Horace IV: ave Horatius, Scrogue exemplarium…

Horace, like any admirable figure, seeks both to model – and teach – what excellence is in his field….

Horace as whimsically portrayed by painter Giacomo Di Chirico (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We end our review of The Works of Horace as translated into English prose by the redoubtable Christopher Smart with a look at the work that has been the anchor for his reputation over at least the last 200 years or so. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” is, as I mentioned last time, considered one of the classic works in the history of literary criticism. Like all of Horace’s work, “Ars Poetica” is personal and idiosyncratic. Like all of Horace’s work, it is filled with moments of pathos, bathos, and brilliance.

Some critics have found cause to dispute with Horace, noting that he focuses his critique on epic and dramatic poetry – neither of which he wrote – and that, unlike, say, Aristotle, he is not orderly and systematic in his discussion, wandering from topic to topic, often abruptly. There are a couple of ways of responding to that.

Bill the Cat responding to Horace’s critics (image courtesy Berkeley Breathed, a Horace among comics artists)

One point that I think Horace would try to make clear to his critics is that “Ars Poetica” is a lesson itself: by that, I mean that Horace might ask calmly:

Horace: What type of poetry is “Ars Poetica”?

Critics: A verse epistle.

Horace: As verse epistles go, how would you rate “Ars Poetica”?

Critics: It is clearly one of the greatest. A brilliant example.

Horace: And what do you think of my odes and satires.

Critics: Oh, they are superb also.

Horace: Ah. You see now, of course, why it is unnecessary for me to write about how to write – oh, verse epistles? Or odes? Or satires?

Critics: Uh, no.

Horace: No. I suppose you wouldn’t. [Sigh]

Horace is arguing (unsuccessfully) that one can teach what great literature is and one can model great literature in one’s own work. It is a subtle but important differentiation – and, gentle soul that he is generally, Horace would not suggest, as Juvenal might, that such critics would better serve literature as bear bait in the Colosseum. Though Horace might be tempted to dash off some lines to his great and good friend Maecenas suggesting that a stint in the legions on the Germanic frontier would be very helpful in grounding some critics in reality.

“Ars Poetica” itself is really simply a great poet recounting what it takes write great poetry. It easily divides into three major areas: 1) what makes a good poem; 2) why dramatic poetry is trickier than other genres; 3) what the qualifications of a poet ought to be. One important note: while Horace addresses himself to poetry specifically in “Ars Poetica,” his observations apply to writers of all sorts. That’s part of the work’s greatness: one can safely extrapolate and apply principles Horace discusses regarding poets and poetry to writing of all genres. Kind of a good lesson in that, methinks.

On what makes a good poem, Horace notes that choosing one’s subject wisely is always a plus. He notes, too, that matching language to subject is the difference between success and failure – as is using appropriate meter and style. The master of masters that any aspiring poet should consult as a model of managing these issues poets face is, of course, Homer:

Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what you strength declines, and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style, nor a perspicuous disposition, shall desert the man, by whom the subject matter is chosen judiciously….In the choice of words, too, the author of the projected poem must be delicate and cautious, he must embrace one and reject the other: you will express yourself eminently well, if a dexterous combination should give an air of novelty to a well-known word…. [For example] Homer has instructed us in what measure the achievements of kings, and chiefs, and direful war might be written…. Pathetic accents suit a melancholy countenance; words full of menace, an angry one; wanton expressions a sportive look; and serious matter, an austere one.

Horace’s interest in dramatic poetry seems driven by a desire to see consistency. He warns about “propriety of representation” (i.e., don’t make the comic tragic and the tragic comic); he agrees with Aristotle that there should be certain “unities” – of time, place, action – and he has specific suggestions for the number of actors and when the chorus should speak. Here again, he refers to the Greeks as models:

If you offer to the stage anything unattended, and venture to form a new character; let it be preserved to the last such as it is set out at the beginning, and be consistent with itself…. If you are desirous of an applauding spectator…the manners of every age must be marked by you, and a proper decorum assigned to men’s varying dispositions and years…. You must not, however, bring upon the stage things fit only to be acted behind the scenes…. Let not [for example] Medea murder her sons before the people [i.e., audience]…. Ye [who are desirous to excel] turn over the Grecian models by night, turn them by day.

Finally, Horace gets to the big issue: who should try to be a poet? He is very clear about what he thinks a poet’s qualifications should be – certainly talent is important, but study and acquisition of knowledge are equally important. A poet should be able to discern character in people. A poet should be able to take impartial criticism and use it to improve his/her work. Above all, a poet should be willing to work at poetry:

To have good sense is the first principle and fountain of writing well…. He who has learned what he owes to his country, and what to his friends; with what affection a parent, a brother, and a stranger are to be loved; what is the duty of a senator, what of a judge; what the duties of a general sent out to war; he [I say] certainly knows how to give suitable attributes to every character…. A good and sensible man [one giving feedback] will censure spiritless verses, he will condemn the rugged, on the incorrect he will draw across a black stroke with his pen…he will arraign what is expressed ambiguously; he will mark what should be altered….

