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Critical Essay On Ars Poetica

On "Ars Poetica"

Signi Lenea Falk

"Ars Poetica" has been called MacLeish's ultimate expression of the art-for-art's-sake tenet. Taken as one statement of his theory, the poem does defy the "hair splitting analysis of modern criticism." Written in three units of double-line stanzas and in rhyme, it makes the point that a poem is an intimation rather than a full statement, that it should "be motionless in time"; that it has no relation to generalities of truth, historical fact, or love-variations, perhaps, of truth, beauty, and goodness.

From Archibald MacLeish. New York: Twayne, 1965. Copyright � 1965 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

Victor H. Jones

The poem, as "Ars Poetica" makes clear, captures a human experience, an experience of grief, or of love, or of loneliness, or of memory. Thus a poem becomes a way of knowing, of seeing, albeit through the senses, the emotions, and the imagination. MacLeish often said that the function of a poem is to trap "Heaven and Earth in the cage of form."

From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Copyright � 1986 by the Gale Group.

William Pratt

Archibald MacLeish, who like Cummings arrived on the poetic scene after the first imagists had created the new movement, nevertheless can be credited with the poetic summing up of imagism in his "Ars Poetica" in 1926, written well after the imagist decade had ended. It is inconceivable that such a poem could have been written without imagism, because the technique as well as the philosophy of MacLeish's most famous poem is imagist. It consists of a sequence of images that are discrete but that at the same time express and exemplify the imagist principles and practice of poetry.

The Latin title is borrowed from Horace, who wrote a prose treatise in the first century A.D., the Silver Age of Rome, called "Art of Poetry," advising poets among other things to be brief and to make their poems lasting. MacLeish wanted to link the classical with the modern in his poetic "treatise" as a way of implying that the standards of good poetry are timeless, that they do not change in essence though actual poems change from age to age and language to language. His succession of opening images are all about the enduring of poetry through time, as concrete as "globed fruit" or ancient coins or stone ledges, and as inspiring to see as a flight of birds or the moon rising in the sky. The statements are not only concrete but paradoxical, for it is impossible that poems should be "mute" or "Dumb" or "Silent" or "wordless," which would mean that there was no communication in them at all; rather, what MacLeish is stating in his succession of paradoxical images is that the substance of poetry may be physical but the meaning of poetry is metaphysical: poems are not about the world of sensible objects as much as they are about invisible realities, and so the universal emotions of grief and love can be expressed in words that convey the experience in all its concreteness, yet the words reach into the visionary realm beyond experience, toward which all true images point. The final paradox, that "A poem should not mean but be," is pure impossibility, but the poet insists it is nevertheless valid, because beyond the meaning of any poem is the being that it points to, which is ageless and permanent, a divine essence or spiritual reality behind all appearances. MacLeish's modern "Artof Poetry" is a fulfillment of the three rules of imagism (be direct, be brief, and use free verse), of Pound's definition of the image, and at the same time of Horace's Latin statement on poetry, that good poetry is one proof that there is a permanence in human experience that does not change but endures through time.

from Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright � 1996 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

John Haislip

And so at the beginning of the twentieth century, English poetry was dominated by a highly rhetorical, very popular poetry exemplified by such writers as Sir Henry Newbolt, William Watson, and Alfred Noyes. The subsequent revolt against their poetry and especially the implications of its popularity led directly to a search for an antidote to the horrors of the popular poem. The antidote was the image and imagist poetry. Interms of Stead's metaphor, the imagist poet sought to distance himself from the audience and shorten the line between himself and reality with the goal of creating pure poetry.

MacLeish' s attempt at an "imagist" poem, "Ars Poetica," was written March 14, 1925, at the beginning of his serious commitment to poetry.


"Ars Poetica" has been a part of our "literary lives" for so long that it has blurred in our memory, vaguely associated with other "imagist" poems and modernist manifestos. Yet in spite of the fact that we have encountered it innumerable times in innumerable anthologies, essays, textbooks, that telling last couplet remains fresh and enigmatic: "A poem should not mean / But be." But what can one say about its particulars? And what is its significance?

