Greek philosopher Democritus (d. ca. 370 B.c.) favored talent and
associated poetry with a kind of delirium, thus excluding "healthy"
poets (1. 296) from the highest artistic achievement. As the author of an
"art" of poetry and a teacher of this art to the Pisos, Horace's speaker
is distressed. Instead of refuting Democritus, he ridicules poets who be-
lieve this sort of thing. They are introverts; they never take baths; worst
of all, they never have haircuts. The speaker, himself, rather pompously
announces that he takes hellebore-a strong purgative drug-every spring
to ensure a sweet and reasonable disposition. Hellebore was usually
shipped to Rome from Anticyra on the Gulf of Corinth. The crazy
poets the speaker is attacking could not be helped, he says, if they took
hellebore from three Anticyras.
The speaker's reference to purgation may be ironic. He may be say-
ing, "If you have to be mad to write poetry, I want none of it; in fact I
purge myself every spring in order to be sure of staying sane." More
probably, the speaker has become so upset that he has begun to talk
about himself. He announces that he is a reasonable man: he purges
himself of bile in the spring, and he writes good poems. But the effort
to be reasonable adds up to nothing. Throughout the letter to the Pisos
the speaker has been proclaiming the need of the would-be poet for ra-
tional artistry. Yet people still claim, like Democritus, that poetry is
purely a matter of talent.
Recognition of the futility of his arguments in favor of reason pushes
the speaker to a logical and emotional impasse. He exclaims despair-
ingly, "It's not worthwhile!" (1. 304). The sentence expresses frustra-
tion. It is followed by a startling decision. The speaker announces he
will give up poetry and become a critic of others. Specifically, he will
correct prevalent errors by explaining the duty (officium, 1. 306) of the
poet and the kinds of learning the poet needs.
This is a dramatic moment in the Art. The interaction between the
social conditions of Augustan Rome and the speaker's personality force
the poem to veer in a new direction. The Pisos seem momentarily to be
forgotten. If we take the speaker seriously, the moment is self-destructive:
he rejects the roles of poet and mentor that have provided his identity
up to this point in the poem. Should we take the speaker seriously? Dif-
ferent readers will have different answers, but the lines in question are
striking in their content and style. They are surely more than a device to
introduce a debate between the claims of talent and art.
The plan (11. 306-8) to explain where the poet draws his sustenance

Ars Poetica by Horace


includes four topics: the duty of the poet, the source of his materials,
what nurtures him, and poetic flaws. These topics conform generally to
standard rhetorical topics, supplemented in the case of "poetic flaws"
by the discussion in Poetics XXV of artistic faults and their answers.
The duty of the poet is defined as pleasure and utility (11. 333ff.). The
source of his materials is imitation (317ff.). Learning nurtures the poet
(11. 309ff.). Flaws are discussed in detail in lines 347ff. Additional top-
ics with a rhetorical background are talent (or nature) versus art (323ff.,
4o8ff.), the perfect poet (347ff.), and the civilizing power of art (391ff.).
Decorum enters this list of topics on line 308, which speaks of teaching
"what is appropriate" (quid deceat).
The first subject treated is the nurturing power of learning. Knowl-
edge is the source and wellspring of good writing. The reference to "So-
cratic pages" (1. 310o) makes it clear that the knowledge is philosophy
and that it is "general philosophy" concerned with ethics and politics
rather than technical subjects like logic. The speaker lists examples: pa-
triotism, friendship, statesmanship, leadership. His position is much like
that taken by Crassus regarding the kind of learning needed by the ora-
tor in Book I of Cicero's De oratore. Decorum also appears in the pas-
sage. A broad knowledge of philosophy allows the poet to achieve a
proper "coming together" (convenientia) of traits and responsibilities in
his characters. Note that the focus is still on drama, although the topic
applies to poetry in general.
Still concentrating on drama, the speaker cites another kind of learn-
ing important to the poet. In addition to philosophy there is imitation.
For the most part, imitation has been presented in the Art as imitation
of other (usually Greek) literary works. Here the speaker returns to im-
itation of life or of nature, the kind of imitation suggested by his ridi-
cule in the first few lines of unnatural combinations like a woman with
the torso of a fish. Life is the great model (exemplar, 1. 317) for the
poet, and as such is the source of "living voices." The speaker agrees
that a play drawing on life may please an audience-even though it
lacks formal art (1. 3zo)-more than one that is studied and artificial.
The admission comes in the midst of a strong argument in favor of
artistry. Perhaps the speaker is simply showing that he is broad-minded.
Probably, however, he is setting up a contrast between nature and art in
which nature has precedence but art remains essential. A like interpreta-
tion seems appropriate for the comments about the talent (ingenium, 1.
323) of the Greeks. The idea of Democritus that talent is the key to po-



