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...
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 openings in portions of their writing. Therefore, he begins The Art of Poetry with a plea for simplicity and unity.
Addressing Piso and his sons directly, Horace confesses that most poets are misled by what looks like truth. When striving for brevity, the poet becomes unintelligible. Attempts to write smoothly result in the loss of vigor and spirit. Aiming at grandeur, the poet becomes bombastic. Only when he or she is guided by art can a writer avoid some errors without committing worse ones. The remedy, therefore, is to select subjects equal to one’s ability and to use appropriate language. Old words, properly used, seem new; new words, borrowed from the Greeks, may also have a place. People are admired for making over nature when they build harbors or drain marshes. Usage, then, should maintain or change the material and rules of speech.
Homer, according to Horace, shows the writer how to handle the deeds of kings and the sad tales of war. No one is sure who invented the elegiac couplet, but Archilochus devises the iambus, used in tragic and comic drama; and since it was born of rage, it is designed to record action. According to tradition, the Muses gave the lyric for singing about victories, lovers, and joyful banquets. All these meters have their specific uses, and the poets would do well to employ them only in their appropriate places, though sometimes a writer of comedy may borrow from other forms of poetic art or an author of tragedies set aside sesquipedalian words in favor of shorter ones to touch the audience’s hearts.
Horace continues by defining feeling as the true test of literary worth, for beauty of writing is not enough. Unless a writer feels, he or she cannot make the audience feel. One style of writing goes with a gloomy face; another sort goes with an angry one or a playful...
Armstrong, David. “The Addressees of the Ars Poetica: Herculaneum, the Pisones, and Epicurean Protreptic.” Materiali e Discussioni 31 (1993): 185-230. This important article on the Ars poetica sheds fresh light on old problems. In particular, it discusses the specifics of the Epicurean use of free speech as therapy and its function as a model for Horace’s Ars poetica.
Brink, Charles O. “Cicero’s Orator and Horace’s Ars Poetica.” Ciceroniana 2 (1975): 97-106. An informative article clarifying issues on the relation, function, and sources of the two works.
Brink, Charles O. Horace on Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1963-1982. The most comprehensive work on the Ars poetica. Its three volumes explore the sources of the poem and offer an edition of and extensive commentary on the text, accompanied by discussion of the poem’s literary milieu. An annotated edition of Horace’s other literary epistles complements his views on poetry.
Frischer, Bernard. Shifting Paradigms: New Approaches to Horace’s “Ars Poetica.” Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991. This book reexamines the problems of genre, addressees, and date of the Ars poetica, reaching the innovative (but eccentric) conclusion that the poem is meant as a parody of pedantic criticism and not as a serious poetic treatise.