The Poetics
Aristotle on the Art of Poetry

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Aristotle (384 BCE-322 BCE)


As regards Problems and their Solutions, one may see the number and nature of the assumptions on which they proceed by viewing the matter in the following way. (1) The poet being an imitator just like the painter or other maker of likenesses, he must necessarily in all instances represent things in one or other of three aspects, either as they were or are, or as they are said or thought to be or to have been, or as they ought to be. (2) All this he does in language, with an admixture, it may be, of strange words and metaphors, as also of the various modified forms of words, since the use of these is conceded in poetry. (3) It is to be remembered, too, that there is not the same kind of correctness in poetry as in politics, or indeed any other art. There is, however, within the limits of poetry itself a possibility of two kinds of error, the one directly, the other only accidentally connected with the art. If the poet meant to describe the thing correctly, and failed through lack of power of expression, his art itself is at fault. But if it was through his having meant to describe it in some incorrect way (e.g. to make the horse in movement have both right legs thrown forward) that the technical error (one in a matter of, say, medicine or some other special science), or impossibilities of whatever kind they may be, have got into his description, hi.e.ror in that case is not in the essentials of the poetic art. These, therefore, must be the premisses of the Solutions in answer to the criticisms involved in the Problems.

I. As to the criticisms relating to the poet’s art itself. Any impossibilities there may be in his descriptions of things are faults. But from another point of view they are justifiable, if they serve the end of poetry itself—if (to assume what we have said of that end) they make the effect of some portion of the work more astounding. The Pursuit of Hector is an instance in point. If, however, the poetic end might have been as well or better attained without sacrifice of technical correctness in such matters, the impossibility is not to be justified, since the description should be, if it can, entirely free from error. One may ask, too, whether the error is in a matter directly or only accidentally connected with the poetic art; since it is a lesser error in an artist not to know, for instance, that the hind has no horns, than to produce an unrecognizable picture of one.

II. If the poet’s description be criticized as not true to fact, one may urge perhaps that the object ought to be as described—an answer like that of Sophocles, who said that he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides as they were. If the description, however, be neither true nor of the thing as it ought to be, the answer must be then, that it is in accordance with opinion. The tales about Gods, for instance, may be as wrong as Xenophanes thinks, neither true nor the better thing to say; but they are certainly in accordance with opinion. Of other statements in poetry one may perhaps say, not that they are better than the truth, but that the fact was so at the time; e.g. the description of the arms: ’their spears stood upright, butt-end upon the ground’; for that was the usual way of fixing them then, as it is still with the Illyrians. As for the question whether something said or done in a poem is morally right or not, in dealing with that one should consider not only the intrinsic quality of the actual word or deed, but also the person who says or does it, the person to whom he says or does it, the time, the means, and the motive of the agent—whether he does it to attain a greate.g.od, or to avoid a greater evil.)

III. Other criticisms one must meet by considering the language of the poet: (1) by the assumption of a strange word in a passage like oureas men proton, where by oureas Homer may perhaps mean not mules but sentinels. And in saying of Dolon, hos p e toi eidos men heen kakos, his meaning may perhaps be, not that Dolon’s body was deformed, but that his face was ugly, as eneidos is the Cretan word for handsome-faced. So, too, goroteron de keraie may mean not ’mix the wine stronger’, as though for topers, but ’mix it quicker’. (2) Other expressions in Homer may be explained as metaphorical; e.g. in halloi men ra theoi te kai aneres eudon (hapantes) pannux as compared with what he tells us at the same time, e toi hot hes pedion to Troikon hathreseien, aulon suriggon *te homadon* the word hapantes ’all’, is metaphorically put for ’many’, since ’all’ is a species of ’many ’. So also his oie d’ ammoros is metaphorical, the best known standing ’alone’. (3) A change, as Hippias suggested, in the mode of reading a word will solve the difficulty in didomen de oi, and to men ou kataputhetai hombro. (4) Other difficulties may be solved by another punctuation; e.g. in Empedocles, aipsa de thnet ephyonto, ta prin mathon athanata xora te prin kekreto. Or (5) by the assumption of an equivocal term, as in parocheken de pleo nux, where pleo i.e.uivocal. Or (6) by an appeal to the custom of language. Wine-and-water we call ’wine’; and it is on the same principle that Homer speaks of a knemis neoteuktou kassiteroio, a ’greave of new-wrought tin.’ A worker in iron we call a ’brazier’; and it is on the same principle that Ganymede is described as the ’wine-server’ of Zeus, though the Gods do not drink wine. This latter, however, may be an instance of metaphor. But whenever also a word seems to imply some contradiction, it is necessary to reflect how many ways there may be of understanding it in the passage in question; e.g. in Homer’s te r’ hesxeto xalkeon hegxos one should consider the possible senses of ’was stopped there’—whether by taking it in this sense or in that one will best avoid the fault of which Glaucon speaks: ’They start with some improbable presumption; and having so decreed it themselves, proceed to draw inferences, and censure the poet as though he had actually said whatever they happen to believe, if his statement conflicts with their own notion of things.’ This is how Homer’s silence about Icarius has been treated. Starting with, the notion of his having been a Lacedaemonian, the critics think it strange for Telemachus not to have met him when he went to Lacedaemon. Whereas the fact may have been as the Cephallenians say, that the wife of Ulysses was of a Cephallenian family, and that her father’s name was Icadius, not Icarius. So that it is probably a mistake of the critics that has given rise to the Problem.

Speaking generally, one has to justify (1) the Impossible by reference to the requirements of poetry, or to the better, or to opinion. For the purposes of poetry a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility; and if men such as Zeuxis depicted be impossible, the answer is that it is better they should be like that, as the artist ought to improve on his model. (2) The Improbable one has to justify either by showing it to be in accordance with opinion, or by urging that at times it is not improbable; for there is a probability of things happening also against probability. (3) The contradictions found in the poet’s language one should first test as one does an opponent’s confutation in a dialectical argument, so as to see whether he means the same thing, in the same relation, and in the same sense, before admitting that he has contradicted either something he has said himself or what a man of sound sense assumes as true. But there is no possible apology for improbability of Plot or depravity of character, when they are not necessary and no use is made of them, like the improbability in the appearance of Aegeus in Medea and the baseness of Menelaus in Orestes.

The objections, then, of critics start with faults of five kinds: the allegation is always that something i.e.ther (1) impossible, (2) improbable, (3) corrupting, (4) contradictory, or (5) against technical correctness. The answers to these objections must be sought under one or other of the above-mentioned heads, which are twelve in number.


Preface  •  Aristotle on the Art of Poetry: 1  •  2  •  3  •  4  •  5  •  6  •  7  •  8  •  9  •  10  •  11  •  12  •  13  •  14  •  15  •  16  •  17  •  18  •  19  •  20  •  21  •  22  •  23  •  24  •  25  •  26

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The preface to Aristotle's Art of poetry (1705) (Augustan Reprint Society. Publication)
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