Poetics

by

Aristotle

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Aristotle Character Analysis

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived from 384 to 322 B.C.E. Aristotle’s writing and theories had a profound influence in the development of modern politics, science, and ethics. Poetics, which is thought to be compiled from Aristotle’s lecture notes and journals, is his examination of art, particularly poetry. In Poetics, Aristotle discusses poetry in general, especially tragedy and epic poetry, and he examines the effects of poetry and the best way to construct a good plot. He defines and explores each of the component parts of tragedy and epic poetry, and he uses Poetics to argue four major points: first, that tragedy is more artistic and pleasing to an audience than epic poetry. Second, he argues that all art, including poetry, is an imitation and that such imitation through art is a natural aspect of humanity. Third, he argues that a tragedy should provoke feelings of fear and pity in the audience, and he claims that experiencing these emotions “purifies” the audience in a process known as catharsis. Finally, Aristotle argues that all poetry, especially tragedy, requires balance between morality and wickedness, between common and novel language, and between magnitude and unity. Aristotle’s Poetics is the oldest surviving work of literary theory, and it has informed the understanding, analysis, and development of poetry since it was written around 335 B.C.E.

Aristotle Quotes in Poetics

The Poetics quotes below are all either spoken by Aristotle or refer to Aristotle. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Classics edition of Poetics published in 1997.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Let us discuss the art of poetry in general and its species—the effect which each species of poetry has and the correct way to construct plots if the composition is to be of high quality, as well as the number and nature of its component parts, and any other questions that arise within the same field of enquiry. We should begin, as it natural, by taking first principles first.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

Epic poetry and the composition of tragedy, as well as comedy and the arts of dithyrambic poetry and (for the most part) of music for pipe or lyre, are all (taken together) imitations. They can be differentiated from each other in three respects: in respect of their different media of imitation, or different objects, or a different mode (i.e. a different manner).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Those who imitate, imitate objects; and these must be either admirable or inferior. (Character almost always corresponds to just these two categories, since everyone is differentiated in character by defect or excellence.). Alternatively they must be better people than we are, or worse, or of the same sort (compare painters: Polygnotus portrayed better people, Pauson worse people, Dionysius people similar to us).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

In general, two causes seem likely to have given rise to the art of poetry, both of them natural.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Imitation comes naturally to human beings from childhood (and in this they differ from other animals, i.e. in having a strong propensity to imitation and in learning their earliest lessons through imitation); so does the universal pleasure in imitations. Wat happens in practice is evidence of this: we take delight in viewing the most accurate possible images of objects which in themselves cause distress when we see them (e.g. the shapes of the lowest species of animal, and corpses). The reason for this is that understanding is extremely pleasant, not just for philosophers but for others too in the same way, despite their limited capacity for it.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 6-7
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.

(By “language made pleasurable” I mean that which possesses rhythm and melody, i.e. song. By the separation of its species I mean that some parts are composed in verse alone; others by contrast make use of song.)

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

So tragedy as a whole necessarily has six component parts, which determine the tragedy’s quality. The medium of imitation comprises two parts, the mode one, and object three; and there is nothing apart from these.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life. Well-being and ill-being reside in actions, and the goal of life is an activity, not a quality; people possess certain qualities in accordance with their character, but they achieve well-being or its opposite on the basis of how they fare. So the imitation of a character is not the purpose of what the agents do; character is included along with and on account of the actions. So the events, i.e. the plot, are what tragedy is there for, and that is the most important thing of all.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Any beautiful object, whether a living organism or any other entity composed of parts, must not only possess those parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary; beauty consists in magnitude as well as order. For this reason no organism could be beautiful if it is excessively small (since observation becomes confused as it comes close to having no perceptible duration in time) or excessively large (since the observation is then not simultaneous, and the observers find that the sense of unity and wholeness is lost from the observation, e.g. if there were an animal a thousand miles long). So just as in the case of physical objects and living organisms, they should possess a certain magnitude, and this should be such as can readily be taken in at one view, so in the case of plots: they should have a certain length, and this should be such as can readily be held in memory.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

It is also clear from what has been said that the function of the poet is not say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity. The historian and the poet are not distinguished by their use of verse or prose; it would be possible to turn the works of Herodotus into verse, and it would be a history in verse just as much as in prose. The distinction is this: the one says what has happened, the other the kind of thing that would happen.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Herodotus
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

