The ‘Ars Poetica,’ or the ‘Epistle to the Pisos,’ is a 476-line poem, initially written in dactylic hexameter, by the Roman poet Horace. The title ‘Ars Poetica’ means ‘The Poetic Art’ or ‘The Poet’s Skill’ in Latin.
Horace, renowned for his Odes, wrote the ‘Ars Poetica’ late in his life, and it was likely published between 15 and 10 BCE. This epistolary poem represented, to Horace, a culmination of his literary and musical career. Additionally, it is one of the earliest pieces of literature that falls under the genre of literary criticism.
With a focus on the skill of creating and telling stories through art forms such as poetry, drama, and paintings, Horace reveals a lot about aesthetics and what we, as human beings, have always valued about art in the ‘Ars Poetica.’
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The ‘Ars Poetica’ by Horace is a long poem about how to write good poetry and plays. The speaker-poet offers many tips to the listener, instructing us on how to be successful and appreciated authors.
Horace opens the ‘Ars Poetica’ with imagery, describing how painters have the creative license to make anything they want. However, Horace limits this creativity, explaining that poets, painters, and authors would not want their fantastical creatures and imaginary tales to become real.
This opening description leads into Horace’s description of originality and the poetic tradition. According to the poet, an author may wish to create new characters and stories, but in doing so, they make their private lives public. For that reason, one must blend their creativity with something that already exists, using stock characters or old plots to frame their creations.
The poet next dives into a discussion of form and structure, paying particular attention to the organization, form, characters, and plots of comedy and tragedy.
Lastly, Horace investigates the poet’s role and how the poet must behave when creating literature. The poet must accept criticism, carefully revise their work, maintain a modest attitude, and take inspiration from nature to leave a lasting impact on the literary tradition.
Form and Structure
The ‘Ars Poetica’ by Horace is a long didactic poem written as an epistle to the Piso Family.
As an epistolary poem, this work is a letter. It’s addressed to the Piso family, as it seems that the eldest son of the Pisos was interested in beginning to write poetry.
However, this poem is also didactic, meaning its purpose is to educate people. Accordingly, it’s written in dactylic hexameter, the standard meter used in both didactic and epic poetry.
As the poem is long, most critics and readers divide it up into fourteen to fifteen sections within three parts based on the poem’s topics:
- Poesis, or the introduction to the topic
- Lines 1-13: Opening statement
- Lines 14-45: On recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses
- Lines 46-72: On creating new words
- Lines 73-88: On the poetic tradition and genre
- Poema, or a discussion of form and structure
- Poets, a discourse on the role of the poet
- Lines 295-332: How to be a good poet
- Lines 333-365: On enjoying instruction and creativity
- Lines 366-407: On writing remarkable poetry
- Lines 408-437: On nature as a source of instruction
- Lines 438-476: On bad poets
Still, this poem’s division is modern, and Horace never divided the poem into sections.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, AKA Horace, was one of the few eminent poets of the golden age of Latin poetry. He was the son of an emancipated slave and had a very humble upbringing. Still, after serving as a tribune in the military during the Liberator’s Civil War following the death of Caesar, he rose to a modest middle class.
After the war, Horace became a clerk of the Roman treasury in 38 BCE, where he met Maecenas, the greatest literary patron – possibly of all time. Maecenas, a friend of Octavian/Augustus, took Horace under his wing and paid him to produce poetry as an official Roman poet.
Horace lived a long life before he wrote the Ars Poetica. He had already published his book of Odes and a book of Epodes, both of which saw critical acclaim and popularity while the poet was alive. The satirical lyric poems within these books are timeless, largely thanks to Horace’s very translatable sense of humor.
His jokes, which revolve around his favorite themes of death, life, drinking wine, eating good food, finding peace in nature, and hanging out with friends, still affect us as a modern audience. As such, never expect a dull poem from Horace.
The Ars Poetica, while it may be Horace’s longest poem, is from the poet’s last collection, the Epistles. This book of poetic epigraphs is a work of literary criticism by and large. In it, Horace includes several poetic letters to various people. Each one discusses the role of authors, poets, and artists in the whole of the relatively new Roman empire.
Issues of Translation
Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ was initially written in Latin using dactylic hexameter. This meter was the most common poetic structure for epic poetry and didactic poetry during Horace’s lifetime.
Nevertheless, most English translations of the ‘Ars Poetica’ are in prose. When translating a poem from Latin to English, the translator will undoubtedly have many difficulties.
Latin syntax is very different from English syntax, as there are no articles (such as ‘a’ or ‘the’) in Latin. Additionally, Roman authors such as Horace appreciated word compression, which meant that they packed very complex meanings into as few words as possible, often using wordplay and double meanings to enrich the text.
Thus, a translator must often sacrifice some of the art of a Latin poem when translating it into English verse. Additionally, when translating Latin poetry into English poetry, the wording often must become very clunky and confusing to fit into meter. For example, here is an English translation of lines 9-12 of the Ars Poetica, this time in Blank Verse:
Yet trust me, Pisos, not less strange would look,“The Satires, Epistles & Art of Poetry of Horace by Quintus Horatius Flaccus,” translated by John Conington, 1874
To a discerning eye, the foolish book
Where dream-like forms in sick delirium blend,
And nought is of a piece from end to end.
While one could spend time puzzling out the meaning of this verse, it is tricky. Thus, most translators sacrifice the artful, metrical verse of the ‘Ars Poetica’ to better convey the deeper meaning behind this monumental work. Additionally, it’s much easier to understand a prose translation of this poem, which is a welcome benefit.
The following translation is an adaptation of C. Smart and Theodore Alois Buckley’s 1863 translation. I have updated the text in areas with archaic terms and confusing Victorian syntax.
If a painter wishes to conjoin a horse neck to a human head and add various feathers all over collaged-on limbs so that what [seems to be] a beautiful woman on top repulsively breaks down into a black fish, could you, friends, stifle your laughter after looking at it?
