My friends of the future, you may think that the arts have changed radically between my age and yours, but they have not. The relationship between form and content remains constant and must ever be honored and obeyed if one is to earn the title of poet.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Horace: On Decorum

Of all the wise men and philosophers of the past, the wisest was Plato. He taught us all to turn our eyes from this shifting world of shadows to the Forms of things that dwell above in the World of Being. He taught us, too, that true justice is an inner quality, a delicate balance between the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited parts of our soul.

Plato, like Socrates before him, invited us to participate in the joy of conversation and to wrestle together in our search for goodness and truth. And yet, like all of us, he had a blind spot. Despite his love for Homer and his exaltation of beauty as a thing that draws us toward goodness and truth, he disparaged poetry and the poets who wrote it.

First, he believed that poetry, far from taking us closer to the Forms, represented an imitation of an imitation. If an earthly tree is a copy of the Form of the Tree, and a poem about the tree is a copy of the earthly tree, then the poem is a copy of a copy, twice removed from the Form of the Tree. As such, it seduces us away from truth and leaves our minds open to error.

Second, he believed that poetry appealed only to the weaker, appetitive part of our soul. By swelling that part to the detriment of the rational part, it causes us to be flooded with the negative emotions of pity and fear.

Third, he believed that poets write and bards speak, not by craft or skill, but by a kind of divine madness that infects all who hear the poem. Caught up in the mania of the bard, we are bewitched and led astray from the path of reason and philosophy.

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Was Plato right to fear poetry? Yes and no. Poetry unrestrained is like hedonism unrestrained: it can only lead, in the end, to disease, dissolution, and death. To stuff oneself indiscriminately with wine, women, and song is no different than practicing selfish self-indulgence in the composing of poetry.

How then can poetry be placed within the proper limits? By the application of a single word: decorum.

My friends of the future, you may think that the arts have changed radically between my age and yours, but they have not. The relationship between form and content remains constant and must ever be honored and obeyed if one is to earn the title of poet.

Decorum means what is fitting or proper, and it must be embraced if a poet is to produce a work of lasting value that will strengthen and ennoble, rather than weaken and scandalize, its audience. Thus, if you are a tragedian, your tone must be serious, your language heightened, and your characters noble. If, instead, you choose to compose a comedy, then make sure your tone, language, and characters are taken from the lower echelons of society.

Don’t mix things together that should not be mixed: suit your manner to your matter, or your audience will laugh at you. If you take up well-established characters, then present those characters properly. No one wants to see a cowardly Achilles or a dull-witted Ulysses or a smiling Orestes.

Whatever you do, don’t let Oedipus blind himself or Medea kill her children on the stage. Sensationalism and poetry have nothing in common. And don’t give us glorious gods in one scene, and then plunge them into the gutter in the next.

You will know you have succeeded if you create something that appears simple and natural to everyone who reads it, but which caused you many nights of sleepless labor to accomplish. And why shouldn’t it? You should take as much pride in your craft as a carpenter or a potter or a blacksmith. Polish your work, and then put it aside for a month, and then take it out and polish it again. You are crafting a work of art, not foaming at the mouth like a madman.

I’ve known far too many would-be poets who think they are geniuses because they never cut their hair or trim their nails. Worse yet, I’ve met even more who think they are creative because they have never taken the time to study and emulate the great poets who came before them.

Proper pride in one’s work and respect for the past also fall under the banner of decorum. If you cannot subject yourself to such aesthetic discipline, then do not deign to call yourself a poet.

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But what of Plato’s objections? The true poet who heeds decorum will not lead his reader astray. To the contrary, he will instruct and edify him more effectively than the greatest of philosophers. Poetry, when it is worthy of itself, combines pleasure and utility: it delights as it teaches, and teaches as it delights.

Plato thought that poets had no place in a well-ordered city, but he was wrong. From the beginning, it was the poets, not the philosophers, who subdued the beast within and brought the blessings of civilization.

When Orpheus played his lyre, even the wildest, most savage of animals grew tame. When Amphion blew on his pipes, the stones moved and danced and formed themselves into the walls of Thebes. Homer inspired the hearts of men to deeds of valor, even as our own Virgil lifted up citizen and emperor alike to the Roman ideal of pietas.

The great lawgivers—Lycurgus of Sparta, Solon of Athens, Numa of Rome—were all poets who called men to a higher vision of order and harmony. The same fittedness they incorporated into their poetry found its way into the hearts and souls of those who attended to their poems.

Apollo inspires poets and bards, not with madness, but with a gift for combining words and wisdom to arrive at the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is neither the rational nor the appetitive part of the soul that is stirred into song by the muses, but the spirited part: the part that makes us most human.

The greatest poetry flows out of a mingling of genius and art, and it is the rules of decorum that help to effect that creative marriage.

So be boldly creative, my friends . . . but within the proper limits.

—Horace

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “King David Playing the Harp” (1622) by Gerard von Honthorst (1592-1656), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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