Poetics

by

Aristotle

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Aristotle argues that all art—be it a painting, a dance, or a poem—is an imitation. Art imitates some object (like an apple in a still life or a war in a poem), and that object is either admirable or inferior, meaning it is either morally good or morally bad. Imitation is often referred to by the Greek mimesis, and Aristotle argues that imitation comes naturally to human beings, which means that poetry and other forms of artistic expression are natural to human beings as well. According to Aristotle, all imitations differ in one or more of three ways: their medium, object, and/or mode of imitation.

Imitation Quotes in Poetics

The Poetics quotes below are all either spoken by Imitation or refer to Imitation. 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:

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:

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:

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

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:
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:
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Imitation Term Timeline in Poetics

The timeline below shows where the term Imitation appears in Poetics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2. Poetry as a Species of Imitation
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...poetry, 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... (full context)
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...Medium. The medium of color and shape is used by some people to create various imitations in the form of visual art, and some create imitations with voice. Others create art... (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 these objects are either admirable or inferior. Characters... (full context)
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The distinction between the imitation of admirable objects and inferior objects can be made through music and dance or through... (full context)
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2.3 Mode. The last difference among imitations is the mode in which artists imitate an object. An object can be imitated through... (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... (full context)
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Aristotle argues that the pleasure humans take in viewing a distressing imitation comes from their understanding of that imitation. The idea is that people view an imitation,... (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 inferior in every way. “Laughable errors”... (full context)
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3.5 Epic. Like tragedy, epic poetry is the imitation of admirable people. The difference between tragedy and epic is that epic uses only verse... (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 is written in “language... (full context)
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4.2 Component Parts. Since imitation is performed by actors in a tragedy, spectacle is a component part of tragedy. Additional... (full context)
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...poetry, and reasoning; however, plot is the most important component part. Tragedy is not an imitation of people, Aristotle says, “but of actions and of life.” People are either admirable or... (full context)
Chapter 5. Plot: Basic Concepts
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5.1 Completeness. Tragedy “is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole, action, possessing a certain magnitude.” To be “whole,” a tragedy... (full context)
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5.2 Magnitude. An imitation of an object, be that object a human being or something else, must possess all... (full context)
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5.4 Determinate State. An imitation is considered to have unity if it imitates a single object. The same goes for... (full context)
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...of plots,” Aristotle clarifies, not a maker of verses, and the object of a poet’s imitation is action. If a poet does write about the sort of thing that has happened,... (full context)
Chapter 6. Plot: Species and Components
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6.1 Astonishment. It is not enough for a poet to imitate a complete action—they must also provoke emotions of fear and pity through catharsis. This is... (full context)
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...complex. A simple plot is a plot in which a single action of unity is imitated, but the change of fortune is achieved without reversal or recognition. A complex plot is... (full context)
Chapter 7. The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
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7.2 First Deduction. The best tragedy is complex, not simple, and it imitates events that provoke fear and pity in the audience. This process is called catharsis, and... (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... (full context)
Chapter 10. Epic
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 11. Problems and Solutions
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11.1 Principles. A poet is an imitator just as a painter is, and the poet must imitate an object in one of... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 12.  Comparative Evaluation of Epic and Tragedy
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...Case against Tragedy. If superior art is “less vulgar,” it is clear that art that “imitates indiscriminately is vulgar.” This, some critics say, is the problem with tragedy. Epic is often... (full context)