Poetics (Aristotle)

Poetics (Aristotle)

Aristotle's "Poetics" (Greek: "Ποιητικός", c. 335 BCE)Dukore (1974, 31).] aims to give an account of what he calls 'poetry' (for him, the term includes the lyric, the epos, and the drama). Aristotle attempts to explain 'poetry' through 'first principles' and by discerning its different genres and component elements. His analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of his discussion. ["Poetics": 1447a13] "Although Aristotle's "Poetics" is universally acknowledged in Western critical tradition," Marvin Carlson explains, "almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions."Carlson (1993, 16).]

Core terms

* "Mimesis" or 'imitation', 'representation'
* "Catharsis" or, variously, 'purgation', 'purification', 'clarification'
* "Peripeteia" or 'reversal'
* "Anagnorisis" or 'recognition', 'identification'
* "Hamartia" or 'miscalculation' (understood in Romanticism as 'tragic flaw')
* "Mythos" or 'plot'
* "Ethos" or 'character'
* "Dianoia" or 'thought', 'theme'
* "Lexis" or 'diction', 'speech'
* "Melos" or 'melody'
* "Opsis" or 'spectacle'


Aristotle taught that poetry could be divided into three genres: Tragedy, Comedy, and Epic verse. "Poetics" focuses mainly on tragedy; a second work by Aristotle focusing on comedy may have been written and subsequently lost. It has been speculated that the "Tractatus coislinianus" was an outline of his lectures on the subject, or notes from a philosopher in the Aristotelian tradition. The work contains the famous hypothesis that comedy originated from "those who lead off the phallic processions" that were still common in many towns in Aristotle's time. ["Poetics", 1449a-b; [http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/classics/dunkle/comedy/komos.htm The origins of comedy] ; Mastromarco, Giuseppe: (1994) "Introduzione a Aristofane" (Sesta edizione: Roma-Bari 2004). ISBN 8842044482 p. 3.]

The centerpiece of Aristotle's surviving work is his examination of tragedy:

::"Tragedy, then, is 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 catharsis of these emotions." [From Chapter 6 of "Poetics":1449b24-29, SH Butcher transl.]

Aristotle distinguishes between the three genres of poetry in three ways: differences in the means, the objects and the modes of their imitations. The means cover language, rhythm, and harmony, used separately or in combination. The objects refer to actions, virtuous or vicious, and the agents, good or bad. As a complete whole in itself having beginning, middle, and end, every tragedy includes six parts: plot ("mythos"), character ("ethos"), thought ("dianoia"), diction ("lexis"), melody ("melos"), and spectacle ("opsis"). The key elements of the plot are reversals ("peripeteia"), recognitions ("anagnorisis") and suffering ("pathos"). The best form of tragedy, Aristotle argues, has a plot that is what he calls "complex," it imitates actions arousing horror, fear and pity, and the hero's fortune changes from happiness to misery because of some tragic mistake ("hamartia") that he or she makes. The horrific deed may be done consciously and knowingly (Medea), unknowingly (Oedipus), or unknowingly but with timely discovery. The characters must be good, appropriate, consistent, or consistently inconsistent, he argues.

This work combined with the "Rhetoric" make up Aristotle's works on aesthetics.


"Poetics" was not influential in its time, and was generally understood to coincide with the more famous "Rhetoric". This is because in Aristotle's time, rhetoric and poetry were not as separated as they later became and were in a sense different versions of the same thing. In later times, "Poetics" became hugely influential. The conception of tragedy during the Enlightenment especially owes much to "Poetics".

The Arabic version of Aristotle’s "Poetics" that influenced the Middle Ages was translated from a Greek manuscript dating from before the year 700. This manuscript was transmitted from Greek to Syriac and is independent of the currently accepted eleventh-century source designated “Paris 1741.”

The Syriac source used for the Arabic translations departed widely in vocabulary from the original Poetics, and it initiated a misinterpretation of Aristotelian thought that continued through the Middle Ages. [Hardison, 81.]

There are two different Arabic interpretations of Aristotle’s "Poetics" in commentaries by Abu Nasr al-Farabi and Averroes (i.e., Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd).

Al-Farabi’s treatise endeavors to establish poetry as a logical faculty of expression, giving it validity in the Islamic world. Averroes’ commentary attempts to harmonize his assessment of the "Poetics" with al-Farabi’s, but he is ultimately unable to reconcile his ascription of moral purpose to poetry with al-Farabi’s logical interpretation.

However, Averroes' interpretation of the "Poetics" was accepted by the West because of its relevance to their humanistic viewpoints, and at times, the philosophers of the Middle Ages even preferred Averroes’ commentary over Aristotle's actual meaning. This resulted in the survival of Aristotle’s "Poetics" through the Arabic literary tradition.

Popular culture

The "Poetics" -- both the existent first book and the lost second book -- figure prominently in Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose".



Primary sources

In English translation

* Thomas Twining, 1789
* Samuel Henry Butcher, 1902: [http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1974 full text]
* Ingram Bywater, 1909: [http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=6763 full text]
* William Hamilton Fyfe, 1926: [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=aristot.+poet.+1447a full text]
* L. J. Potts, 1953
* G. M. A. Grube, 1958
* Richard Janko, 1986
* librivox.org [http://librivox.org/poetics-by-aristotle/ audio recording]

Other translations

* [http://nevmenandr.net/poetica/1447a8.php Seven parallel translations of Poetics: Russian, English, French]
*In Japanese by Tomonobu Imamichi

econdary sources

* Belfiore, Elizabeth, S., "Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle on Plot and Emotion", Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1992. ISBN 0691068992
* Carlson, Marvin. 1993. "Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present." Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801481546.
* Dukore, Bernard F. 1974. "Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski". Florence, KY: Heinle & Heinle. ISBN 0030911524.
* Ari Hiltunen, 2001, "Aristotle in Hollywood", Intellect Books, ISBN 1-84150-060-7
* Hardison, O.B., Jr. “Averroes.” "Medieval Literary Criticism: Translations and Interpretations". New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co. 1987. 81-88.
* Sampson, C. Michael, [http://www.camws.org/meeting/2005/abstracts2005/sampson.html "Plot and Form in Aristotle's Poetics"] , The Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), 2005.

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