(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 334-323 b.c.e..) has been criticized, discussed, distorted, and maligned for centuries. Objections focus on three problems: its fragmentary state, its transmission through lecture notes, and its concern with a restricted and relatively brief period in the development of Greek drama, that of the fifth century b.c.e.. Stephen Halliwell addresses these problems in both the introduction and commentary which accompany his new translation.

Though one might imagine that the Poetics became the ancient world’s arbiter of taste immediately after its compilation, this was not the case. Aristotle’s interests ranged broadly through logic, metaphysics, ethics, and cosmology. Literature was a secondary concern, and the unfinished style of the extant fragment is internal evidence that the Poetics was intended as a synthesis of Aristotle’s ideas, gathered either by himself or his students. It was, therefore, a kind of textbook, used primarily by students in Aristotle’s circle and never intended for publication. If, as is generally assumed, the Poetics is actually student lecture notes, the question of how accurately it reflects Aristotle’s ideas becomes very important. Even assuming Aristotle’s editing of the extant text, how reliably can one apply the principles of criticism offered for drama to other forms of poetry? In its complete state, the Poetics considers mimetic art in general: music, painting, sculpture, dancing, poetry, and the vocal arts. Is it legitimate to apply Aristotelian critieria of “unity” or notions of “pity” and “fear” to these forms as well?

Halliwell wisely sidesteps this critical morass by focusing on what can be said reliably about the Poetics. Half of his introduction, for example, concerns the importance the Poetics held in the development of Renaissance thought and how it influenced European neoclassicism in the eighteenth century. This emphasis, absent from the other modern commentaries, is a major feature of Halliwell’s work; were Halliwell to have done nothing other than trace these influences, his contribution would have been substantial. Because he considers interpretation problems as well, his work is invaluable to contemporary students of literature and the arts.

A worthwhile observation, often overlooked, is the assumption that critical ideas found in post-Aristotelian and especially in Roman critics essentially recapitulate Aristotle’s. Clearly both Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e..; The Art of Poetry) and Cicero’s de Oratore (c. 55 b.c.e..; Orations) have served as substitutes for Aristotle and offer what he might have said on certain questions of rhetoric. Halliwell notes in this vein that Sir Philip Sidney often juxtaposes Aristotelian thought with ideas derived from other sources in his Defence of Poesie (1595), the first major neoclassical study on rhetoric. Sidney’s definition of “mimesis,” for example, shifts from the Aristotelian “art of imitation” to the neo-Platonist notion of “poetic imagination” to the Horatian argument of “delight” produced upon an audience. Neither Sidney nor his readers saw a problem in such harmonizing to produce a “classical” point of view; Halliwell does, and so should any person interested in determining what Aristotle’s position actually was.

Similarly, the pseudo-Aristotelian trio of unities (that drama must have a single time, place, and action) became so taken for granted in neoclassical literature that the English critic Thomas Rymer argued a chorus in tragedy was a necessity to guarantee unity of place. He based his arguments on Aristotle, but Aristotle never wrote anything of the sort. Halliwell ranges easily over the neoclassical sources and makes similar observations on the writings of Ben Jonson, John Milton, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and the French dramatists.


(The entire section is 1661 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Library Journal. CXII November 15, 1987, p. 83.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 9, 1987, p. 27.