Aristotle, The Poetics
In this analysis of the principles that underlie poetry, Aristotle begins by laying out a series of questions about poetic composition (poiêsis). Epics (tragic or comic), dithyrambs (wild choral hymns, often dedicated to Dionysus), and the music of the flute and lyre all involve imitation (mimêsis), an effect produced through combinations of rhythm, speech, and melody. He also points out that the term “poet” can be applied too broadly to include anyone who writes in verse. In fact, a poet should be defined by his use of imitation or mimesis, and thus Empodocles, a philosopher who treated medical or scientific topics in verse, is more the science-writer than poet, as opposed to Homer, a poet focused on the act of imitation.
As imitators, artists can choose to represent either worthwhile or worthless people, that is to say, noble, heroic, or aristocratic subjects versus ordinary, everyday subjects. In art, the painter Polygnotus chose the former, superior men as his subjects, while Paulson chose to represent inferior, low men. Because art is based on imitation, it follows that all of the imitations will be different because the objects they imitate are also different. Likewise, Homer represented superior men, while the parodist Hegemon of Thasos and Nicochares, author of the Deiliad, chose inferior subjects. Finally, the essential difference between tragedy and comedy can be understood as a difference in these subjects, with tragedy choosing these noble subjects and comedy low subjects.
These art forms can also be distinguished by the way they choose to imitate their subjects. A poet might choose to mix narration and drama, or, as with Homer, use straight narrative, or use straight drama.
Chapters 1-2, Analysis
The key concept in this section is Aristotle’s analysis of the concept of imitation. Imitation is the basis for a definition of the poetic act. Epic, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambs, flute and lyre music—all of these are processes of imitation, artistic forms that seek to imitate life itself. Poetry, then, represents something that is real, something that exists in the world. Aristotle rejected the Platonic Ideas, Plato’s belief that the poet was cut off from reality, and saw the poet’s act of imitation as directly connected to life itself, instead of an attempt to reach a larger ideal. That said, Aristotle then moves to differentiate these forms of imitation, making important distinctions between them. The main way he distinguishes these forms is through their varying combinations of rhythm, speech, and melody. Aristotle also takes issue with the use of the word “poet,” which has, in his view, been used too loosely to group those who write in verse, rather than grouping them based on their imitation. A science writer, like Empedocles, who uses verse, is clearly a different animal than Homer, an epic poet. Aristotle also raises the issue of artistic subjects, associating high subjects with tragedy and low subjects with comedy.
It is important to remember that Aristotle is attempting to analyze poetry, and later, tragedy, in a scientific way. Many people today dispute that such an analysis can be made. It is also as well to note that if Aristotle’s definitions seem too narrow, he could not have known the multiple ways in which poetry and drama would develop over two thousand years of literary tradition in the West. He bases his analysis on what he knew of the poetry and drama of his time. Unfortunately for us, many of the works he refers to have perished. For example, he mentions Hegemon of Thasos as the inventor of the parody, but almost nothing is known of Hegemon, and none of his works survive.