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HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 



By Tenney Frank 
Bryn Mawr College 



The ancient writer who, like the Elizabethans, lived before men 
grew all too inquisitive about sources had much cause for gratitude. 
He did not have to blot out lines simply because he found that 
someone had anticipated him; he did not keep well-read secretaries 
to warn him where staked claims lay. If he found a line in some 
predecessor that said just what he wanted, he used it — for why 
should he say something he did not mean simply because the right 
word had been pre-empted — so he could add the resources of his 
own imagination to those of others and create the richer pattern. 
The predecessor might raise some slight objection against the free 
use of borrowed plumage but he recked little provided the plumage 
was appropriate. And the scholar who is not too bent on plagiary- 
hunting enjoys his Milton all the more for its wealth of Vergilian 
associations, and his Vergil none the less for its reminiscences of 
Homer. In such reading the music unheard is at times even 
sweeter than that which is heard. 

But such liberties in composition sometimes involve the scholar 
in puzzles, particularly when they are not used with entire legiti- 
macy. When Pope, in imitation of Horace's famous passage, 

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, 

composed his perversion of English literary history into 
We conquered France, but felt our captive's charms, 

DeQuincy advisedly fell into satire. Horace himself sometimes 
follows his Greek predecessors so faithfully that one is tempted 
to doubt whether he is invariably faithful to Roman conditions. 
Can we rely wholly upon his history of Roman comedy, and his 
discussion of the satiric drama, or is he substituting Greek theory 
for vaguely known facts ? Indeed we are sometimes at a loss to 
know how far to follow him. 

55° 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 551 

Students have generally approached Horace's Ars Poetica — or 
rather the Epistola ad Pisones — from one of two points of view. 
The delving scholar starts out from the statement of the scholiast: 
"Horace has brought together not all but the chief precepts of 
Neoptolemus the Parian," an obscure critic who lived two cen- 
turies before Horace's time. Now, ancient scholiasts, like their 
modern successors, were all too fond of a source and often over- 
valued their finds. Who does not remember Servius' broad state- 
ment that Vergil's fourth book was modeled upon Apollonius? 
We who in this case possess the supposed source find a vague 
similarity between the two in theme only: both were love stories 
— and there resemblance ends. How can we be certain that 
the scholiast of Horace was more accurate than Servius? Be 
that as it may, the scholar has, and rightly enough, searched 
Horace's predecessors from Aristotle down for critical judgments 
that parallel those of Horace, and he has found a great many. 
The danger lies in assuming at every point that the Ars Poetica is 
a work of direct imitation in which, like Pope in the passage just 
quoted, Horace adhered to the logic of his original to the distor- 
tion of patent facts. Now an examination of the two other literary 
epistles of Horace, in which he is concerned with immediate events 
and in which he discloses his gospel of art, will quickly incline the 
reader, I believe, to the assumption that the Ars Poetica is in the 
main not a slavish reproduction of Greek originals but a hand-to- 
hand contest with immediate problems. Similarities with Aris- 
totelian commonplaces can well enough be explained by the fact 
that the essential rules of literary art are after all so abiding that 
there is no opportunity for unlimited originality in stating them. 

And even if Horace used his notes from Neoptolemus in enunci- 
ating general principles, these may have served him merely as 
guideposts. There is a certain distortion of the facts in consider- 
ing a literary critic only in relation to the literary critics who have 
preceded him, for it blurs the essential truth that a man feels and 
expresses again only that part of his predecessor's work which he 
has himself experienced. The work of any critic could readily be 
glossed by copious marginalia extracted from the mass of worthies 
between Aristotle and Saint Beuve, but such marginalia would 



552 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

hardly be relevant. After all, a man's temper and experiences, 
the fashions of the day which he follows or combats, his desultory 
reading, and his capacity for analysis — these things shape his creed, 
which will perforce resemble former creeds in many respects, since 
the field of art is limited by nature. A piece of criticism like the 
Ars Poetica then, if it be not wholly an a priori study of the cell — 
and Horace was never a recluse — deserves first of all to be set in 
its milieu among contemporary artistic movements and only sec- 
ondarily in its chronological relationship to its predecessors. 