Believe me, Pisos, a book will be just like such a picture, the ideas of which, like a sick man’s dreams, are all vain and fictitious so that neither head nor foot can correspond to any one form. “Painters and poets have equal license in daring to do anything.” We know this, and we seek and give this privilege in turn – but not to such a degree that the tame should associate with the savage; nor that serpents should be bred with birds, lambs with tigers.
Lines one through thirteen of the ‘Ars Poetica‘ are unusual for a Latin poem. Usually, we would see an invocation to the gods in the first few lines. However, in place of this invocation, Horace begins to investigate the role of a poet in creating fantasies.
According to Horace, artists can create fantastical creatures, such as mermaids or harpies covered in feathers and scales, which may make the onlooker or listener laugh. He calls this ability to create made-up animals and monsters a “veniam,” which translates to indulgence or privilege, which every artist has a right to.
However, Horace carefully notes that although these imaginary creatures are laughable and dreamlike, an artist would never try to create a monster in real life. Instead, art, to Horace, is more of an exploration of creativity, as if painting or writing poetry is an escape from the fixed order of the real world.
Through his explanation, the poem’s addressee becomes clear: the Pisos. The Pisos are a well-known family of aristocrats who lived in Rome.
One or two purple patches, that may shine far and wide, are generally sewn onto weighty introductions and those works that promise great things, just like when one describes the grove and altar of Diana and the meandering of a current running through pleasant fields, or the river Rhine, or a rainbow. But there was no place for these things here.
And perhaps you know how to draw a cypress: but what if youve been paid by a man who [wants] to be painted swimming hopeless out of a shipwreck? A large vase at first was designed: why, as the wheel revolves, does it become a little pitcher? In a word, be your subject what it will, let it be merely simple and uniform.
The great majority of us poets, father, and youths worthy such a father, are misled by the appearance of what is right. I work to be concise, I become vague: nerves and spirit fail the man that pursues what is trivial. He who claims to be profound is bombastic: he who is too cautious and fearful of the storm crawls along the ground: he who wants to vary his subject in a marvelous manner paints the dolphin in the woods or the boar in the sea. Avoidance of fault leads one to making mistakes if it lacks skill.
A sculptor down at the Aemilian school will, with singular skill, portray fingernails and soft hair in brass; yet he is wholly unfortunate because he doesn’t know how to finish a complete piece. I would no more choose to be like this man, if I had a mind to compose anything, than to live with a crooked nose or stand out for my black eyes and dark hair.
You who write, take up a material suitable for your strengths and, for a while, think about what your strength ruins and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style nor a perspicuous disposition shall desert the man by whom the subject matter is chosen carefully.
This, or I am mistaken, will constitute the merit and beauty of the arrangement: that I now say what ought to be said, put off most of my thoughts, and omit them for the time being.
Lines 14 through 37 discuss the importance of recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses when making art.
Horace begins the section by discussing how some artists and poets build up an expectation of great art only to disappoint the audience. Horace uses a simile to compare how some poets add expensive “purple patches” to their poetry and how people describe rainbows, rushing streams, and many other things. Here, Horace creates a trailing phrase to make the point that people who aim to do something magnificent usually fall flat.
In the same way, a potter might design an elaborate amphora, but once he starts spinning the clay, he might not have the skill to make anything more than a cute little pitcher.
Thus, in this section, Horace implores the listener to know where their skill lies. If you do not have the talent to make something significant, grand, and monumental, then make something small, but make it well.
In this way, Horace suggests that being concise but not brief is the way to make a piece of art worth appreciating. Rambling on just for the sake of using fancy words will get you nowhere, according to the poet.
In his word choice, too, the author of the projected poem must be delicate and cautious, he must embrace one and reject another. You will express yourself excellently if a clever combination should deliver you a well-known word. If, perchance, it is necessary to portray obscure subjects with fresh information, it follows that you must devise words never heard of by the old-fashioned Cethegi: and the license will be granted if modestly used, and new and lately-formed words will have authority if they descend from a Greek source with a slight deviation.
But why should the Romans grant to Plautus and Caecilius a privilege denied to Virgil and Varius? Why should I be envied, if I have it in my power to acquire a few words, when the language of Cato and Ennius has enriched our native tongue and produced new names of things? It has always been allowed and always will be allowed to coin a new word.
Just as leaves in the woods are changed with the fleeting years and the earliest fall off first, so do words perish with old age, and those lately invented flourish and thrive, like men in the time of youth.
We and our works, are doomed to death, whether Neptune, admitted into the continent, does kingly work and defends our fleet from the north winds, or the lake, for a long time unfertile and fit for oars, now maintains its neighboring cities and feels the heavy plow; or the river, taught to run in a more convenient channel, has changed its course which was so destructive to the fruits. Mortal works will perish, and no less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. If custom so wishes, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language, many words that have now fallen out of usage will be reborn and many which are now in esteem shall fall away.
Lines 46 through 72 are primarily about diction and the creation of new words. In this section of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace explains that poets and authors have always had the power to create new words. While Horace urges his listeners not to create new words willy-nilly, he recognizes that when the subject of a work is original and inventive, you’ll sometimes need to make up your own words.
As is typical for Horace, the poet ties this idea into the cycle of life and death, recalling themes from his most famous poem, best known as ‘Carpe Diem.’ The poet emphasizes that, since words are man-made, everyone will eventually die or fall out of usage. If only Horace knew that Latin would become a dead language!
Because language cannot live forever, it is necessary for authors to continue pushing the boundaries of language and coining new terms to describe new inventions, discoveries, and creative things. For example, right about the time that Horace wrote the ‘Ars Poetica,’ the Epicurean school of philosophy produced the very first texts about atomic and particle theory. These texts were completely innovative, and thus, the authors had to come up with brand new words to describe the science behind the nature of the universe.
