Horace lived in the glorious Augustan Era which was the period of Roman civilization and culture. Poetry flourished in his age and was considered something good and noble and not something pernicious and unhealthy. Horace wrote both creative and critical pieces. He was the greatest exponent of classicism. He also composed Satires, Epodes, Odes, Rpistles; and his Ars Poetica, like Pope's Essay in Criticism, is in verse. It is a poetic letter written to his friend Piso and his two sons as a piece of advice on poetic composition. Horace called it Epistle to the Pisos but it was Quintilian who names it Ars Poetica.
Because of the admirable conciseness of his critical observations and the extremely quotable quality of his lines, Horace was exalted to the position of a lawgiver by Dante, Vida, Boileau and Pope. Abercrombie rightly says, "Perhaps no poem of comparable length has provided so many phrases that have become the common property of international culture."
Ars Poetica exercised a tremendous influence during the Middle Ages and the Neo-classical age. It was the Bible of classicism in England. The main ideas contained in Ars Poetica are summarized below :—
Function and Nature of Poetry
Though not a systematic treatise on criticism, this poem can be divided into three parts : (a) poesis (subject matter); (b) poema (form), and (c) poeta (the poet). Its main topics of discussion are poetry, poetic style, and drama. Pope rightly says about Horace, 'his precepts teach but what his works inspire.' He is deeply influenced by the Greeks. He recommends: "my friends, study the great originals of Greece; dream of them by night and ponder them by day."
Horace nowhere calls poetry a process of imitation like Plato and Aristotle. Mere imitation, according to him, is not enough for a poet often uses fiction and mingles facts with fancy. To him the function of poetry was both to delight and instruct : 'Poets desire either to improve or to please, or to unite the agreeable and the profitabl ; and that 'it is not enough for poems to have beauty; they must also be pleasing and lead the listener's soul whither they will.'
The subject-matter of Poetryh
The subject-matter of poetry should be simple, i.e., from familiar material, and uniform, that is full of wholeness. He says that he who chooses his subject wisely, will find that neither words nor lucid arrangement will fail him, for sound judgment is the basis and source of good writing.
Horace will always be remembered for his theory of poetic diction. Poetic diction, he says, can never be altogether established and stationary affair. The function of language in poetry is to express; but man's experience, which poetry exists to express, is continually changing, since it is continually adding to itself. With the growth of experience, the language of poetry must keep pace, if it is to be truly expressive. Language is like a tree; and its words are like leaves. As the years go on, the old leaves fall, and new leaves take their place; but the tree remains the same. Horace's observations on poetic diction are like those of Aristotle. Following Aristotle, he also emphasises the right choice of words and their effective arrangement in composition. A poet is free to use both familiar and new words. New words continually go on coming to the poet like new leaves to the tree. The poet must not rely wholly on the vocabulary of his predecessors; he must coin new words too. His Observations on Style
Horace wished that the writer should observe the settled forms and shades of style in poetry. He pointed out some of the shortcomings of style. 'I endeavour to be brief and become obscure; sinew and spirit desert the searcher after polish : one striving for grandeur becomes bombastic; whosoever is excessively cautious and fearful of the tempest crawls along the ground; and he who yearns after too prodigal a variety in his theme— he paints a dolphin in the forest, or a wild boar amid the waves. If the poet does not have genuine artistry, the effort to avoid an imperfection leads him into graver butchery.
Metres and their appropriateness
'Homer has shown us in what metre may best be written the deeds of kings and great captains, and sombre war. Verses of unequal length were first used for laments, later also for the sentiment that attends granted beseechings. The Muse has given to the lyre the celebration of the gods and their offspring, the victorious boxer, the horse, first in the race, the amorous yearnings of youth, and the unrestrained pleasures of wine. If one does not know and cannot observe the conventions and forms of poems, he does not deserve to be called a poet. Comic material, for instance, is not to be treated in the verses of tragedy ; similarly, it would be outrageous to narrate the feast of Thyestes in verse proper to common daily life and almost to comedy.' Sincerity of Emotion
'It is not enough for poems to have beauty; they must also be pleasing and lead the listener's soul whither they will. If you would have me weep, you must first express grief yourself Views on Drama
In Ars Poetica the treatment of drama is desultory. No systematic theory of drama is presented on a larger basis. Only fragmentary and casual views are expressed, e.g. 'Either follow tradition or invent a story which is consistent. But the conventional features of traditional characters should be preserved.' 'If in your tale you represent the renowned Achilles, let him appear restless, passionate, inexorable and dauntless.' 'If you commit a new theme on the stage and venture to create a new character, ct the first impression be preserved to the end, and let his nature be consistent. 'Let not Medea murder her children in front of the audience nor impious Atreus cook human flesh in the public nor Procne be changed into bird. Let a play be neither shorter nor longer than five acts and let no god intervene unless some problem arises that demands to be solved. The number of actors should not be more than three and the chorus should form an integral part of the action and its songs should advance and subserve the interest of the plot.' 'Let it support the good and give them kindly counsel, restrain the wrathful and favour those who fear to sin; let it praise the fare of a simple table, salutary justice and Law and Peace with open gates'.
Horace studies drama under three heads : plot, characterization and style. Plot should be borrowed from familiar material; the chorus should be an integral part of the plot; characters should behave consistently and naturally; iambic metre was most suitable for drama. Dramatic speech should observe propriety : it should suit the character, its sex, its age; its station in life, its circumstances, its moods. A god will speak differently from a mortal, a man from a woman, an aged man from a heated youth, a prosperous merchant from a poor farmer, a man in grief from a man in joy, an angry-fellow from a playful one. if you utter words ill-suited to your part, I shall either doze or smile.' In all this Horace closely follows Aristotle.