"Ars Poetica," John Cage suggests, is the best piece of propaganda the imagist movement ever had. It is not an imagist poem, he says, because, first, it is almost impossible to write one, and second, it is too didactic; there is too strong a message. To this insightful remark I would add another: Scott Donaldson writes in his biography of MacLeish that "in severely compressed form," "Ars Poetica" conveys "some of the modernist aesthetic" (150). This remark comes about after Donaldson has pointed to a gloss on the poem that MacLeish wrote to Norman Holes Pearson in 1937, in which MacLeish used his notebooks to refresh his memory on his thinking at the time of the writing of the poem. Donaldson writes:

There he [MacLeish] found Fenellosa's observation that "metaphor was the very essence of poetry," but not as exegesis or demonstration. Metaphor itself was "experience." In his notebooks, too, was his reworking of Eliot's doctrine of the "objective correlative," a concrete representation that would convey emotion without involving the abstract slither of the merely personal. It would not do to gush on the page. The object of a poem was "not to recreate" the poet's emotion in someone else. . . . The poem itself is finality, an end, a creation." (150)

Outlined here are four important aspects of the modernist aesthetic. Donaldson' s astute statement of the importance of metaphor identifies this trope not as exegesis or demonstration, but experience itself. Second, he isolates the concrete as a representation of the emotion, that is, the objective correlative. Third, he insists upon the avoidance of the merely personal, the escape into the impersonal. And fourth, he understands the poem as a creation that is an end to itself. Perhaps what was buried in "Ars Poetica" in 1925, but uncovered by MacLeish himself in the letter of 1937 is what has drawn us to the poem all these years: metaphor, concretion, non-intervention, the concept of impersonality, and autotelism.

In a discussion of Williams's theory of "no ideas but in things" and MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," Howard Nemerov observed that

One of the hardest things about studying Modern Poetry is that you can write a far more coherent and plausible account from what the poets said they were doing than from their poems. This difficulty is compounded when the poems keep talking about themselves and their intentions for poetry as a whole. (154-55)

"Ars Poetica" does not do what it says should be done in the composition of a poem—largely because it is impossible to write a poem that is and only is an object to behold as a static object without meaning, without message. This is the central paradox of "Ars Poetica."

from "Archibald MacLeish: 'Ars Poetica' and other Observations." In Poetries in the Poem. Ed. Dorothy Z. Baker. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1997.

Return to Archibald MacLeish

Horace lived in the glorious Augustan Era which was the period of Roman civilization and culture. Poetry flourished in his age and was considered something good and noble and not something pernicious and unhealthy. Horace wrote both creative and critical pieces. He was the greatest exponent of classicism. He also composed Satires, Epodes, Odes, Rpistles; and his Ars Poetica, like Pope's Essay in Criticism, is in verse. It isa poetic letter written to his friend Piso and his two sons as a piece of advice on poetic composition. Horace called it Epistle to the Pisos but it was Quintilian who names it Ars Poetica.

Because of the admirable conciseness of his critical observations and the extremely quotable quality of his lines, Horace was exalted to the position of a lawgiver by Dante, Vida, Boileau and Pope. Abercrombie rightly says, "Perhaps no poem of comparable length has provided so many phrases that have become the common property of international culture."

Ars Poetica exercised a tremendous influence during the Middle Ages and the Neo-classical age. It was the Bible of classicism in England. The main ideas contained in Ars Poetica are summarized below :—

Function and Nature of Poetry

Though not a systematic treatise on criticism, this poem can be divided into three parts : (a) poesis (subject matter); (b) poema (form), and (c) poeta (the poet). Its main topics of discussion are poetry, poetic style, and drama. Pope rightly says about Horace, 'his precepts teach but what his works inspire.' He is deeply influenced by the Greeks. He recommends: "my friends, study the great originals of Greece; dream of them by night and ponder them by day."

Horace nowhere calls poetry a process of imitation like Plato and Aristotle. Mere imitation, according to him, is not enough for a poet often uses fiction and mingles facts with fancy. To him the function of poetry was both to delight and instruct : 'Poets desire either to improve or to please, or to unite the agreeable and the profitabl       ; and that 'it is not enough for poems to have beauty; they must also be pleasing and lead the listener's soul whither they will.'