However, while all words die, some are reborn. Think of Horace’s own words, “carpe diem.” While this phrase may be written in a dead language, that doesn’t stop us from printing it on bumper stickers and getting it tattooed on our skin as modern English-speaking people. Some words live on to see a new era of mankind.
Homer has instructed us in what measure the achievements of kings, chiefs, and bitter war might be written.
At first, laments had been set to the unequal measure [of the elegiac couplet], and afterward, sentiments of granted prayers were included. Yet, what author first published humble elegies, the grammarians dispute, and the controversy still waits the determination under a judge.
Madness armed Archilochus with his very own iambic. His foot fit both the sock [of the comic actor] and the majestic buskin boot [worn by the tragic actor], suitable for dialogue, able to silence the noise of the people, and calculated for action.
The muse has allotted to the lyre to celebrate gods, the sons of gods, the victorious wrestler, the steed foremost in the race, the inclination of youths, and the free joys of wine.
How can I be called a poet if I ignore and am unable to observe the colors and exchanges I [just] described? Why, out of false modesty, would I prefer to be unknowing than to learn?
Lines 73 through 88 of the ‘Ars Poetica‘ serve as a sort of guidebook for selecting a genre and style for a poem or play.
Horace first outlines Epic poetry, mentioning Homer. According to Horace, epic poetry is a genre used to describe important politicians, such as kings, chiefs, and wars.
Then, Horace begins to speak of elegiac poetry. According to Horace, elegiac couplets were first used to express laments. This claim checks out, as some of our earliest examples of elegiac couplets were inscribed on gravestones and urns and included a sentence to two about a dead person. However, Horace also notes that elegaic couplets eventually became a form of poetry used to express thanks to the gods after a person’s prayer was granted.
Interestingly, even Horace has no idea who invented the elegiac couplet. He uses his satirical humor to suggest that the jury’s out on this question.
Next, the poet mentions Archilocus, who is believed to be the inventor of the iamb. According to Horace, the metrical “foot” of the iamb was suitable for both comic and tragic dramas.
However, here, Horace uses a pun, saying that the metrical foot of the iamb fits the socks of comic actors, who wore long, colorful fabric socks on stage, and the buskin of the tragic actors, who wore large buskin boots to make themselves taller.
Next, we have lyric poetry, suitable for poetry about gods, young men, and victorious people and animals. Additionally, lyric poetry is, evidently, a great poetic form for discussing wine – one of Horace’s favorite topics.
Finally, Horace sums up that it is critical to learn about poetic form and genre if one wants to become a writer. He suggests that he couldn’t rightly be called a poet if he didn’t study how people have historically used different forms and meters to express various themes and emotions. This was a very true statement to the Roman poet, as one could guess the poem’s theme just by knowing the structure and meter.
A comic subject does not wish to be laid out in tragic verse. In the same way, the banquet of Thyestes will not allow itself to be narrated in conversational poetry worthy of the comic [actor’s] sock. Let each and every sort [of writing] appropriately take its own place.
Nevertheless, sometimes even comedy raises her voice, and enraged Chremes rails in an inflated voice. And often, when tragic Peleus and Telephus express their grief, both in poverty and exile, they throw aside their rants and grandiose expressions for a common prose style if they have a mind to move the heart of the spectator with their lament.
It is not enough that poems be beautiful. Let them be tender and affecting, and [let them] bear away the soul of the listener to wherever they please. As the human countenance smiles on those that smile, so does it sympathize with those that weep. If you would have me weep, you must first express the passion of grief yourself. Then, Telephus or Peleus, your misfortunes hurt me. If you pronounce the parts assigned you ill, I shall either fall asleep or laugh.
Pathetic accents suit a melancholy countenance, words full of menace, an angry one; wanton expressions, a sportive look; and serious matter, an austere one. For, nature forms us first within every condition of our fates. Nature delights or impels us to anger, she pushes us down to the dirt and afflicts us with heavy sorrow. Afterward, with the tongue as translator, she expresses those emotions of the mind.
If the words are not harmonious with the person’s fortune, the Roman knights and plebians will raise a laugh. It will make a wide difference whether Davus speaks or a hero; a man well-stricken in years or a hot young fellow in his bloom; and a matron of distinction or an officious nurse; a roaming merchant or the cultivator of a verdant little farm; a Colchian or an Assyrian; one educated at Thebes or one at Argos.
You, that write, either follow tradition, or invent stories that are consistent with themselves. If, as poet, you have to represent the renowned Achilles, let him be relentless, wrathful, insatiable, courageous, let him deny that laws were made for him, let him arrogate every thing to force of arms. Let Medea be fierce and determined, Ino an object of pity, Ixion perfidious, Io wandering, Orestes in distress.
If you offer anything innovative to the stage and venture to form a new character, it should be preserved just as it set out at the beginning to the very end, and it should be consistent with itself.
Lines 89 through 130 of the ‘Ars Poetica are about character archetypes, mood, and tone. According to Horace, one must choose a tragic meter and form if the story’s subjects are in a desolate situation. Likewise, one must use a plain, conversational meter when writing a comedy.
This rule of writing poetry still holds true today, though many poets began to subvert this idea during the modernist poetic movement.
According to Horace, when a character is sad, their language should sound sad. In poetry, that usually means that the sad person’s speech will include more stressed syllables, more caesuras or pauses, and a tone that matches the speaker’s distress.
For example, if Hamlet only spoke in rhyming couplets or only spoke in limericks, it would be hard to feel sorry for him or understand his complex, brooding emotions. Instead, as Horace states, a jaunty, rhyming Hamlet speaking of his thoughts on death would likely “raise a laugh” in us.
According to Horace, every character’s speech should match their personality and mood, and only once in a while should you err from keeping a speaker’s consistent tone. When a poet does err from consistency, though, it makes that line stand out from the rest of the text, giving it even more emotional appeal.
