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This poem is taken from Poetry Nation 2 Number 2, 1974.

Horace's Ars Poetica: A Translation C.H. Sisson

A version of the Ars Poetica of Horace


If there were a consolation for the decline of classical studies, it would be that there are fewer people around who imagine that they know what is in the older poets. A writer such as Horace one must come to in maturity. Reading him at school does not prevent this, but it may be discouraging. It may seem that there cannot be much left for exploration.

The approach to the
Ars Poetica may be barred by another kind of familiarity. Whether he has gone through the Latin text or not, the student of English literature may think he has heard enough of classical theories, as if there were half-a-dozen rules that one learned for an examination and then had done with.

There is nothing like that about the
Ars Poetica. It is in the form of a letter to some people called the Pisos - a father and two sons. Nobody knows who they were. The poem itself points to their being a family who dabbled in literature. No doubt they were well-to-do.

The Pisos wanted to write poetic plays. There can have been little chance of their succeeding. It can be assumed that Horace did not think his advice would make poets of his correspondents. The irony of this situation has sometimes been missed. The
Ars is not a set of rules but a series of observations by a poet on his art and on those who professed to practise it. In Horace's day as in ours many more people professed to be poets than had even a faint claim to the title.

Horace's comments have their background in the classical world and the literature which preceded him. They had a wide influence on the literature of Western Europe from the sixteenth century until, roughly speaking, the outbreak of the Romantic movement. Both the background and the history are interesting studies, necessary to a full understanding of the place of the
Ars in our own time. But the Ars is a living book - a mercifully small one. Its value to us is in its application to our own literary problems. Horace lived in a highly sophisticated and already decadent world. He was at the heart of a great urban civilisation, in spite of his Sabine farm. In some ways we are better placed to understand him than those who found meat in him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The translation which follows is not literal. Horace himself advises against such versions. It aims at extracting the sense of the original by contemporary applications. Where Greek or Roman references have been retained it is because of their continuing relevance. When published in book form, the text will be accompanied by an introduction in which the place of the
Ars in English literature is explored, and a commentary which aims at setting Horace's advice firmly in the context of current literary practice.

You may think nothing of zoological marvels
Or mind what a painter does to the human shape.
After Picasso, no one is shocked by distortions,
Yet, even so, there are rules to be observed.
Cork Street is not exempt from all derision
And there are books at least as bad as the pictures
- Flippant images out of a sick man's dream.
The serious work must do more than hang together.
It is no use saying: 'Painters and poets are equal'

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