Another way of approaching the Ars Poetica is well illustrated 
by Saintsbury in the first volume of his History of Criticism. In 
search for absolute values and abiding principles, he has no patience 
with the direct problems of Horace and with what he terms his 
"red tape." It does not concern him that Horace is giving advice 
to a rash beginner who occasionally needs the science of pruning 
more than the arcana of a great art more or less beyond his grasp; 
nor does it concern him that Horace when he wrote the work was 
in the midst of a fray with his contemporaries and was jousting 
with all the force at his command against the prevalent errors of 
his day. It may well be that the detached critic should occasion- 
ally withdraw from the immediate contest to outline the philosophy 
of his art, but in this epistle it happens that Horace took no such 
position. He was the leader of a propaganda rather than a general- 
izing sophist. He neither deserves nor asks to be regarded as a 
philosophic maker of the absolute rules of art. And it is as violent 
to read him without reference to his contemporary problems as it 
is to read Dante without a knowledge of and power of entering into 
the spirit of the mediaeval religion that permeates him. 

If then Horace is of his age, for all that he has studied his prede- 
cessors well, and if he is so concerned with the problems before 
his eyes that he often fails to concern himself about the larger 
aspects of criticism, it is but fair that he should be interpreted in 
the light of his own problems. 

Of course in such a task the reader is at once confronted with 
no mean difficulties. On the one hand Horace's own delicacy 
usually prevents specific reference except when he may be com- 
plimenting a contemporary, or when in a few cases the offender is 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 553 

very obviously below class. On the other hand time has destroyed 
so much of the poetry which then loomed large that when Horace 
fails to specify we frequently fail to grasp the allusion. At times 
we can only surmise the nature of the foe that he is attacking, and 
yet it is safest to assume that the foe is a reality, not merely a 
phantom of a bygone day. 

In his peculiar Euclidian fashion of illustrating before general- 
izing, Horace opens the Epistle with a picture of a weird composite 
beast and deduces thence the law of unity of composition. The 
reader's first reaction is to pronounce the paragraph a platitude. 
Even the artist of the Altamira cave knows the law, which is after 
all only a "form" of man's intellectual processes. Aristotle, who 
realized that descriptive science consists largely in phrasing the 
obvious and looking wise, had long ago stated the essential facts 
about "the beginning, the middle, and the end." But Horace 
reiterated and restated this law, not because he found it in a 
"printed book," but because he lived in an age of literary aber- 
rations when this simple and primitive law needed re-emphasis. 
It had suffered obfuscation from several causes. First, Ennius 
had caused trouble, not through direct violation of the prin- 
ciple, for he had composed his epic narrative in soundly propor- 
tioned triads and hexads; but, when his complete work was issued 
as a whole, it failed to carry the impression of a unified climactic 
tale, and his successors, misled by this work — men like Hostius 
and Furius and even the post-Vergilian Lucan and Silius Italicus — 
essayed to narrate unorganized history in pseudo-epic form. Such 
work called for protest, not only in the form of example, which 
Vergil provided in his Aeneid, but also by precept, and it is for 
such that Horace says (1. 139) : 

Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. 

But more insidious than this misread example of Ennius was the 
fondness for fine writing that Alexandrian romanticism had fostered 
at Rome in Horace's youth. If we possessed the popular poetry of 
that day we should know whose misplaced descriptions of woods 
and rainbows called forth the curse at "purple patches." We prob- 
ably have a hint in line 17, if the reference there to a poet of the 



554 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

Rhine impugns the "turgid porkfed Celt," Furius, whom Horace 
elsewhere laughs at for similar excrescences. This man was of 
the "new-fashioned" school which Horace battled against all his 
life, now by precept, now by example, now by studied neglect. 
It is indeed the narrative of the "little epicists" that he has in 
mind throughout the opening of the Ars Poetica, men like Catullus 
and Calvus, Valerius Cato and Cinna, the authors of the Ciris and 
the Culex. This group, following the methods inaugurated in the 
late Greek world, retold myths and legends in a form which empha- 
sized description and sentimental character-drawing to the detri- 
ment of the plot. The Ciris is a case in point. The daughter of 
the king of Megara falls in love with King Minos, who is besieging 
her native city. Hope of success depends upon her filching from 
her father the charm which renders his city invulnerable. After 
much distress of soul she ultimately drives herself to the treason- 
able act — Minos takes the city but punishes the maiden for her 
treachery. Epic-like, the story leaps in medias res and forgets to 
explain the beginning. There is not a word of how or why the 
siege began or how the maiden met and loved the enemy. The 
story loiters over and fondles the compelling passion of the dis- 
traught princess, her revulsion at the contemplation of her unfilial 
r61e, her stumbling and fumbling in the dark toward the door of 
her father, only to faint upon the threshold. At this point her 
nurse revives her and tells a long tale of another maiden once 
equally beset by unkind love, and this inner tale similarly loiters 
and fondles melodrama. The vital facts come by leaps and bounds 
in a few obscure phrases. This is not narrative at all. In form 
it reminds one of nothing so much as Keats's Endymion — a true 
Alexandrian epyllion suffused with the richer lusciousness of the 
modern romances. So Catullus in the "Peleus and Thetis" de- 
scribes the sea voyage where hero and sea nymph met. Then he 
overleaps years to the wedding, only to dwell upon the woes of 
Ariadne depicted on the coverlet of the wedding couch; hence back 
to the causes of Ariadne's woes, thence forward to the vengeance 
upon Ariadne's faithless lover; then back again to the wedding to 
hear the wedding song celebrating Achilles, who is to be the fruit 
of this union, and then the tale sings itself to sleep. 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 555 

