Discuss the nature of poetry with reference to Horace's Ars Poetica.

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Horace (65-8 B.C.) was less a literary theorist than a practicing, professional poet. Because he wrote during a period in Roman history when the value of literature was taken for granted, he felt no great need to defend literature from philosophical attacks or to ponder its underlying nature or purposes. His great statement about poetry, often called the Ars Poetica, was in fact a poetic epistle addressed to members of an influential family interested in writing.

In the epistle, Horace focuses mainly on giving very practical advice about how a writer should effectively appeal to an audience (or at least avoid arousing their ridicule). Horace’s ideas, which were influenced by Aristotle’s and which were sometimes later even more explicitly combined with them by subsequent theorists, were extremely influential during the middle ages and Renaissance and into the eighteenth century. Some similarities exist between Horace’s ideas and those of recent reader response theorists.

Horace believed that a literary text should observe the basic rules of its particular genre—rules passed down by custom or tradition. It should be unified and not too complex, and it should be self-consistent. Violations of consistency (for instance, having a god suddenly appear on stage to solve problems in a plot) will seem ridiculous to the audience. The text should be carefully crafted; nothing should seem out of place. It should be a generally faithful imitation of real life and should use generally familiar language. It should convey wisdom, but it must also please. The most successful works tend both to please and to instruct (partly because they thereby appeal to the widest range of audience interests.

For Horace, satisfying the audience is crucial; failure to do so will result in ridicule. The audience will be familiar with customary practices, social decorum, and the standards of real life. By violating any of these, the artist risks making a fool of herself. The audience will consist of different social segments (the young and old, for instance, or those interested in entertainment and those interested in instruction). The writer who hopes to be successful should therefore try to appeal to as many audience interests as possible (without, of course, being inconsistent or violating custom). Because the audience will not tolerate mediocrity in a writer, the writer must seek to eliminate as many flaws as possible from his work. In general the writer should keep his potential audience constantly in mind and should donothing that might provoke their ridicule.


These remarks are excerpted from my book Close Readings, revised edition (Montgomery: MBF Books, 2006).  This book contains much fuller discussion of Horace’s ideas and many practical applications of them to various short stories.


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