So there are these two parts of the plot—reversal and recognition; a third is suffering. Of these, reversal and recognition have already been discussed; suffering is an action that involves destruction or pain (e.g. deaths in full view, extreme agony, woundings and so on).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

The construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events that evoke fear and pity, since that is the distinctive feature of this kind of imitation. So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune—this does not evoke fear or pity, but disgust. Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune—this is the least tragic of all: it has none of the right effects, since it neither agreeable, nor does it evoke pity or fear. Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune—that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pity or fear, since the one has to do with someone who is suffering undeservedly, the other with someone who is like ourselves (I mean, pity has to do with the underserving sufferer, fear with the person like us); so what happens will evoke neither pity nor fear.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 20-1
Explanation and Analysis:

We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This is the sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change of bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error of some kind. He is one of those people who are held in great esteem and enjoy great good fortune, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and distinguished men from that kind of family.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Sophocles, Euripides
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

It is possible for the evocation of fear and pity to result from the spectacle, and also from the structure of events itself. The latter is preferable and is the mark of a better poet. The plot should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, anyone who hears the events which occur shudders and feels pity at what happens; this how someone would react on hearing the plot of the Oedipus. Producing this effect through spectacle is less artistic, and is dependent on the production. Those who use spectacle to produce an effect which is not evocative of fear, but simply monstrous, have nothing to do with tragedy; one should not seek every pleasure from tragedy, but the one that is characteristic of it. And since the poet should produce the pleasure which comes from pity and fear, and should do so by means of imitation, clearly this must be brought about in the events.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Sophocles
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

(Clearly, therefore, the resolutions of plots should also come about from the plot itself, and not by means of a theatrical device, as in the Medea, or the events concerned with the launching of the ships in the Iliad. A theatrical device may be used for things outside the play—whether prior events which are beyond human knowledge, or subsequent events which need prediction and narration since we grant that the gods can see everything. But there should be nothing irrational in the events themselves; or, failing that, it should be outside the play, as for example in Sophocles’s Oedipus.)

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Medea , Euripides, Sophocles, Oedipus, Homer
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Since tragedy is an imitation of people better than we are, one should imitate good portrait-painters. In rendering the individual form, they paint people as they are, but make them better-looking. In the same way the poet who is imitating people who are irascible or lazy or who have other traits of character of that sort should portray them as having these characteristics, but also as decent people. For example, Homer portrayed Achilles as both a good man and a paradigm of obstinacy.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Achilles
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The best recognition of all is that which arises out of the actual course of events, where the emotional impact is achieved through events that are probable, as in Sophocles’ Oedipus and the Iphigeneia (her wish to send a letter is probable). Only this kind does without contrived tokens and necklaces. Second-best are those which arise from inference.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Iphigeneia, Odysseus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, Orestes
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

The most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity. The clearest diction is that based on current words; but that lacks dignity (as can be seen from the poetry of Cleophon, and that of Sthenelus). By contrast, diction that is distinguished and out of the ordinary when it makes use of exotic expressions—by which I mean non-standard words, metaphor, lengthening, and anything contrary to current usage. […] So what is needed is some kind of mixture of these two things: one of them will make the diction of the ordinary and avoid a loss of dignity (i.e. non-standard words, metaphor, ornament and other categories I mentioned earlier), while current usage will contribute clarity.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Aristophanes
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Homer deserves praise for many reasons, but above all because he alone among poets is not ignorant of what he should do in his own person. The poet in person should say as little as possible; that is not what makes him an imitator. Other poets perform in person throughout, and imitate little and seldom; but after a brief preamble Homer introduces a man or a woman or some other character—and none of them are characterless: they have character.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Achilles
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

While it is true that astonishment is an effect which should be sought in tragedy, the irrational (which is the most important source of astonishment) is more feasible in epic, because one is not looking at the agent. The pursuit of Hector would seem preposterous on stage, with the others standing by and taking no part in the pursuit while Achilles shakes his head to restrain them; but in epic it escapes notices.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Homer, Achilles, Hector
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer, in particular, taught other poets the right way to tell falsehoods. This the false inference In cases where the existence or occurrence of A implies the existence or occurrence of B, people imagine that if B is the case than A also exists or occurs—which is fallacious. So if A is false, but its existence would entail the existences or occurrence of B, one should add B; then, on the basis of its knowledge that B is true, our mind falsely infers the reality of A as well. An example of this can be found in the bath-scene.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Odysseus, Homer
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Probable impossibilities are preferable to implausible possibilities. Stories should not be constructed from irrational parts; so far as possible they should contain nothing irrational—or, failing that, it should be outside the narration (like Oedipus’ ignorance of the manner of Laius’ death) and not in the play itself (like the report of the Pythian Games in Electra, or the man who comes from Tegea to Mysia without speaking in the Mysians). Saying that the plot would have been ruined otherwise is absurd; plots should not be constructed like that in the first place. But is one does posit an irrationality and it seems more or less rational, even an oddity is possible; the irrationalities involved in Odysseus’ being put ashore in the Odyssey would be manifestly intolerable if a second-rate poet had composed them, but as it is the poet conceals the absurdity with other good qualities, and makes it a source of pleasure.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Orestes, Odysseus, Homer, Sophocles
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