Clearly this is the type that Horace refers to in his composite 
beast which is neither fish nor fowl. To be sure when he implies 
that it is a product of the poet's failure to realize his own limita- 
tions, that it comes of a landscape painter's essaying illustration 
or a detail-worker attempting bold statuary, he may be partly on 
the wrong scent or he may be turning a precept which the Pisos 
presumably needed. His direct address to "pater et juvenes" at 
this point seems to imply that Horace appreciated all too well the 
limitations of Piso. But in his soul he doubtless knew that the 
rambling methods of those epics were not wholly due to lack of 
discipline and to thoughtless choice of subject-matter. He must 
have known that the new school of poets chose deliberately to 
luxuriate in the wilderness of sentimentality and lawless invention. 
Indeed narrative poetry had been driven to this pass to avoid 
suffocation. Though it was still necessary to retell myths and 
legends — since society was not yet ripe for realism — such retelling 
could not continue indefinitely along Homeric lines : a new method 
must be found. And the "new school" was trying one way out. 
It assumed a general knowledge of the tale — the warp and woof was 
woven ages ago — and then proceeded to embroider it with gold and 
dazzling oriental colors. The epyllion marked a clear revolt from 
natural forms commended by common sense; it consciously deserted 
intelligence for emotion and sentiment. No wonder that the well- 
disciplined Horace objected. And he was not alone in his position. 
Vergil too had lived through the romantic fever and had found the 
cure for it. It had indeed enriched his store of words, opened his 
eyes to new depths of human emotion,, taught him the trick of 
judicious omission of obvious details; but after learning this he 
realized also with Horace that the vices of the Alexandrian style 
were inherent in forcing originality upon a worn-out plot. He 
therefore struck out into work of a new creation where he could 
liberate himself from the mazes of the new method. He gives 
intellect free play in organizing his material, but he never allows 
himself to become inconsequential or episodic: he never sews in 
the purpureas pannus. Whatever Aristotle or his followers may 
have said about the subject, Horace in the opening paragraph of 
the Ars Poetica means to insist that the epyllion has shown the 



556 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

wrong method, Vergil the right one — and the lesson was never 
more needed. 

There follows (11. 46-72) a paragraph on diction in which after 
a warning against recklessness the critic reminds the reader that 
as words naturally vary in longevity a reasonable attitude must 
be assumed toward poets like Vergil who dare to coin new words 
and extend the connotation of old ones by effective collocations. 
The discussion of diction was at that time a burning question 
which flamed up even at court. Maecenas, disheveled in style 
as in dress and character, wantoned over the whole range of the 
Latin dictionary. He cared only for the immediate effect, and 
since his mother-tongue was Etruscan the "speech of the old 
shirt-sleeved Cato" possessed no odor of sanctity for him. The 
new style 1 induced by oriental teachers of Greek — against which 
even Cicero had fought — was his meat and drink. His prose is a 
mosaic of phrases, each more startling and surprising than the last. 
And it matters little how the effect is produced: whether by pithy 
brevity, by sheer strength, by forced imagery, by misplaced poetic 
diction, by obvious colloquialism, by striking rhythm, or by the 
audacity of the subject-matter. There is a flavor of Oscar Wilde 
about the meretricious prettiness and gracility of his turns. Now 
and then, however, he seems to be striving for paradox and epigram 
— the orthodox style of essayist of our own day. And his diction 
is of a pattern with his phrase, for he knew no suggestion of restraint 
and no restricting law. He uses words now epic in tone, now 
drawn from the street, and uses them with little care as to their 
precise meaning — often indeed they are beaded into strange phrases 
whence they draw new connotations from the context. When 
Latin words fail him, he employs transliterated Greek words, or 
shapes new ones with meanings suggested by foreign words. Con- 
temporary critics were forced to imitate him in order to get ade- 
quate vocabulary with which to characterize his style. The 
emperor spoke of his phrases as myrrh-scented curls, and, adopting 
the Maecenatic jargon, called him his "Etruscan ivory, his Arretine 

