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Homer has instructed us in what measure the achievements1 of kings, and chiefs, and direful war might be written.

Plaintive strains originally were appropriated to the unequal numbers [of the elegiac]:2 afterward [love and] successful desires were included. Yet what author first published humble3 elegies, the critics dispute, and the controversy still waits the determination of a judge.

Rage armed Archilochus with the iambic of his own invention. The sock and the majestic buskin assumed this measure as adapted for dialogue, and to silence the noise of the populace, and calculated for action.

To celebrate gods, and the sons of gods, and the victorious wrestler, and the steed foremost in the race, and the inclination of youths, and the free joys of wine, the muse has allotted to the lyre.

If I am incapable and unskillful to observe the distinction described, and the complexions of works [of genius], why am I accosted by the name of "Poet?" Why, out of false modesty, do I prefer being ignorant to being learned?

A comic subject will not be handled in tragic verse:4 in like manner the banquet of Thyestes will not bear to be held in familiar verses, and such as almost suit the sock. Let each peculiar species [of writing] fill with decorum its proper place. Nevertheless sometimes even comedy exalts her voice, and passionate Chremes rails in a tumid strain: and a tragic writer generally expresses grief in a prosaic style. Telephus and Peleus, when they are both in poverty and exile, throw aside their rants and gigantic expressions if they have a mind to move the heart of the spectator with their complaint.

1 The purport of these lines (from v. 73 to 86), and their connection with what follows, hath not been fully seen. They would express this general proposition, "That the several kinds of poetry essentially differ from each other, as may be gathered, not solely from their different subjects, but their different measures; which good sense, and an attention to the peculiar natures of each, instructed the great inventors and masters of them to employ." The use made of this proposition is to infer, "That therefore the like attention should be had to the different species of the same kind of poetry (v. 89, etc.), as in the case of tragedy and comedy (to which the application is made), whose peculiar differences and correspondences, as resulting from the natures of each, should, in agreement to the universal law of decorum, be exactly known and diligently observed by the poet."

2 Elegy was at first only a lamentation for the death of a person beloved, and probably arose frem the death of Adonis. It was afterward applied to the joys and griefs of lovers.

3 The pentameter, which Horace calls “exiguum,Hor. Ars 77 because it has a foot less than the hexameter. For the same reason he says, “versibus impariter junctis.Hor. Ars 75

4Indignatur itemCoena Thyestae.Hor. Ars 90 “"Il met le souper de Thyeste pour toutes sortes de tragedies,"” says M. Dacier, with whom agrees the whole band of commentators: but why this subject should be singled out, as the representative of the rest, is nowhere explained by any of them. We may be sure, it was not taken up at random. The reason was, that the Thyestes of Ennius was peculiarly chargeable with the fault here censured; as is plain from a curious passage in the Orator, where Cicero, speaking of the loose numbers of certain poets, observes this, in particular, of the tragedy of Thyestes, “Similia sunt quaedam apud nostros: velut in Thyeste, “Quemnam te esse dicam? qui tarda in senectute,
et quae sequuntur: quae, nisi cum tibicen accesserit, oratione sunt solutae simillimae
”: which character exactly agrees to this of Horace, wherein the language of that play is censured, as flat and prosaic, and hardly rising above the plain narrative of an ordinary conversation in comedy. This allusion to a particular play, written by one of their best poets, and frequently exhibited on the Roman stage, gives great force and spirit to the precept, at the same time that it exemplifies it in the happiest manner. It seems further probable to me, that the poet also designed an indirect compliment to Varius, whose Thyestes we are told (Quinctil. l. x c. 1) was not inferior to any tragedy of the Greeks. This double intention of these lines well suited to the poet's general aim, which is seen through all his critical works, of beating down the excessive admiration of the old poets, and of asserting and advancing the just honors of the deserving moderns. It may further be observed, that the critics have not felt the force of the words “exponi” and “narrari” in this precept. They are admirably chosen to express the two faults condemned: the first implying a kind of pomp and ostentation in the language, which is therefore improper for the low subjects of comedy; and the latter, as I have hinted, a flat, prosaic expression, not above the cast of a common narrative, and therefore equally unfit for tragedy.

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hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references in notes to this page (1):
    • Q. Horatius Flaccus (Horace), The Art of Poetry: To the Pisos, Hor. Ars 73
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
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