Furthermore, if the objection is that something is not true, perhaps it is as it ought to be; e.g. Sophocles said that he portrayed people as they should be, Euripides as they are. That is the solution to use.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Oedipus, Sophocles, Euripides
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

Tragedy has everything epic does (and it can even make use of its verse-form), and additionally it has a major component part music and spectacle; this is a source of intense pleasure. […] Also, the end of imitation is attained in shorter length; what is more concentrated is more pleasant than what is watered down by being more extended in time ( I mean, for example, if one were to turn Sophocles’ Oedipus into as many lines as the Iliad has).

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker), Sophocles, Homer
Related Symbols: Oedipus Rex
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

So tragedy surpasses epic in all these respects, and also in artistic effect (since they should not produce any arbitrary pleasure but the one specified); clearly, then, because it achieves its purpose more effectively than epic, tragedy must be superior.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
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Aristotle Character Timeline in Poetics

The timeline below shows where the character Aristotle appears in Poetics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1. Introduction
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Aristotle states that he will discuss poetry, both in general and in particular, and he will... (full context)
Chapter 2. Poetry as a Species of Imitation
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...tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and music by pipe or lyre are all forms of imitation, Aristotle says, but they differ from each other in three ways: their medium, object, and/or mode... (full context)
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...through the medium of rhythm, language, and melody, as is the case with the arts Aristotle mentioned in the previous chapter. Each of these mediums can be used alone or together.... (full context)
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2.2 Object. Aristotle claims that in order to create an imitation, one needs an object to imitate, and... (full context)
Chapter 3. The Anthropology and History of Poetry
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Imitation comes naturally to human beings, Aristotle says, which is what makes people fundamentally different from animals. Humans, especially during childhood, learn... (full context)
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Aristotle argues that the pleasure humans take in viewing a distressing imitation comes from their understanding... (full context)
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...they represent. Serious people imitate admirable people, and unimportant people imitate those who are inferior. Aristotle admits that there must have been many serious people before Homer—but since there is little... (full context)
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...poets of comedy (not lampoons), or poets of tragedy (not epics). The reason for this, Aristotle argues, is that tragedies and comedies are more highly regarded than lampoons or epics.  (full context)
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...Now is not the time to debate whether tragedy is fully developed regarding its parts, Aristotle says, but he does note that tragedy was born from improvisation. The same can be... (full context)
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3.4 Comedy. Aristotle argues that comedy is the imitation of inferior people but that such people are not... (full context)
Chapter 4. Tragedy: Definition and Analysis
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4.1 Definition. According to Aristotle, tragedy “is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude.” Tragedy... (full context)
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4.3 The Primacy of Plot. Every tragedy, Aristotle repeats, has spectacle, character, plot, diction, lyric poetry, and reasoning; however, plot is the most... (full context)
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4.4 The Ranking Completed. Plot is the most important component part of tragedy, Aristotle repeats, and character is second in importance. Reasoning is third: it allows for characters to... (full context)
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...least relevant to poetry. Spectacle has more to do with “the art of the property-manager,” Aristotle says, than with the art of the poet. (full context)
Chapter 5. Plot: Basic Concepts
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Aristotle claims that plot is the most important component part of tragedy, and so it is... (full context)
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...imitate, and its magnitude cannot be arbitrary. “Beauty consists in magnitude as well as order,” Aristotle says. If an object is too small, its beauty is too difficult to discern. Conversely,... (full context)
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...which should be of a very specific length and should be easily held in memory. Aristotle defines the magnitude of plot as “the magnitude in which a series of events occurring... (full context)
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...perform several actions, but these actions might not constitute a single action. This is why, Aristotle reasons, Homer did not include in the Odyssey every last thing that happened to Odysseus.... (full context)
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5.5 Universality. It is not the poet’s job to write “what has happened,” Aristotle claims, but to write what “would happen, i.e. what is possible in accordance with probability... (full context)
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A poet is “a maker of plots,” Aristotle clarifies, not a maker of verses, and the object of a poet’s imitation is action.... (full context)
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5.6 Defective Plots. Episodic plots are by far the worst of the simple plots, Aristotle argues, which means the sequence of the episodes occur in such a way that seems... (full context)
