Assigned: Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus). Ars Poetica (133-44). Also read the editors’ introduction (131-33).

Ars Poetica (circa 10 B.C.E.)

1. On 133-135 (“Imagine a painter wanting to attach…”), Horace, writing during the early imperial period and addressing his verse epistle to the Roman senator Lucius Calpurnius Piso and that luminary’s two sons, begins by conjuring a number of grotesque images that a misguided painter might think he has license to create. What practical point about artistic or literary production does Horace make by referring to such strange images? What advice does he go on to offer Pisos’ sons, and any other young men who would be Roman poets, with regard to their choice of material, skill in the “arrangement” (134) of their subject, and the utility of economy and innovation when searching for the right words to convey one’s meaning?

2. On 135 (“Just as woods change their leaves…”), Horace compares the changes a human language undergoes to the changes nature undergoes, and drives home his reminder of the perishing nature of all that is human with the line, “We ourselves, and our works, are debts owed to death” (Debemur morti nos nostraque, line 63). On the basis of his metaphor equating linguistic change with seasonal change, what might Horace be suggesting about the poet’s role in the shaping of a people’s language? Furthermore, when he writes that “Many terms shall grow back which now have fallen away, and those now held in esteem shall fall, if our poetic practice so approves,” what might we infer about the process whereby literary culture (and perhaps culture in an even broader sense) endures? Can art, for Horace, embody universal and eternal values, or would we be impertinent to expect that of it? Explain.

3. On 136 (“It is not enough that poetry…”), turning to the issue of poetry’s power to move a hearer or reader, Horace writes to the Pisos, “If you want me to cry, you must first cry yourself.” Does this sentence indicate an interest in language as an expressive vehicle in relation to poets themselves (as in, “anguished poets expressing their own real-life feelings and desires through their verses”), or does it instead have to do mainly with what orators call “delivery,” the skillful performance of a speech? Explain. (If you are presenting on this question, you might also want to consider Aristotle’s remarks in Poetics, paragraph 17, Leitch anthology 113-14, about dramatists “seeing the events with the utmost vividness” as they build up their plots.)

4. On 136-37 (“Either follow a legend when writing…”), how important is sticking with poetic tradition in the representation of one’s characters, according to Horace? To what extent may a poet depart from traditional character presentation, and what challenge does he or she face when trying something new? What additional advice does Horace offer on how to begin a poem in an appropriate manner, how to manage one’s source material in terms of plot construction, and what to include or exclude from the story one is recounting? How does this sort of advice bespeak Horace’s keen sense of audience needs and expectations?

5. On 137 (“Listen to what I long for…”), what further lesson does Horace impart regarding the convincing representation of characters at various times of life? How should a child be portrayed? How should a young man be represented? A man in the prime of life? An old man? How do Horace’s remarks here, as in the previous paragraph, reveal his abiding concern with “decorum,” or artistic propriety in relation to the subjects one represents?

6. On 137-38 (“Action either takes place on stage…”), what kinds of action does Horace set forth as inappropriate to show onstage during a tragedy, so that they should instead be narrated? How does he follow Aristotelian principles in justifying such management of inclusions and omissions? (In responding, see Poetics 112 and 123, with particular attention to Aristotle’s remarks about probability and necessity, and “impossible” scenes or events that one must nonetheless convey.) What other Aristotelian precepts does Horace mention in this short segment of “Ars Poetica”?

7. On 138-39 (“Let the chorus preserve its role…”), Horace begins this section with a comment on the Greek chorus. What are the proper functions of the chorus, in his view? What changes does he go on to describe in the development of tragedy over time, including changes in the nature of musical accompaniment? What do Horace’s observations suggest about his view of drama’s social value, its relation to the audience’s manners and moral quality? Similarly, how does he view the connection between the Satyr play and the tragedy proper—what do his remarks here suggest about the artist’s responsibility to the various Roman social classes?

8. On 139-41 (“Not every critic sees faulty rhythm…”), Horace considers the use that Roman literary artists can profitably make of Greek attitudes and practices. Although the Greek orator Democritus insisted that “talent is a more fortunate thing than base craftsmanship” (140), why is that precept, according to Horace, a very bad one for Roman poets? How, instead, should Romans learn to become properly Roman poets? Where should they draw their subject matter from—i.e., what is the “beginning and source” (140) of good poetry? How does Horace characterize the difference between the Roman people and the Greeks in terms of genius and disposition? He may appear to be casting his fellow Romans as pedestrian business-folk and builders, but is he in fact ready to give up on the quest for excellence in Roman literature, or does his emphasis on craftsmanship on these pages make a different point about Roman creativity? Explain.