It’s difficult to speak of things that are both individual and universal. It is better to break up the Iliad into acts than to present things that are brand new and never spoken of before.
Your private matters will become public if you do not linger around the common and wide track. Nor should you be perfidious, taking the pain of translating word for word, nor by imitating others should you throw yourself into straits, from where either shame or the rules of your work forbid you to retreat.
Nor must you make such an introduction, as the Cyclic writer of old: “I will sing the fate of Priam, and the noble war.” What will this boaster produce that’s worthy of all this gaping? The mountains are in labor – a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth. How much better is he who foolishly undertakes nothing: “Sing for me, my muse, the man who, after the time of the destruction of Troy, surveyed the manners and cities of many men.”
He does not picture smoke from a flash, but he intends to produce fire out of smoke so that he may then reveal things that are marvelously beautiful: Antiphates, Scylla, the Cyclops, and Charybdis. Nor does he start with Diomede’s return after Meleager’s death, nor does he trace the rise of the Trojan war from the egg. He always rushes on to the action and snatches away his reader in the middle of things as if these things were already known. And what he gives up on being able to polish, he deletes. And in such a manner he forms his fictions, thus he intermingles the false with the true so that the middle is not inconsistent with the beginning, nor the end with the middle.
In lines 128 through 152 of the Ars Poetica, Horace details the difficulties of writing an original story or plot.
Horace recognizes that keeping your characters in balance can be tough if you have made up your characters from scratch. Therefore, he recommends that the author use old tropes and stock characters. That way, you will not become too emotionally involved in the character, and it will be easier for others to understand that character’s motivations. In this way, the writing can become universal.
Additionally, the poet warns other authors that when one writes an original story, they make it personal. While putting your personal experience into a tale may be admirable, Horace warns the would-be author against it, suggesting that it makes one emotionally clouded, unable to develop a proper story. The poet says it’s better to stick to the cheap old tropes, as they already belong to the public.
Still, there’s such a thing as too unoriginal. The poet quotes the opening lines of the Illiad and Odyssey, stating that these lines have been repeated so many times that they are tiresome and overly grandiose. In using them, an author is simply covering up for his lack of originality.
Horace also has a bone to pick with authors who begin their stories without the proper exposition or background information. The poet calls this something new: in medias res, a phrase that has become very common in English. Horace suggests that the authors who use this technique instead of starting from the origin, or ab ovo (another phrase coined by Horace), are simply covering up for their inability to write a decent plot.
In deleting text when it gets tricky to write and focusing on action instead of character development, Horace believes that an author turns a potentially beautiful scene into a monstrous mess, much like the Cyclops or the monsters Scylla and Charybdis.
You, pay heed to what I and the public require from you. If you want an applauding listener who will wait for the curtain till the chorus calls out “Everyone, clap,” you must take note of the behavior of every every age group, give grace to their varying dispositions and years.
The boy, who is barely able to pronounce his words and prints the ground with a firm footprint delights to play with his fellows, develops and lays aside anger without reason, and is subject to change every hour. The beardless youth, with his nanny finally gone, delights in horses, dogs, and the sunny grass of the Campus Martius. He is pliable as wax to the influence of vice, rough to advisers, a slow provider of useful things, unwise with his money, high-spirited, amorous, and quick to abandon the objects of his passion.
Our inclinations being changed, the age and spirit of manhood seeks after wealth and connections, is subservient to points of honor, and is cautious of committing any action that a man would subsequently be industrious to correct. Many inconveniences encompass a man in years either because he seeks profit and abstains from what he has gotten, afraid to make use of it, or because he transacts every thing in a fearful and disinterested manner, lazy, slow in hope, careless, and greedy of what is to come. Irritable, complaintative, a worshipper of former times when he was a boy, a chastiser and censurer of his juniors.
Our advancing years bring many advantages along with them. Our declining ones take many of these away. We must dwell upon those qualities which are joined and adapted to each person’s age so that the parts belonging to old age may not be given to youth, and those of a man to a boy.
In lines 153 to 178 of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace teaches the listener the importance of appealing to the target audience. This section reveals that Horace is undoubtedly writing for elite male roman citizens – how about that inclusivity?
Here, Horace details that a story must capture the fickle attentions and passions of boys offer intrigue to the curious and athletic young men, and touch on the themes of honor and wealth for the sake of the adult men.
As is characteristic of Horace, the poet uses this section of text to make greater implications about human nature. Tying in the theme of morality, he emphasizes that, throughout a man’s life, he develops an appreciation for honor and morals. Still, eventually, as he ages, this honor fades away as the man becomes bitter and focused on gaining wealth.
Still, this big-picture view of humanity supports Horace’s point that an author must offer his audience a reflection of themselves through storytelling. Otherwise, the tale may be too unbelievable and irrelevant for an audience to enjoy.
An action is either represented on the stage, or having been done done elsewhere, narrated [to the audience]. The things which enter the ear affect the mind more slowly than those that are offered to the faithful eyes and what a spectator sees himself.
However, you must not present the things fit only to be acted behind the scenes on stage, and you should conceal many actions that an elegant description might afterward deliver to the audience. Don’t let Medea murder her sons before the people, and do not let the execrable Atreus openly dress human entrails. Don’t let Procne be metamorphosed into a bird, Cadmus into a serpent. I hate [to have] such scenes shown to me, [as I am] not able to believe them.
Let a play which would be requested, and though seen, represented anew, be neither shorter nor longer than five acts. And don’t let a god intervene unless a challenge worthy of a god’s problem-solving occurs, nor let a fourth person speak.
Let the chorus sustain the part and manly character of an actor. Don’t let them sing anything between the acts which is not conducive to and appropriately consistent with the main design. Let them patronize the good, give them friendly advice, regulate the passionate, and love to appease those who are enraged. They should praise the repast of a short meal, the salutary effects of justice, laws, and peace with her open gates. Let them conceal what is told to them in confidence, supplicate and implore the gods that prosperity may return to the wretched, and abandon the haughty.
