This essay explores Horace's use of laughter as a recurring and precise mode of negative literary criticism in the ArsPoetica—a fact treated neither by commentaries on the poem (e.g. Brink (1971) and Rudd (1990)) nor by scholarship on Horatian laughter (e.g. Plaza (2006)). Laughter's power as a literary critical tool and, more specifically, a manifestation of negative criticism is invoked repeatedly in the ArsPoetica (vv.105, 113, 139, 356-8, and 458) to communicate an audience's likely response to bad poetry. I focus on the clustered references to laughter in vv. 99-113 and vv. 354-360 and conclude that Horace draws upon the potentially involuntary nature of laughter to fix the source of a negative critique in a poem itself rather than the person of the critic. This critical precision makes laughter a particularly versatile form of literary criticism for Horace.
In the opening of the ArsPoetica, Horace presents laughter as a mode of artistic criticism. He describes an incongruous painting and asks his addressees, “[A]fter being allowed to look on, friends, would you repress a laugh?” (spectatumadmissi, risum teneatis, amici inv. 5). His immediate transition to a discussion of literature in the subsequent verses anticipates a point made explicit in v. 361: “Apoem is like a picture” (utpictura poesis). Laughter is a Horatian response to bad art, whether visual orliterary.
According to Horace's advice about literary characterization in vv. 99-113, an actor should externally communicate an attendant emotional state. This external communication prompts a feedback loop in Horace's promised reaction to poorly delivered lines: malesi mandata loqueris, /autdormitabo aut ridebo (vv. 104-5). Horace, who styles himself a stand-in for an audience, suggests that a physical behavior like laughter expresses an emotional or intellectual response. The adverb male confirms that this response is negative. Similarly in vv. 112-3, Horace hypothesizes a situation in which the words of an actor are inconsistent (absona) with his condition. The inevitable result? A universal guffaw (cachinnum). As in v. 5, Horace does not appeal to what an audience thinks but to what an audience does. The physical response of laughter is offered as a representation of internal negative assessment.
In vv. 354-360, Horace uses laughter to comment on the extent to which artistic/poetic shortcomings should be tolerated. The musician first receives the critique of laughter (rideturin v. 356) for persistent errors. The second laugh, occurring in conjunction with a verb of wonder (cumrisu mirorin v. 358), is a more slippery occasion of negative criticism. Horace says he marvels at Choerilus with a laugh on the rare occasion that he gets something right. I believe that Horace's laugh here, like the risum of v. 5, is a crisp illustration of how perceived in congruity may elicit laughter. The disjoint between what Horace anticipates (i.e. malum) and what he seldom, and thus unexpectedly, reads (i.e. bonum) provokes his risus and his surprise. The laughter on each occasion remains negatively charged.
I conclude with a consideration of how laughter in the ArsPoetica—a physical behavior that Horace depicts as “natural” and potentially reflexive—is constructed as a critically precise negative response, more pointed than age neralized aesthetic designation of “bad.” Horace makes this laughter a manifestation of a poem's innate deficiencies rather than a reflection of the whims of any one audience.