etic success was so repugnant to the speaker a few lines previously that
it led him to abandon poetry. Now, however, he seems to admit that
the talent of the Greeks was the basis of their artistic success.
To make matters worse, the source of Greek talent is said torbe the
Muse. Which Muse, exactly, is left vague, but unquestionably some
Muse, and with the Muse comes the idea of inspiration. The talented
Greeks who seem to write by a divine gift are then contrasted to Ro-
mans who spend their time doing laborious arithmetic lessons. What
are arithmetic lessons if not a path to the mastery of an art? But the art
is accounting, symbolic of avarice. Roman money grubbing effectively
stifles the ability to create the kind of poetry that is preserved in a spe-
cially carved box-the Roman equivalent to a leather binding.
The discussion seems to favor nature and talent rather than art. Is
this the speaker's meaning or has he made such a strong case for art that
it is time to admit the opposing arguments are not entirely without
virtue? The precedent of Cicero's De oratore favors this idea. All of
Cicero's speakers have valid points to make, and there is no synthesis at
the end to tell the reader how much weight to give to any given posi-
tion. Yet the main thrust of Cicero's argument is clear enough. No ora-
tor can be successful without native talent, nor can the orator ignore
nature. Talent and nature, however, are givens. Insofar as oratory can
be learned, it is an art. Horace's speaker seems to take a similar posi-
tion. This interpretation is not entirely satisfying, but it makes the best
of a passage as difficult in its way as the discussion of the Satyr Play.
Two other observations are relevant. First, the reference to the talent
of the Greeks reflects the sense of cultural inferiority of Romans con-
fronting Greek culture. Quite apart from the massive direct debt of
Rome to Greece in every field from science to poetry, the best the Ro-
mans had been able to achieve was, by their own admission, based on
Greek models. Second, the sense of cultural inferiority is reflected in the
contrast between the noble achievements of the Greeks, symbolized by a
noble avarice for "nothing but fame," and the ignoble avarice (cura pe-
culi) of Romans for money.

Lines 333-46: Profit and Delight
The office of the orator, according to Cicero's Orator is to teach, to
please, and to persuade (docere, delectare, movere). Horace's speaker of-
fers a similar goal for the poet: "the poet's task is to profit or delight"