1 As practiced by Laevius (see Gellius xix. 7) it resembled the euphuism which 
usually breaks out after a period of classical sobriety. The inferior writer must 
resort to startling effects if he is to attract attention. Varro's satire in Papiapapae 
seems to be directed in part against this fashion. 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 557 

perfume, his Tiburtine pearl," and a dozen other outlandish names. 
Seneca characterizes the man as a fop and his style as intarsia, 
while Tacitus resorts to the curling iron for a suitable figure, and 
though these criticisms were usually concerned with his prose they 
apply equally well to his verse. 

Maecenas as the patron of all the foremost poets of his day 
naturally exerted no mean influence in literary matters, and Horace 
doubtless had to defend his own position when he attempted to 
resist the arguments of this holder of purse strings. But the ideals 
of Maecenas did not occupy the field alone. There were men who 
went to the very opposite extreme, purists who prided themselves 
upon using Latin from its unsullied fountains, who refused to touch 
a foreign phrase, a word of recent coinage and without patina, 
who held poetic diction sacred and not to be tainted with words 
of lowly associations, and who studied the old uncontaminated 
Romans like Cato to keep on the safe side. Caesar, though no 
slavish formalist in his own expression, set the motto of this school 
in his grammatical essay: "Avoid, " he said, "a new word as a sailor 
shuns a crag." Horace's friend, Asinius Pollio, one of these 
purists, applied his doctrine not only to his formal speeches and 
his historical work but also to his tragedies, for Tacitus found in 
him the musty flavor of Pacuvius and Accius. " Confound words 
that confound thought," was his pithy motto. To the same school 
of purists belonged Messala and the youthful Tiberius, patron of 
a group of literary dilettantes to whom Horace occasionally 
addressed versified notes. 

Such were the extremists. Between the two stood the prosaic 
but sane Augustus, who felt called upon to prescribe laws of art 
as well as of society. He laughed good humoredly at the fondness 
of Maecenas for "curly and anointed phrases" as at the musty 
expressions dusted out of the attic by Tiberius. He enjoyed the 
simple delusion that the first duty of language was to express 
thought clearly and directly, without let or hindrance. Now such 
battles of words have always been and probably will always be. 
No doubt Neoptolemus had expressed himself on the subject. 
Horace, however, says his say not because some Greek critic before 
him had to choose between intransigent purists and anarchists 



558 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

of speech, but because the life and death of Roman poetry seemed 
to him to be at stake on the throw. Horace does not vote wholly 
with the group represented by Maecenas nor, on the other hand, 
with the supersensitive schoolmasters. As usual he shows a leaning 
toward liberalism tempered with sanity. And there he stands 
with Vergil again. Why, he says, shall not your critic (the specific 
word Romanus is surely intentional here) grant Vergil and Varius 
the privileges formerly given to Plautus and Caecilius? And 
Horace, realizing the impoverished condition of his native language, 
pleads that it be not kept to the Umitations of dictionary words 
and meanings. Let poets, he urges, coin Latin words with mean- 
ings found in reading Greek authors, and do not pettily carp at 
them when they produce studied and imaginative collocations of 
words outside of conventional phrase-lists. Horace himself 
enriched Latin in this very letter by such innovations upon Greek 
models as: prodigialiter, 1. 29; potenter, 1. 40; dominantia, 1. 234; 
iuvenentur, 1. 246, etc., as Vergil had already done (e.g., longaevus, 
antrum, auricomus, ignipotens, soporus, etc.). The extension of 
meanings by imaginative phrase-making was indeed one of the 
arts for which Horace was celebrated, and his "cunning felicity" of 
phrase, remarked by Petronius and Quintilian, needs no illustration 
in an age which has turned his lines into quotations. It matters 
little then whether Neoptolemus thought this or that upon the 
subject. Horace formulated in the Ars Poetica the precept which 
he had always practiced despite the extremists in both camps hurl- 
ing weapons at each other over his head. The end of the para- 
graph is wholly Horatian, whosoever may have said the like before: 
usus quern penes arbitrium etjus et norma dicendi must be the final 
judge of diction. 

There follows a paragraph on the appropriate meters for various 
forms. The elegiac is suited to sad themes and to epigram (the 
pointed epigram of Martial was not yet, and Horace would doubt- 
less have objected to it), the iambic to invective, a statelier iambic 
to tragic dialogue, certain lyric meters to themes of praise and love — 
"and if I do not know the temper and spirit of each verse form 
or if I ignore them what right have I to the name of poet ? " " Mere 
red tape," insists Saintbury. But to Horace this was not mere 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 559 

red tape. Every sane critic of his day felt that the Latin hexameter 
was in danger of being overweighted and that the lines of comedy 
failed in lightness through the burden of spondees imposed by 
the abundance of long syllables. This was known and felt to be 
more or less unavoidable. There were evils, however — due to 
ignorance and to refusal to train the ear to the proper ethos of 
verse — which Horace had more at heart. From the time of Laevius, 
who had in his polymetra of late Greek style broken over all restraint 
and had even in thorough cubistic fashion shaped his lines to pic- 
ture graphically the object of which he wrote, there had been 
manifest at Rome a failure to observe not only conventions but 
even proprieties. And conventions do not go for naught in poetry. 
It may be that the meters of our Mother Goose rhymes were not 
originally limited to one sphere of verse, but after those rhymes 
became extensively known this particular meter had acquired 
certain associations which may not be neglected with impunity. 
The same is true of Dryden's couplet, of Milton's blank verse, and 
a host of other forms. So there can be little doubt that Horace, 
schooled in the Greek poets of the great age, must have chafed 
under the innovations of the "new school." Catullus was par- 
ticularly exasperating. In his youth a clever and ambitionless ver- 
sifier, he had spent his time writing lampoons and vers de societe in 
the meters of trifles. After he met Lesbia an intense passion pos- 
sessed his verse, but he recklessly continued to use hendecasyllables 
and halt-iambics, writing doubtless for himself and not for the 
public. But when the public was admitted, one can imagine the 
puzzle of many readers at the most poignant song of the group 
written in scazons: 

miser Catulle desinas ineptire! 

Indeed more than one modern critic, decoyed by the literary asso- 
ciations of the scazon from Hipponax to the Latin Matius, insists 
on reading the poem as a scurrilous satire, mistaking the naive 
cry of childish sympathy in scelesta, vae te, for an imprecation. 
In fact Catullus is largely at fault, for he recklessly disregarded 
the proprieties, and Horace who knew the facts was right in calling 
his predecessors to task for abusing their privileges and disregarding 
the obligation to give ear to fitness and to study well-established 



560 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

conventions. Horace doubtless found fault also with their rules 
of versification, even when they used appropriate meters. The 
Sapphics of Catullus for instance show that he was not follow- 
ing the latest Roman theorists but was simply deducing his own 
system first hand from his reading of old poets. It may be true 
that to our ear the Sapphics of Catullus seem less stilted and formal 
than those of Horace, but if we knew more about Latin quantity 
and Latin accent perhaps we should understand why Horace 
adopted the strait-jacket laws imposed by Varro and followed 
by Caesius Bassus. Be that as it may, Horace rightly or wrongly 
felt that the neoteroi did not study verse technique with sufficient 
care, furthermore — and here he was undoubtedly right — that they 
disregarded a vital tradition in employing verse forms like the 
scazon and the elegiac with subject-matter that had never before 
been associated with them. 

The whole truth in this question is now beyond us, for we 
possess too few Greek lyrics and we know too little about the 
ethos of ancient verse forms to be capable of judging in the matter. 
But it would not be going too far to add that verse based upon 
quantity — as we may judge from music, which is quantitative — 
shows more sensitiveness to metrical variety than verse based, 
like ours, upon stress alone. Moreover, our meters are so few 
and simple, and these few must do service for so wide a range of 
expression, that we are utterly unfit to appreciate the fine distinc- 
tions wrought by the great abundance of feet and cola of Greek 
and Latin verse. When the English trochee, for instance, must 
serve the purposes of elegy, satire, love songs, and heroic verse, 
it is hopeless to suppose that our trochee will ever require an 
individual ethos. This is enough to warn us not to assume that 
metrical rules were mere red tape to Horace though they might 
of necessity be so to us. In considering the work of his rash prede- 
cessors, then, Horace had unquestioned reason for asking: Cur 
ego si nequeo ignoroque, poeta salutor. And it was with this fact in 
mind that he repeatedly made the proud claim that it was he who 
first introduced the true lyric measures to Rome. 

