Horace wrote only one important critical document in verse, that is, Epistle to the Pisos, later named Ars Poetica by Quintilian. It is another Poetics in Latin and brings to Horace the same reputation as to Aristotle in Greek. Horace was both a critic and a creative writer and was very well read. Though he popularised precepts and principles of Aristotle, yet he threw fresh lights. He was original in effecting a compromise between the conflicting claims of pleasure and profit as the end of creative writing. He stated that the aim of poetry is “to instruct, or to delight,” or both. He was also original in his insistence on proportion and order. He stated that great literature is the prize of ceaseless toil.
His aesthetics and emphasis on good taste are unique contribution. He identified unity with good taste and made men conscious of what good taste really is. “A sound philosophy of art is nothing but a rational account of good taste. Horace, by transforming Aristotle’s doctrines into critical rules, philosophically enlightened good taste without troubling his readers to philosophize about it. His immense influence in the history of criticism is, indeed, precisely due to the fact that he made aesthetic theory appeal to good taste.”
For two other pronouncements, though both ultimately based on Aristotle, he made his mark on the succeeding generations : the need for decorum or proportion, and the need for ceaseless toil as the price of poetic greatness. The subject chosen should be proportionate to the poet’s powers, the word to the meaning, the style to the subject, the treatment to the literary ‘kind’, the ‘sentiments’ to character, and so on. As for the need for toil, he would not hesitate to ‘reject that poem which has not been amended ten times over to-a perfect polish.’
Ars Poetica exercised a tremendous influence during the Middle Ages and the Age of Dryden and Pope in English criticism. Right down to the eighteenth century, he was regarded the high priest of classicism, of good taste and decorum, and wielded the rod of authority. The neo-classicists of later times looked upon him as a great judge and law-giver. At one time he seemed to eclipse even Aristotle from whom he derived much of his light and power. This is what our master Horace tells us,” said Dante. The great French critic Boileau confessed in his L’ Art Poetique : my infant muse.
Learnt, when she Horace for her guide did chuse.
And Pope formally acknowledge his debt to Horace by paying him a tribute in his Essays on Criticism as well as by adapting his lines at several places :
Horace still charms with graceful negligence,
And without method talks us into sense;
Will, like a friend, familiarly convey
The truest notions in the easiest way.
He, who supreme in judgment, as in wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Yet judg’d with coolness, tho’ he sung with fire;
His precepts teach but what his works inspire.
The vogue of Horace was such that “he was read when Aristotle was not; even when Aristotle’s influence in Europe was at its height, Horace was infinitely more readable than Aristotle; his witty epigrams, deliciously phrased, diseminated the doctrine as Aristotle’s compact and elliptical reasoning never could have done.” (Lascelles Abercrombie.)
His Ars Poetica has been hailed by Scaliger as “art written without art.” Saintsbury calls it a treatise De Mediocritate. Whatever its structural flaws, Ars Poetica remains to this day an important landmark in the development of critical taste in Europe. The enormous influence which it has exercised on subsequent criticism has secured for it a prerogative place not only among Horace’s critical work but also among the great masterpieces of European criticism. The most distinguishing feature of this work is that it contains a “constellation of glittering phrases” and concise, witty epigrams which have passed into literature as critical watchwords and mottoes. Atkins commends the epistolary form of this work and says that its discursiveness, its repetitions, and its abrupt transitions are all mere devices to avoid the appearance of too formal a regularity. He attributes much of the charm of this work to its epistolary form and writes : “In it we find a reflection of Horace’s personality and thought, his mature theory, his sanity, his grace; as well as a host of generalisation felicitously and forcibly expressed, and effectively placed at the opening or the end of his paragraphs. “
Horace has his limitations too. He has little that is original; his critical attitude is woefully incomplete. His criticism lacks enthusiasm and passion. His range of vision is limited. He has no sense of historical perspective. He believes too much in the authority of the ancients, but he has failed to recapture their spirit. His critical theories seem to be a bundle of arbitrary rules and conventions. “He does not always explain the reason for the rules he lays down; and his interests throughout are of a practical and ethical kind.” He does not cover the whole range of poetry. His observations are fragmentary and elusive. He lays stress mainly on correctness, polish and decorum; he does not talk of passion and fire which make genuine poetry. He has no faith in poetic inspiration. He strongly feels that poets are made, not born.
These are some of glaring limitations of Horace as a literary critic, but he has his compensatory merits too. With him started a new tradition in criticism. “What Cicero had done in the sphere of rhetoric was now carried over by him into realms of poetry. He recalled to men’s minds the standards of classical art, while directing their steps back to the poetry of antiquity; and he undoubtedly stands out as the most influential of Roman critics, one who achieved results of a lasting kind, and was to rank in stature with Aristotle at the Renaissance. ” Atkins.
One of the chief merits of Horace as a critic is that in him ‘the generation of the critic has not waited for the corruption of the poet’ (Saintsbury), and that he has ‘the peculiar gift of crisp rememberable felicitous phrase.’ His Ars Poetica is ‘a nice melange of objective and critical rules with snatches of studio wisdom.‘ His critical achievement ; nay best be summed up in the following words of Lascelles Abercrombie: “On the whole, if we judge by effect, the most important name in the history of criticism next to Aristotle is Horace. Criticism which can give a rational account of itself was first made possible by Aristotle’s philosophy; but it was the Ars Poetica which broadcast the seed of the Poetica over every literature in Europe. In the Poetics, efficacy of Aristotle’s doctrine depends on his reader’s ability to follow philosophical reasoning; in the Ars Poetica, the magic of poetry has released it from this severe condition: henceforth the doctrine, or the essential spirit of it, is something which can be enjoyed. And the whole world has enjoyed it. What the history of criticism owes to Horace is quite inestimable.”