Ars Poetica by Horace


(1. 333). It is a famous line. Although it is disjunctive ("either one or
the other"), the discussion that follows shows that the best poetry does
both, so the translation "profit and delight" accords with the
spirit of the passage as a whole. "Profit" is usually equated with moral
teaching; delight with the pleasures of verse, metaphor, and story.
The interpretation is valid. The poet, we are told, should offer mate-
rials that are helpful. The process is interpreted as a kind of teaching (1.
335), and the teaching should be kept brief so that it is the more easily
absorbed. Having commented on profit, the speaker turns to pleasure,
which he equates with fiction. Just possibly, he is recalling the discus-
sion of invented plots (11.119-39), since he advises that they be closer to
truth rather than to "accepted myths." He is, at any rate, still talking
about drama, and the topic brings him back to the image of the serpent
Lamia giving birth to a child (1. 340). Some things, whether mythic or
fictional, will not play. Qualified judges-another appeal to upper-class
spectators (Ramnes, 1. 342)-will reject them.
The idea that poetry should profit and delight was central in sixteenth-
and seventeenth-century criticism. It seemed to fit neatly with Aristot-
le's suggestion in Poetics IX that poetry is "more serious and more
philosophical" than history. A classic example of this line of thought is
found in Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie (ca. I585). Drawing on
the Poetics and on standard interpretations of Horace, Sidney makes
two points. First, poetry couples general moral truths drawn from phi-
losophy with specific stories from mythology and history. If a story vio-
lates ethical norms-if, for example, a tyrant lives a long and happy
life instead of suffering for his crimes-the poet changes it so that the
outcome illustrates poetic justice. Tyrants suffer for their crimes, and
virtuous characters are rewarded. Shakespeare's Macbeth is taken from
legendary English history and in a very general sense shows how ambi-
tion leads to ruin. In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590) the Red-
cross Knight (St. George) and Sir Guyon (distantly based on Sir Gawain)
are drawn from mythic history, and their stories illustrate the triumph
of virtue over adversity.
Sidney's second point is specifically Horatian. Philosophy offers use-
ful moral truths. However, it is abstract and therefore lacks interest.
Myth and history, conversely, offer marvelous stories and charming de-
tails, but are all too often devoid of moral truth. In this analysis, phi-
losophy corresponds to the "profit" part of Horace's formula and history
to the "delight" part.



The interpretation neatly reconciles the literary theories of Aristotle
and Horace. It also gives literature a unique function. Because poetry
combines the useful and the delightful it does more than teach, it per-
suades. Sidney remarks that the object of poetry is not gnosis (knowl-
edge) but praxis (action). When we see the bad results of ambition in
Macbeth, we shun ambition in our own lives. Likewise, when we see
the rewards of holiness in Spenser's Redcross Knight, we strive to be-
come holy in our own lives. Sidney's Defence not only reconciles Aris-
totle and Horace, it also makes the duty (officium) of the poet identical
with that of the orator. In the Defence rhetoric and poetic are thus two
sides of the same coin. It is a neat trick, though by no means original
with Sidney, and it is fairly typical of mainstream European poetic the-
ory for a century after the Defence.
Horace's speaker now returns to his original point. The best poet de-
lights and instructs at the same time. A work that does this is sure to
make money for Socius and company (Roman booksellers). It will also
make the author's reputation abroad and among future generations.
The comment on making a reputation abroad reflects the desire of Ro-
man authors to become known outside Italy, especially in Greece. In the
same way, nineteenth-century American authors were especially eager to
become known in Europe. The reference to future reputation reflects a
yearning for immortality through art also evident in Horace's famous
ode beginning "I have created a monument more enduring than bronze"
(III.30). It is a note often sounded in Renaissance poetry, as in Shake-
speare's sonnet 55: "Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes
shall outlive this powerful rhyme."

Lines 347-90: Flaws in Art
Flaws in art are permissible. The imagery in which this idea is put is
musical. The musician seeks harmony-a perfect fitting together of
notes-but sometimes slips. Error is pardonable if a poem is filled with
compensating pleasures. The comment flows easily until it is stopped
short with a question: "What about this?" (1. 353) Emphasis now shifts
from minor flaws to the fact that some artists blunder constantly, like a
harp player who always hits the wrong string. An obscure poet-perhaps
a made-up name but probably a court poet of Alexander the Great (ca.
330 B.c.)-is mentioned. Choerilus was so bad that people laughed in

