The Art of Poetry by Horace

The Art of Poetry by Horace is one of the most famous discourses on the aesthetics of literature, the customary procedure in the art not only limited in poetry, but applicable in any genre in literature as well.  This is considered to be a good advice for writers, and there are lots of quotable lines that are easily retained by its readers.  The treatise is written in the form of poetry and although it is sometimes hard to follow (it doesn’t have chapters and the writer sometimes leaps from one topic to the other) this work became the convention in the art of writing.  The lines, “If I cannot or know how to keep | The different rules and tones of poetry | Why greet me as a poet?” become the whole idea for this treatise.

The treatise talks about lots of things – major divisions for discussions about the importance of unity (“To put it briefly, work at what you will | If only it be uniform and whole.”), poets (“You poets, take a subject in your power | Reflect at length how much your shoulders will | Or will not bear.”) words (“All mortal works will die; much less the grace | And charm of words will stay alive and sure.”), consistency in characters (“Our interest is always fixed on traits Appropriate and fitted to their age.”), dramatic meter (“If only you and I can finger how to scan a proper verse.”), revision process (“In fact the power of Rome would no more rest | On courage and nobility of arms | … | had not each one | Among her poets all too hastily | Rejected the slow labor of the file.”), the aim and function of poetry (“The poet’s aim is teaching or delight | Or to speak both with charm and benefit.”), and insincere critics and mad poets (“…like a leech | That will not leave the skin till full of blood.”).  It resonates just like Aristotle’s Poetics, but Horace poetic lore is even more appealing and the images are more memorable: purple patch, Homer nodding, mountains in labor, etc.

I have already come across with this treatise when I was taking my Criticisms I where it was in the form of prose, and if I to recall, it was very hard to read.  Perhaps, I never fully appreciated it that time; I was not yet ready to receive the contentions of the writer.  Also, I didn’t have sufficient background to deal with the work – aside from the intimidating language and length, the treatise is heavily laced with allusions of Greek drama and characters (eg. discussions about Thespis, Achilles, Medea etc) which made the work almost inaccessible.  When I read it lately, the discourse in poetic form becomes clearer to me, the metaphor and the images stronger, and the mature sentiments of this philosophical poetic style of the writer was even more resounding than ever before.

5 thoughts on “The Art of Poetry by Horace

  1. Hi Reeny,

    I am a Theater Arts M.A. student and I will have a report about this on Saturday. I had a hard time understanding this ’till I read your blog. Thank you.


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