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.