The flute was once not as it is now, decorated with brass and mimicking the trumpet. Instead, it was slender and of simple form, with few stops, of service to accompany and assist the chorus, and with its tone it was sufficient to fill the rows that were not yet too crowded, where an audience, easily numbered, being small and sober, chaste and modest, met together.
But when the victorious Romans began to extend their territories and a larger wall encompassed the city, and their spirits were indulged with festivals by drinking wine in the day-time without citicism, a greater freedom arose both to the numbers [of poetry], and the measure [of music].
For, what taste could an illiterate fool, just retiring from work, have when in company with a polite, plain, and honorable man? Thus, the musician added new movements and eloquence to the ancient art, and strutting backward and forward, drug his robe over the stage. Likewise, new notes were added to the severity of the lyre, and urgent eloquence produced unusual sentiments, expert in teaching useful things and forseeing the future, differ hardly from the oracles of Delphi.
Lines 179 through 219 of the ‘Ars Poetica’ discuss the physical process of staging a play.
Horace first talks about the kinds of events that should happen behind the scenes of a play. He critically notes that he hates it when the actors attempt to do something unbelievable, such as transforming into an animal or committing murder, on stage. These events should happen behind the scenes of a play or be portrayed mysteriously so that they can be at least a little believable, according to Horace.
This convention of hiding climactic and unbelievable events is still common in theaters and movies.
Think of movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where the murder scenes are all cut from many different angles, often flashing in tandem like strobe lights to conceal the gore and action. These scenes are all the more suspenseful and scary for their mystery, and they don’t immediately reveal that the crew simply spattered Hershey’s chocolate syrup all over to mimic the appearance of blood. Instead, they are believable because they don’t show everything.
Additionally, Horace notes that the chorus of a play should be caring, compassionate, moral, and predictable. They should always root for the good, offer the hero support, and praise the gods when appropriate.
Finally, Horace goes on a tangent about flute-playing in the theater, which used to be a very simple art.
However, Horace notes that, as the Roman theaters have grown, musicians have developed new, louder instruments to fill the theater. However, since these instruments were larger and more complex, they also allowed poetry to become more complex, leading to the development of formulaic language. Horace believes that theatrical language, with its mysterious phrasing and artfulness, is just as confusing as the infamously cryptic oracles of Delphi.
The poet who first tried his skill in tragic verse for the paltry [prize of a] goat soon portrayed wild, naked satyrs and attempted to joke in earnest, still preserving seriousness since a spectator at festivals, disorderly and warmed up by wine, was amused by captivating shows and attractive novelty.
But to gain acceptance for the bantering, rallying satyrs, and turning earnest into jest, no one exhibited as a god, introduced as a hero, or made noticeable by his regal purple and gold clothing should devolve into lowly taverns with vulgar language. Nor should he, scorning the ground, affect cloudy mist and empty jargon.
Tragedy that hesitates to to spout forth meaningless verses, like a matron commanded to dance on the festival days, will assume an air of modesty, even in the midst of lawless satyrs. As a writer of satire, Pisos, I will never be fond of unornamented and dominating terms – nor will I work to differ so widely from tragic style that Davus and the bold Pythias, who gained a talent by gulling Simo, may as well be speaking – or Silenus, the guardian and attendant of his divine disciple [Bacchus].
I would stick to a poem taken from that which is well-known so that that anyone might entertain hopes of doing the same thing. However, when on trial, they should sweat and labor in vain: Order and syntax has such a power that grace may be added to commonplace subjects.
In my opinion, the Fauns, that are brought out of the woods, should not bark out their tender strains, as if they were educated in the city or at the crossroads; nor, on the other hand, should they blunder out their obscene and scandalous speeches. Truly, those who have a horse, a father, or an estate are offended by the things that the purchasers of parched peas and nuts are delighted with. [Wealthy men] will not accept these things with a peaceful heart, nor give them the laurel crown.
In lines 220 to 250 of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace discusses the difference between comic speech and tragic speech, stressing that overly lewd or vulgar scenes are distasteful to the upper crust of society. According to Horace, there is room for vulgar jokes and characters in every story, but the honorable heroes, politicians, and gods within a story should never engage in lowly behaviors and jokes.
The poet also notes that somber and meaningful plays are all the better if they have a couple of silly scenes, providing the audience with comic relief and contrast to the more serious plot.
Horace lists himself as an example, talking about how he always uses plain language to write his satirical poems. However, the true art of his composition is deceptively complex, as his word order, use of meter, and topics always convey a deeper meaning. Still, using a simile, he states that he does avoid writing like Davus and Pythias, two stock characters who represented enslaved people in Roman comedy, and Silenus, a faun.
Finally, Horace touches on the taste of the elite vs. the commoners. He notes that common people may appreciate lewd or vulgar jokes, but it’s best to avoid them. Wealthy people look down on these jokes and see very little merit in them.
A long syllable put after a short one is termed an iambus, a swift measure. Therefore, it also took the name of trimeters to be added to iambics, even though it would offer six beats of time, mirroring itself from first to last.
Not long after, so that it would come more slowly and with more majesty to the ear, [the iamb] obligingly and contentedly allowed steadfast spondees into its family, agreeing that it was not to depart from the second and fourth place. However, this [kind of measure] rarely shows up in the notable trimeters of Accius, and it oppresses the verse of Ennius, brought upon the stage with the clumsy weight of spondees, with the insult of being too thoughtless and careless or ignorant in his art.
Not every critic can detect unmusical verses, and this undeserved privilege goes to the Roman poets. But shall I, on this account, run riot and write licentiously? Or, believing that all the world will see my faults, shouldn’t I play it safe and be cautious with hope of being pardoned? If so, then I would have escaped criticism but merited no praise.
