1. “The Art of Poetry”
What are we doing when we write good poetry? In “The Art of Poetry,” Horace offers an answer. The function of poetry, he maintains, is both aesthetic and normative. A good poem both articulates moral truths and conveys a sense of “unity” (98). Yet Horace’s definition is more complicated than it seems. His language reveals his struggle to obey his own poetic doctrine. His anxiety manifests itself in his ambivalence about whether and when to diverge from literary tradition. It also emerges in his relationship to contradiction. In the end, he leaves the reader not only with a definition of poetry, but also with a redefinition of the poet’s relationship to contradiction and to his or her literary predecessors.
At first blush, Horace’s vision of poetry seems austere. He urges the poet, for instance, to censor his language according to the age of his audience – to “dwell upon the qualities that are appropriate to a particular time of life” (103). He defines the chorus as the moral voice of any tragedy, which should “side with the good characters” and “commend moderation…[and] justice” (103). The poet’s task, he contends, is not to indulge his own fancies, but rather to communicate “maxims” (107). When, occasionally, he endorses diversion from the norm – suggesting, for example, that the poet “give fresh meaning to a familiar word” or to “coin words” (99) – he qualifies his own advice, reminding the poet to do so “with discretion” (99). Thus, Horace enacts his own emphasis on poetic self-censorship.
Horace’s portrait of the aesthetic dimension of poetry is more nuanced than it seems. On the one hand, he exhorts the poet to create a “single and unified” work whose parts are “unsatisfactory” unless they “put together the whole” (98-99). For this reason, he condemns any “purple passages” that undermine a sense of harmony (99). Should a poet introduce a new character, for instance, he should “be sure that it remains the same all the way through as it was at the beginning, and is entirely consistent” (101). Horace also admonishes the poet not to conflate oppositional terms –e.g. to associate “what is wild with what is tame” (98). Yet this commitment to non-contradiction itself contradicts his more liberal suggestions—e.g. his endorsement of neologisms and “inven[tion]” of new tropes and characters (101).
What to make of this tension? Horace seems to acknowledge it, subliminally, both in his description of the writing process and in his definition of wisdom. He confesses, for example, that the act of writing can often transform a poet’s intention into its opposite. “I try my hardest to be succinct,” he writes, “and merely succeed in being obscure; I aim at smoothness, only to find that I am losing fire and energy” (98). This inversion of intention can doom a “sublime” poetic vision to a “turgid” (99) poem. It recasts the poet as the medium rather than the prime mover of his art, and thus reveals the paradox implicit in Horace’s own essay. Even as he offers creative advice he exposes the possible fruitlessness of that advice, given his emphasis on the unpredictable and even oppositional relationship between poet and poem.
Horace also acknowledges the inevitability of dissonance in his characterization of language and meaning. The paradox of the artistic project, he suggests, is that it presupposes that a work of beauty, coherence, and permanence can emerge from the finite and “fallible” (108) human mind. The nature of language also compounds that paradox; the meaning of words, Horace notes, does not inhere in the words themselves, but depends rather on their “usage” (100) [Here he anticipates Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning as “use” (The Blue Book, p. 6)]. This seemingly impossible challenge of producing a work of lasting art out of an unstable and nebulous medium embodies Horace’s impulse to reconcile contradictory terms.
Horace’s attitude toward contradiction emerges most palpably in his progression from the orthodox definition of wisdom as differentiation to a definition of wisdom as intimated reconciliation. Describing the traditional conception of wisdom, he writes: “This, once, was wisdom: to distinguish between public and private things, between sacred and profane, to discourage indiscriminate sexual union and make rules for married life, to build towns, and to inscribe laws on tablets of wood” (109). After acknowledging this convention, he proceeds implicitly to his own conception of what constitutes wisdom (which he defines earlier as the “foundation…of good composition” (107)). Rather than conclude with an affirmation of the orthodox view, he takes his own (reluctant) advice to deviate from the norm. Asking himself whether or not a fine poem is the product of “nature or of art” (110) he concludes with a ‘both…and’ rather than an ‘either…or.’ The two, he writes, should “enter into a friendly compact with each other” (110). In the end, Horace thus adheres to his own normative and aesthetic code—at once paying tribute to tradition and advancing his unique vision of artistic unity.
2. Ode XXII
This brief ode exemplifies the human impulse to collapse the binary between earthly pain and divine possibility. The poem itself acts as a kind of prayer—at once a verbal tribute to the “Virgin Guardian” and a pledge to carry out that tribute with a flesh-and-blood sacrifice of a “young boar.” Thus, Horace points implicitly to the limitations of language. It is not enough that he praise the “Virgin” in speech, he seems to say; he must also commit to a nonverbal, material sacrifice in order to communicate with the goddess.
The poem evokes this self-limiting quality in form as well as content. Twice Horace emphasizes the number three – describing the girls’ “three” calls to the goddess and commenting on her own “three-formed” nature. Yet the poem itself undermines that value—not only because Horace makes that reference twice, but also because the poem contains only two stanzas, with four lines each. Moreover, neither stanza (nor both taken together) form a complete sentence. Like a fragment, Horace implies, prayers are fundamentally incomplete, unable to transgress the boundary between the human and superhuman. This limitation also emerges in the truncated fourth line of each stanza.