The Poetics, Aristotle
The Poetics
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Aristotle's Poetics (Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς; Latin: De Poetica] c. 335 BC) is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory. In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls "poetry" (a term that derives from a classical Greek term, ποιητής, that means "poet; author; maker" and in this context includes verse drama – comedy, tragedy, and the satyr play – as well as lyric poetry and epic poetry).They are similar in the fact that they are all imitations but different in the three ways that Aristotle describes: 1. Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody. 2. Difference of goodness in the characters. 3. Difference in how the narrative is presented: telling a story or acting it out.



Translated By Ingram Bywater

With A Preface By Gilbert Murray


In the tenth book of the Republic, when Plato has completed his finalburning denunciation of Poetry, the false Siren, the imitator of thingswhich themselves are shadows, the ally of all that is low and weak inthe soul against that which is high and strong, who makes us feed thethings we ought to starve and serve the things we ought to rule, heends with a touch of compunction: ‘We will give her champions, not poetsthemselves but poet-lovers, an opportunity to make her defence in plainprose and show that she is not only sweet — as we well know — but alsohelpful to society and the life of man, and we will listen in a kindlyspirit. For we shall be gainers, I take it, if this can be proved.’Aristotle certainly knew the passage, and it looks as if his treatise onpoetry was an answer to Plato’s challenge.

Few of the great works of ancient Greek literature are easy reading.They nearly all need study and comment, and at times help from a goodteacher, before they yield up their secret. And the Poetics cannot beaccounted an exception. For one thing the treatise is fragmentary. Itoriginally consisted of two books, one dealing with Tragedy and Epic,the other with Comedy and other subjects. We possess only the first. Foranother, even the book we have seems to be unrevised and unfinished. Thestyle, though luminous, vivid, and in its broader division systematic,is not that of a book intended for publication. Like most of Aristotle’sextant writing, it suggests the MS. of an experienced lecturer, full ofjottings and adscripts, with occasional phrases written carefullyout, but never revised as a whole for the general reader. Even toaccomplished scholars the meaning is often obscure, as may be seen by acomparison of the three editions recently published in England, all thework of savants of the first eminence, or, still more strikingly, bya study of the long series of misunderstandings and overstatementsand corrections which form the history of the Poetics since theRenaissance.

But it is of another cause of misunderstanding that I wish principallyto speak in this preface. The great edition from which the presenttranslation is taken was the fruit of prolonged study by one of thegreatest Aristotelians of the nineteenth century, and is itself aclassic among works of scholarship. In the hands of a student who knowseven a little Greek, the translation, backed by the commentary, may leaddeep into the mind of Aristotle. But when the translation is used, as itdoubtless will be, by readers who are quite without the clue providedby a knowledge of the general habits of the Greek language, there mustarise a number of new difficulties or misconceptions.

To understand a great foreign book by means of a translation is possibleenough where the two languages concerned operate with a common stockof ideas, and belong to the same period of civilization. But betweenancient Greece and modern England there yawn immense gulfs of humanhistory; the establishment and the partial failure of a common Europeanreligion, the barbarian invasions, the feudal system, the regroupingof modern Europe, the age of mechanical invention, and the industrialrevolution. In an average page of French or German philosophy nearly allthe nouns can be translated directly into exact equivalents in English;but in Greek that is not so. Scarcely one in ten of the nouns on thefirst few pages of the Poetics has an exact English equivalent. Everyproposition has to be reduced to its lowest terms of thought and thenre-built. This is a difficulty which no translation can quite deal with;it must be left to a teacher who knows Greek. And there is a kindreddifficulty which flows from it. Where words can be translated intoequivalent words, the style of an original can be closely followed;but no translation which aims at being written in normal English canreproduce the style of Aristotle. I have sometimes played with the ideathat a ruthlessly literal translation, helped out by bold punctuation,might be the best. For instance, premising that the words poesis,poetes mean originally ‘making’ and ‘maker’, one might translate thefirst paragraph of the Poetics thus: —

Number of parts: nature of parts: rest of same inquiry.

Begin in order of nature from first principles.

Epos-making, tragedy-making (also comedy), dithyramb-making (and mostfluting and harping), taken as a whole, are really not Makings butImitations. They differ in three points; they imitate (a) differentobjects, (b) by different means, (c) differently (i.e. differentmanner).

Some artists imitate (i.e. depict) by shapes and colours. (Obs.sometimes by art, sometimes by habit.) Some by voice. Similarly theabove arts all imitate by rhythm, language, and tune, and these either(1) separate or (2) mixed.

Rhythm and tune alone, harping, fluting, and other arts with sameeffect — e.g. panpipes.

Rhythm without tune: dancing. (Dancers imitate characters, emotions, andexperiences by means of rhythms expressed in form.)

Language alone (whether prose or verse, and one form of verse or many):this art has no name up to the present (i.e. there is no name to covermimes and dialogues and any similar imitation made in iambics,elegiacs, &c. Commonly people attach the ‘making’ to the metre and say‘elegiac-makers’, ‘hexameter-makers,’ giving them a common class-name bytheir metre, as if it was not their imitation that makes them ‘makers’).

Such an experiment would doubtless be a little absurd, but it would givean English reader some help in understanding both Aristotle’s style andhis meaning.

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