You all, think over the Grecian models by night, think them over by day. But our ancestors commended both the numbers of Plautus and his strokes of pleasantry. Too tamely (lest I say stupidly), did they admire each of them if you and I know how to distinguish a coarse joke from a smart repartee and understand the proper cadence by [using] our fingers and ears.
Lines 257 to 274 are a discourse on the meter. Horace begins his discussion by explaining that the iamb was one of the earliest forms of poetic meter. This rapid meter was used in iambic trimeter, a line of poetry that included three feet, each foot consisting of a long syllable and a short syllable. For that reason, there were six syllables per line.
Horace next notes that the spondee came next, a foot of poetry that contained two long syllables. These feet sounded weighty and heavy compared to the iamb, and they were very common in the verse of Quintus Ennius, one of the earliest known Latin poets.
Horace next notes that it takes a proper poet to detect badly-metered poetry. However, at the end of the day, if one is too afraid of making a mistake to try using meter, they will never be able to master it.
Thus, Horace commands his listener to study Greek meter day and night to learn the proper way to use it. He reminds us, listeners, that most people applaud foolish, distasteful, and overtly bad content, such as the lewd comedies of Plautus. He suggests that we know better and can use our ears and fingers to count syllables to make something even more worthy of praise.
Thespis is said to have invented a new kind of tragedy, and to have presented his plays about from wagons, sung and acted by men who had their faces besmeared with lees of wine. After him, Aeschylus, the inventor of the visored mask and modest robe, laid the stage over with boards of a tolerable size, and he taught [actors] to speak in a loud tone and strut in the buskin. Old comedy advanced from these men, not without considerable praise.
However, its personal freedom degenerated into excess and violence, worthy to be regulated by law. A law was made accordingly, and the chorus, having lost its right of attacking, shamefully became silent.
Our poets have left no category untested; nor have those who dared to forsake the footsteps of the Greeks and celebrate domestic life merited the smallest honor, whether they have instructed us in tragedy or comedy. Italy would not be more clebrated for her valor and feats of arms than by its language if the fatigue and tediousness of revision didn’t disgust every one of our poets. Descendants of Pompilius, reject a poem that many days and many a blot have not ten times subdued to the most perfect accuracy.
In lines 275 to 294 of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace notes that the art of drama and poetry has changed over time. This change, according to Horace, is a good thing, allowing art to reflect the truth of an era.
The earliest form of drama, invented by Thespis, was more of a traveling circus show, presented from the back of wagons. However, Aeschylus developed the stage, costumes, and vocal register appropriate for telling stories to a large audience.
Still, Horace notes an interesting fact – that tragedies often got out of control, as the chorus often abused the other actors with violence on stage. A law had to be made to stop it!
All this exposition leads to Horace’s note on perfecting art. Revision makes things better, according to Horace, and Roman literature would be much better if Latin poets and dramatists just revised their work more.
Because Democritus believes that the spirit of a poeple is more successful than wretched art and excludes from Mt. Helicon all poets who are in their senses, a great number do not care to part with their nails or beard, frequent places of solitude, and shun the baths.
For a man will acquire the esteem and title of a poet if he does not allow his head, which is not to be cured by even three Anticyras, to Licinius the barber.
What an unlucky fellow am I, who am purged for bile in spring-time! Else nobody would compose better poems – but the purchase is not worth the expense.
Therefore, I will serve instead of a whetstone, which though not able of itself to cut, can make steel sharp. So I, who can write no poetry myself, will teach the duty and business whence he may be full with rich materials: what nourishes and forms the poet, what gives grace, what not, and what is the tendency of excellence, what that of error.
Lines 295 through 332 of the ‘Ars Poetica’ let Horace’s sarcastic humor shine through as he discusses the ascetic behavior of poets. He notes that poets, according to the Greek philosopher and poet Democritus, do not see doctors, bathe, or cut their hair and nails, and they like to hang out alone.
Horace laments that he sees a doctor in the spring to purge his excess bile, so, following these rules, he cannot be a poet. Instead, he can only teach others how to write good poetry. This statement uses irony, as Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ is a poem written in dactylic hexameter. He is currently writing poetry, rejecting the idea that poets must behave in a certain way to be good at their craft.
To have good sense, is the first principle and fountain of writing well. The Socratic papers will direct you in the choice of your topics, and words will spontaneously accompany the subject when it is well conceived.
He who has learned what he owes to his country and to his friends, with what affection a parent, a brother, and a stranger, are to be loved, what is the duty of a senator, what of a judge, of the duties of a general sent out to war, this man certainly knows how to give suitable attributes to every character.
I should direct the learned imitator to have a regard to the mode of nature and manners, then draw his expressions to the life. Sometimes a play, that is showy with common places, and where the manners are well marked, though of no elegance, without force or art, gives the people much higher delight and better commands their attention than verse void of matter and tuneful trifles.
To the Greeks, covetous of nothing but praise, the muse gave genius – to the Greeks the power of expressing themselves in rounded eloquence. The Roman youth learns by long computation to divide a pound into a hundred parts. Let the son of Albinus tell me, if from five ounces, what remains when one is subtracted? He would have said the third of a pound. Bravely done! You will be able to take care of your own affairs. An ounce is added: what will that be? Half a pound.
When this filthy rust and hankering after wealth has tainted their minds, can we hope to craft poetry worthy of being anointed with the oil of cedar and kept in the well-polished cypress?
Poets wish either to profit, to delight, or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessities of life. Whatever precepts you give, be concise so that docile minds may soon comprehend what is said and faithfully retain it. All superfluous instructions flow from an overstuffed memory. Let whatever you imagine for the sake of entertainment have as much likeness to truth as possible; don’t let your story demand belief in whatever it chooses – don’t take out of a witch’s belly a living child that she had dined upon. The tribes of the seniors rail against every thing that is void of plausability: the exalted knights disregard poems which are austere.