9. On 141 (“Poets wish either to benefit…”), Horace writes that “Poets wish either to benefit or delight, or else say things at once pleasant and suited to life [utile et dulce]” (141 top). Which of these two options does he prefer as superior? What does he go on to suggest about the significance of errors in artistic execution, pleasing one’s audience, and providing judicious criticism to the public? Overall, what impression does Horace give us of the typical Roman poet, reader, and critic—what do Romans really wantfrom poetry?

10. On 141 (“A poem is like a picture…”), Horace makes his celebrated and puzzled-over comparison between poetry and painting. Over the centuries, a great deal has been made of his pronouncement, “A poem is like a picture…” (ut pictura poesis, line 361 Latin text) in terms of cross-art comparisons, theories of representation, and so forth. Still, what does it appear to mean in the specific context of the author’s discussion of Roman attitudes about poetic quality?

11. On 141-42 (“O elder youth, though bred…”), Horace admits that “An average and an adequate quality is rightly allowed in certain things,” but then promptly admonishes the Pisos, “That poets should ever be ‘average’ is not a concession allowed by man, gods, or the [booksellers’] stalls” (141 bottom). What does that injunction against mediocre poetry add to a modern reader’s impression of the Roman way of appraising the arts, of the place they accorded art in daily life? Why is it intolerable to them that a poet should churn out lots of mediocre work instead of a smaller number of quality texts?

12. On 142 (“Woodland folk were frightened away…”), what does Horace suggest were the first social functions of poetry? How does he enlist figures such as Orpheus, Amphion, Homer, Tyrtaeus, and the early Greek dramatists in his description of poetry’s social value? Does he see any need to defend the arts against detractors, or is it evident to him that art’s value is beyond dispute? Explain.

13. On 142-43 (“The question was raised…”), what does Horace assert regarding the source of good poetry? Is it a matter of genius, of cultivating one’s talents, or both? “Is it nature or nurture?” as we like to sum up this ancient debate. Since Horace, like nearly everyone, gives the “both/and” response to the question he poses, the better question might be, Why do we keep asking whether good art flows from either genius or craft since we all confess that successful artists combine natural talent with long hours of practice, editing, and so forth? How might Horace’s analysis (142 bottom-143) of many Roman poets’ brazen avoidance of the difficulties involved in creating great poetry partially answer this question? Explain.

14. On 143-44 (“Like one attacked by a bad case…”), Horace ends his verse essay as he began it, with grotesque references to madness. Why do you suppose he brackets his letter with such references? What notion of poetry is he dismissing or downplaying by means of his final reference? How does the “mad poet” image encapsulate the Horatian poet’s worst fears about the reception of his work, about his public standing? How might Horace be referring back to Platonic notions like that of Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Ion (Leitch 46-58), in which a Homeric rhapsode is said to be not a craftsman but instead divinely inspired by the muse to sing the verses of Homer?

15. General question: In spite of their differences, both Plato (in The Republic,Leitch 58-89; Ion, Leitch 46-58, and elsewhere) and Aristotle (in Poetics, Leitch 99-127) were quite interested in exploring the truth status of art. Does the Roman poet and critic Horace, in “Ars Poetica,” seem interested in that question as well, or is it something he would just as well leave aside? Does his approach to poetics and poetry reveal a fundamental difference between the Greeks and the Romans in philosophical and cultural matters? Explain.

16. General question: The urbane Roman poet and critic Horace is an important figure for those interested in whether art shapes a given culture, or whether it merely or mainly reflects values already present in that culture. How does Horace himself, in “Ars Poetica,” answer that question? What is your own opinion on the matter? Can/should art transform people and make them see things in radically new ways, as the modern Romantics insist it should, or does/should it mostly reflect and validate (i.e., imitate or represent approvingly) what most people already think they know about morality, politics, and other broad areas of life? Or is the question too stark? Explain.

17. General exercise: In “Ars Poetica,” Horace prescribes sensible rules for those who want to write good poetry for a sophisticated public. In the spirit of Horace, lay down the rules, from which would flow a sense of “decorum,” for some popular art form or social/cultural form or practice today, offering your best justification for such rules and your best defense of the art form or social/cultural form you have chosen to describe.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake