Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Aristotle’s Poetics, though short, has been widely influential outside philosophical circles. Yet it is doubtful that it can be fully appreciated outside Aristotle’s philosophical system as a whole.
Central to all Aristotle’s philosophy is the claim that nothing can be understood apart from its end or purpose (telos). Not surprisingly, the Poetics seeks to discover the end or purpose of all the poetic arts, and especially of tragic drama. Understood generally, the goal of poetry is to provide pleasure of a particular kind. The Metaphysics begins, “All men desire to know by nature,” and the Nicomachean Ethics repeatedly says that the satisfaction of natural desires is the greatest source of lasting pleasure. The Poetics combines these two with the idea of imitation. All people by nature enjoy a good imitation (that is, a picture or drama) because they enjoy learning, and imitations help them to learn.
Of particular interest to Aristotle is the pleasure derived from tragic drama, namely, the kind of pleasure that comes from the purging or cleansing (catharsis) of the emotions of fear and pity. Though the emotions of fear and pity are not to be completely eliminated, excessive amounts of these emotions are not characteristic of a flourishing individual. Vicariously experiencing fear and pity in a good tragedy cleanses the soul of ill humors.
Though there are many elements of a...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The significance of the Poetics cannot be overemphasized. In format, content, and methodology, Aristotle’s analysis of the literature of Greece is the origin of Western literary criticism. His examination of the components and aims of comedy, epic, and tragedy evolved into what is probably the first, and certainly the most influential, formalist analysis of literature in the Western tradition.
At the center of Aristotle’s analysis lies his explanation of the concept of mimesis, the process of representing reality in works of literature. Mimesis does not imply mimicry of the everyday world, however; Aristotle is careful to stress that the job of “the poet” (which later critics have expanded to mean the author of any form of imaginative literature) is to present portraits of humankind as a means of helping audiences learn something about themselves. Far from being lies, as Plato calls the works of poets, good poems and dramas are useful to society because readers and audiences can learn from the experiences of fictional characters without having to experience for themselves the traumas and heartbreaks they can see in tragedy or the foibles and humiliations they can experience through comedy.
Unfortunately, during the later Renaissance and neoclassical periods, the process of description employed by Aristotle in examining the drama and poetry of classical Greece became a prescription for producing and evaluating similar works....
(The entire section is 1809 words.)