Ars Poetica


This, the longest of Horace’s poems, is found in nearly all mss. under the title Ars Poetica, which is also the name assigned to it by Quintilian and used by the commentator Porphyrio. Yet the composition is a letter rather than a formal treatise, and it is hard to believe that Horace himself is responsible for the conventional title. It has the discursive and occasionally personal tone of an Epistle, whereas it lacks the completeness, precision, and logical order of a well-constructed treatise. It must therefore be judged by the same standards as the other Epistles and Sermones, and must be regarded as an expression of more or less random reflections, suggested by special circumstances, upon an art which peculiarly concerned one or more of the persons addressed. These are a father and two sons of the Piso family, but nobody knows with certainty what particular Pisos—and there are many on record—they are.

Though the writer touches upon various kinds of poetry, yet as fully one-third of the whole poem is concerned with the drama, it is a plausible inference that one at least of the Pisos — presumably the elder son (1. 366)—was about to write a play, perhaps one with an Homeric background (11. 128, 129), and


Ars Poetica

possibly one conforming to the rules of the Greek satyric drama (11. 220 ff.). Thus the special interests of the Pisos may have determined Horace’s choice of topics.

The following is a brief outline of the main subjects handled in the letter:

(a) A poem demands unity, to be secured by harmony and proportion, as well as a wise choice of subject and good diction. Metre and style must be appropriate to theme and to character. A good model will always be found in Homer (11. 1-152).

(b) Dramatic poetry calls for special care—as to character drawing, propriety of representation, length of a play, number of actors, use of the chorus and its music, special features for the satyric type, verseforms, and employment of Greek models (11. 153-294).

(c) A poet’s qualifications include common sense, knowledge of character, adherence to high ideals, combination of the dulce with the utile, intellectual superiority, appreciation of the noble history and lofty mission of poetry, and above all a willingness to listen to and profit by impartial criticism (11. 295-476).

The following is a more detailed analysis:

In poetry as in painting there must be unity and simplicity (1-23). We poets must guard against extremes, and while avoiding one error must not fall into its opposite (24-31). A good sculptor pays careful attention to details, but at the same time makes sure that his work as a whole is successful (32-37).

A writer should confine himself to subjects within his power. He will then be at no loss for words and will follow a correct order, which will enable him to

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.horace-ars_poetica.1926