Chapter 6. Plot: Species and Components
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6.2 Simple and Complex Parts. According to Aristotle, plot is either simple or complex. A simple plot is a plot in which a... (full context)
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...in a way that seems likely and that follows logically from the story’s previous events. Aristotle cites Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as an example: a messenger brings Oedipus news meant to calm... (full context)
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...of the people marked out for good or bad fortune.” The best plot, according to Aristotle, is one in which recognition and reversal occur at the same time, as they do... (full context)
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...other times, recognition can occur between two characters, although not always at the same time. Aristotle gives Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Tauris as an example, in which both Iphigeneia and Orestes recognize... (full context)
Chapter 7. The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
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7.1 First Introduction. Next, Aristotle will discuss what poets should do and avoid when constructing plot, and he will also... (full context)
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...but from good to bad, and the best tragedies follow this structure. This is why, Aristotle says, people are wrong to criticize Euripides for writing tragedies that always end in bad... (full context)
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...like Homer’s Odyssey, which ends with Odysseus’s triumph and the deaths of wicked characters. However, Aristotle points out, this structure does not produce the pleasure that should come from tragedy (that... (full context)
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...who are told the plot of Oedipus Rex. Producing catharsis via spectacle is “less artistic,” Aristotle argues, and doing so relies on production. Poets should not seek every emotion from tragedy,... (full context)
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7.4 Second Deduction. Next, Aristotle considers those events which appear “terrible or pitiable.” Tragedy is generally concerned with interactions among... (full context)
Chapter 8. Other Aspects of Tragedy
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A tragedy should imitate people who are better than us, Aristotle repeats, so poets “should imitate good portrait-painters.” Good portrait-painters paint subjects as they are, only... (full context)
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...through a letter. “Orestes declares in person what the poet (instead of the plot) requires,” Aristotle says. That is, Orestes tells Iphigeneia he is her brother, but he could just as... (full context)
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...is the kind that arises from memory, when a character suddenly realizes something they forgot. Aristotle again raises the example of Odysseus, who weeps at the sound of a lyre because... (full context)
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...who are actually feeling the emotion the gesture is meant to imitate. “This is why,” Aristotle says, “the art of poetry belongs to people who are naturally gifted or mad.” The... (full context)
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...and then they should be turned into episodes and expounded on. An example of what Aristotle means by “universal terms” is the Iphigeneia, in which a girl is supposed to be... (full context)
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...get home, where he reveals his identity and destroys his enemies. Most of the Odyssey, Aristotle says, “is episodes.” (full context)
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8.5 Complication and Resolution. A tragedy must have complication and resolution. According to Aristotle, the complication is “everything from the beginning up to and including the section which immediately... (full context)
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...when characters who are “clever but bad” are deceived. Such an action is not improbable, Aristotle argues, because it is likely for unlikely things to happen.  (full context)
Chapter 9. Diction
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9.1 Introduction. Aristotle will now discuss diction and reasoning, although he covers reasoning more thoroughly in his book... (full context)
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A conjunction marks the beginning, end, or division of a significant vocalization. Aristotle further claims that a noun is a significant vocalization that does not express tense and... (full context)
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...words, metaphor, and lengthened words. There must be a balance between clarity and “exotic expressions,” Aristotle argues, as a poem that is constructed only of “exotic expressions” is incomprehensible. Thus, a... (full context)
Chapter 10. Epic
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...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... (full context)
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...but no one has composed a lengthy poem in anything other than heroic verse, which Aristotle implies is most appropriate.   (full context)
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10.4 Quasi-dramatic Epic. According to Aristotle, “the poet in person should say as little as possible; that is not what makes... (full context)
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Aristotle believes that impossibilities which are probable are better than those which are unlikely. Stories should... (full context)
Chapter 11. Problems and Solutions
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 12.  Comparative Evaluation of Epic and Tragedy
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12.2 Reply. Aristotle argues that criticism of tragedy as vulgar and inferior is a critique of the performance,... (full context)
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Tragedy, Aristotle argues, “surpasses epic in all these respects, and also in artistic effect,” as a tragedy... (full context)