Poetics Summary

Aristotle

Poetics

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Poetics Summary

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Aristotle’s Poetics is considered to be the first known work focusing on dramatic theory and literary theory. There is some question as to whether the material actually focuses directly enough on literary theory with detractors citing that no poems exist within the piece. It is viewed by some as being concerned largely with dramatic musical theory which contains elements that go beyond language. In Poetics, the use of the term “poetry” refers not only to the traditions of lyric and epic poetry but, from its Greek definition meaning “making,” is meant to include genres encompassed by drama such as comedy, tragedy, and bawdy satyr plays. Aristotle’s Poetics was virtually lost to the Western world for a long period of time, becoming available in the Middle Ages and the first years of the Renaissance via a Latin translation from the Arabic.

Aristotle structured his examination of poetry by systematically considering what he found to be the parts of which it consisted and trying to formulate generalizations. The section of the treatise in which Aristotle dealt with comedy is lost, leaving tragedy and epic poetry as the primary genres. His definition of poetry includes the following characteristics: imitative (mimetic) language along with rhythm and harmony which can appear separately or together. The imitative aspect is to suggest that poetry is symbolic of events and/or objects in the world. To Aristotle this differentiates poetry from other discourses such as philosophy where representing ideas is the objective. He believes this representation of things serves to teach by providing the means to study disturbing objects without having to make direct observations. Poetry is a strong learning device in that humans have an innate inclination towards imitation.

Aristotle’s definitions of comedy and tragedy have become staples in the literary world. He calls tragedy the highest level of poetry as it deals with matters of great import. Comedy conversely focuses on matters of a baser nature. He points to the hymns to the god Dionysus, sung by choirs with at times a narrator, as the roots of tragedy. Aeschylus then extended the form by having an additional voice engage in dialogue with the narrator. When Sophocles then added yet another actor, the form of tragedy as known to the modern world was born. Aristotle formalizes his definition of tragedy by refining and adding to his definition of poetry. Seven characteristics emerge as a definition of tragedy. Tragedy is imitative, it is serious, it tells a developed story as opposed to a simple anecdote, and it contains some semblance of rhythm and harmony. Related but considered a separate characteristic is that rhythm and harmony occur in different combinations in various parts of the work. Rounding out the characteristics is that tragedies are meant to be performed rather than narrated, and they elicit strong feelings in people such as fear and pity which the tragedy helps them deal with by serving as a catharsis.

Further breaking down the structure of tragedy, Aristotle cites the six important parts of a tragedy: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle. The plot needs to have a starting point that is followed by a middle and an ending, both of which follow in logical order with the ending dependent on no further events. Everything in the plot must serve a purpose and nothing should be left unresolved. He believes unity among all of the events in the plot support the ability to present universal truths in the most effective way. He adds that this makes tragedy stronger than history because history is tied into specific events. Aristotle shuns episodic plots for not requiring a sequence of events, but plot twists are valuable when they stem from reversals of fortune or through discoveries that are made by characters. A good plot is unfolded slowly and logically.

In order to develop feelings of pity or fear in an audience, a tragedy must have a hero who errs and falls from happiness to a state of unhappiness. Common methods of trying to create these feelings can involve having a member of a family harm another member of his own family. This is more effective than if the harmed party is a stranger or even an enemy. The hero needs to possess good character traits and should seem realistic and consistent of nature. Plots to Aristotle must be consistent like the characters, and so must unfold and be resolved logically, not by some omnipotent act at the end.

After some attention to thought and diction, Aristotle discusses the epic poem. Although having certain similarities to tragedy such as the topics that provide the storyline and the need for plot unity, there are significant differences as well. Epic poetry is generally longer than tragedy, and so can cover a longer timeframe and be more sweeping in scope. The same differences are supported by the epic form being created to be read, rather than performed. Tragedy on the other hand can make use of music and spectacle on the stage, and those devices can appeal to additional senses. After comparing tragedy and epic poetry, Aristotle reaches the conclusion that tragedy is the superior form.