Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Writing with the Masters: Horace

IWC’s July series ends with the poet Horace (65 BC – 8 BC), whose full name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Although fashions have changed over the years, the central principles for writing poetry have not. These quotes come from Horace’s essay on the art of writing poetry, titled “The Art of Poetry to the Pisos.”

     It is not enough that poems be beautiful; let them be tender and affecting, and bear away the soul of the auditor whithersoever they please. As the human countenance smiles on those that smile, so does it sympathize with those that weep. If you would have me weep you must first express the passion of grief yourself; then, Telephus or Peleus, you misfortunes hurt me: if you pronounce the parts assigned you ill, I shall either fall asleep or laugh.

     * * *

     As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light; the one has pleased once, the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated.

     * * *

     It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].

[BLOGMASTER'S NOTE: The bracketed words in the last quote were in the original translation, presumably added by the translator.]

Good advice to all writers.


The picture at the top of this post is Anton von Werner’s conception of how Horace may have looked. The date of its creation is unknown, but it was published no later than 1905.

“The Art of Poetry to the Pisos” was translated by Ben Johnson and published in 1640.

Both the picture and the essay translation are in the public domain because of their age.

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