Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Horace’s Epistles (c. 20-15 b.c.e.) are written in the same meter, and with much the same style, as his Satires. In form, they are poetic letters intended for a recipient who is named in the first few lines; in actuality, they are general commentaries about human weaknesses or other issues of concern to the author himself.
The Art of Poetry is a reiteration of many of the same arguments found in Epistles 2.1, written at the request of Augustus. In that work, Horace discussed his views about the proper role of literature and the place of Roman poetry within the ancient literary tradition. In The Art of Poetry itself, Horace expands upon these and couples them with specific suggestions for the authors of his day.
Horace begins by praising consistency as the highest virtue of poetry. A work that attempts to be now one thing, now another, is eventually, according to Horace, being nothing at all. For this reason, authors must maintain the same tone throughout a work, not attempt to improve an inferior effort with a “purple patch” (purpureus . . . pannus, lines 15-16) of fine words every now and then. Moreover, authors should not attempt subjects that are beyond their powers. If they do, the result will make them look ridiculous.
Each incident and word in a poem should be chosen with care. Precise selection of what is needed, rather than a torrent...
(The entire section is 586 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
To Horace, this poem was the last of his epistles, but almost at once his contemporaries began referring to it as The Art of Poetry, and by “poetry” they meant any field of literary composition. Horace addresses it to his friend Lucius Calpurnius Piso, famous for his battles in Thrace, and to his two sons. Apparently the older son yearns for a career as a dramatist or an epic poet. While not a formal treatise or an abstract discussion, like the similarly named composition of Aristotle, the 476 lines of this unsystematic letter in verse influenced Joachim du Bellay in writing the manifesto of the Pleiad, and a century later inspired Nicolas Boileau’s L’Art poétique (1674) and Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711). Some of Horace’s suggestions, like the classical five-act division of the drama, are no longer important, but today’s writers still can learn much from the rest of the poem. The double purpose of literature, a mingling of “the useful with the sweet,” has been quoted through the centuries in every literary movement.
One would be amused rather than impressed, begins Horace, by the painting of a creature with a horse’s body and a man’s head, with limbs from every sort of animal, adorned with feathers from a variety of birds. However, poets combine just such outlandish elements, adding “purple patches” where they are entirely out of place in order to give color and brilliance to pompous...
(The entire section is 1349 words.)