Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 3-4

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Chapter 3

Poetic imitation can be broken down into media, objects, and modes of imitation. Because they share objects of imitation, and both imitate high subjects, Sophocles and Homer are the same kind of poets. In their concern with representing action, they are associated with Aristophanes. One explanation for why plays are called dramas comes from this basis in the imitation of action (drôntas, from drân, ‘do, act’). The Dorians have laid claim to the names “comedy” and “drama,” suggesting the name “comedy” comes from kômai, and that the comedians were called kômôdoi because of their movement from one village to the next, and that “acting” comes from drân, as opposed to the Athenian term pratein.

 

Chapter 4

Moving to the origins of poetry, two important factors are closely tied to human nature. In humans, imitation is natural to childhood, and children learn most of their first life lessons through the imitation of others. People are also naturally given to taking pleasure in imitation. This natural pleasure in imitation is demonstrated by the fact that some experiences or things painful or unpleasant in themselves can be taken as pleasurable as images or imitations, especially of corpses. Like philosophers, people are naturally inclined to enjoy learning, even if their pleasure is more limited, and people take pleasure in looking at these representations because they are engaged in a process of learning. Faced with an unfamiliar image, the viewer attempts to derive pleasure by appreciating another aspect of it, like its workmanship or its color. Because imitation is natural, those people most gifted at imitation naturally become poets by incrementally developing the gift of imitation and improvisation. Poetry split into two types based on human character, where the soberer focused their imitations on noble people and actions, while the less serious imitated the low, or the worthless, through parody and jokes and invectives. Iambic verse (with the second syllable stressed) originated from these because these iambic verses were used to mock or lampoon and the iambic form seemed most fitting. Though there may have been others before him, Homer stands as the first example of an author of iambic poetry.

 

Homer was a true poet because he was able to construct dramatic imitations as well as being the first to construct a comedy through dramatic presentation of the ludicrous. The Iliad stands, then, as the forerunner of tragedies, while the Margites stands as the forerunner of comedies. After becoming established as genres, poets could now choose to produce either comedies (instead of iambic poetry) and tragedies (instead of epics) because of the higher cultural value accorded to those forms. Turning to the question of whether tragedy is adequate leads to the observation that both tragedy and comedy come from improvisational beginnings, tragedy stemming from the dithyramb and comedy from phallic performances. The form thus evolved and grew naturally, as when Aeschylus expanded the troupe of assisting actors, shortened the choral parts, and changed the verse form from trochaic tetrameter to iambic trimeter, The former, tetrameter, had lent itself to dancing and was described as “satyr-like,” whereas iambic verse is inherently the verse form that is most like speech. Everyday speech naturally contains more iambics than other types of verse forms.

 

Chapters 3-4, Analysis

In these sections, Aristotle moves from an explanation of how poetry works to an investigation of the origins of poetry itself. For Aristotle, poetry arises out of natural human tendencies, the tendency to want to imitate nature and the natural pleasure taken from this imitation. Aristotle continues to develop this account of how poetry flows and develops from human nature, using this natural pleasure in representation to explain why even artistic work with disturbing and painful content, such as corpses, can be worthy of art. It should be noted that Aristotle’s definition of poetry as imitation would exclude much romantic poetry, by poets such as Wordsworth and Keats, the origins of which are subjective, arising from the feelings of the poet. Much modern poetry would also be excluded by Aristotle’s definition.

 

Further, Aristotle distinguishes between the two types of poetry, comedy and tragedy, citing Homer’s Iliad as the forerunner of tragedy and the Margites as the forerunner of comedies. The Margites was a mock-epic of which only fragments survive. Aristotle attributed it to Homer but modern scholars say it was more likely to have been composed by Pigres, a Greek poet.

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