Horace ends with a warning about poets who have gone mad. His description – one who thinks his/her work is so necessary to humanity that it must be inflicted on the public no matter how unwelcome, holds a warning for us all.

From “Ars Poetica” come a number of literary terms that almost anyone who’s been to school has encountered: in medias res, ab ovo, “instruct and delight.” In fact, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism notes:

It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of Horace’s Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry) for the subsequent history of literary criticism. Since its composition in the first century BCE, this epigrammatic and sometimes enigmatic critical poem has exerted an almost continual influence over poets and literary critics alike – perhaps because its dicta, phrased in verse form, are so eminently quotable. Horace’s injunction that poetry should both ‘instruct and delight’ has been repeated so often that it has come to be known as the Horatian platitude.

Instructing and delighting. Certainly worthy goals – goals that scholar-rogues (Scrogues) strive for. And certainly justification of why Horace deserves to be a pre-eminent Scrogue.


7 replies »

  1. You know, whenever I read about a Homer, Horace or Shakespeare, I can’t help but wonder if it was easier or harder to become great in a small population. That is, however great Horace was and however good his advice, I wonder how much of it was due to him having said it (more or less) first.

    For example, in your penultimate gray box, Horace eloquently says what others (including Twain, Hemingway, Elmore Leonard and Harry Shaw have also said–no such thing as good writing, only rewriting. Or Mary McCarthy’s sharper version, “Sometimes we all must kill our little darlings.”)

    Thanks for this series, Jim, no doubt I will find occasion to drop this into conversation at some point with an academic here at IU and confuse them.

    • Thanks, Otherwise. In some ways, I think you’d be surprised to find that Horace thought of himself as just another in a long line leading back to Homer. And I bet Twain, Hemingway, Leonard, Shaw, McCarthy all thought of themselves that way, too.

      So I wonder if it’s being first – or aiming high.

      • you know, i thought of that as i wrote it but talked myself out of it. here’s why. undoubtedly there were still many writers in his day and it was hard to stand out.

        however, there is some pretty strong math to suggest it’s harder to stand out now.

        when horace lived the population was roughly 100 million, now it’s 7 billion, or 70X.

        of course, as you say, every writer also competes with history. when horace lived, 46 billion people had come before him. today 108 billion have been alive. that’s about 2.5x. (if you believe global warming is going to kill us pretty soon, that means he kinda lived in the middle.)

        the library at alexandria held somewhere between 40,000 and 500,000 scrolls.
        in 2010, google estimated the number of books in the world at 129,864,880, which is about 250 to 3000 times as many as when horace lived.

        so a crude estimate it’s probably somewhere between 2.5X and 3000X as hard to stand out. i’d guess it’s probably toward the high end of that.

        still, i get that he wasn’t the only scroll in ye olde scrollshop, even in his day.

        • I see what you’re getting at with trying to do this by the numbers, Otherwise. But there are so many other elements, it seems to me, that affect how one might interpret Horace’s place in the history of literature. There are issues like widespread literacy, accuracy of our knowledge of the ancient world’s libraries (and literary scenes, for that matter), all sorts of squishy, non-countable stuff that would have an impact (note that “impact” is NOT used as a verb) on how one might interpret the intellectual world that Horace lived and worked in.

          Again, the numbers are interesting – but merely pointing out that there are lots more books now than in Horace’s time is misleading – in the math itself there are proportions that would have to be determined. Add to that questions of access, literacy, cultural structure (Horace’s ancient Roman world was not unlike the world inhabited by, say, Shakespeare – i.e., a world of patronage and specialized audiences).

          So maybe the question becomes, was Horace’s work what came down to us because there was less competition – or because Horace was better connected than other poets of his time? You have to admit – that’s an equally fascinating question to consider.

        • Well, ialso considered the factors you cite and it’s a mildly complex equation, but again, most of the factors favor Horace. Basically, he had to impress even fewer people because of all the factors you cite.

          Having said that, greatness is greatness. and the implication of my argument isn’t that horace and shakespeare weren’t great, but that there may have been horaces since that got lost in the shuffle.

          you can also take my argument in some goofy directions–everything that can be said has been said; today’s playwrights are better than shakespeare because they had to come through stiffer competition, etc. i dont believe either of those.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I’ve loved this series. And, having never read Horace, the guilt trip you’ve laid upon is quite heavy … so, off to the university library I go …

    • Denny,

      Many thanks for the kind words.

      Find a good recent translation. Smart was a fun challenge for me, but there are great, highly readable translation about that won’t give you a second layer of dealing with 18th century English literary language on top of dealing with Horace. I did the Smart because my lit specialty is – yup, 18th century English lit, so it was fun for me. Yes. I know. I’m a strange man…. 🙂

      Don’t know how your Latin is (I, like Shakespeare, have “small Latin and less Greek”), but there are cool “facing page” translations with the Latin on one page and English on the other. Gives you a chance to play around with Horace’s original language.

      I highly recommend enjoying Horace as a “browsing” experience. You can read an ode, here, a satire there, an epistle whenever. They stand alone well – and they give you time to savor both the poet and his times. And the parallels between Imperial Rome and Republican America are – well, let’s say, thought provoking….