Four works of poetic theory by ancient Greek and Roman theorists have had a profound influence on the course of Western literature in general and poetry in particular: Plato’s Politeia (fourth century b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry), and Longinus’s Peri hypsous (first century c.e.; On the Sublime, 1652). In these four works are many critical theories that make up the classical tradition inherited by English letters. The two most important of these theories address the relationship of poetry to that which it imitates and the relationship of poetry to its audience. The central Greek concept of poetry is that of mimesis: Poetry, like all forms of art, imitates nature. By nature, the Greeks meant all of reality, including human life, and they conceived of nature as essentially well ordered and harmonious and as moving toward the ideal. Hence, poetry seeks to imitate the order and harmony of nature. Of equal importance to the mimetic concept of poetry is the Greek belief that poetry has a moral or formative effect on its audience. Poetry achieves this effect by making the reader more aware of reality and thereby more aware of his or her own nature and purpose. The Roman theorists, in turn, accepted these basic concepts of poetry. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans were very interested, however, in the expressive relationship between the poet and the poem (involving such questions as what takes place in the poet during the creative act of writing poetry), though they do make occasional comments on this aspect of poetry.
In book 9 of the Republic, Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.e.), the great Greek philosopher, discusses the role of poets and poetry in the ideal society. His ideas regarding poetry are valuable, not because they clarify poetic issues, but because they raise serious objections to poetry that later critics are forced to answer. Indeed, Plato states that poets and poetry should be banished from the ideal society for two reasons: Poetry represents an inferior degree of truth, and poetry encourages the audience to indulge its emotions rather than to control them. The Republic is written in the form of a dialogue, and in book 10, Socrates (speaking for Plato) convinces Glaucon of these two objections to poetry. He arrives at the first objection by arguing that poetry, like painting, is an imitation of an imperfect copy of reality and, therefore, is twice removed from ultimate truth. Reality, or ultimate truth, Plato believed, exists in universal ideas or eternal forms and not in the particular concrete objects of this world of matter. A table or a bed, for example, is a concrete but imperfect copy of the eternal form of the table or the bed. A painter who paints a picture of the particular table or bed is thus imitating not the reality (the eternal form), but an imperfect copy of the eternal form. The poet, in writing a poem about the table or the bed—or about any other imperfect concrete manifestation of reality—is also removed from reality, and therefore the poem represents an inferior degree of truth.
The second objection to poetry raised by Plato stems from his belief that human lives should be governed by reason rather than by emotions. Poetry, Plato believed, encourages the audience to let emotions rule over reason. As an example, Socrates cites the fact that those who listen to tragic passages of poetry indulge in the feelings created by the poem and are pleased by the poet who moves them the most. However, if similar tragic events took place in their own lives, they would strive to be stoical and would be ashamed to be so emotional.
Plato’s objections to poetry raise serious questions: Does poetry represent an inferior degree of truth? Does it have a harmful social or moral effect? More generally, and in a sense more important, his objections raise the question of whether poetry can be interpreted and evaluated on grounds other than the philosophical, moral, and social grounds he uses. In other words, can poetry be interpreted and evaluated on poetic grounds? Later critics, beginning with Aristotle, argue that it is possible to construct a general theory by which to interpret and evaluate poetry on poetic grounds.
The Poetics of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), as Walter Jackson Bate has remarked, stands out not only as the most important critical commentary of the classical period but also as the most influential work of literary criticism in the entire period of Western civilization. Thus it is essential for the student of poetic theory and criticism to have a grasp of Aristotle’s basic ideas concerning poetry, especially those that refute Plato’s objections and those that help establish a general theory by which poetry can be interpreted and evaluated on poetic grounds.
“Poetics” means a theory or science of poetry, and accordingly, Aristotle begins his discussion in a scientific manner: I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each; to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. (This and following quotations of the Poetics are translations by S. H. Butcher.)
It is important to note that the word “poetry” (the Greek word is poiesis, which means “making”) is used by Aristotle in a generic sense, to refer to all forms of imaginative literature, including drama, and not in the specific sense in which it is used by modern critics to refer to a form of literature distinct from drama and fiction. Unfortunately, the Poetics is not complete (either Aristotle never finished it or part of it was lost). As it now stands, the work contains an extensive analysis of tragedy, an account of the sources and history of poetry, and scattered remarks on comedy, epic poetry, style, and language. It also contains an evaluative comparison of tragedy and epic poetry and a discussion of critical difficulties in poetry. Despite its incompleteness and its lack of any discussion of lyric poetry, the Poetics is an extremely important document of poetic theory.
First of all, the Poetics is important because it refutes Plato’s objections to poetry, though it is uncertain whether Aristotle considered the Poetics to be a direct reply to Plato. (As a student of Plato at Athens, he must have been...