Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Poetics can help.

In Poetics, Aristotle discusses poetry—both in general and in particular—and he also considers the effects of poetry on those who consume it and the proper way in which to construct a poetic plot for maximum effect. He explores each component part of poetry separately and addresses any questions that come up in the process. Aristotle starts with the principles of poetry, which he says is only “natural.” He enumerates the different types poetry: epic, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and music by pipe or lyre. Additionally, he claims that all poetry is a form of imitation that only differs in three ways: its medium, its object, and/or its mode of imitation. The medium of imitation depends on the kind of art (a painter or a sculptor uses color or shape as a medium), whereas a poet uses the medium of rhythm, language, and melody—each of which can be used alone or together to create some desired effect. The object is the thing that is imitated in a work of art—in this case, in a poem. Objects, which include people, things, and events, can be either admirable or inferior, meaning that objects are either morally good or morally bad. Lastly, an object’s mode of imitation is the way in which an object is imitated. In epic poetry, an object is imitated through narration; however, in tragedy, an object is imitated via actors on a stage.

Aristotle argues that human beings have a natural proclivity for imitation, and since humans learn lessons through imitation from a young age, he maintains that people have a strong tendency to imitate people and things. Furthermore, people take pleasure in viewing distressing images from a safe distance, such as a stage. The pleasure people feel in viewing an imitation is in large part due to understanding. A person views an imitation, recognizes the thing being imitated, and finds pleasure in this understanding. Aristotle further argues that human begins also have a natural proclivity for rhythm and melody, so it is no wonder they tend to create imitations like poetry, which relies on language that has both rhythm and melody. Tragedy was born from dithyrambic poetry, which incorporates both poetry and dance. From there, tragedy evolved into what it is in Aristotle’s time—which he refers to as tragedy’s “natural state.”

Comedy imitates inferior people, Aristotle claims, but such characters are not inferior in every way. Characters in comedy are guilty of “laughable errors”; however, such errors do not elicit painful emotions in the audience. A comedy does not imitate pain, and it should not provoke these emotions in others. Conversely, tragedy and epic poetry imitate admirable people, but epic uses only verse and is in narrative form. Plainly put, an epic does not involve song, and it is usually told through the lens of a single character narration. Epics are usually long, whereas a tragedy is often restricted to the events of a single day. Those who have a firm understanding of tragedy will also have a firm understanding of epic, as everything present is epic is also present in tragedy. However, all that is present in a tragedy cannot be found in an epic poem.

A tragedy is an imitation of an admirable action that has unity and magnitude. Tragedy is written in language that has rhythm and melody, and it is performed by actors, not by narration. Most importantly, tragedy purifies the audience by producing in them the emotions of fear and pity in a process known as catharsis. A tragedy has six components—plot, character, diction, reasoning, spectacle, and lyric poetry—and these components determine a tragedy’s quality. Plot, however, is the most important component part of tragedy. Tragedy imitates actions, not people, and these actions are the events that make up the plot. Plus, the most effective way in which a tragedy produces catharsis is through recognition and reversal, which are both part of the plot. A tragedy must be “whole,” and it must have a definite beginning, middle, and end. A tragedy must have magnitude, meaning it must produce astonishment in the audience, but its imitation cannot be arbitrary. If the action being imitated in a tragedy is too big or too small, the entire plot cannot be appreciated at once, and unity is forfeited. An imitation has unity if it represents a complete action, and the same goes for plot—a plot is only unified if it imitates a complete action.

Poetry does not imitate “what has happened,” Aristotle argues, it imitates “what would happen,” as long as it is probable or necessary. Historians and poets are not different because one writes in prose and one in verse; they are different because the former writes what has happened, while the latter writes what would happen. Even if all historian wrote in poetic verse, their writing would still not be considered poetry. It is a poet’s job to make plots, and those plots can include the sort of thing that has happened, since the sort of thing that has happened is likely to happen again. It is not enough for a tragedy to simply imitate a whole action—the imitation must also provoke in the audience the emotions needed for catharsis, and catharsis is most effectively produced through events that are unexpected.

Every tragic plot involves a change of fortune, and such plots can be either complex (in which a change of fortune involves recognition, reversal, or both) or simple (in which a change of fortune does not involve recognition or reversal). A reversal “is a change to the opposite in the actions being performed,” which, of course, occurs because of “necessity or probability”—that is, in a way that seems likely and that follows logically from the story’s previous events. Recognition “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, disclosing either a close relationship or enmity, on the part 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 in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Recognition combined with reversal involves fear and pity, which are the very foundation of tragedy, and either good fortune or bad fortune will be the outcome of such a combination. Tragedies that involve human suffering, such as in war, are also effective in bringing about catharsis.

The best tragedies, according to Aristotle, are those with complex plots. A good tragedy should not depict an overly moral character undergoing a change in fortune from good to bad, as this upsets audiences and does not inspire fear and pity. Similarly, an overly wicked character should not undergo a change of fortune from bad to good, as such a change isn’t tragic and will not inspire fear or pity either. Still, a good tragedy does include a change in fortune from good to bad, as such plots are more tragic than plots that end in good fortune and will therefore elicit more fear and pity. Tragedy includes acts that are “terrible or pitiable,” and these acts can occur between people of a close relationship (like family members), between enemies, or between neutrals. There is maximum fear and pity in “terrible or pitiable acts” between close characters, such as the murder of one’s father or son.

Aristotle next considers characters within tragedy: he defines four things that go into the construction of a character. The first is goodness, or the moral essence of a character’s actions and disposition. A character’s imitation must also be appropriate, and it must have likeness, or similarity. Lastly, a character must be consistent, and if it is necessary or probable that a character behave in an inconsistent way, they should be “consistently inconsistent.” Poets should always visualize a plot as they construct it so that they can spot inconsistencies and inappropriateness. A tragedy must also have complication and resolution, and both complication and resolution should be constructed with equal care and attention. A tragedy includes reasoning and diction, which can be broken down further into several of its own component parts, including nouns, verbs, and utterances. Clarity is most important in diction, as long as there isn’t “loss of dignity.” Clear diction includes standard words in common usage; however, using only common words in a poem is unoriginal and inartistic and leads to a “loss of dignity.” Thus, a balance must be struck between standard words in common usage and “exotic expressions,” which are coined by the poet or are otherwise non-standard. Good poetry uses all forms of diction, especially metaphor and uncommon words.

According to Aristotle, objections to poetry usually involve one of the following: a poem is impossible, irrational, harmful, contradictory, or incorrect. Often, that which seems impossible or irrational isn’t as impossible as it may seem, especially since it is paradoxically likely for unlikely things to happen. Furthermore, that which seems contradictory or incorrect might be an imitation of an object as it should be or as it is thought to be, not as it actually is. In other words, Aristotle easily dismisses each of the usual objections to poetry. People might ask if tragedy is superior to epic, and Aristotle maintains that tragedy is absolutely superior. An epic poem lacks spectacle and lyric poetry, which are a “source of intense pleasure,” and a tragedy is shorter. Aristotle argues that “what is more concentrated is more pleasant than what is watered down by being extended in time.” For instance, if Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex were as long as Homer’s Iliad, it would be much less impactful. Lastly, since an epic is so much longer than a tragedy, unity in an epic can be difficult to achieve. Because of this, Aristotle considers tragedy superior; however, he argues that it is fear and pity, and the subsequent catharsis, that really make tragedy superior to epic poetry.