Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 24-25
Epic poetry should also include the same types as tragedy: the simple, the complex, the poem of character, and the poem of passion. Likewise, it should have the same basic elements as tragedy, save for music and spectacle. An epic poem requires reversals and recognitions and sufferings, and should have thought and language. Again, Homer was the first to put these to use and to use them in their full capacity—the Iliad and the Odyssey complement each other in this way, the Iliad being simple in plot and a poem of passion, and the Odyssey being a complex poem of character. Yet both poems surpass all others in their mastery of language and thought.
At the same time, epic poetry is different from tragedy in terms of length and meter. But epic has an advantage over tragedy in that in epic the form of narrative facilitates the description of many parts being completed within the same time. This advantage of epic allows for grandeur and diversion through the presentation of diverse types of episodes: uniformity becomes less desirable and is a cause for failure in tragedies.
Heroic meter (hexameter) is most fitting for epic, and it would seem strange to compose in a different form of meter because by contrast the heroic meter is both more deliberate and more weighty. Iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter are verses of movement, the latter appropriate to dance and the former to dramatic action. The combination of these meters would be more out of place in epic. No one has thus composed an epic in any other meter, and nature teaches the poet to choose the appropriate meter.
Only Homer has understood the appropriate role for the poet in a poem—that the poet should speak as little as possible in his own voice because this undermines imitation. Other poems sacrifice imitation to their own voices, while Homer, after a few initial remarks, focuses almost entirely on imitation, each personage having a unique character separate from the poet’s.
If the marvelous is an important element for tragedy, the irrational, the source of the marvelous, is more amenable to epic poetry, which lacks a visual element of performance. The pursuit of Hector in the Iliad would be difficult and even absurd to stage, but this absurdity is not noticed in the poem.
Aristotle now turns to some general questions about epic and tragedy. The problem of criticisms falls into several categories.
Because the poet imitates—like a painter—he must imitate things as they once were or now are, things as people say or assume they were or are, or things as they should be. The language will incorporate foreign words, metaphors, and distortions of diction—a liberty available to poets. Correctness in politics is different from correctness in poetry, and correctness is poetry is different from correctness in any other art. There are two types of error in poetry, errors which involve the art itself and errors that are incidental, the art itself being involved if one has chosen to represent an object but fails through lack of ability, but it is inconsequential if the one chooses an inappropriate subject to represent or if the fault involves some other art altogether, like medicine.
Thus, several criticisms can be surveyed. First are those that involve the art itself. Representing a thing that is impossible is in fact an error, but can be justified if it serves the larger artistic purpose—if it heightens the emotion of the rest of the poem, as with the Pursuit of Hector. The representation of an impossibility is not justified if the same end could have been achieved without recourse to this device. On the other hand, if the error lies not with the artist, and turns on a technicality or accident, the blame is less, as with, for example, a painter who did not know a female deer lacks horns versus one who painted the deer unrealistically. Moreover, it is also possible that the representation, instead of being not true to fact, might have been represented as the thing ought to be, as when Sophocles portrayed people in the manner he thought they ought to be portrayed. If representation is neither accurate nor idealized, it may simply be adhering to what men say, according a common story or understanding. Otherwise, a representation may be a historically accurate description, a description of how things once were, and thus accurate to the time in question. In judging whether what has been said or done is artistic, one must look not only to whether it is good or bad, but to the person responsible for it, and to whom, when, and how he did it, and whether those motives were themselves good.
Some problems find solutions in the use of language. As for glosses, in the Iliad, the poet who says ourêas the poet may refer not to mules but to human guards, or by saying that Dolon “was indeed ill-favored in looks (shape)” he could be referring to disfigurations of the face as well as the body. Again, some phrases are metaphorical, like the Iliad’s “all gods and men were sleeping all night long” next to “aye verily as often as he turned his gaze towards the Trojan plain, (he marveled at) the din of flutes and pipes.” In this case, “all” is a metaphor for “many.” A problem may also be related to accent, and in this way Hippias solved several problems in the Iliad. Some problems may also be solved by attention to punctuation, as with Empodocles. And some solutions may lie in ambiguity. Some problems may be related to customs associated with language use, as when wine mixed with water is still referred to as wine.
When a word involves what seems to be a contradiction, one must consider all of its possible meanings, a procedure precisely opposite to the one Glaucon described when certain critics begin with an unlikely assumption about a point and then condemn the meaning they have assumed and the poet for having stated this mere assumption.
Finally, we should attempt to resolve impossibilities by turning to poetic effects, enhancement, or to common opinion. As for poetic effect, a convincing impossibility is preferable to something possible, but unconvincing. As with Zeuxis’s portraits, the mode of representation may be based on the artist’s desire to idealize his subjects. And irrationalities may be explained often as being based on common opinions about the subject. Contradictions are to be judged in the same way. The condemnation of illogicality or bad character is justified when the poet makes use of this when he has no need to. In summary, the critics’ objections fall into five categories: impossibilities, illogicalities, morally harmful things, contradictions, and technical errors.
Chapters 24-25, Analysis
This section focuses on Aristotle’s attempts to differentiate the epic form from the tragic form. Throughout this section, Aristotle cites Homer as a model for epic poetry, holding him high above other poets. In comparing epic and tragedy, Aristotle focuses on two main aspects: length and meter. The epic is by definition a much longer form, allowing for a grand narrative sweep composed of many episodes, and in which unity is not necessarily as desirable as in tragedy. Further, meter is crucial, and it is the heroic meter (hexameter) that provides the appropriate seriousness for the epic form. It is also worth noting that Aristotle will articulate his view that the poet should refrain from inserting his persona into the poem, and that the reserve exemplified by Homer’s works that allows for the focus on imitation is the ideal mode. Interestingly, critics over the centuries have seen this ability in Shakespeare also. Shakespeare’s views and opinions are not discernible in his plays; he does not insert himself or his own voice but allows his characters to reveal themselves as they are.
Later, Aristotle moves to an examination of various criticisms of the epic, and lists ways to approach them. He lays out several reasons that a scene might seem impossible or unlikely. An impossible scene might work to heighten the poetic effect or intensity of emotion, might be an idealized form according to the preferences of the poet, or might in fact align with common beliefs about the subject or align with a moment in history the poet is attempting to represent. Language, too, can be a problem but offers numerous outs. Aristotle is generous here, urging critics to consider all the possible implications of a line in question before condemning it or criticizing it. Gloss, metaphor, accent, and ambiguity all present nuances that a single-minded critic might miss in issuing condemnations of the poet.