Poetics

by

Aristotle

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Epic poetry is one of the five forms of poetry Aristotle examines in Poetics. Like tragedy, Aristotle argues that epic poetry is an imitation of admirable people, but he maintains that epic isn’t as highly-regarded as tragedy. Unlike tragedies, epic poems use only verse and are narrative in form, and epics also lack spectacle and lyric. Epics are longer than tragedies and are unlimited in respect to time; however, Aristotle argues, epics should still imitate a whole action and have unity. An epic poem is either simple, complex, or based on suffering—and while epics generally have great scope, the plot of an epic should not be so large that it can’t be understood in a single view. Unity can be difficult to achieve in an epic, Aristotle argues, which is one of the reasons why tragedy is superior to epic. In fact, Aristotle argues that tragedy surpasses epic in many ways, but mostly because tragedy leads to catharsis. Epic poetry can produce any emotion in the audience, whereas tragedy produces fear and pity specifically, which are required for catharsis. Aristotle mainly cites Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as examples of epic poetry.

Epic Poetry Quotes in Poetics

The Poetics quotes below are all either spoken by Epic Poetry or refer to Epic Poetry. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
). 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:
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:
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 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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Epic Poetry Term Timeline in Poetics

The timeline below shows where the term Epic Poetry appears in Poetics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2. Poetry as a Species of Imitation
Imitation  Theme Icon
Epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry, and music by pipe or lyre are all forms of... (full context)
Chapter 3. The Anthropology and History of Poetry
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
Imitation  Theme Icon
...imitated admirable people. He developed the form of iambic verse and is known for his epic poetry. (full context)
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
Imitation  Theme Icon
...poets became known as either 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... (full context)
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Imitation  Theme Icon
Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
3.5 Epic. Like tragedy, epic poetry is the imitation of admirable people. The difference between tragedy and... (full context)
Chapter 8. Other Aspects of Tragedy
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Episodes must be appropriate and concise in tragedy, but in epic poetry, they are often used to make a story longer. Take Homer’s Odyssey. The story... (full context)
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Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
8.7 Tragedy and Epic. A tragedy should not be constructed from material that would be better be as an... (full context)
Chapter 10. Epic
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Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
10.1 Plot. Like a tragedy, an epic should be constructed “dramatically.” This means that an epic should imitate a whole action of... (full context)
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
Imitation  Theme Icon
Fear, Pity, and Catharsis Theme Icon
10.2 Kinds and Parts of Epic. Also like tragedy, an epic is either simple, complex, or based on suffering. The components... (full context)
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Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
10.3 Differences between Tragedy and Epic. Epic is different from tragedy in that the plot of an epic is longer; however,... (full context)
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Imitation  Theme Icon
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... (full context)
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Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
10.6 Diction. In parts of an epic where nothing much is happening and neither character nor reasoning are being expressed, it’s especially... (full context)
Chapter 12.  Comparative Evaluation of Epic and Tragedy
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Imitation  Theme Icon
...art that “imitates indiscriminately is vulgar.” This, some critics say, is the problem with tragedy. Epic is often thought to be meant for “decent audiences who do not need gestures,” while... (full context)
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Fear, Pity, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Component Parts and Balance  Theme Icon
...watching, which means that gestures are not necessary to achieve catharsis. “Tragedy has everything that epic does,” Aristotle says—plus, tragedy has lyric poetry and spectacle, which are a “source of intense... (full context)
Tragedy vs. Epic Poetry  Theme Icon
Fear, Pity, and Catharsis Theme Icon
Tragedy, Aristotle argues, “surpasses epic in all these respects, and also in artistic effect,” as a tragedy is expected to... (full context)