Horace’s "Ars Poetica": Horace’s concept of Decorum

Horace’s Ars poetica explains the difficulty and the seriousness of the poetic art, and gives technical advice to aspiring poets. Here he explains the main role of art. Here he defines decorum or in classicist conception par excellence. In fact, Horace prefers craft to nature, and in consequence emphasizes decorum – a studied and diligent attention to what is proper and becoming in thought, action and style. In a good poem action should fit character, and expression should so fit subject matter that grave issues are treated with dignity and trivial matters with humbleness. Thus beauty, according to the principle of decorum, is nothing but order and fitness. Yet, this principle, which is today synonymous with Horace, has its ultimate origin in the Greek doctrine of ideas or forms, especially Aristotle’s to propriety of style discussed in the Rhetoric. Later Cicero in the Orator defined the term in its general application to real life, oratory and poetry. Finally it was left to Horace to illustrate its specific application to poetry. One can today scarcely deny that it is Horace who in spite of never actually using the word ‘decorum’ – his favourite word being literary propriety – transformed it into an all embracing critical doctrine.

            Decorum, for Horace, is the avoidance of incongruities. The very 1st sentence in Ars Poetica juxtaposes a human head and a horse’s neck, a beautiful woman’s torso at the tail of a hideous fish and rhetorically asks if these were not ludicrous. Therefore he would warn the poet never to confuse the genres or to mingle tragedy with comedy. After the term tragic-comedy would certainly had evoked his censure. But it is not merely the genre which must be appropriate, but even the subject matter, presented in the work, for it should accord with the poet’s power.

            A writer should choose the subject matter that is suited to abilities. He may give long expression in which he is capable of. Once the subject matter is decided, one must be single mind about it and keep to the point. The heroic style should not give way to purple passages, and the poet who attempts sublimity should not fall into turgidity.

Decorumness must be maintained in language too. Unless the speeches are in harmony with the feelings, the audience would burst out in laughter. Pathetic language is appropriate to the face of sorrow, and violent language to the face of anger; a sportive diction goes with merry looks and serious with rave language. The language should vary according to the personality, and it will make a great difference if a god or hero is speaking, an old man or a proud youth, a roving merchant or a prospering farmer. Further, not only the general speech but even the words must be chosen with care and subtlety. New words are to be only rarely used and when used, should be borrowed from Greek sources. The metre should be in tune with the theme. Iambic is fit for satire, and elegiac couplet for lament.

            Characterization must be appropriate. One must note the behaviour of the people of varying ages, and give the right kind of manners to characters of various dispositions and years. The child is ever changing and fickle; the youth is rash, sportive and haughty; the middle aged man is circumspect and carefully tries to acquire wealth and influence; and praising the past. Specific characters of renowned should be made to behave appropriately. Achilles should be energetic, passionate, ruthless and implacable. Medea should be fierce and indomitable, Ino tearful, Ixion faithless and Orestes sorrowful. Further, every new character must be consistent, behaving in the same manner at the end as at the beginning.

            Finally decorum is a sine qua non for stage representation. A tragedy should neither be longer nor shorter than five acts. It is better to show then report and episode on the stage, since the eye activates the mind more than the ear. Barbarous or repulsive acts must not be shown on stage but only reported, and Medea’s butchering her children must occur off-stage. There should not be more than three characters on the stage at the same time. An unnatural resolution – dues ex machine – to tie up the loose ends of the plot, should not be resorted too. The chorus should not sing anything that does not further the plot.

            Thus the concept of decorum, in spite of being apparently an enemy of nature, only furthers the process of nature. No nature can flourish without nurture. As Wimsatt and Brooks point out, Horace’s decorum is based not on social or political standards but on literary standards, it is not sociological but natural. 

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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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