THE MAXIMS OF HORACE

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 89-90.

THE names of Plautus, Terence and Seneca, with Ennius and Naevius glimmering in the background, are all that redeem Latin dramatic literature during the course of nearly eight centuries. Rome did, however, make a contribution to dramatic criticism in the work of Horace, who lived from 65 to 8 B.C. In the famous Letters to Piso, later known as the Ars Poetica, he set forth in an interesting but disconnected manner canons of criticism and composition which were handed down from one group of scholars to another throughout the Middle Ages. Many of his principles apply to literary matters in general; but he devotes a portion of his work to the drama, and in a measure reaffirms the judgments of Aristotle. Horace, however, is far more superficial than the Greek; though in justice it should be said that his observations were not intended as a formal treatise, being rather the somewhat casual comment which one man of letters might naturally have written to another.

Certain verse forms and meters, said Horace, have been established as appropriate to comedy, others to tragedy, and these recognized styles should be followed. A tragic hero should not speak in the same rhythm as a comic one. Characters should be consistent with themselves, and should conform to the general expectation: boys should be childish, youth fond of sport, reckless and fickle, mature men should be businesslike and prudent, while old men should remain praisers of the past, sluggish and grudging. The poet should not try to change the character of well-known figures of the stage, such as Agamemnon, Medea, Hercules; at the same time, he should not stick too closely to the stock of subjects. When beginning a play, avoid pomposity and grandiloquence; but when once the play is launched, rush the spectator on through the action, leaving out the ungrateful parts of the story. Do not present ugly things on the stage. The traditional structure of plots should be used, but such contrivances as the god-from-the-machine should not be worked to death. Keep to the three-actor play, and remember to use the chorus for the expression of moral sentiments and religious tone. Above all things, stick to the Greek models. Some people may have been fools enough to admire Plautus, but that is no reason why everyone should do so. Plautus is rude and barbarous, not worthy of study beside the Greeks. Every play should either instruct or delight--better if it does both. "Mix pleasure and profit, and you are safe."

Such were the rather humdrum instructions of Horace, who indeed followed Aristotle, but a long way behind. It was the influence of Horace, however, which was largely responsible for the perpetuation of the so-called "rules of Aristotle" through the Renaissance to modern times. Some of the medieval and Renaissance writers, however, had a positive genius for misinterpreting and misreading both Aristotle and Horace; so neither one should be held to blame for all the crimes committed in the name of classicism.

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