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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.
2 “Interdum speciosa locis” Hor. 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 fabula” Hor. 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 canorae” Hor. 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.
3 “Aerugo et cura peculi cum semel imbuerit” Hor. 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.
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