119.   Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

119. Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  Aristotle turns to literature and notes down his thoughts on the nature and principles of tragedy and epic.

My edition is part of the Penguin anthology Classical Literary Criticism translated by T. S. Dorsch (ISBN 0140441557) which also includes Longinus and Horace (but more of them later)

My thoughts: The next read on the blog was supposed to be Aristotle’s Metaphysics but I just couldn’t get past the first chapter, partly from the fact I was simultaneously making my way through a fantasy novel thick enough to choke a horse, and secondly my inherent dread of anything with the words ‘metaphysical’ or ‘postmodernist’ in the title. So instead I switched to his Poetics. I could also get my hands on a Penguin edition of this one (I had been severely missing their introductions and notes to help me wade through the mire)

Aristotle sees poetry, plays, dance and musical performances as imitations or representations of reality (what we would now call fiction), each using some combination of music, rhythm and/or language. Characters are represented as either good, bad or as we are ourselves, with comedy dealing with characters worse than ourselves (usually the ridiculous), and tragedy dealing with those better than us (the noble) – an interesting perspective, and with a fair degree of accuracy at first thought.

From chapter 6 onwards, Aristotle discusses tragedy (plays acted about serious subjects, evoking fear or pity) and epic poetry (narrated rather than acted) – he does mention intending to consider comedy later, but this seems to have been lost in the mists of time. He prioritises plot as the most essential element over characterisation (have to agree there!) and argues the need for wholeness of plot and relevance of actions to tell the story. He also opens the door to allow poetic license (otherwise the poet or playwright may as well write history!)

“Poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history; for while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts”              page 44

Aristotle also comments on the themes or turning points of tragedies : reversal, discovery, and calamity. The discovery or revelation of identity or knowledge can change the fate or behaviour of characters, leading to reversal of fortune, and disastrous results for the ‘hero’ of the story.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Learning is a very great pleasure, not for philosophers only, but for other people as well, however limited their capacity for it may be”                                                                   page 35

“It Is their characters that make men what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse”                                                                               page 40

“Poetry is the product either of a man of great natural ability or of one not wholly sane”                  page 55

“A convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility”                   page 73

Diversions and digressions: 

  • Homer was believed by Aristotle to have written some sort of lampoon, a precursor to comedy, called Margites, which only now survives as fragments and was probably penned by someone else.
  • Old Comedy (e.g. the plays of Aristophanes) often used the names of real people, whereas New Comedy (Menander) used stock names which may have suggested real people but did not name them as such.

 Personal rating:  Short and easily understood, yet providing good basic ideas for consideration as I read further. I think this is probably a 6.

Kimmy’s rating:   I did read a few parts out loud to Kimmy but received only a baleful stare before she went back to sleep.

The sanity in between:  As alluded to above, I also read #5 of the Wheel of Time series, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan (a healthy 1,000 pages) along with P.G. Wodehouse’s first volume of short stories The Man Upstairs, and other stories. No one has the comic turn of phrase as good ol’ P.G., and I chuckled my way through these quite happily.

“Throughout the whole country nothing but the approaching match was discussed. Wherever civilization reigned, and in portions of Liverpool, one question alone was on every lip: Who would win? Octogenarians mumbled it. Infants lisped it. Tired City men, trampled under foot in the rush for their tram, asked it of the ambulance attendants who carried them to the hospital.”

The Goal-keeper and the Plutocrat, P.G. Wodehouse

You can see why Aristotle languished on the kitchen bench between the lolly jar and the potted succulent.

Next :  Back to the O.T. and the Book of Jeremiah.

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One thought on “119. Poetics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

  1. I have a sudden burning desire to read an Aristotle review of some of today’s “domestic thrillers”… I suspect he would be even grumpier than me! “A convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility” – I can feel I’m going to quote this regularly. And isn’t Wodehouse just the world’s foremost leading expert in convincing impossibilities?

    Liked by 1 person

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