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To have good sense, is the first principle and fountain of writing well. The Socratic papers will direct you in the choice of your subjects; and words will spontaneously accompany the subject, when it is well conceived. He who has learned what he owes to his country, and what to his friends; with what affection a parent, a brother, and a stranger, are to be loved; what is the duty of a senator, what of a judge; what the duties of a general sent out to war; he, [I say,] certainly knows how to give suitable attributes to every character. I should direct the learned imitator to have a regard to the mode of nature and manners, and thence draw his expressions to the life.1 Sometimes a play, that is showy with common-places,2 and where the manners are well marked, though of no elegance, without force or art, gives the people much higher delight and more effectually commands their attention, than verse void of matter, and tuneful trifles. To the Greeks, covetous of nothing but praise, the muse gave genius; to the Greeks the power of expressing themselves in round periods. The Roman youth learn by long computation to subdivide a pound into an hundred parts. Let the son of Albinus tell me, if from five ounces one be subtracted, what remains? He would have said the third of a pound. Bravely done! you will be able to take care of your own affairs. An ounce is added: what will that be? Half a pound.

When this sordid rust3 and hankering after wealth has once tainted their minds, can we expect that such verses should be made as are worthy of being anointed with the oil of cedar, and kept in the well-polished cypress?4

Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life. Whatever precepts you give, be concise; that docile minds may soon comprehend what is said, and faithfully retain it. All superfluous instructions flow from the too full memory. Let whatever is imagined for the sake of entertainment, have as much likeness to truth as possible; let not your play demand belief for whatever [absurdities] it is inclinable [to exhibit]: nor take out of a witch's belly a living child that she had dined upon. The tribes of the seniors rail against every thing that is void of edification: the exalted knights disregard poems which are austere. He who joins the instructive with the agreeable, carries off every vote,5 by delighting and at the same time admonishing the reader. This book gains money for the Sosii; this crosses the sea, and continues to its renowned author a lasting duration.

1 Truth, in poetry, means such an expression as conforms to the general nature of things; falsehood, that which, however suitable to the particular instance in view, doth yet not correspond to such general nature. To attain to this truth of expression in dramatic poetry two things are prescribed: 1. A diligent study of the Socratic philosophy; and, 2, A masterly knowledge and comprehension of human life. The first, because it is the peculiar distinction of this school “"ad veritatem vitae propius accedere."(Cic. de. Or. i. 51.) And the latter as rendering the imitation more universally striking.

2Interdum speciosa locisHor. Ars 319, etc. The poet's science in ethics will principally show itself in these two ways: 1. in furnishing proper matter for general reflection on human life and conduct; and, 2, in a due adjustment of the manners. By the former of these two applications of moral knowledge a play becomes, what the poet calls, “speciosa locis”, i. e. (for the term is borrowed from the rhetoricians) striking in its moral topics: a merit of the highest importance on the ancient stage, and which, if prudently employed in subserviency to the latter more essential requisite of the drama, a just expression of the manners, will deserve to be so reputed at all times, and on every theater. The danger is, lest a studied, declamatory moral, affectedly introduced, or indulged to access, should prejudice the natural exhibition of the characters, and so convert the image of human life into an unaffecting, philosophical dialogue.

Moratque recta fabulaHor. Ars 319, etc. This judgment of the poet, in regard of the superior efficacy of manners, is generally thought to be contradicted by Aristotle; who, in treating this subject, observes, “"that let a piece be ever so perfect in the manners, sentiments, and style, it will not so well answer the end and purpose of tragedy, as if defective in these, and finished only in the fable and composition." M. Dacier thinks to clear this matter by saying, "that what Aristotle remarks holds true of tragedy, but not of comedy, of which alone Horace is here speaking." But granting that the artificial contexture of the fable is less necessary to the perfection of comedy than of tragedy, yet, the tenor of this whole division, exhorting to correctness in general, makes it unquestionable that Horace must intend to include both. The case, as it seems to me, is this. The poet is not comparing the respective importance of the fable and manners, but of the manners and diction, under this word including also numbers. He gives them the preference not to a good plot, nor even to fine sentiments, but to “versus inopes rerum nugaeque canoraeHor. Ars 322. The art he speaks of, is the art of expressing the thoughts properly, gracefully, and harmoniously: the pondus is the force and energy of good versification. Venus is a general term including both kinds of beauty. Fabula does not mean the fable (in distinction from the rest), but simply a play.

3Aerugo et cura peculi cum semel imbueritHor. Ars 330, etc. This love of gain, to which Horace imputes the imperfect state of the Roman poetry, hath been uniformly assigned, by the wisdom of ancient times, as the specific bane of arts and letters. Longinus and Quinctilian account, from hence, for the decay of eloquence, Galen of physic, Petronius of painting, and Pliny of the whole circle of the liberal arts. For being, as Longinus calls it, νόσημα μικροποῖον, a disease which narrows and contracts the soul, it must, of course, restrain the generous efforts and expansions of genius; cramp the free powers and energies of the mind, and render it unapt to open itself to wide views, and to the projection of great, extensive designs. It is so in its consequences. For, as one says elegantly, when the passion of avarice grows general in a country, the temples of honor are soon pulled down, and all men's sacrifices are made to fortune.

4 To preserve their books, the ancients rubbed them with oil of cedar, and kept them in cases of cypress, because these kinds of wood were not liable to corruption.

5Omne tulit punctum.Hor. Ars 343 Alluding to the manner of voting at the comitia by putting a point over the name of a candidate.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (6):
    • Aristotle, Poetics, 1450a
    • Horace, Ars Poetica, 322
    • Horace, Ars Poetica, 330
    • Horace, Ars Poetica, 343
    • Horace, Ars Poetica, 319
    • Cicero, On Oratory, 1.51
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (2):
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