Aristotle's Poetics: Essay Q&A
1. Mimesis or imitation is, in a sense, the core of the Poetics. For Aristotle, mimesis is what separates the poet from the mere writer of verse. How does imitation relate to the world and how can the poet put imitation into practice? In what way does imitation define an artist?
Imitation is basic to human nature. In the visual arts, people achieve imitation through the manipulation of shapes and colors—the basic materials a painter uses to create an image on canvas—and in music imitation is achieved by the manipulation of the voice to create song, but in poetry imitation is produced through the manipulation of rhythm, speech, and melody. According to Aristotle, the objective of the poet (unlike many moderns) is not to represent himself or present his own voice, but rather to focus on the imitation of the world itself. A poet’s choice of which objects to imitate or which subjects to take into his world are important and will shape the overall texture of the resulting art. In this way, an artist can choose to imitate high subjects or low subjects, and can imitate through narrative and drama. This distinction alone has important consequences for the type of art, whether the poet is attempting to join a tradition of high culture or a more broadly accessible tradition of low (popular) culture. The improvisatory nature of poetry is also related to the choice of imitation and the character of the poet himself—the especially gifted imitators will improvise imitations of the world around them. As Aristotle will argue, the sensitivity of a poet to the world will develop with sober types imitating high moral subjects, and more light-hearted types taking to the low, and taking up comic forms such as lampoons and parodies.
2. Why does the Poetics value Homer so highly as a poet, and how do The Odyssey and The Iliad function as models for various techniques Aristotle discusses in the Poetics?
Throughout the Poetics, Homer serves as a model. Nothing is known today of Homer other than the fact that the two works associated with his name were probably composed in the ninth or eighth centuries BC. Aristotle would have known of other works sometimes attributed to Homer, such as the Little Iliad and the Cypria, both about the Trojan War. Some modern scholars dispute whether there ever was a single author of these poems called Homer. But Aristotle would not have doubted that Homer was a single individual who wrote the epics attributed to him. For Aristotle, Homer was a masterful composer of verse, and constructed admirable dramatic imitations. Aristotle also noted (chapter 24) that Homer had the ability not to insert his own persona into his work, and this was an admirable quality because it aided imitation.
A large part of Aristotle’s admiration of Homer centers around the way he used plot, also key for Aristotle’s definition of poetics. The Odyssey is an example of a unified plot in the poet’s restraint from incorporating every event that happened to Odysseus, and instead focusing on a natural flow of pertinent episodes. In the same way, the Iliad is unified. Homer’s command of complexity within simplicity is certainly one aspect of his art that Aristotle finds worthy of comment. Another instance of Homer’s talent is in his command of language—Homer is not only good at this, but he was the first to do so. Moreover, Homer is able to blend the subtleties of plot—peripeties, recognitions, morality, etc.—with this artistic command. In this way, the Iliad is simple and fatal, and the Odyssey complex and moral.
3. What role does language play in the development of epic and tragedy? In what ways does tragic language differ from epic language?
Throughout the Poetics, Aristotle discusses language. Perhaps the most relevant here is his discussion of low and high language. For Aristotle, language that is clear, but elevated above the usual is the most valuable type of language. Ordinary speech must be enhanced with the use of foreign words or words that are rarer and serve an “ornamental function.” But balance is just as important. A composition weighted too heavily to either the ornamental or the ordinary achieves none of the benefits of a careful balance of the two. Language, for Aristotle, must also be appropriate to the content being represented. An important consideration of the type of language appropriate to a work comes in his discussion of the meter of the epic. The epic, Aristotle argues, is best suited to one particular form of meter, the heroic meter, which lends the appropriate seriousness to the work. Heroic meter, the meter used in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (as well as Virgil’s Aeneid) is dactylic hexameter. This is a line of six metrical feet, each foot consisting of a strongly stressed syllable followed by two lightly stressed syllables, although often the dactyl is replaced by a spondee (two successive strongly stressed syllables).
Aristotle’s discussion of language might also be related to his discussion of thought, in which he emphasizes the role of speech in evoking pathos (passion and feeling). Again and again, Aristotle values the language of a tragedy more highly than the particular ways it is performed, as in his evaluation of the relative merits of epic and tragedy, where he suggests successful tragedy is able to stand the test of time, regardless of how it is performed, or how much an actor might distort or exaggerate its meanings.
4. Aristotle sees plot as central to the poetic art. In what way does plot contribute to the development of poetic form?
First, plot can be divided into complex and simple plots. Over and over again, Aristotle stresses the importance of having a unified plot. Without unity, a plot does not cohere. It must have a beginning, a middle, and end, and be set within a realistic or appropriate length of time, and focus on a manageable number of characters. Contrary to how he has sometimes been interpreted, Aristotle does not insist on the observation of what are called the “three unities” of action, time, and place. Aristotle insisted only on the first, that all action should contribute to the plot. The idea that the drama should take place in one setting and over a period of no more than twenty-four hours were added in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy and France and have no basis in Aristotle’s Poetics.
A plot does not need to be complex, and, in fact, may even be very simple. The plot of The Odyssey, for example, is very basic, concerning a man, Odysseus, who is kept away from his home by a God, Poseidon, for a length of time until he is able to return, conquer his enemies, and reclaim his rightful identity. In his tips on composition, Aristotle emphasizes the need to construct an outline of plot because he views plot as the central and basic element of this type of art—without a coherent and natural plot, all other elements fall by the wayside. In tragedy, there is a “tying” of plot and a denouement. Plot is also connected to poetic vision and poetic imagination, as the accomplished and masterful poet will be able to conceive of a unified plot.
5. How does Aristotle’s view of character inform the Poetics? How does the presentation of character in tragedy relate to morality?
Character, while not as important as plot, is also a key aspect of Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy. Characters, according to Aristotle, should be good, and have a moral quality. The representation of characters should also be appropriate to the type they are representing, and accord with human nature. Finally, characters, Aristotle will argue, should be consistent to themselves. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of character is the moral weight Aristotle gives to it. Aristotle cites Menelaus in Euripides’ Orestes as a morally depraved character that accomplishes no purpose. Perhaps surprisingly, even the representation of a wicked, amoral character would seem to be a failure on the part of the poet, if this wickedness does not serve an immediate purpose or obvious need in the poetic art. There is a direct line between morality, the status of art, and the rendering of character. Aristotle believed it was important to emphasize the most positive aspects of its most central characters. In the same way some portrait painters idealized their subjects in their visual art, writers should play down a character’s undesirable qualities. Aristotle cites Homer’s Achilles as an example of a character Homer idealizes somewhat in order to elevate his art.