Essay on Poetic Theory

from Poetics

by Aristotle
PART XXV

With respect to critical difficulties and their solutions, the number and nature of the sources from which they may be drawn may be thus exhibited.

The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects—things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be. The vehicle of expression is language—either current terms or, it may be, rare words or metaphors. There are also many modifications of language, which we concede to the poets. Add to this, that the standard of correctness is not the same in poetry and politics, any more than in poetry and any other art. Within the art of poetry itself there are two kinds of faults—those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something, [but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a wrong choice—if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example, or in any other art—the error is not essential to the poetry. These are the points of view from which we should consider and answer the objections raised by the critics.

First as to matters which concern the poet’s own art. If he describes the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained (the end being that already mentioned)—if, that is, the effect of this or any other part of the poem is thus rendered more striking. A case in point is the pursuit of Hector. If, however, the end might have been as well, or better, attained without violating the special rules of the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every kind of error should, if possible, be avoided.

Again, does the error touch the essentials of the poetic art, or some accident of it? For example, not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.

Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact, the poet may perhaps reply, “But the objects are as they ought to be”; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If, however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer, “This is how men say the thing is.” This applies to tales about the gods. It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them. But anyhow, “this is what is said.” Again, a description may be no better than the fact: “Still, it was the fact”; as in the passage about the arms: “Upright upon their butt-ends stood the spears.” This was the custom then, as it now is among the Illyrians.

Again, in examining whether what has been said or done by some one is poetically right or not, we must not look merely to the particular act or saying, and ask whether it is poetically good or bad. We must also consider by whom it is said or done, to whom, when, by what means, or for what end; whether, for instance, it be to secure a greater good, or avert a greater evil.

Other difficulties may be resolved by due regard to the usage of language. We may note a rare word, as in οὐρῆας μέν πρῶτον, “the mules first [he killed],” where the poet perhaps employs οὐρῆας not in the sense of mules, but of sentinels. So, again, of Dolon: “ill-favored indeed he was to look upon”. It is not meant that his body was ill-shaped but that his face was ugly; for the Cretans use the word εὐειδές, “well-favored” to denote a fair face. Again, ζωρὸτερον δὲ κέραιε [mix the drink livelier], does not mean “mix it stronger” as for hard drinkers, but “mix it quicker.”

Sometimes an expression is metaphorical, as “Now all gods and men were sleeping through the night,” while at the same time the pot says: “Often indeed as he turned his gaze to the Trojan plain, he marveled at the sound of flutes and pipes”. “All” is here used metaphorically for “many,” all being a species of many. So in the verse, “alone she hath no part. .” οἴη [alone] is metaphorical; for the best known may be called the only one.

Again, the solution may depend upon accent or breathing. Thus Hippias of Thasos solved the difficulties in the lines, δίδομεν (διδόμεν) δέ οἱ and τό μὲν οὖ (οὐ) καταπύθεται ὄμβρῳ.

Or again, the question may be solved by punctuation, as in Empedocles: “Of a sudden things became mortal that before had learnt to be immortal, and things unmixed before mixed.”

Or again, by ambiguity of meaning, as in παρῴχηκεν δὲ πλέω νύξ, where the word πλέω is ambiguous.

Or by the usage of language. Thus any mixed drink is called οἶνος, “wine.” Hence Ganymede is said “to pour the wine to Zeus,” though the gods do not drink wine. So too workers in iron are called χαλκέας, or “workers in bronze.” This, however, may also be taken as a metaphor.

Again, when a word seems to involve some inconsistency of meaning, we should consider how many senses it may bear in the particular passage. For example: “there was stayed the spear of bronze”—we should ask in how many ways we may take “being checked there.” The true mode of interpretation is the precise opposite of what Glaucon mentions. Critics, he says, jump at certain groundless conclusions; they pass adverse judgement and then proceed to reason on it; and, assuming that the poet has said whatever they happen to think, find fault if a thing is inconsistent with their own fancy.

The question about Icarius has been treated in this fashion. The critics imagine he was a Lacedaemonian. They think it strange, therefore, that Telemachus should not have met him when he went to Lacedaemon. But the Cephallenian story may perhaps be the true one. They allege that Odysseus took a wife from among themselves, and that her father was Icadius, not Icarius. It is merely a mistake, then, that gives plausibility to the objection.

In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion. With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible. Again, it may be impossible that there should be men such as Zeuxis painted “Yes,” we say, “but the impossible is the higher thing; for the ideal type must surpass the realty.” To justify the irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be. In addition to which, we urge that the irrational sometimes does not violate reason; just as “it is probable that a thing may happen contrary to probability.”

Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules as in dialectical refutation—whether the same thing is meant, in the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence.

The element of the irrational, and, similarly, depravity of character, are justly censured when there is no inner necessity for introducing them. Such is the irrational element in the introduction of Aegeus by Euripides and the badness of Menelaus in the Orestes.

Thus, there are five sources from which critical objections are drawn. Things are censured either as impossible, or irrational, or morally hurtful, or contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness. The answers should be sought under the twelve heads above mentioned.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

Translated by S. H. Butcher

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