Ars Poetica by Horace


delight whenever he did something right. But even the blemishes that
occur when Homer nods off are painful.
The problem of flaws in art leads to recognition that critical judg-
ments are, to a degree, relative. It is in this context that one of the
famous observations in the Art is made: "A poem is like a picture."
The comparison between poetry and painting was introduced in the
opening lines of the Art. One of its implications was that poetry is
more an art of verbal description and (perhaps) vivid images than an art
of making fictions or of versification. This is a fair interpretation and
not surprising in view of that fact that Horace wrote lyrics and conver-
sational poems and avoided drama and narrative poetry. However, the
observation that poetry is like a picture has nothing to do with descrip-
tions or visual imagery. You see a picture differently from every perspec-
tive, says the speaker. What you see depends on where you are. By the
same token, you will see a poem differently depending on what you
look for. One poem may please only at the first reading while another
will repay ten readings.
The speaker turns to the elder son of the Piso family. He will offer
advice about what to aim for in composition. The elder son has already
learned that no one demands a poem to be perfect. Minor slips are tol-
erable in a good poem, and even Homer makes them. On the other
hand, they are irritating even in Homer. A lawyer can be mediocre and
still be useful. He may not be as great as the famous Messalla (d. A.D.
8) who fought with Octavian at Actium and later became a patron of
literature, but he can do many jobs. Nobody, however-not men, not
gods, not booksellers-is willing to tolerate a mediocre poet.
The passage continues with a series of images of things that do not fit
together: the orchestra is out of tune, the perfume ointment is tacky,
the poppy seeds are served with bitter honey. Poems have to be put to-
gether in just the right way. They are created to delight the mind, and if
they don't, they are useless. Other images are introduced. Don't try
fencing if you can't use a sword. Stay out of the game if you can't play
ball. Yet, says the speaker, in spite of this obvious rule, people who
know nothing about writing will set about making verses. They think
that because they are well born they can't go wrong. Obviously, the
speaker thinks they are hopelessly mistaken, and his comments are laced
with irony. In earlier passages he has appealed to the upper-class au-
dience as the best judge of poetic merit; here he expresses a little of the



rancor against the privileged class that might be expected of a freedman
whose father was a slave and who fought with Brutus to save the Re-
The speaker turns back to the oldest son of the Pisos. You know bet-
ter, he says, than to go "against Minerva." The phrase "against Mi-
nerva" (1. 385) has the force of "against your own character." The son
will never do something as uncharacteristic as claiming one of his poems
is good just because he is from one of Rome's best families. If the son
does write a poem, says the speaker, he should submit it first to a critic
like Maecius, the author and friend of Cicero, then to his father and
then to the speaker. Even after it has been scrutinized three times, the
poem should not be published. It should be filed away for nine years. A
work in a drawer can always be burned, but when it has been pub-
lished, it is out there for good. The nine-year rule is famous and doubt-
less very useful, but few writers, if any, have observed it.

Lines 391-407: The Civilizing Power of Poetry
The requirement that poetry profit as well as delight is initially defined
in terms of teaching. The definition is enlarged in a sustained lyrical
passage on the civilizing power of poetry. Along with reminiscences of
the early poets (prisci poetae) come suggestions that they were divinely
inspired. The passage is what is called a "topos"-a standard topic
handled by many writers and used for many different purposes. A ver-
sion of the topos appears at the beginning of Cicero's youthful rhetori-
cal treatise De Inventione (I.zff.) adapted, of course, to demonstrate
that rhetoric was the force that brought civilization to primitive man.
In the present case, poetry is the civilizing force. The speaker recognizes
that the early poets achieved their goals with divine assistance. They are
called "prophet-poets" (vatibus, 1. 400), and the importance of the in-
spiring Muse is acknowledged (1. 407). The emphasis on divine aid is
understandable given the material, which is shrouded in myth, and the
miraculous nature of the deeds ascribed to the earliest poets. For that
very reason, it may be taken with a grain of salt. It goes with the topos
and the lyrical, almost romantic tone of the passage and does not neces-
sarily reflect the opinion of the speaker.
Two significant features of the passage are less characteristic of the
topos. In the first place, the object of the early poets was clearly ra-
tional. They wanted to civilize previously uncultivated men. They do

