Day: April 5, 2019

Ars Poetica

Source: Extract from Horace, Ars Poetica (c.19 BC), translated by Ben Jonson (posthumously published 1640) and reproduced in W. Gifford, The Works of Ben Jonson… with notes critical and explanatory, and a biographical memoir (London: G. and W. Nicol [etc.], 1816), vol. 9, pp.105-113

Text:
Hear what it is the people and I desire:
If such a one’s applause thou dost require,
That tarries till the hangings be ta’en down,
And sits till th’epilogue says Clap, or crown:
The customs of each age thou must observe,
And give their years and natures, as they swerve,
Fit rights. The child, that now knows how to say,
And can tread firm, longs with like lads to play;
Soon angry, and soon pleas’d, is sweet, or sour,
He knows not why, and changeth every hour.

Th’ unbearded youth, his guardian once being gone,
Loves dogs and horses; and is ever one
I’ the open field; is wax-like to be wrought
To every vice, as hardly to be brought
To endure counsel: a provider slow
For his own good, a careless letter-go
Of money, haughty, to desire soon mov’d,
And then as swift to leave what he hath lov’d.

These studies alter now, in one grown man;
His better’d mind seeks wealth and friendship; than
Looks after honours, and bewares to act
What straightway he must labour to retract.

The old man many evils do girt round;
Either because he seeks, and, having found,
Doth wretchedly the use of things forbear,
Or does all business coldly, and with fear;
A great deferrer, long in hope, grown numb
With sloth, yet greedy still of what’s to come:
Froward, complaining, a commender glad
Of the times past, when he was a young lad:
And still correcting youth, and censuring.
Man’s coming years much good with them do bring:
As his departing take much thence, lest then
The parts of age to youth be given, or men
To children; we must always dwell, and stay
In fitting proper adjuncts to each day.

The business either on the stage is done,
Or acted told. But ever things that run
In at the ear, do stir the mind more slow
Than those the faithful eyes take in by show,
And the beholder to himself doth render.
Yet to the stage at all thou may’st not tender
Things worthy to be done within, but take
Much from the sight, which fair report will make
Present anon: Medea must not kill
Her sons before the people, nor the ill-
Natur’d and wicked Atreus cook to th’ eye
His nephew’s entrails; nor must Progne fly
Into a swallow there; nor Cadmus take
Upon the stage the figure of a snake.
What so is shown, I not believe, and hate.

Nor must the fable, that would hope the fate
Once seen, to be again call’d for, and play’d,
Have more or less than just five acts: nor laid,
To have a god come in; except a knot
Worth his untying happen there: and not
Any fourth man, to speak at all, aspire.

An actor’s parts, and office too, the quire
Must maintain manly: nor be heard to sing
Between the acts, a quite clean other thing
Than to the purpose leads, and fitly ‘grees.
It still must favour good men, and to these
Be won a friend; it must both sway and bend
The angry, and love those that fear t’ offend.
Praise the spare diet, wholesome justice, laws,
Peace, and the open ports, that peace doth cause.
Hide faults, pray to the gods, and wish aloud
Fortune would love the poor, and leave the proud.

The hau’boy, not as now with latten bound,
And rival with the trumpet for his sound,
But soft, and simple, at few holds breath’d time
And tune too, fitted to the chorus’ rhyme,
As loud enough to fill the seats, not yet
So over-thick, but where the people met,
They might with ease be number’d, being a few
Chaste, thrifty, modest folk, that came to view.
But as they conquer’d and enlarg’d their bound,
That wider walls embrac’d their city round,
And they uncensur’d might at feasts and plays
Steep the glad genius in the wine whole days,
Both in their tunes the license greater grew,
And in their numbers; for alas, what knew
The idiot, keeping holiday, or drudge,
Clown, townsman, base and noble mixt, to judge?
Thus to his ancient art the piper lent
Gesture and Riot, whilst he swooping went
In his train’d gown about the stage: so grew
In time to tragedy, a music new.
The rash and headlong eloquence brought forth
Unwonted language: and that sense of worth
That found out profit, and foretold each thing
Now differed not from Delphic riddling.

Thespis is said to be the first found out
The Tragedy, and carried it about,
Till then unknown, in carts, wherein did ride
Those that did sing, and act: their faces dy’d
With lees of wine. Next Eschylus, more late
Brought in the visor, and the robe of state,
Built a small timber’d stage, and taught them talk
Lofty and grave, and in the buskin stalk.
He too, that did in tragic verse contend
For the vile goat, soon after forth did send
The rough rude satyrs naked, and would try,
Though sour, with safety of his gravity,
How he could jest, because he mark’d and saw
The free spectators subject to no law,
Having well eat and drunk, the rites being done,
Were to be staid with softnesses, and won
With something that was acceptably new.
Yet so the scoffing satyrs to men’s view,
And so their prating to present was best,
And so to turn all earnest into jest,
As neither any god were brought in there,
Or semi-god, that late was seen to wear
A royal crown and purple, be made hop
With poor base terms through every baser shop:
Or whilst he shuns the earth, to catch at air
And empty clouds. For tragedy is fair,
And far unworthy to blurt out light rhymes;
But as a matron drawn at solemn times
To dance, so she should shamefac’d differ far
From what th’ obscene and petulant satyrs are.
Nor I, when I write satyrs, will so love
Plain phrase, my Pisos, as alone t’ approve
Mere reigning words: nor will I labour so
Quite from all face of tragedy to go,
As not make difference, whether Davus speak,
And the bold Pythias, having cheated weak
Simo, and of a talent wip’d his purse;
Or old Silenus, Bacchus’ guard and nurse.

I can out of known geer a fable frame,
And so as every man may hope the same;
Yet he that offers at it may sweat much,
And toil in vain: the excellence is such
Of order and connexion; so much grace
There comes sometimes to things of meanest place.
But let the Fauns, drawn from their groves, beware,
Be I their judge, they do at no time dare,
Like men street-born, and near the hall rehearse
Their youthful tricks in over-wanton verse;
Or crack out bawdy speeches, and unclean.
The Roman gentry, men of birth aud mean,
Will take offence at this: nor though it strike
Him that buys chiches blanch’d, or chance to like
The nut-crackers throughout, will they therefore
Receive or give it an applause the more.

Comments: Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace (65 BC – 8 BC) was a Roman poet. His Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), written c.19 BC, is a poem on the writing of poetry and theatre, among the most influential of all works of literary criticism. His words of advice provide useful evidence on the staging on Roman drama and its reception by audiences. The poem is written in the form of a letter to the Roman consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso and his sons. The Engish playwright and poet Ben Jonson (c.1572-1637) was a deep admirer of Horace, featuring him as a character in his play Poetaster. The earliest reference to Jondon undertaking a translation of Ars Poetica is in 1860, but it was not published until after his death, in 1640. Other translations are more accurate, but among those whose have reproduced Horace in English verse, none comes close to Jonson’s quality.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust