10.1 Plot. Like a tragedy, an epic should be constructed “dramatically.” This means that an epic should imitate a whole action of unity, and it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. An epic should not be constructed in the same way as a history, and it should not reflect a single period of time. Homer does not attempt to imitate the Trojan War as a whole, which would be much too large; instead, Homer uses one part of the war with many episodes.
Homer’s Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, which lasted 10 years. However, the epic poem focuses only on a short period of time (weeks compared to years) during which Achilles and King Agamemnon have an acute disagreement. Likewise, the Odyssey focuses on the Trojan War only in that it involves Odysseus’s return home after the war. A tragedy should be constructed “dramatically,” which hearkens to the stage, and should be condensed to fit the time restraints of a play. This again speaks to balance: a tragedy must be big enough to elicit astonishment, but it must have unity and be small enough to be held in a single view.
10.2 Kinds and Parts of Epic. Also like tragedy, an epic is either simple, complex, or based on suffering. The components of an epic are the same, too, except an epic does not have lyric poetry or spectacle. An epic should have reversal and recognition, and an epic should make good use of reasoning and diction. Homer was the first to do this in an appropriate way, Aristotle says: “The Iliad is simple and based on suffering, [and] the Odyssey is complex (recognition pervades it) and based on character.”
The Iliad is “simple and based on suffering” because it imitates the action of men at war. The Iliad does not focus solely on any one person, and Achilles is only one many central characters. The Odyssey, on the other hand, focuses on Odysseus, and his identity is revealed through recognition at several points in the poem.
10.3 Differences between Tragedy and Epic. Epic is different from tragedy in that the plot of an epic is longer; however, one should still be able to appreciate its unity. In an epic, many parts can occur simultaneously, which makes the poem more extraordinary. Different verse-forms can be used in an epic, such as heroic verse, which is “stately and grandiose.” Iambic verse imitates movement, but no one has composed a lengthy poem in anything other than heroic verse, which Aristotle implies is most appropriate.
Heroic verse is a type of poetic verse typically used in epic poetry. Heroic verse (which Aristotle implies is more dignified, or “stately and grandiose,” than other forms of verse) includes dactylic hexameter, which Homer uses in the Iliad and Odyssey. It also includes iambic pentameter, which—for a more modern example—is used in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.
10.4 Quasi-dramatic Epic. According to Aristotle, “the poet in person should say as little as possible; that is not what makes him an imitator.” Homer is the master of this craft. Homer briefly introduces characters with a short opening and then lets each one show their own character and speak for themselves.
Here, Aristotle implies that a poem should show the events of an action, rather than a poet’s language telling the events of an action. In other words, a poet should show how strong a character is through descriptive language rather than simply saying that said character is strong. For Aristotle, this produces a more accurate imitation.
10.5 Astonishment and Irrationalities. Like a tragedy, there should also be astonishment in epic. However, the irrational is more possible in an epic, since readers are not always looking directly at the object. For example, Hector’s pursuit would be irrational on stage, but this irrationality isn’t noticed in the epic. According to Aristotle, Homer taught other poets how to use “false inference.” If the existence of A implies the existence of B, Aristotle explains, people assume that if B occurs, A must occur as well. This assumption is false, Aristotle says, and it can also be seen “in the bath-scene” in the Odyssey.
In the Iliad, Achilles chases Hector around Troy three times before Hector faces him to fight. This pursuit is only mentioned in passing (it is not played out as it would be in a tragedy), which makes it less irrational. In the bath-scene, the nurse assumes Odysseus’s identity from a scar on his foot, but this scar doesn’t mean that he must be Odysseus. Any number of people could have a scar on their foot; thus, the nurse’s assumption has the potential to be a “false inference.”
Aristotle believes that impossibilities which are probable are better than those which are unlikely. Stories should not be irrational; however, if a story does contain the irrational, it should occur outside the story, like the mention of the Pythian Games in Electra. If a story has an irrationality that seems reasonable, a poet can conceal this absurdity “with other good qualities” and make it “a source of pleasure.”
In Electra, the titular Electra is told that her brother, Orestes, was killed in a chariot race during the Pythian Games. The Pythian Games, however, did not exist during the time in which the play takes place (the Pythian Games took place in Sophocles, the playwright’s, lifetime). Aristotle considers this inconsistency an irrationality; however, the Pythian Games occur outside the play (they’re only mentioned, not imitated). Aristotle implies that such irrationalities can be covered up “with other good qualities” to make it “a source of pleasure,” presumably with spectacle or lyric poetry.
10.6 Diction. In parts of an epic where nothing much is happening and neither character nor reasoning are being expressed, it’s especially important to be careful about diction, because “excessively brilliant diction overshadows character and reasoning.”
This passage again suggests that in areas where a tragedy is lacking, deficiencies can be covered up with other components of poetry. Here, Aristotle claims that parts of a tragedy which lack character and reasoning can be made up with “excessively brilliant diction.”