Essay on Poetic Theory

from Poetics

by Aristotle


Words are of two kinds, simple and double. By simple I mean those composed of non-significant elements, such as γῆ “earth.” By double or compound, those composed either of a significant and non-significant element (though within the whole word no element is significant), or of elements that are both significant. A word may likewise be triple, quadruple, or multiple in form, like so many Massilian expressions, e.g., “Hermo-caico-xanthus [who prayed to Father Zeus].”

Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered.

By a current or proper word I mean one which is in general use among a people; by a strange word, one which is in use in another country. Plainly, therefore, the same word may be at once strange and current, but not in relation to the same people. The word σἰγυνον, “lance,” is to the Cyprians a current term but to us a strange one.

Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. Thus from genus to species, as: “There lies my ship”; for lying at anchor is a species of lying. From species to genus, as: “Verily ten thousand noble deeds hath Odysseus wrought”; for ten thousand is a species of large number, and is here used for a large number generally. From species to species, as: “With blade of bronze drew away the life,” and “Cleft the water with the vessel of unyielding bronze.” Here ἀρύσαι, “to draw away” is used for ταµεῖν, “to cleave,” and ταµεῖν, again for ἀρύσαι—each being a species of taking away. Analogy or proportion is when the second term is to the first as the fourth to the third. We may then use the fourth for the second, or the second for the fourth. Sometimes too we qualify the metaphor by adding the term to which the proper word is relative. Thus the cup is to Dionysus as the shield to Ares. The cup may, therefore, be called “the shield of Dionysus,” and the shield “the cup of Ares.” Or, again, as old age is to life, so is evening to day. Evening may therefore be called, “the old age of the day,” and old age, “the evening of life,” or, in the phrase of Empedocles, “life’s setting sun.” For some of the terms of the proportion there is at times no word in existence; still the metaphor may be used. For instance, to scatter seed is called sowing: but the action of the sun in scattering his rays is nameless. Still this process bears to the sun the same relation as sowing to the seed. Hence the expression of the poet “sowing the god-created light.” There is another way in which this kind of metaphor may be employed. We may apply an alien term, and then deny of that term one of its proper attributes; as if we were to call the shield, not “the cup of Ares,” but “the wineless cup.”

A newly-coined word is one which has never been even in local use, but is adopted by the poet himself. Some such words there appear to be: as ἐρνύγες, “sprouters,” for κέρατα, “horns”; and ἀρητήρ, “supplicator”, for ἰερεύς, “priest.”

A word is lengthened when its own vowel is exchanged for a longer one, or when a syllable is inserted. A word is contracted when some part of it is removed. Instances of lengthening are: πόληος for πόλεως, and Πηληιἄδεω for Πηλείδου: of contraction,—κρῖ, δῶ, and ὄψ as in μία γίνεται άμφοτέρων ὄψ [the appearance of both is one].

An altered word is one in which part of the ordinary form is left unchanged, and part is recast: as in δεξιτερὸν κατὰ μαζόν [on the right breast], δεξιτερὸν is for δεξιόν.

Nouns in themselves are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Masculine are such as end in ν, ρ, ς, or in some letter compounded with ς—these being two, ψ and ξ Feminine, such as end in vowels that are always long, namely η and ω, and—among vowels that admit of lengthening—those in α. Thus the number of letters in which nouns masculine and feminine end is the same; for ψ and ξ are equivalent to endings in ς. No noun ends in a mute or a vowel short by nature. Three only end in μέλι- [honey], κόμμι [gum]. And πέπερι [pepper]; five end in υ. Neuter nouns end in these two latter vowels; also in ν and ς.


