Aristotle's Poetics: Top Ten Quotes
“As to the origin of the poetic art as a whole, it stands to reason that two | operative causes brought it into being, both of them rooted in human nature. Namely (1) the habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood…and so is (2) the pleasure that all men take in works of imitation.”
Poetry is a core part of human nature, and the impulse to write poetry comes from an innate curiosity, a tendency to imitate the things around us. Like this desire to imitate the things around us, the pleasure taken in poetry—in works of imitation—is a natural response in all men.
“For iambic is the most speech-like of verses. An indication of this is that we speak more iambics than any other kind of verse in our conversation with each other, whereas we utter hexameters rarely, and when we do we abandon the characteristic tone-pattern of ordinary speech.”
The rhythm of human speech falls naturally into an iambic pattern, that is, a two-syllable unit with an unstressed first syllable and a stressed second syllable. Ordinary speech is usually iambic, and iambs are much more natural than, say, hexameters (patterns of six metrical feet).
“Tragedy is an imitation not of men but of a life, an action…”
Aristotle points to the importance of plot in structuring tragedy. The role of characters, of “men,” is secondary to plot or a life consisting of “action.”
“Since tragedy is an imitation of persons who are better than average, one should imitate the good portrait | painters, for in fact, while rendering likenesses of their sitters by reproducing their individual appearance, they also make them better-looking; so the poet, in imitating men who are irascible or easygoing or have other traits of that kind, should make them, while still plausibly drawn, morally good, as Homer portrayed Achilles as good yet like other men.”
Tragedy is a serious form that treats high subjects. Aristotle believed tragic poets should follow the lead of portrait painters who emphasized the best aspects of an individual by downplaying their negative traits, and highlighting the subject’s goodness and morality.
“The specific excellence of verbal expression in poetry is to be clear without being low.”
Poetic language should be clear, but distinctive enough that it isn’t confused with the “low.” By mixing ordinary words with complex language, including foreign words, metaphors, and ornamental words, the poet can achieve the greatest poetic style.
“So, then, the artistically made plot must necessarily be single rather than double, as some maintain, and involve a change not from bad fortune to good fortune but the other way round, from good fortune to bad, and not thanks to wickedness but because of some mistake of great weight and consequence, by a man such as we have described or else on the good rather than the bad side.”
The most successful tragic plot, Aristotle argues, the one that will evoke the most pity, fear, and complexity, is one where the hero experiences a fall, a fall from good fortune to bad fortune because of a chance event or an accident not related to his own will.
“We have established, then, that tragedy is an imitation of an action which is complete and whole and has some magnitude (for there is also such a thing as a whole that has no magnitude)…So, then, well-constructed plots should neither begin nor end at any chance point but follow the guidelines just laid down.”
Tragedy must have a plot and must imitate an action that is whole. That is to say, it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and must adhere to this order and wholeness to be a coherent, well-constructed work.
“Now it is evident that one must use the same practices in tragic actions as in everyday life, when it is a question of making things appear pitiable or fearful, or important or probable. There is just this much difference, that the emotional effects ought to carry across to the spectator without explicit argument, while the proofs have to be deliberately produced in speech, by the speaker, and come as a result of the speech. For what would be the use of a speaker if things appeared in the wished-for light without the speech?”
Discussing the use of “speech,” Aristotle points to its ability to be put to use in argument and rhetoric and also to communicate feelings and emotions. An actor must be able to convey emotions intuitively through his skill with the effects of speech and to be able to manipulate the spectator’s thoughts through intellectual argument.
“Homer has many other claims to our praise, but above all because he alone among poets is not oblivious of what he should compose. Namely, the poet himself should do as little of the talking as possible; for in those parts he is not being an imitator.”
Aristotle praises Homer as being a poet who focuses on the true imitation of life, rather than a poet focused on himself as a poet. Homer has the command and self-restraint necessary to take a back-seat to the content and to the subjects he represents in epic.
“Poetry and politics, or poetry and any other art, do not have the same standards of correctness.”
Poetry, for Aristotle, was separate from the standards existing for morality and politics, a position that differs from Plato, who held that poetry and politics were to be judged by the same standards. Poetry existed to be judged on its own terms, as outlined in the Poetics.