Academic journal article Akroterion

Shattering Tradition: A Rejection of Analysis by Genre in Horace's Ars Poetica

Academic journal article Akroterion

Shattering Tradition: A Rejection of Analysis by Genre in Horace's Ars Poetica

Article excerpt

In the following paper I shall explore and criticize various scholarly attempts to classify the genre of that most eclectic and farraginous work of Horace, the Ars poetica. This paper must, accordingly, be pardoned for being essentially destructive in nature: but I believe that it will only be possible for critical analyses of the poem to advance once we have cast ourselves free of the excess baggage--that is, generic expectations--which is frequently prescribed for our comprehension of this most singular composition in the Horatian oeuvre.

As a starting point, the very name, the 'Ars poetica', should suggest to us a type of philosophical or didactic prose treatise. The problem, of course, is that we do not know whether this was the title which Horace himself gave to his poem; indeed, we do not even know whether Horace had in fact created a definitive title for publication (Rudd 1989:19). Quintilian, in the following century, bestowed the titles of 'Ars poetica' and 'Liber de arte poetica' upon the poem. (2) Wilkins acknowledges the artificiality of these titles and rightly supposes that they might consequently mislead us into a certain predefined approach towards the poem (Wilkins 1886:333). To put it simply, if we read a poem entitled 'On the art of poetry', we will automatically read it as a didactic treatise. Consider how different the historical reception of Horace's poem would have been, had it been unanimously titled 'Epistula ad Pisones", as it is in some modern editions, such as Rudd's.

I should add here that there is always a danger for the literary critic of amalgamating the reception of a literary work into our analysis of the work itself. (3)

Certainly, it is true that Horace's works in general served an important didactic function in the school curriculum; (4) however, such a didactic reception, as perhaps reflected in the posthumously-fabricated title 'Ars poetica", need not denote that the work itself was crafted by Horace as a didactic treatise. We might, by the same anachronistic approach to literature, entitle Virgil's Aeneid a 'didactic' treatise, simply on account of the fact that it played so important a role in the educational syllabus in antiquity.

To return to the subject of genre, it is quite useful, as most critics have tended to do when considering how to classify the Ars poetica, to commence our analysis by reflecting on what kind of epistle the work is: how it positions itself among Horace's other letters and, indeed, how it fits into the tradition of letterwriting.

It has long been realised that Horace's three longer epistles (to Augustus, Florus, and the Pisones)--often amalgamated, probably anachronistically, (5) into a single book called 'Epistles 2' in many modern editions--present a wholly different tone to those of his first. The initial twenty shorter letters often maintain a familiar tone with their addressees, while the relationship between the 'Horace' (6) of 'Epistles 2' and his recipients is far less 'intimate', far less involved (Ferri 2007: 130-131). (7)

Moreover, even when focusing solely on the three longer epistles, the attachment of the Ars (8) to its addressees seems feeble, bearing little effect on the composition of the work, compared to the other two letters.

To illustrate this point, we might, without any obvious alteration to the effect or function of the poem, remove the names of the 'Pisones' from the Ars and replace them with any other familiar Roman cognomen; on the other hand, substituting the title of Augustus, Caesar (Hor. Epist. 2.1.4), from the first epistle of the second book would radically alter our appreciation of that work. He has been fully integrated into the text as an addressee with his own set of preoccupations and expectations: 'Thus we find that the addressees in these poems [to Florus and Augustus] are so precise and, it appears, so controlling of the sort of material to be discussed that the ever-present generalized addressee of didactic poetry (9) vanishes. …

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