Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus is best known for his satires, epistles, and odes. He wrote his most influential critical work around the year 15 BC, towards the end of his long career as a poet. Horace’s Ars Poetica is an epistle presented as an informal letter to members of the Piso family. Originally written in dactylic hexameter, the piece is typically translated into prose.
Offering a list of advice to beginning poets, Horace maintains an intimate tone while sharing many of the notions that continue to frame our approach to poetry, including ut pictura poesis. As Horace explains, “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 the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated . . . . ”
Horace places particular emphasis on the importance of decorum in poetry, and on the necessity of “join[ing] the instructive with the agreeable.” He urges poets to keep their audience in mind at all times, and he advises that writers “either follow tradition, or invent such fables as are congruous to themselves.”
Horace’s advice in the Ars Poetica is consistently practical and addresses a wide range of issues of craft regarding translation, emotional affect, playwriting, the dangers of publishing (“a word once sent abroad can never return”), engaging critical feedback, and the comportment of a poet.
The following text has been adapted from translations by C. Smart and by E. H. Blakeney (Horace on the Art of Poetry, [London: Scholartis Press, 1928]). Bracketed text is the translators’ interpolations.
(EPISTLE TO THE PISOS)
If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight. Believe, ye Pisos, the book will be perfectly 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. “Poets and painters [you will say] have ever had equal authority for attempting any thing.” We are conscious of this, and this privilege we demand and allow in turn but not to such a degree, that the tame should associate with the savage; nor that serpents should be coupled with birds, lambs with tigers.
In pompous introductions, and such as promise a great deal, it generally happens that one or two verses of purple patch-work, that may make a great show, are tagged on; as when the grove and the altar of Diana and the meandering of a current hastening through pleasant fields, or the river Rhine, or the rainbow is described. But here there was no room for these [fine things]: perhaps, too, you know how to draw a cypress [used for funerals]: but what is that to the purpose, if he, who is painted for the given price, is [to be represented as] swimming hopeless out of a shipwreck? A large vase at first was designed: why, as the wheel revolves, turns out 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 right. I labour to be concise, I become obscure: nerves and spirit fail him, that aims at the easy: one, that pretends to be sublime, proves bombastical: 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, the boar in the sea. The avoiding of an error leads to a fault, if it lack skill.
A statuary about the Aemilian school shall of himself, with singular skill, both express the nails, and imitate in brass the flexible hair; unhappy yet in the main, because he knows not how to finish a complete piece. I would no more choose to be such a one as this, had I a mind to compose any thing, than to live with a distorted nose, [though] remarkable for black eyes and jetty hair.
Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what your strength declines, and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style, nor a perspicuous disposition, shall desert the man, by whom the subject matter is chosen judiciously.
This, or I am mistaken, will constitute the merit and beauty of arrangement, that the poet just now say what ought just now to be said, put off most of his thoughts, and waive them for the present.
In the choice of his words, too, the author of the projected poem must be delicate and cautious, he must embrace one and reject another: you will express yourself eminently well, if a dexterous combination should give an air of novelty to a well-known word. If it happen to be necessary to explain some abstruse subjects by new invented terms; it will follow that you must frame 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 Plutus 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 been, and ever will be, allowable to coin a word marked with the stamp in present request. As leaves in the woods are changed with the fleeting years; the earliest fall off first: in this manner 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, defends our fleet from the north winds, a kingly work; 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 must perish: much less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off; and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.
Homer has instructed us in what measure the achievements of kings, and chiefs, and direful war might be written.
Plaintive strains originally were appropriated to the unequal numbers [of the elegiac]: afterward [love and] successful desires were included. Yet what author first published humble [i.e., pentameter] elegies, the critics dispute, and the controversy still waits the determination of a judge.
Rage armed Archilochus with the iambic of his own invention. The sock and the majestic buskin assumed this measure as adapted for dialogue, and to silence the noise of the populace, and calculated for action.