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Literary Criticism of Horace

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BCE–8 BCE ), more commonly known as Horace, was a Roman poet, best known for his satires and his lyric odes. His letters in verse, particularly his Ars Poetica: Epistle to the Pisos, outline his beliefs about the art and craft of poetry. His main contribution to the traditions of literary theory we are exploring lie in his articulation of the purpose of poetry, or literature in general: it is dulce et utile, sweet and useful. Horace insists that literature serves the didactic purpose which had been Plato’s main concern, and that it provides pleasure; the two goals are not incompatible, as Plato had feared. Poetry is a useful teaching tool, Horace argues, precisely because it is pleasurable. The pleasure of poetry makes it popular and accessible, and its lessons thus can be widely learned. Like Plato, Horace sees nature as the primary source for poetry, but he argues that poets should imitate other authors as well as imitating nature. Horace thus establishes the importance of a poet knowing a literary tradition, and respecting inherited forms and conventions, as well as creating new works.

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Except for a few late Roman and early medieval writers who contributed to the discussion of theories about literature, such as Plotinus (204–70), Boethius (480–524), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), and Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Horace pretty much defined the parameters of thought about literature from the ancient world until the Renaissance. The explosion of art, literature, and science which we think of as the hallmark of the European Renaissance in the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries prompted not only a deluge of literary texts, including the works of such luminaries as Shakespeare, but also a torrent of writings about the purpose, form, and importance of literature. The Renaissance discourse on literary theory was stimulated at least in part by the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Poetics, a text which had been lost to Western culture during the Dark Ages.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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