Ars Poetica by Horace


Commentary 77

this by establishing norms of behavior, creating orderly cities, imposing
laws, and the like. Their accomplishments are described in miraculous
terms, but properly understood the miracles are allegories for the civiliz-
ing process. In the second place, the divine inspiration that assisted
them was entirely benign. At no point does the speaker mention poetic
frenzy or fantastic images.
Another significant aspect of the passage is its emphasis on music.
The earliest poets accompanied themselves on the lyre. Harmony-the
"fitting together of musical notes and words"-caused the miracles to
happen, and the ultimate inspiration of the early poets was Apollo,
called "the singer" (1. 407). The allusion to harmony that runs through
the section is allegorical. Harmony symbolizes the aesthetic charms of
art, which arise from its elegant "fitting together" of elements. Art
does not perform overt miracles like those attributed by myths to Or-
pheus, but because of its charm it performs quiet miracles that are no
less effective. The proof of this is the humanizing effect poetry has had
on the Greeks. And, of course, the unspoken hope of the passage is that
poetry will have the same effect on the Romans.
Orpheus is mentioned first. He is called a prophet (interpres) of the
gods. According to the myth, the music of Orpheus was so beautiful
that it tamed wild animals. An interpretation of the myth is offered:
when men still lived in the woods (like animals) Orpheus tamed them
in the sense of bringing them together and teaching them social behav-
ior. Amphion is said to have played music so powerful that he moved
stones and caused them to come together in the walls of Thebes. This
too is an allegory, although the speaker does not pause to explain it: the
power of poetry is so great that it persuaded men to come together in
cities. More generally, the early poets taught the difference between
public and private, sacred and profane, marriage and single life. They
established the organization of life in towns and formulated codes of
law. Here the speaker is thinking of Solon (ca. 600 B.C.), the poet and
lawgiver of Athens whose laws were inscribed on wooden tablets.
Because of their civilizing achievements the early poets became famous
and their poetry was considered divine-a hint that it gained this repu-
tation from its good effects rather than because it was inspired. Homer
and Tyrtaeus are mentioned next. Both were military poets-Homer of
the Trojan War and Tyrtaeus (? seventh century B.C.) of Spartan march-
ing songs. Other sorts of poetry began to flourish. Oracles were deliv-
ered in verse and poems were written showing how to live an ordinary

life-the speaker may have Hesiod's Works and Days, an agricultural
poem, in mind here. The Pierian spring was associated with the Muses
and especially with lyric poetry. The speaker recalls the two kinds of
traditional lyric, one that celebrated the deeds of the mighty, as in the
odes of Pindar, and the other that provided recreation and celebrated
ordinary pleasures. From Orpheus to the poets of ordinary pleasures,
poetry is shown to be profitable and useful in the sense of advancing the
cause of civilization and making everyday life more enjoyable.
The tone of the passage is remarkable. It is lush, brilliantly figured,
and flowing. The speaker is obviously moved by what he is describing.
It is as though he has momentarily recovered his belief in the value of
art. However, the passage soon ends and the speaker returns to the
problems created by the antipoetic culture that surrounds him.

Lines 408-18: Nature and Art
The transition from the power of poetry to the sources of successful
poetry is abrupt. The only link in evidence is the emphasis on inspira-
tion in the earlier passage. The first "source" treated is nature in the
sense of "natural talent." This subject is not really new since it was
implicit in the earlier debate about talent versus art (11. 295-308). "Art"
is here equated with "study," meaning study of the rules of art rather
than study of philosophy. Nature is also clearly defined. It is "natural
talent" (ingenium). Study and talent are both necessary, although all
the examples given are of study: jockeys prepare arduously for their races,
and musicians study their instruments for years before they are ready to
perform at important public occasions like the Pythian Games. The
speaker satirizes those who think they can write without study. He para-
phrases a line used by boys playing tag (1. 417): "[I'm out in front]; a
pox on those in the rear." Untrained poets are like the boys who say
that. They refuse to admit they don't know how, and, at the same time,
they don't want to be left behind.

Lines 419-52: The Critic
Perhaps untrained poets are that way because there are so few honest
critics. The speaker has already mentioned the need for honest critics
(11. 387-88), and he has announced that he is about to become a critic
(11. 304-5). Now he has to face the difficulties of the profession he has


Ars Poetica by Horace

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