Ars Poetica by Horace.

German translation of Ars Poetica (1752).
Yesterday evening I read Ars Poetica, a poem composed by Horace in 18 or 19 B.C. on the art of writing. I read the prose translation by T. S. Dorsch (1965) which was accidental - I didn't know when I bought it it was a poem when I bought the book but nevertheless I still enjoyed it. It's quite short - 476 lines and was written in a letter to the Roman senator Lucius Calpurnius Piso and his children (originally referred to as Epistula Ad Pisones, or Letters to the Pisos) and can be divided into roughly 14 or so parts (the divisions and corresponding titles I use in this post are from Ars Poetica on the Classical Literature website).

The first part is on unity and harmony (lines 1 - 37), in which Horace begins,
Supposing a painter chose to put a human head on a horse's neck, or to spread feathers of various colours over the limbs of several different creatures, or to make what in the upper parts is a beautiful woman tail off into a hideous fish, could you help from laughing when he showed it to you?
Poets, painters, and dramatists, notes Horace, often take such liberties though at times they make look "like a sick man's dreams", so these liberties must be limited: "whatever you set your hand to, you must be single-minded about it and keep to the point". He advises, in the second part on the writer's aims (lines 38 - 72) to,
Choose a subject that is suited to your abilities... A man who chooses a subject within his powers will never be at a loss for words, and his thoughts will be clear and orderly. 
With this in mind, the poet must then choose his words carefully; be subtle and skilful, and "give fresh meaning to a familiar word". Language is fluid, new words are added whilst old words die:
As the woods change their foliage with the decline of each year, and the earliest leaves fall, so words die out with old age; and the newly born ones thrive and prosper just like human beings in the vigour of youth. 
Some words will disappear only to re-emerge, others will never be written again.

In the third part, Horace writes on what tradition dictates (lines 73 - 118), referring first to Homer - 
Homer showed us in what metre the exploits of kings and commanders and the miseries of war were to be recorded.
He then mentions Archilochus (a Greek lyrical poet, 680 – 645 B.C.) who "invented the iambic measure as the weapon for furious satire", and that the Muse is "assigned the task of celebrating the gods and their offspring, the winner in a boxing-match, and the horse that led the field; and the task, too, of singing the woes of young lovers and the pleasures of wine". He surmises,
Let each of these styles be kept for the role properly allotted to it.
He goes to write that poetry must be beautiful but also charming: "If you want to move me to tears, you must first feel grief yourself". He reiterates that harmony is key.

From here Horace moves on to the fourth part, in which he warns be consistent if you are original (lines 119 - 152) -
Either follow the beaten track, or invent something that is consistent in itself. If in your play you happen to be representing the illustrious Achilles, let him be energetic, passionate, ruthless, and implacable; let him say that laws are not meant for him, and think that everything must yield to the force of arms. See to it that Medea is fierce and indomitable, Ino tearful, Ixion faithless, Io a wanderer, and Orestes sorrowful. If you introduce an untried subject to the stage, or are so bold as to invent a new character, be sure that it remains the same all the way through as the beginning, and is entirely consistent. 
From here he moves on to characterisation (lines 153 - 188), and that it is necessary to understand and note "the behaviour of people of different ages": firstly, the child "will fly into a temper and with as little reason recover from it". Secondly, the "beardless youth" is easily persuaded whilst at the same time "irritable with his counsellors". The adult man "sets out to acquire wealth and influential connexions, aims at securing public offices, and is careful to avoid doing anything which he might later wish had been done otherwise". Finally, the old man "is beset by many troubles.... he is obstinate, too, and querulous, and given to praising the days when he was a boy". He then goes on to warn that some action must be kept off stage - a play should not, for example, show Medea "butcher her children" or "I shall turn in disgust from anything of this kind that you show me".

In the next section Horace writes on the gods, chorus and music (lines 189 - 219): a play must be no longer or shorter than five acts, a "deus ex machina should not be introduced unless some entanglement develops which requires such a person to unravel it", and there should  be no more than three speaking characters on stage at one time. The chorus must sympathise with the good characters, and music should accompany the action, and not be overbearing or distracting.

Now half way, Horace moves on to write on style (lines 220 - 250), noting "such is the power of words that are used in the right places and in the right relationships, and such the grace that they can add to the commonplace when so used". Again, consistency is key - do not bring a woodland faun on to the stage and "allow them to speak as though they had been brought up in the heart of the city". 

