Ars Poetica

Ars poetica, title by which Horace's poetic Epistle to the Pisos soon became known (see EPISTLES). The poem takes the form of a letter of advice on the pursuit of literature, addressed to a father and two sons whose identity is as uncertain as the date of composition, which is perhaps about 19 BC. It is in the same tradition as Aristotle's Poetics and perhaps owes something to earlier Latin didactic poems, but the purpose of the Ars poetica in the form Horace gave it has always puzzled critics. First, as a treatise it is far from systematic. Where Aristotle is analytical and descriptive Horace is impressionistic, personal, and allusive. Transitions from one subject to another are abrupt and the arrangement seems haphazard. Secondly, its concentration on epic and drama seems irrelevant to the contemporary Roman literary scene. An ancient commentator said that Horace selected his material from the similar treatise of Neoptolemus of Parium, a Hellenistic Greek writer of the third century BC, but the structure of the Ars poetica and Horace's practice elsewhere suggest rather that he used no one Greek source but selected from among several sources those precepts which agreed with his own views on poetic style and were suitable for imaginative poetic treatment.

The lively autobiographical approach of the Ars poetica and its expression of personal standards in literature make it unique as a work of criticism in the ancient world. Many of its apt phrases, the ridiculus mus (‘ridiculous mouse’) of bathos, in medias res (‘in the middle of things’), of an abrupt beginning, the ‘purple patch’ (purpureus pannus) and the reference to ‘Homer nodding’ (dormitat Homerus), have passed into common literary parlance. It exercised a great influence in later ages on European literature, notably on French drama through Nicholas Boileau's L'Art poétique (1674), written in imitation, and was translated into English (1640) by Ben Jonson.


Ars Poetica is a term meaning "The Art of Poetry" or "On the Nature of Poetry". Early examples of Artes Poeticae by Aristotle and Horace have survived and many other poems bear the same name.



Horace's Ars Poetica (also known as "The Art of Poetry," Epistula ad Pisones, or Letters to the Pisones), published c. 18 BC, was a treatise on poetics. It was first translated into English by Thomas Drant. Three quotations in particular are associated with the work:

  • "in medias res," or "into the middle of things." This describes a popular narrative technique that appears frequently in ancient epics and remains popular
  • "bonus dormitat Homerus" or "good Homer nods"; an indication that even the most skilled poet can make continuity errors
  • "ut pictura poesis," or "as is painting so is poetry," by which Horace meant that poetry, in its widest sense meaning "imaginative texts," merits the same careful interpretation that was in his day reserved for painting.

The latter two phrases occur one after the other near the end of the treatise.

The work is also key for its discussion of the principle of decorum, the use of appropriate vocabulary and diction in each style of writing, and for Horace's criticisms of purple prose.

In verse 191, Horace warns against deus ex machina, the practice of resolving a convoluted plot by having an Olympian god appear and set things right. Horace writes "Nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus": "That a god not intervene, unless a knot show up that be worthy of such an untangler".[1]

Archibald MacLeish

The best known poem by Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982), published in 1926, took its title and subject from Horace's work. His poem "Ars Poetica" contains the line "A poem should not mean/but be", which was a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic. The original manuscript of the poem is in the collections of the Library of Congress.

Czesław Miłosz

Nobel Prize-winning Polish writer Miłosz also wrote a poem with this title (1968), though his poem has a question mark at the end of the title.

Modern usage

The term "ars poetica" can refer to devices of metalanguage. The definition of "ars poetica" in the past decade[when?] extends to defining techniques of rhetoric, including but not limited to: writing about writing, singing about singing, thinking about thinking, etc. Originating in poetry about poetry, "ars poetica" is now widely used as a literary device to enhance imagery, understanding, or profundity.

Moreover, the technique of "ars poetica" was previously an attempt to capture the essence of poetry through poetry. The poet would write his poem, then step back, and his poem would become a way of knowing, of seeing, albeit through the senses, the emotions, and the imagination. In the modern century, a passage of writing or composition employing an "ars poetica" style is one that tries to capture the essence, the intrinsic value, of what it is expressing through. A song about a song, for example, would be an attempt to manifest the fleeting beauty of lyrics, notes, and dynamics.


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