Another important paragraph of the Epistle (11. 193 ff .) inveighs 
against the misuse of the chorus in tragedy and, in immediate 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 561 

connection, against the growing importance of the musical element 
to the detriment of the text. Aristotle had found it necessary to 
raise the same objections to innovations of his day, holding Eu- 
ripides guilty of both charges, and Horace doubtless found similar 
attacks in the post-Aristotelian critics. However, scholars have 
not failed to note that Horace has reasons of his own for raising 
the same questions once more. The question of the chorus must 
be considered in connection with the proper place of music in 
tragedy, but it will be convenient to dwell first upon the peculiar 
evolution of the chorus that created the situation which Horace 
deprecates. Despite Aristotle's criticism that Euripides and 
Agathon seemed to be reducing the dramatic chorus to the posi- 
tion of mere entr'acte entertainers that had no vital part in the 
essential development of the plot, the innovation, for reasons that 
we need not discuss, increased in favor. On the Hellenistic stage 
it would seem that even the old plays were reshaped in such a way 
as to permit new choral odes written in the style of music-hall 
songs to be inserted in place of the originals. At Rome the first 
dramatists, Livius and Naevius, apparently reproduced this new- 
fashioned element in staging their plays, for it was in this form 
that they had seen Greek plays given at Tarentum, Naples, and 
Syracuse. Ennius, however, inspired more by the earlier Greeks 
than by Hellenistic productions, endeavored to revitalize the 
choral odes, 1 make the subject-matter an integral part of the play, 
and connect the choral singing with the action. And in this 
reaction to older models he was followed by Pacuvius and Accius, 
many of whose plays were produced at Rome in Horace's youth. 
In fact these later dramatists, in response to a true Roman demand 
for realism, often went even farther than Sophocles in merging 
chorus and action. Ennius for example substituted a band of 
soldiers for the original maiden chorus in his Iphigenia in order to 
secure more natural interplay. To carry out the effect he even 
shifted from one chorus to another in the middle of the play, since, 
when the scene shifted, the original group proved to be incon- 
gruous with the developing plot. So in the Eumenides, a new 
chorus is made up of Areopagites at the end, and in the Hectoris 
1 See Duckett, Studies in Ennius, p. 61. 



562 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

Lutra the Nereids seem to displace the soldiers. Pacuvius like- 
wise substituted for the group of citizens a chorus of Maenads in 
the Antiope, while Accius in his Antigone substituted watchmen for 
the greybeards of Sophocles in the interest of verisimilitude. These 
are but a few illustrations of how the best of the dramatists 
attempted to use the chorus in the most natural fashion. 

But about Horace's time a change took place. The methods 
of Ennius and Accius were abandoned and those of the Hellenistic 
stage once more came into favor. The tragedies of Seneca have 
survived to prove what this change was like. These closet-dramas 
of Seneca differ from the Accian plays in two essential points that 
concern us here. The main part of the play is heavily loaded down 
with monologues, soliloquies, and rather static dialogue which 
would readily lend themselves to detached recitation, that is, to 
dramatic musical recitation — for the tragedy was more like a 
modern oratorio than a modern play. Secondly, the choral odes 
are usually mere entr'acte musical numbers. 

Now it is apparent that the peculiar nature of these plays might 
be explained by the fact that Seneca was no dramatist, that he 
could not put life and action into his characters, and it would not 
be underestimating him to advance such an argument. Yet there 
is evidence that some of these peculiarities existed before his day. 
Whether or not Pollio and Varius wrote in this style is doubtful, 
not to say improbable; but the keen critic, Leo, has observed that 
Ovid quite certainly did — and the significant fact is that his Medea 
was apparently written at about the same time as Horace's Ars 
Poetica. Of the other tragedies of that day we know nothing, 
but it is not likely that Ovid stood alone. 

