Poetics by Aristotle.

Aristotle by Francesco Hayez (1811).
Poetics (Περὶ ποιητικῆς, 335 B.C.) or On the Art of Poetry is a short book on drama and poetry, and it's part of a book I have - Classical Literary Criticism (published by Penguin, 1965) which also contains Ars Poetica by Horace and On the Sublime by Longinus (I hope to read the latter later in the week). Poetics was not an easy book to read. I read it first about a month ago, and then again a few days ago hoping somehow it would sink in a little. I'm afraid I found it rather dry and perhaps a little lacking in passion. 

What remains of it (there was a second part addressing comedy, now lost) is divided into 26 short chapters.  In the introduction, Poetry as Imitation, in which he argues that music and literature are simply imitation:
Epic and tragic poetry, comedy too, dithyrambic poetry, and most music composed for the flute and the lyre, can all be described in general terms as forms of imitation or representation. However, they differ from one another in three respects: either in using different media for the representation, or in representing different things, or in representing them in entirely different ways.
Drama then is a form of imitation in that actors imitate real life: in tragedy, the 'higher' art, men are heroes, they are noble and deal with the most serious matters of human existence. Comedy, the lower and more base art, deals with ultimately trivial aspects of the human condition:
... comedy represents the worse types of men; worse, however, not in the sense that it embraces any and every kind of badness, but in the sense that the ridiculous is a species of ugliness or badness. For the ridiculous consists in some form of error or ugliness that is not painful or injurious; the comic mask, for example, is distorted and ugly, but causes no pain.
From here he goes on to define "tragedy" (in the sixth chapter: A Description of Tragedy). It is -
... a representation of an action that is worth serious attention, complete in itself, and of some amplitude; in language enriched by a variety of artistic devices appropriate to the several parts of the play; presented in the form of action, not narration; by means of pity and fear bringing about the purgation of such emotions.
Tragedy, he continues, has six constituents:
  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Diction
  4. Thought
  5. Spectacle
  6. Song 
Throughout the rest of Poetics he discusses these points at more length. For plot he argues that "tragedy is a representation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness - and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action". Plot therefore is the "life-blood" and "character takes the second place". It must be "whole" ("that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end") and have "unity" - not in that a poem or drama is concerned with one man, rather it has one theme or one sequence of events. Furthermore it must be remembered that a drama is not and does not have to be a "history", but it is concerned with universal truths:
... it is not the poet's function to describe what has actually happened, but the kinds of thing [sic] that might happen, that is, that could happen because they are, in the circumstances, either probable or necessary.
 Concerning characters, he argues the poet should aim for four things:
    1. "... the characters should be good".
    2. "... the portrayal should be appropriate"
    3. "... the characters should be lifelike"
    4. "... they should be consistent"
    Next, in Further Rules for the Tragic Poet that there are four kinds of tragedy:
    1. "There is complex tragedy, which depends entirely on reversal and discovery"
    2. "... tragedy of suffering, as in the various plays on Ajax and Ixion"
    3. "... tragedy of character, as in The Phthiotides and the Peleus"
    4. "... and fourthly, spectacular tragedy, as in The Phorcides, in the Prometheis, and in plays with scenes in Hades."
    Tragic poets, he believes, should try to encompass all or at least most of these elements.

    From here he moves on to diction, concerning linguistics - suggesting that language is made up of "[1] the letter, [2] the syllable, [3] the connecting-word, [4] the article, [5] the noun, [6] the verb, [7] the inflexion or case, and [8] the phrase or proposition." This is discussed at length in chapter 21: Some Linguistic Definition. He urges for clarity and originality and also restraint. 

    Thought, the fourth part of tragedy, is found, he points out, in his Rhetoric (Ῥητορική), so from diction he turns his attention to spectacle and song. Epics are concerned with spectacle, such as Homer's Odyssey and Iliad and a number of others, but as tragedy may also concern itself with spectacle, Aristotle argues it is the superior art form. Finally song is used to help achieve a cathartic effect. 

    I have to say Poetics may have put me off Aristotle for life. It is interesting in that he felt motivated to write such a scientific dismantling of the artistic, and I do wonder how it went on to influence writers (something I don't know right now but do intend to find out). And of course I've certainly learned a little about Aristotle. So far reading Classical Literary Criticism I did enjoy and admire Horace's Ars Poetica infinitely more, and I'm looking forward to reading the final part - On the Sublime later in the week. As for the other titles by Aristotle I have listed on my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge - Ethics, On the Soul, Parva Naturalia, The Politics, and Rhetoric - I am now absolutely dreading them!


    1. "influence" - oh yes, this is the big one. Two thousand years of Western literary criticism is built off of this thing.

      Ethics is probably pretty close to a must read for literary folk, too. Sorry!

      I am more of a follower of Longinus myself.

      1. I read Longinus last night - I did enjoy it! But as for Longinus being the author of On the Sublime - I read in the introduction that people ascribe it to Longinus but he probably didn't actually write it. Do you know about that? I need to look it up...

      2. I use "Longinus" as a label meaning "author of On the Sublime."

        I don't know the first thing about any actual humans who might also have used the label "Longinus."


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