He who joins the instructive with the agreeable carries off every vote by delighting and, at the same time, warning the reader. This book gains money for the Sosii, crosses the sea, and prolongs the fame of the author throughout the ages.
Yet there are faults which we should be ready to pardon. The string doesn’t always sound the way that the hand and mind intend, but it very often returns a sharp note when he demands a flat. Nor will the bow always hit whatever mark it threatens. But when there is a great majority of beauties in a poem, I will not be offended with a few blemishes, which either inattention has dropped, or human nature has not sufficiently provided against.
What then? As a transcriber, if he still commits the same fault though he has been reproved, is without excuse, and the harper who always blunders on the same string is sure to be laughed at. Thus, he who is excessively deficient becomes another Choerilus, whom, when I find him tolerable in two or three places, I wonder at with laughter. At the same time, I am grieved whenever honest Homer grows drowsy. But it is allowable that sleep should steal upon a long work.
As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance. One loves the dark. Another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light. The one has pleased once, but the other will give pleasure if revisited ten [more] times.
In lines 333 through 365 of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace lets us see his inner poetry critic. Here, the poet notes that nothing is absolutely perfect, but as long as it is instructive, amusing, and well-revised. While some works may have their issues, as long as a play or poem brings joy and knowledge to the audience, it’s worthy of praise.
Horace also notes that some parts of a tale should be simply amusing or imaginative, but they should not try to convince the audience that these fantastical things are real. Instead, they should delight the audience just for the fun of it all.
Horace seems to believe that Romans, with their strong preference for studying things like math, often cheat themselves of their own imagination, the beauty of nature, and the ability to write good poems. According to Horace, good poems mimic nature – not just numbers and money.
As such, the poet writes poetry for his audience, not just for financial wealth. In doing so, a poet’s fame can be immense and last even longer than money.
This section also includes a very famous Latin phrase, ut pictura poesis, “as is painting, so is poetry.” This phrase, often used to describe the structure and imagery within a poem, is a bit different in the context of the ‘Ars Poetica.’
Here, Horace indicates that some poems hide from critics, but these works are like small paintings in a private home, made to be seen by a few people. Other poems – those that are written for critical acclaim – will be seen in broad daylight by thousands of people.
You, the eldest son of Piso, though you are framed to a right judgment by your father’s instructions, and are wise in yourself, take this truth along with you, remember it: in certain things, a medium and tolerable degree of eminence may be admitte. A counselor and plaintiff at the bar of the middle rate is far removed from the merit of eloquent Messala, nor has so much knowledge of the law as Casselius Aulus, but yet he is in request. Mediocrity in poets neither gods, nor men, nor [even] the booksellers’ shops have endured.
As, at an agreeable event, discordant music, muddy perfume, and poppies mixed with Sardinian honey give offense, because the supper might have passed without them; so poetry, created and invented for the delight of our souls, if it comes short ever so little of the summit, sinks to the bottom.
He who does not understand sports avoids the weapons of the Campus Martius, and the man unskillful with the the tennis-ball, the quoit, and the troques keeps himself quiet lest the crowded ring [of spectators] should raise a laugh at his expense. This notwithstanding, a man who knows nothing of verses presumes to compose. Why not? He is free-born and of a good family. Above all, he has enough money to be come a knight, and he is clear from every vice. You will neither say nor do any thing in opposition to Minerva: such is your judgment, such your disposition.
But if you ever write anything, let it be submitted to the ears of Metius [Tarpa], who is a judge, and your father’s, and mine; and let it be suppressed till the ninth year, your papers laid up within your own custody. You can always delete what you have not published: once sent abroad, a word can never return.
Orpheus, the priest and interpreter of the gods, deterred the savage race of men from slaughters and inhuman diet and was said to tame tigers and furious lions. Amphion too, the builder of the Theban wall, was said to give the stones motion with the sound of his lyre, and to lead them wherever he wished by engaging persuasion.
This was deemed wisdom of the olden days: to distinguish the public from private, things sacred from things profane, to prohibit a promiscuous commerce between the sexes, to give laws to married people, to plan out cities, to engrave laws on [tables of] wood. Thus, honor accumulated for divine poets and their songs.
After that, excellent Homer and Tyrtaeus animated the manly mind to military achievements with their verses. Oracles were written in poetry, the economy of life was pointed out, and the favor of sovereign princes was solicited by Pierian strains. Songs were made to ease the tedious workday – in case you are ashamed of the lyric muse and Apollo the god of song.
In lines 366 to 407 of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace discusses the importance of keeping art and poetry private until it’s finished. Horace warns us that once you send out a poem to the world and publish it, you can never take it back – something we know all too well in this digital age.
For that reason, Horace recommends to the wannabe poet, the eldest Piso son, that he seek out criticism from several people before making his work public. By reading the poem to his father, a judge, and a poet, Piso may be able to discover the unpolished errors within his work.
Horace also argues that, when it comes to poetry, mediocrity is unsettling and distasteful. Thus, perfecting a work before publication gives the poet the best chance of reaching acclaim akin to that of Homer and Orpheus.
The question is whether good poetry is drawn up from from nature or from art. For my part, I have never seen the benefits of study without a wealth of skill, nor have I seen what an unrefined talent can do on its own. The one requires so much assistance of the other, and so do they conspire as friends.
He who is dedicated to reach his desired goal has done and suffered much when a boy. He has sweated and shivered with cold, and he has abstained from love and wine. He who sings the Pythian strains, was first a learner in awe of a master. However, it is now enough for a man to say of himself: “I make marvelous verses: let my itch overtake me to the end. I will not be sorrowfully left behind, nor will I admit that I am ignorant of the things I never learned.”
Just like an auctioneer who gathers a crowd to buy his goods, so does a poet rich in land, rich in money put into investments, invite flatterers to come for a reward. But if he be well and able to set out an elegant table and give security for a poor man and relieve him when entangled in gloomy law-suits, I shall wonder if, with his wealth, he can distinguish a true friend from a false one.