The perfection of style is to be clear without being mean. The clearest style is that which uses only current or proper words; at the same time it is mean—witness the poetry of Cleophon and of Sthenelus. That diction, on the other hand, is lofty and raised above the commonplace which employs unusual words. By unusual, I mean strange (or rare) words, metaphorical, lengthened—anything, in short, that differs from the normal idiom. Yet a style wholly composed of such words is either a riddle or a jargon; a riddle, if it consists of metaphors; a jargon, if it consists of strange (or rare) words. For the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations. Now this cannot be done by any arrangement of ordinary words, but by the use of metaphor it can. Such is the riddle: “A man I saw who on another man had glued the bronze by aid of fire,” and others of the same kind. A diction that is made up of strange (or rare) terms is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of these elements is necessary to style; for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental, and the other kinds above mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace and mean, while the use of proper words will make it perspicuous. But nothing contributes more to produce a cleanness of diction that is remote from commonness than the lengthening, contraction, and alteration of words. For by deviating in exceptional cases from the normal idiom, the language will gain distinction; while, at the same time, the partial conformity with usage will give perspicuity. The critics, therefore, are in error who censure these licenses of speech, and hold the author up to ridicule. Thus Eucleides, the elder, declared that it would be an easy matter to be a poet if you might lengthen syllables at will. He caricatured the practice in the very form of his diction, as in the verse:

ʹΕπιχάρην ἐῖδον Μαραθῶνάδε βαδίζοντα,

[I saw Epichares walking to Marathon]

ούκ αν γ ἐράμενος τὸν ἐκείνου ἐλλέβορον
[Not if you desire his hellebore.]

To employ such license at all obtrusively is, no doubt, grotesque; but in any mode of poetic diction there must be moderation. Even metaphors, strange (or rare) words, or any similar forms of speech, would produce the like effect if used without propriety and with the express purpose of being ludicrous. How great a difference is made by the appropriate use of lengthening, may be seen in Epic poetry by the insertion of ordinary forms in the verse. So, again, if we take a strange (or rare) word, a metaphor, or any similar mode of expression, and replace it by the current or proper term, the truth of our observation will be manifest. For example, Aeschylus and Euripides each composed the same iambic line. But the alteration of a single word by Euripides, who employed the rarer term instead of the ordinary one, makes one verse appear beautiful and the other trivial. Aeschylus in his Philoctetes says:

φαγέδαινα <δ ᾿> ἣ μου σάρκας ἐσθίει ποδός.
[The tumor which is eating the flesh of my foot.]

Euripides substitutes θοινᾶται, “feasts on,” for ἐσθίει, “feeds on.” Again, in the line,

νῦν δέ μ ἐών ὀλίγος τε καὶ οὐτιδανὸς καὶ αειδής,
[Yet a small man, worthless and unseemly],

the difference will be felt if we substitute the common words,

νυν δέ μ ἐών μικρός τε καὶ ασθεηικός καὶ αειδής
[Yet a little fellow, weak and ugly.]

Or, if for the line,

δίφον αεικέλιον καταθεὶς ὀλίγην τε τράπεζαν,

[Setting an unseemly couch and a meager table],

we read,

δίφον μοχθηρὸν καταθεὶς μικραν τε τράπεζαν,

[Setting a wretched couch and a puny table]

Or, for ἠιόνες βοόωσιν [the sea shores roar] ἠιόνες κράζουσιν [the sea shores screech].

Again, Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which no one would employ in ordinary speech: for example, δωμάτων ἅπο [from the house away] instead of ἀπὸ δωμάτων [away from the house], σέθεν, ἐγὼ δέ νιν [to thee, and I to him], ʹΑχιλλέως πέρι [Achilles about] instead of περὶ ʹΑχιλλέως [about Achilles], and the like. It is precisely because such phrases are not part of the current idiom that they give distinction to the style. This, however, he failed to see.

It is a great matter to observe propriety in these several modes of expression, as also in compound words, strange (or rare) words, and so forth. But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.

Of the various kinds of words, the compound are best adapted to dithyrambs, rare words to heroic poetry, metaphors to iambic. In heroic poetry, indeed, all these varieties are serviceable. But in iambic verse, which reproduces, as far as may be, familiar speech, the most appropriate words are those which are found even in prose. These are the current or proper, the metaphorical, the ornamental.

Concerning Tragedy and imitation by means of action this may suffice.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

Translated by S. H. Butcher


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