Context

Poetics was one of Aristotle’s briefest works, and only half of it has been preserved. Nevertheless, it contains so many fruitful insights and canons of literary art that it has been turned to constantly by literati and philosophers since Aristotle’s time. It has a history of varying interpretations, as well as variant manuscripts. The present review makes use chiefly of the translation and commentary of S. H. Butcher.

Unlike most of Aristotle’s work, Poetics contains little argument. Rather, it simply analyzes poetic art as it existed in Aristotle’s time and as he understood it. The lasting influence of the work attests to the worth of his observations. Modern readers must make adjustments for the narrower scope and achievement of literature of that day and for the specific nature, particularly in metrics, of the Greek language.

Poetics treats tragedy and (very briefly) epic poetry. A second portion on comedy has been lost. All the kinds of poetry, Aristotle finds, are modes of imitation of character, emotion, and action, but they differ in respect to the medium of imitation (which includes rhythm, meter or language, and harmony or tune); the manner of imitation (that is, whether staged as a play, or sung, or narrated); and the objects of imitation. The objects of all artistic imitations are actions, and these always have some degree of moral quality. Hence people must be portrayed as either better than in real life, worse, or the same. The difference between tragedy and comedy, Aristotle affirms, is that tragedy aims at representing people as better than they actually are and comedy as worse.

Tragedy

Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” The terms of this definition have undergone much interpretation. Butcher states that action (praxis) for Aristotle included the whole life of the mind, as well as mere motion of the body—an inner energy working outward. This is the object imitated by drama and other arts; and under this interpretation, dramatic action is much more than physical action alone. Imitation (mimesis) was a term used disparagingly by Plato, and perhaps popularly, to which Aristotle gave a new meaning. Because the object of poetic imitation was human life and human nature, imitation meant an expression of the universal element in human life. Aesthetically, the real and the ideal come together in this way; the ideal is the real freed from limitations of alien influences and chance and enabled to work out its own development from beginning to end. Thus imitation became a creative process that could improve on nature.

Purgation (katharsis) is applied, in the definition, to pity and fear, by which the spectator is moved. Reference to Politica (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Politics, 1598) to Techn rhetoriks (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Rhetoric, 1686), and to contemporary medical writings shed more light on this purgation than Poetics alone does. Aristotle considered pity and fear to be painful emotions. Pity is what one feels upon observing another in a situation in which he would fear for himself. Just as the playing of frenzied music has the effect of calming those possessed (an actual practice in Aristotle’s times), the presentation of events arousing pity and fear would allay these emotions latent in the spectator, and thus bring pleasure. These are the universal elements of human nature that it is proper for tragedy in particular to imitate.

Tragedy requires six parts: rhythm, song, metrical wording—these three are the kinds of ornament that embellish the language—spectacle (the staging of the play), character of those portrayed, and their thought. What the completeness of tragedy requires, however, is that the piece have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not necessarily follow anything but is naturally followed by something else. An end is what must follow another thing but need not be followed by anything. A middle both follows and must be followed by something else. As to magnitude, the imitation should not be so long as to give difficulty in remembering or comprehending the action; but within this limitation, the longer it may be, the finer a creative production. Further, it must be long enough to allow naturally a change from good to bad fortune, or bad to good. The action must be both single and complete, such that to add or subtract an element of plot would disorganize or disrupt, rather than enhance, the action. In these descriptions, Aristotle recognized the dramatic principle of unity of action, which, along with the unities of time and place that he suggested, were zealously observed in neoclassical times.

Plot, Aristotle says, is the very soul of tragedy. Being the arrangement of the incidents, it is what portrays the action. “For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” Character determines people’s qualities, and these...

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Poetic Diction

Turning to the diction of poetry, Aristotle classifies words as either current, strange, metaphorical, ornamental, newly coined, lengthened, contracted, or altered. The latter five are used by poets for their immediate purposes of expression or meter. A word is strange if used in another country, current if in general use in one’s own. Metaphor is the transference of a name from one thing to another by certain relationships that Aristotle carefully describes. It may transfer a name from a genus to a species, from species to genus, from species to species, or by analogy or proportion. In metaphor by analogy or proportion, the second term is to the first as the fourth term is to the third; for example, old age is to life as evening is to day, so one may speak of “the evening of life.” Sometimes one of the terms is lacking, with no word existing to fill its place, but such a metaphor may still provide expression. A poet says “sowing the god-created light” where some unnamed process is to light as sowing is to seed. A command of metaphor is the greatest mark of a good writer, yet it cannot be taught by another and is a mark of genius. Other embellishments may be employed to secure good effect by causing style to depart from the normal idiom—only, of course, in due proportion and with propriety. The use of these devices of language can achieve greater clarity of style. The perfection of style is to be clear without being mean.

The Epic

The epic, Aristotle declares, in many ways is like tragedy. It should be constructed on dramatic principles. It too should resemble a living organism in its unity, having as its object a single action with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Epics, like tragedies, can be divided into four kinds: the simple, complex, ethical, and pathetic. Epics have the same parts excepting song and spectacle—that is, rhythm, poetic language, character, and thought.

The epic differs from tragedy in scale and meter. It has a special capacity for enlarging the dimensions of tragedy, for narrators can transcend the limits of the stage. Epics can achieve greater diversity of materials and can narrate simultaneous events, thus adding mass and dignity. As to meter, nature has revealed the proper one, the heroic or iambic hexameter that is the gravest and weightiest; for experience has shown others more suitable to other compositions and leaves only this still in use.

Poets should obtrude into the narrative as little as possible; many have failed, not realizing that it is not in this respect that they imitate. Homer excels in this, as he does also with respect to magnitude and unity. Again, Homer has shown the way in telling false things skillfully. He recounts one event such as would be caused by another, the earlier actually being false or impossible; and thus makes the reader fallaciously infer that the impossible event did occur. The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of incident, not in the action, so as not to obscure character and thought.

In a chapter near the end of Poetics, Aristotle lists certain criticisms such as might be applied to a poet’s work and offers replies that the poet might make. Some dozen criticisms are gathered around five general objections: that the works are either impossible, irrational, morally harmful, contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness. To provide a basis to combat such charges, Aristotle draws attention ti the following statements.

The poet, as an imitator, can imitate one of only three objects—things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be. The vehicle of expression is language. The standard of correctness must be acknowledged to be not the same in poetry and politics, just as it...

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Additional Reading

Ackrill, J. L. Essays on Plato and Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This work contains important and insightful reflections on two of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.

Adler, Mortimer J. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. New York: Scribner’s 1997. A reliable interpreter provides an account that introduces Aristotle’s thought in accessible fashion.

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Richard Janko. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987. Presents a first-rate translation of the Poetics. Thorough, extensive notes.

Bar On, Bat-Ami, ed. Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle....

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Ackrill, J. L. Essays on Plato and Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This work contains important and insightful reflections on two of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.

Adler, Mortimer J. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. New York: Scribner’s 1997. A reliable interpreter provides an account that introduces Aristotle’s thought in accessible fashion.

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Richard Janko. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987. Presents a first-rate translation of the Poetics. Thorough,...

(The entire section is 851 words.)