The subject-matter of Poetryh

The subject-matter of poetry should be simple, i.e., from familiar material, and uniform, that is full of wholeness. He says that he who chooses his subject wisely, will find that neither words nor lucid arrangement will fail him, for sound judgment is the basis and source of good writing.

Poetic Diction

Horace will always be remembered for his theory of poetic diction. Poetic diction, he says, can never be altogether established and stationary affair. The function of language in poetry is to express; but man's experience, which poetry exists to express, is continually changing, since it is continually adding to itself. With the growth of experience, the language of poetry must keep pace, if it is to be truly expressive. Language is like a tree; and its words are like leaves. As the years go on, the old leaves fall, and new leaves take their place; but the tree remains the same. Horace's observations on poetic diction are like those of Aristotle. Following Aristotle, he also emphasises the right choice of words and their effective arrangement in composition. A poet is free to use both familiar and new words. New words continually go on coming to the poet like new leaves to the tree. The poet must not rely wholly on the vocabulary of his predecessors; he must coin new words too. His Observations on Style

Horace wished that the writer should observe the settled forms and shades of style in poetry. He pointed out some of the shortcomings of style. 'I endeavour to be brief and become obscure; sinew and spirit desert the searcher after polish : one striving for grandeur becomes bombastic; whosoever is excessively cautious and fearful of the tempest crawls along the ground; and he who yearns after too prodigal a variety in his theme— he paints a dolphin in the forest, or a wild boar amid the waves. If the poet does not have genuine artistry, the effort to avoid an imperfection leads him into graver butchery.

Metres and their appropriateness

'Homer has shown us in what metre may best be written the deeds of kings and great captains, and sombre war. Verses of unequal length were first used for laments, later also for the sentiment that attends granted beseechings. The Muse has given to the lyre the celebration of the gods and their offspring, the victorious boxer, the horse, first in the race, the amorous yearnings of youth, and the unrestrained pleasures of wine. If one does not know and cannot observe the conventions and forms of poems, he does not deserve to be called a poet. Comic material, for instance, is not to be treated in the verses of tragedy ; similarly, it would be outrageous to narrate the feast of Thyestes in verse proper to common daily life and almost to comedy.'Sincerity of Emotion        

'It is not enough for poems to have beauty; they must also be pleasing and lead the listener's soul whither they will. If you would have me weep, you must first express grief yourself Views on Drama

InArs Poetica the treatment of drama is desultory. No systematic theory of drama is presented on a larger basis. Only fragmentary and casual views are expressed, e.g. 'Either follow tradition or invent a story which is consistent. But the conventional features of traditional characters should be preserved.' 'If in your tale you represent the renowned Achilles, lethim appear restless, passionate, inexorable and dauntless.' 'If you commit a new theme on the stage and venture to create a new character, ct the first impression be preserved to the end, and let his nature be consistent. 'Let not Medea murder her children in front of the audience nor impious Atreus cook human flesh in the public nor Procne be changed into bird. Let a play be neither shorter nor longer than five acts and let no god intervene unless some problem arises that demands to be solved. The number of actors should not be more than three and the chorus should form an integral part of the action and its songs should advance and subserve the interest of the plot.' 'Let it support the good and give them kindly counsel, restrain the wrathful and favour those who fear to sin; let it praise the fare of a simple table, salutary justice and Law and Peace with open gates'.

Horace studies drama under three heads : plot, characterization and style. Plot should be borrowed from familiar material; the chorus should be an integral part of the plot; characters should behave consistently and naturally; iambic metre was most suitable for drama. Dramatic speech should observe propriety : it should suit the character, its sex, its age; its station in life, its circumstances, its moods. A god will speak differently from a mortal, a man from a woman, an aged man from a heated youth, a prosperous merchant from a poor farmer, a man in grief from a man in joy, an angry-fellow from a playful one. if you utter words ill-suited to your part, I shall either doze or smile.' In all this Horace closely follows Aristotle.

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