11.1 Principles. A poet is an imitator just as a painter is, and the poet must imitate an object in one of three ways: they imitate an object as it is, as it is said or thought to be, or as it ought to be. A poet’s diction should include non-standard words, metaphors, and modified words. Errors in poetry are one of two kinds and are either intrinsic or incidental. If a poet fails to imitate because they are incompetent, that error is intrinsic.
A poet may imitate an object as it is said to be, thought to be, or ought to be, and none of these imitations will imitate an objects as it actually is. Aristotle is careful to point this distinction out because such imitations are not an error or wrong in anyway; they are simply different, like non-standard words.
11.2 Applications. If a poet includes impossibilities in a poem, it is an error; however, if this error achieves a desired effect, like the pursuit of Hector, then the error is “correct” and therefore not really an error. Aristotle also argues that errors are less serious if they are made in ignorance, like a painter who gives a female deer antlers. Plus, if something isn’t true in a poem, it may just be that an object is imitated as it should be, rather than how it actually is. Aristotle urges the reader to remember that Sophocles imitated people “as they should be,” while Euripides showed them “as they are.”
Hector’s pursuit, although irrational, adds to the suspense of the battle that Hector and Achilles engage in—which is, presumably, the desired effect. Thus, this irrationality isn’t an error per se. Only male deer have antlers, but Aristotle doesn’t consider mistakenly painting antlers on a doe to be a serious artistic error. The same objects and people can be imitated in different ways, as Sophocles and Euripides do—this is not to say that an imitation is incorrect or an error.
Some problems in poetry can be solved with close attention to diction. For example, use of non-standard words may be better, or it may be better to use metaphor. Even punctuation can change the meaning of any given utterance. Ambiguity can also be helpful in constructing a poem, like in the utterance “more of the night as passed.” This statement does not say exactly how much of the night has passed—just that some of it has. When a word seems contradictory in a poem, it is helpful to consider the word in multiple contexts.
Considering contradictory words again suggests that not everything that seems wrong is an error. Common words are often used in uncommon ways, which isn’t to say that the use of any particular word is wrong. In simpler terms, what may seem like an error may just need a bit more thought or investigation. This passage also speaks to the importance of balance between standard and non-standard words.
11.3 Conclusion. Generally, objections to poetry usually include one of the following: a poem is impossible, irrational, harmful, contradictory, or incorrect. A “plausible impossibility” in a poem is better than “what is implausible but possible,” Aristotle says. Regarding irrationalities, it is likely that unlikely things will happen, so sometimes something that seems irrational actually proves to be rational. Contradictory utterances should be met with scrutiny, Aristotle repeats, and irrationality and wickedness are “correct” if they are necessary or probable. But if the poet doesn’t use irrationality for a particular purpose, then readers can rightfully object to that irrationality.
Aristotle’s language here may be confusing, but it again boils down to what is probable or necessary. Improbable and irrational things have happened before, which is to say it is paradoxically likely for improbable things to happen again. If it is the sort of thing that could happen, it is fair game for imitation in a tragedy. In short, Aristotle implies that most of the objections made against poetry are moot, and that even events or actions that seem irrational or contradictory can be both necessary and probable.