You, whether you have made or intend to make a present to any one, do not bring him, full of joy, directly to your finished verses; for, then he will cry out, “Charming, excellent, judicious!” He will turn pale. At some parts he will even distill the dew from his friendly eyes. He will jump about, and he will stomp at the ground. It’s like how those people who mourn at funerals for a fee do and say more than those that are afflicted with a broken heart. And so the sham admirer is more moved than he that praises with sincerity.
It’s been said that certain kings, anxious to observe a man and see whether he is worthy of trust or not, urge the man with many glasses and ply him wine. And so, if you compose verses, let not the fox’s concealed intentions impose upon you.
If you had recited any thing to Quintilius, he would say, “Please alter this and this.” If you replied that you could do no better, having made the experiment twice or thrice in vain, he would order you to delete it and again apply your bad poetry to the anvil.
If you chose to instead defend, rather than correct, a fault, then he wouldn’t have offered you another word or his usesless effort, but you alone might be fond of yourself and your own works without a rival. A good and sensible man will criticize spiritless verses, he will condemn the rough ones, and he will draw a black stroke over the incorrect with his pen. He will lop off ambitious ornaments. He will force himself to illuminate the parts that are not clear. He will arraign what is expressed ambiguously. He will mark what should be changed.
He will be an Aristarchus, and he will not say, “Why should offend my friend about mere trifles?” These trifles will lead into mischiefs of serious consequence when they are made an object of ridicule and used in a sinister manner.
In lines 408 through 437 of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace continues his discussion of criticism and getting feedback from others before publishing a work. According to Horace, skill and study go hand-in-hand.
He seems to believe that, even if a person has a natural talent for writing poetry, they should still study form and meter. Otherwise, the poet may be ignorant of his own potential.
Still, Horace acknowledges that if one seeks out feedback from others, the listener must be objective and as unbiased as possible. Men who feel the need to ingratiate themselves with you for any reason may give overwhelmingly positive feedback just to save themselves from potentially offending you.
For that reason, the poet recommends that people be wary of positive feedback lest the critic be a fox, attempting to get your favor with his praise.
Sensible people avoid a poet who is mad, just as [they avoid] a man distressed by a despicable plague or jaundice, fanatic frenzy, or lunacy. The boys jostle him, and the incautious pursue him.
If, like a fowler intent upon blackbirds, he should fall into a well or a ditch while he belches out his lofty verses and roams about, though he might cry out for a long time, “Oh, come here my countrymen,” not one would give himself the trouble of taking him up. If anyone takes the pains to give him help and let down a rope, I’ll say, “How do you know that he didn’t throw himself in there on purpose?” and I will tell you about the death of the Sicilian poet, Empedocles, who, while he hoped to be esteemed as an immortal god, in cold blood leaped into the burning [volcano], Mt. Aetna.
Let poets have the privilege and license to die as they wish. He who saves a man against his will murders him. It’s not the first time that he has acted this way, nor, if he were to be forced from his purposes, would he now become a human being and lay aside his desire for such a famous death. It’s not very clear why he still makes verses. Perhaps he has defiled his father’s ashes or sacrilegiously disturbed the gloomy spot struck by thunder. It is certain that he is mad, and like a bear that has burst through the bars of its cage, this unpleasant reciter chases the learned and unlearned. And whoever he seizes, he grips onto and kills with his recitation: a leech that will not quit the skin until it’s satiated with blood.
In the final section of the ‘Ars Poetica,’ Horace describes what makes a poet bad. Angry and overly emotional poets, according to Horace, are absolutely savage and should be avoided like the plague.
These bad poets, when they feel angry or sad, simply recite their verses annoyingly and loudly, wandering around and calling them out to anyone who would hear. Horace sets up a comical scene as he describes a rambling poet so focused on his lectures and recitations that he walks straight into a well.
Horace offers no sympathy for this self-absorption and arrogance, stating that if a poet may live as he chooses, he should also die as he chooses. It doesn’t bother him that some poets, full of themselves and very boisterous, seal their own fates: to cry out for help, and no one will come. This idea is the same one as in the tale of the boy who cried wolf.
The main theme of ‘Ars Poetica’ by Horace is poetry, even though the poet also discusses the proper way to stage and write plays in this treatise on the art of writing. Horace offers his expertise in writing poems in the ‘Ars Poetica,’ which functions like a textbook or guide on how to be a good author.
An ars poetica is a poem about poetry or poets, a genre of literature taken from the title of Horace’s ‘Epistle to the Pisos,’ also known as the ‘Ars Poetica.’ This poem has served as a sort of archetype of literary criticism and aesthetics studies that investigate the role of the author in any given society.
The ‘Ars Poetica’ contains many Latin phrases that have made their way into common English writing. These include “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), “in medias res” (in the middle of things), and “ab ovo” (from the very beginning). These phrases and their common usage just reinforce the lasting legacy and importance of Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica.’
The main idea of ‘Ars Poetica’ by Horace is that to be good at his craft, an author should understand the world around him and accept criticism well. Horace offers many tips on how to make a story appeal to a universal audience and continually improve one’s writing skills. These ideas become all the more trustworthy, considering that we are still studying this poem more than 2,000 years after its first publication.
Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ has inspired poets and authors throughout the centuries, eventually developing into a separate genre of poetry.
Some poems that take direct inspiration from Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ include:
- ‘Ars Poetica’ by Archibald MacLeish – this 1985 poem describes what the speaker believes to be the elements of successful and unsuccessful poetry.
- ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ by Frank O’Hara – is a poem that describes the difference between the creative process of a painter and a poet.
- ‘Ars Poetica’ by Pablo Neruda – is a 1923 poem about how the poet believes that poetry is a result of suffering.
- ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant’ by Emily Dickinson – is one of Dickinson’s best-loved poems in which the poet presents an unknown “truth” that readers must interpret in their own way.