If a painter1 should wish to unite a horse's neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature],2 so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight Believe, ye Pisos, the book will be perfectly like such a picture, the ideas of which, like a sick man's dreams, are all vain and fictitious: so that neither head nor foot can correspond to any one form. "Poets and painters [you will say] have ever had equal authority for attempting any thing." We are conscious of this, and this privilege we demand and allow in turn: but not to such a degree, that the tame should associate with the savage; nor that serpents should be coupled with birds, lambs with tigers.

In pompous introductions,3 and such as promise a great deal, it generally happens that one or two verses of purple patch-work, that may make a great show, are tagged on; as when the grove and the altar of Diana and the meandering of a current hastening through pleasant fields, or the river Rhine, or the rainbow is described. But here there was no room for these [fine things]: perhaps, too, you know how to draw a cypress:4 but what is that to the purpose, if he, who is painted for the given price, is [to be represented as] swimming hopeless out of a shipwreck? A large vase at first was designed: why, as the wheel revolves, turns out a little pitcher? In a word, be your subject what it will, let it be merely simple and uniform.

The great majority of us poets, father, and youths worthy such a father, are misled by the appearance of right. I labor to be concise, I become obscure: nerves and spirit fail him, that aims at the easy: one, that pretends to be sublime, proves bombastical: he who is too cautious and fearful of the storm, crawls along the ground: he who wants to vary his subject in a marvelous manner, 5 paints the dolphin in the woods, the boar in the sea. The avoiding of an error leads to a fault, if it lack skill.

A statuary about the Aemilian school shall of himself, with singular skill,6 both express the nails, and imitate in brass the flexible hair; unhappy yet in the main, because he knows not how to finish a complete piece. I would no more choose to be such a one as this, had I a mind to compose any thing, than to live with a distorted nose, [though] remarkable for black eyes and jetty hair.

Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what your strength7 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.

This, or I am mistaken, will constitute the merit and beauty of arrangement, that the poet just now say what ought just now to be said, put off most of his thoughts, and waive them for the present.

1 All that our poet says here may be referred, in general, to three heads, the fable, the manners, and the diction. We should take notice that this piece particularly regards epic and dramatic poetry, and that our author only occasionally mentions any other kind. The most important precept for the composition of a poem is unity and simplicity of design. There should be only one action, to which all the incidents ought to refer; and this point of perfection, every regular work requires. To show the necessity of this rule, Horace compares an irregular poem to pictures formed by a wild assortment of many parts entirely unlike each other. Every part, considered in itself, may have its proper, natural perfection, while their union produces nothing but what is monstrous and ridiculous. FRAN. The critic's rules must be taken either, 1. from the general standing laws of composition; or, 2. from the peculiar ones, appropriated to the kind. Now the direction to be fetched from the former of these sources will of course precede, as well on account of its superior dignity, as that the mind itself delights to descend from universals to the consideration of particulars. Agreeably to this rule of nature, the poet, having to correct, in the Roman drama, these three points, 1. a misconduct in the disposition; 2. an abuse of language; and, 3. a disregard of the peculiar characters and colorings of its different species, hath chosen to do this on principles of universal nature; which, while they include the case of the drama, at the same time extend to poetic composition at large. These prefatory, universal observations being delivered, he then proceeds, with advantage, to the second source of this art, viz., the consideration of the laws and rules peculiar to the kind.

2 But Orelli more rightly treats “collatis membrisHor. Ars 3 as the ablative absolute.

3 These preparatory observations, concerning the laws of poetic composition at large, have been thought to glance more particularly at the epic poetry which was not improper: for, 1. the drama which he was about to criticise, had its rise and origin from the epos. Thus we are told by the great critic, that Homer was the first who invented dramatic imitations “μόνοςὅτι μιμήσεις δραματικὰς ἐποίησε”. 2. The several censures, here pointed at the epic, would bear still more directly against the tragic poem; it being more glaringly inconsistent with the genius of the drama to admit of foreign and digressive ornaments, than of the extended, episodical epopaeia. For both these reasons, it was altogether pertinent to the poet's purpose, in a criticism on the drama, to expose the vicious practice of the epic models. Though, to preserve the unity of his piece, and for a further reason (see note on v. 1), he hath artfully done this under the cover of general criticism.

4 Boughs of cypress were carried in funeral processions, and placed before the houses of the great, upon particular occasions of sorrow, “Et non plebeios luctus testata cupressus.Lucan. From hence, perhaps, this tree was usually drawn in votive tablets; in pictures carried by beggars, to excite charity; and in those used by lawyers in courts of justice, to raise the compassion of the judges, by representing the distresses of their clients. A painter might, by frequent practice, excel in drawing a tree for which there was such demand; and he therefore absurdly determines to show his skill upon all occasions, even by painting it in the middle of the ocean, and making it overshadow the storm. The commentators understand this passage in a different manner.

5 The word prodigialiter apparently refers to that fictitious monster, under which the poet allusively shadows out the idea of absurd and inconsistent composition. The application, however, differs in this, that, whereas the monster, there painted, was intended to expose the extravagance of putting together incongruous parts, without any reference to a whole, this prodigy is designed to characterize a whole, but deformed by the ill-judged position of its parts. The former is like a monster, whose several members as of right belonging to different animals, could by no disposition be made to constitute one consistent animal. The other, like a landscape which hath no objects absolutely irrelative, or irreducible to a whole, but which a wrong position of the parts only renders prodigious. Send the boar to the woods, and the dolphin to the waves; and the painter might show them both on the same canvas.

Each is a violation of the law of unity, and a real monster: the one, because it contains an assemblage of natural incoherent parts; the other, because its parts, though in themselves coherent, are misplaced and disjointed.

6Unus” = praeter caeteros, melius quam reliqui omnes.

7 Literally, "shoulders," a phrase derived from wrestlers. The reading before Bentley was imus.

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