When I first started this series on Horace, I said that one of the main draws of reading ancient literature is to see how literature first developed as an art. You can almost see the mechanics of Greek, Latin, Old English, Middle English, all developing not only their own cultural tastes and literary styles, but the very evolution of storytelling and writing conventions that we take for granted today. Philosophers like Aristotle question “What is poetry, what makes an epic and epic, or constitutes a love song?” and even though these questions may be old hat now to our world, saturated with books and literary criticism, it’s important to remember that these questions weren’t always old hat. Someone, after all, had to be the first to question and characterize the different types of literature, to divide the prose from the poetry.
Reading Horace’s The Art of Poetry, I soon realized that this book was the grandfather of Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style.
Ye who write, make choice of a subject suitable to your abilities; and revolve in your thoughts a considerable time what your strength declines, and what it is able to support. Neither elegance of style, nor a perspicuous disposition, shall desert the man, by whom the subject matter is chosen judiciously.
In other words, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
Whatever precepts you give, be concise; that docile minds may soon comprehend what is said, and faithfully retain it. All superfluous instructions flow from the too full memory. Let what ever is imagined for the sake of entertainment, have as much likeness to truth as possible.
Horace talks about how this will lend verisimilitude—a fancy word I like to use in place of “realistic” because I can both spell and pronounce it—and keep a playwright from accidentally including dolphins in the desert or something.
In a word, be your subject what it will, let it be merely simple and uniform… In the choice of his words, too, the author of the projected poem must be delicate and cautious, he must embrace one and reject another: you will express yourself eminently well, if a dexterous combination should give an air of novelty to a well-known word.
Horace drills this into his readers’ heads over and over: KEEP IT SIMPLE. It’s what Strunk and White advise, too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using high-falutin’ and “hundred dollar” vocabulary to clumsily disguise the fact that a novice writer does not have Style, but avoiding the temptation of this easy and popular cop-out will actually force the novice writer to develop Style. It’s like learning to ride a bike: eventually you have to take off the training wheels.