Thursday, September 6, 2007

On "The Art of Poetry" by Horace (65-8 B.C.)

Ars Poetica, or The Art of Poetry, is Horace’s advisory letter, in verse, to the Piso brothers, in which he addresses the problems of writing successful poetry. Unlike Aristotle and Plato, Horace is “more interested in the practical questions of how the poet may delight and instruct an intelligent reader, than in defining what a poem is or what literature is” (Selden, Intro). Horace offers the Piso brothers a theory of poetry based not on any universal principles, but rather on the tastes of the ruling classes, the political demands of the day, and good, old-fashioned “decorum.” Horace explains his notion of decorum in terms of a) the proper balance between the didactic and the entertaining, b) the proper regard for audience, and c) the mimesis of nature and of art.

First, he insists that the “decorous” poet should not be too daring. “Poets and painters . . . have always had an equal license in daring invention.” Restraint regarding the means, object, and manner of art, therefore, should be observed. Second, flattery of ruling elites is not to be scoffed at, since the poet can only earn a living under their patronage. It is to their demands that the poet must conform, and if he doesn't, he will most likely meet a tragic fate not unlike that of the unfortunate poet in the end Horace’s letter, who, contemptuous of decorum and compromise, is scorned by the world as a madman.

Like a leper or a man with jaundice, or one frenzied or lunatic, the rapt poet is the terror of all sensible people: they fly at his approach. Children tease him and rashly run after him. Away he goes, head in air, spouting his verses, and if, like the birdcatcher with his eyes on the thrushes, he falls into a well or a ditch, he may call as loud as he will ‘Help, fellow citizens!’: no one will take the trouble to lift him out again.

Consideration for the audience is thus essential. And because it is the contemporary world with which the audience is most concerned, the poet must be attuned to the sensibilities of the age. “You must note the manners of each several age,” Horace writes, “and their fitting hue must be given to the tempers which change with the years.”

Unlike Aristotle who rarely took into account the audience (one senses that he is even contemptuous of them), Horace is concerned with keeping his reputation and “selling tickets,” and he advises the Piso brothers, too, to be mindful of these practicalities. “Remember,” he cautions, “that our attention will always be kept by traits that are attached and fitted to the age.”

Yet like Aristotle, Horace acknowledges the importance of formal unity, noting that a successful work is always “uniform and whole.” Still, “it is not enough that poems have beauty of form,” he writes, for they also “must have charm, and draw the hearer’s feeling which way they will.”

This shift away from the formal aspects of the work and toward the audience’s reception marks a major departure from Aristotle, who, as I pointed out, rarely even referred to the audience. Horace’s desire to “draw the hearer’s feeling” sounds closer to the audience-reception theories of Zeami or Chikamatsu, than to the philosophical formalism of Aristotle. Horace makes the further claim that, in order to evoke emotion in the audience, the feelings must first be experienced by the writer. “If you wish to draw tears from me," he writes, "you must first feel pain yourself.” I suspect that both Chikamatsu and Zeami might find this statement puzzling, though I can find no quotation to support this claim.

But like Chikamatsu who advocated tempered emotion, Horace too insists that sincerity alone will not suffice: indeed, sincerity must be coupled with what he calls “wise thinking,” which is the “source and fountainhead” of good writing (compare with Chikamatsu’s notion of "tempered feeling"). One should avoid superfluous poetry which does not suit the form and tone of the work, and should subordinate the poetic elements of the work to the dramatic elements, for “it misbeseems tragedy to pour a flood of bantering verse.”

The “show, don’t tell” dictum also appears here in Horace as he distinguishes between the two kinds of action: performed and narrated. “What finds entrance through the ear,” he writes, “stirs the mind less actively than what is submitted to the eyes.” Yet, the more shocking scenes―- Atreus’s “banquet of human flesh” or Procne’s mutation into a bird are two examples he gives―- should be narrated, since they are too horrible for sight. “Anything that you thus thrust upon my sight I discredit and revolt at,” he warns.

Though Aristotle speaks of mimesis (the imitation of nature), nowhere does he speak of the imitation of the already imitated (i.e., of the tradition). This is a new theme taken up by Horace, who writes that the poet should honor, imitate, and, to borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom, “intentionally misread” the established tradition (i.e., the Greek epics and tragedies). By “retranslating” for a new age the established tradition, the artist then inventively constructs a “second nature.” Horace points out that this “second nature,” which becomes “the tradition,” is not based on universal aesthetic principles, but rather is particular to each age and naturally morphs with time. Again relating this to the notion of decorum, Horace urges the poet to be consistent with this tradition, and to avoid trying to speed its development through rash innovation. When writing Achilles, for example, the poet should render him “spirted, hot-tempered, ruthless, [and] fiery,” as the tradition accords; and when writing Medea, he should portray her as “defiant and untamed.”

The established tradition is one main source for new art; the other source is the common stuff of life. “My aim,” Horace writes, “shall be a poem so molded of common materials that all the world may hope as much for itself.” And this common stuff of life is to be expressed in the colloquial language of the day, and portrayed realistically. “Fictions intended to please,” he writes, “must be kept as near as may be to real life.” This statement is a stark contrast to Chikamatsu’s claim that realism should be avoided, as it is the most insipid and lifeless of the various methods.

Horace’s Ars Poetica is littered with kernels of useful advice, some of which I will include here. Horace holds that a work should always begin in media res. He gives the example of Homer, who “ever hastens to the issue, and hurries his hearers into the midst of the story, just as if they knew it before.” He also advise the poet not to overuse deux ex machina: “Neither should a god intervene, unless a knot befalls worthy of his interference.”

Further, the chorus should always play the role of good counselor, and proper meter should follow the Greek and be chiefly hexametric. And though the two functions of poetry are to delight and to instruct, one should always be brief when instructing, since no one―- especially the Romans―- likes to be lectured. “The aim of the poet," Horace writes, "is either to benefit, or to amuse, or to make his words at once please and give lessons of life. When you wish to instruct, be brief.”

Finally, beause not all men are of equal talent, one should not take on tasks that are too difficult. “Choose a subject, ye who write, equal to your strength.” And think long and hard before publishing anything, for “the word uncaged never comes home again.”

[The full text can be found in Raman Selden's The theory of criticism from Plato to the present : a reader. London, New York : Longman, 1988.]

This article is copyrighted © 2005 - 2009 by Beholdmyswarthyface.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ryan. Here are some other notable parts from the text:

Is art a product of nature (natural genius) or art (acquired learning)? A: both. “For my part I do not see what study can do without a rich vein of native gift, nor what the native gift can do without culture: so much does each ask of the other and swear eternal alliance with it.”

Even Homer nods.

Ut pictura poesis: “As with the painter’s work, so with the poet’s: one piece will take you more if you stand close to it, another at a great distance. This loves a dark corner, that will desire to be seen in a strong light, for it fears not the critic’s keenest taste. This pleased but once; that will be asked for ten times and always please.”


Anonymous said...

it helps me a lot,,

thank you ^^

by the way,,
can u explain again about what the contain of Horace's Art Of Poetry??

A boy said...

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A boy said...

May I Copy this ? I intent to cite this page on my assignment. Is that Okay ?