To go a step farther, it has been supposed that this new rhetori- 
cal drama was the outcome of a demand for closet-drama when 
tragedy began to lose its place on the boards, and it is patent that 
the writing of plays for reading and recitation rather than for 
acting would on the whole produce the same effect that Seneca's 
plays give. But if we may take the cue from Horace's strictures 
here and in another epistle, the vicious disease that attacked the 
drama arose out of theatrical performances themselves. In his 
day the plays were overstaged (II, 190), the characters dressed 



HORACE ON CONTEMPORARY POETRY 563 

too elaborately (II, 207), the lines too heavily weighted with 
rhetoric (II, 217), musicians were brought upon the stage when 
music was no longer ancillary to the text but made an end in itself 
(II, 215), and, as has been mentioned, the chorus was treated as 
a disjunctive element (II, 197). Now we have no precise descrip- 
tion of just how the drama evolved these qualities, but it is patent 
that the phenomena described by Horace are precisely those that 
one might expect from the reaction of the very popular pantomime 
of the day upon legitimate tragedy. It was just a few years before 
the Ars Poetica was written that Pylades caught the applause of 
Rome by presenting — dancing, as he called it — parts of tragedies 
in pantomime. The process seems to have been something like 
this: while a chorus sang extracts or adapted portions of some 
tragedy to the music of an elaborate orchestra, Pylades acted in 
dumb show — or danced — the appropriate r61e. In this perform- 
ance the actor was the all-important performer, and the music 
was exceedingly elaborate for those times : the libretto was of minor 
consideration since the story was well known and the words were 
well-nigh inaudible. As in our opera the text was so nearly neg- 
ligible that, though several noted poets wrote for such perform- 
ances, the lines were seldom preserved, and none have survived 
to our day. 

Now these pantomimes became exceedingly popular at once, 
and it was not long before they were the only form in which tragedy 
really had a chance of presentation. Whether the performer gave 
scenes and adaptations of old plays or brought out new librettos 
especially produced for him, the Romans soon came to speak of 
cantare and saltare tragoediam, not of agere. Of course the imme- 
diate success of this form with the "tired business man" of Rome 
reacted upon the drama at once, and their reaction was of the kind 
that Horace has noted. The pantomime could naturally make more 
use of portions of tragedy that were composed as monologues, and 
simpler dialogues, than of intricate and involved dramatic scenes, 
and the elaborate chorus and orchestra needed choral odes that 
were units in themselves and not involved in or too much a vital 
part of the play. Hence arose the temptation of dramatic writers 
to shape their plays in such a way that scenes and songs might be 



564 THE CLASSICAL JOURNAL 

extracted for performance. If arias and choruses from Ovid's 
Medea were given in concerts and the pantomime danced the music 
of the mad-scene, why should not an author be tempted, like the 
makers of Italian operas of today, to bear the possibility in mind ? 
To carry out the comparison, Horace was then in the position of 
Wagner when he insisted upon the prime importance of a harmoni- 
ous production with the text as most vital, the music as interpre- 
tative, and with an orchestra demoted to a mezzanine beneath 
the stage. But even before the pantomime enticed the tragedy 
into such questionable ways, the very spirit that popularized such 
entertainments had already made its influence felt upon the tragedy. 
In Cicero's day there were actors who made tragedy an extrava- 
ganza of the eye and ear, the very evil against which Horace 
inveighs. It is clear that the play had started in the direction 
even before the innovation of Pylades. However, the success of 
the pantomime enables us now to understand what the vices were 
that Horace had to combat, and it also proves that Horace had 
those vices immediately before his eyes, and not only in a para- 
graph of Neoptolemus. 

Enough has perhaps been said to show that though Horace may, 
as the scholiast affirms, have brought together some of the precepts 
of Neoptolemus, he nevertheless, as a writer of some twenty years' 
experience, concerned himself primarily with principles pertinent 
to the literature of his own day — literature which the scholiast 
knew little about. As a piece of literary criticism the Ars Poetica 
hardly lays claim to great rank. It does not search for essential 
general principles with the sureness of Aristotle's famous work, 
nor has Horace the gift of divining the abode of genius which 
Longinus possessed. Nevertheless the Ars Poetica must not be 
characterized as an inconsequential paraphrase of an older critic 
nor as a collection of irrelevant rules. It grew out of a clear under- 
standing of Roman literature, and it was written by a cultivated 
poet of high artistic ideals courageously advocating flawless and 
unstinting work. Even when through lack of evidence we fail to 
disclose the particular tendency that Horace is criticizing we are 
nevertheless justified in assuming that he is urging a precept of 
immediate and vital application.