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.
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,...
(The entire section is 4,735 words.)