From style to metre and versification (lines 251 - 274), in which he defines and discusses the "iambus", and then on to mentioning Plautus: this was particularly interesting for me because earlier this week I read Mostellaria and didn't get on so well with it (will certainly need to re-read it at some point). Horace writes,
But, you will say, your grandfathers were enthusiastic about the versification and wit of Plautus. They were altogether too tolerant, not to say foolish, in their admiration of both these things in him, if you and I have any idea of how to discriminate between coarseness and graceful wit, and how to pick out the right rhythm both by counting and by ear.
So much for Plautus! Next, Horace writes on tragedy and comedy, and Greek and Roman poets (lines 275 - 294). He mentions Thespis (a 6th Century B.C. Greek writer and actor: in fact, it is said, the first actor), and Aeschylus, and on how drama moved from tragedy to comedy, but then how Old Comedy "degenerated into an offensive violence of language which had to be curbed by law". At the end of this section he remarks that Italy has done well in both tragedies and comedies, particularly when they stray from the Greek methods; and, to conclude, Italy would be even better if they "polish[ed] their work". This leads to the next section, on how to be a good poet (lines 295 - 332), in which Horace advises that the Socratic writings may provide material, and "if you look after the subject-matter the words will come readily enough". He goes on,
... the experienced poet, as an imitative artist, should look to human life and character from his models, and from them derive a language that is true to life. Sometimes a play that has a few brilliant passages showing a true appreciation of character, even if it lacks grace and has little depth or artistry, will catch the fancy of an audience, and keep its attention more firmly than verse which lacks substance but is filled with well-sounding trifles.
From here to motivation of an artist: Horace writes on combining instruction with pleasure (lines 333 - 365). Plays written for instruction should not be overbearing, and for pleasure it should not be unrealistic. But he does concede that mistakes are made and ought to be forgiven:
... I am put out when the worthy Homer nods, although it is natural that slumber should occasionally creep over a long poem.
At this point Horace addresses Piso's children directly in the 12th section: avoid mediocrity (lines 366 - 407): though, he concedes, mediocrity is not completely worthless in other walks of life, it is in art, yet he observes that art is the only walk of life that just about anyone will try - "yet the man who knows nothing about poetry has the audacity to write it". He goes on to warn in the following section that study and talent are both needed, but beware of the flattery of critics (lines 408 - 437). 
The question has been asked whether a fine poem is the product of nature or of art. I myself cannot see the value of application without a strong natural appetite, or, on the other hand, of natural genius unless it is cultivated - so true is it that each requires the help of the other, and that they enter into a friendly compact with each other. The athlete who strains to reach the winning-post has trained hard as a boy and put up with a great deal, sweating and shivering in the cold, and keeping away from women and wine; the flautist who plays at the Pythian games has first had to learn his art under a stern master. Yet nowadays it is enough for a man to say: 'I write marvellous poems - the devil take the hindmost! It would be dreadful if I fell behind and had to admit that I know absolutely nothing about what, after all, I've never learnt'.
Finally, he warns to beware of false flattery.

In the final section, know your faults and keep your wits (lines 438 - 476) he refers to Quintilius Varus, a politician of that period. Horace writes,
When anything was read to Quintilius Varus, he would say: 'You must put this right - and this too, please.' If after two or three ineffectual attempts you said you could not do any better, he would tell you to get rid of that passage; the lines were badly turned and would have to be hammered out again. If you chose to defend a weakness rather than correct it, he would not say another word, nor waste any effort in trying to prevent you from regarding yourself and your work as unique and unrivalled.
Poor poets determined on their suicidal mission to carry on, Horace concludes, "will fasten on to anyone he manages to catch, and read him to death - just like a leech that will not drop off your skin until it is gorged with blood".

And there ends Ars Poetica. It's a very interesting piece - not only in itself but also to learn more about what Horace considered art back in the ancient times. Some of his advice still stands today, and some of it doesn't, but I learned a lot about Roman and Greek plays from this short work - the technicalities, the construction, and what is good and what is not, which of course gives me a new insight into ancient works. 

I found this essay in my copy of Classical Literary Criticism, which also contains On the Art of Poetry by Aristotle and On the Sublime by Longinus, and over the next few weeks I'll be reading and writing about those. And I must say I'm relieved at having read this after having a few false starts in my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge


  1. This is so useful explanation, could you please tell me more about unity and harmony in detail? Thank you


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