Translation below is mainly by Samuel Butcher (mini wiki bio here). The pdf to the 1902 version as digitised by Google can be found here - Poetics. Many books digitised by Google can be found at the Internet Archive.
I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds,
noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure
of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature
of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever
else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of
nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.
Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the
music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all
in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however,
from one another in three respects- the medium, the objects, the manner
or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.
For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, imitate
and represent various objects through the medium of color and form,
or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken as a
whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or 'harmony,'
either singly or combined.
Thus in the music of the flute and of the lyre, 'harmony' and rhythm
alone are employed; also in other arts, such as that of the shepherd's
pipe, which are essentially similar to these. In dancing, rhythm alone
is used without 'harmony'; for even dancing imitates character, emotion,
and action, by rhythmical movement.
There is another art which imitates by means of language alone, and
that either in prose or verse- which verse, again, may either combine
different meters or consist of but one kind- but this has hitherto
been without a name. For there is no common term we could apply to
the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues on the
one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic, elegiac,
or any similar meter. People do, indeed, add the word 'maker' or 'poet'
to the name of the meter, and speak of elegiac poets, or epic (that
is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation that makes the
poet, but the verse that entitles them all to the name. Even when
a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out in verse,
the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet Homer and
Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that it would
be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather than poet.
On the same principle, even if a writer in his poetic imitation were
to combine all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur, which is a
medley composed of meters of all kinds, we should bring him too under
the general term poet.
So much then for these distinctions.
There are, again, some arts which employ all the means above mentioned-
namely, rhythm, tune, and meter. Such are Dithyrambic and Nomic poetry,
and also Tragedy and Comedy; but between them originally the difference
is, that in the first two cases these means are all employed in combination,
in the latter, now one means is employed, now another.
Such, then, are the differences of the arts with respect to the medium
Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must
be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly
answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing
marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men
either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. It
is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they
are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life.
Now it is evident that each of the modes of imitation above mentioned
will exhibit these differences, and become a distinct kind in imitating
objects that are thus distinct. Such diversities may be found even
in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in language,
whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music. Homer, for example,
makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon the
Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the
Deiliad, worse than they are. The same thing holds good of Dithyrambs
and Nomes; here too one may portray different types, as Timotheus
and Philoxenus differed in representing their Cyclopes. The same distinction
marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men
as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.
There is still a third difference- the manner in which each of these
objects may be imitated. For the medium being the same, and the objects
the same, the poet may imitate by narration- in which case he can
either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own
person, unchanged- or he may present all his characters as living
and moving before us.
These, then, as we said at the beginning, are the three differences
which distinguish artistic imitation- the medium, the objects, and
the manner. So that from one point of view, Sophocles is an imitator
of the same kind as Homer- for both imitate higher types of character;
from another point of view, of the same kind as Aristophanes- for
both imitate persons acting and doing. Hence, some say, the name of
'drama' is given to such poems, as representing action. For the same
reason the Dorians claim the invention both of Tragedy and Comedy.
The claim to Comedy is put forward by the Megarians- not only by those
of Greece proper, who allege that it originated under their democracy,
but also by the Megarians of Sicily, for the poet Epicharmus, who
is much earlier than Chionides and Magnes, belonged to that country.
Tragedy too is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. In each
case they appeal to the evidence of language. The outlying villages,
they say, are by them called komai, by the Athenians demoi: and they
assume that comedians were so named not from komazein, 'to revel,'
but because they wandered from village to village (kata komas), being
excluded contemptuously from the city. They add also that the Dorian
word for 'doing' is dran, and the Athenian, prattein.
This may suffice as to the number and nature of the various modes
Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them
lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted
in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals
being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through
imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the
pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the
facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain,
we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such
as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause
of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not
only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however,
of learning is more limited. Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing
a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning
or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.' For if you happen
not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the
imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such
Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the
instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections
of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed
by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations
gave birth to Poetry.
Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual
character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions,
and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions
of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns
to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the satirical
kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though
many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances
can be cited- his own Margites, for example, and other similar compositions.
The appropriate meter was also here introduced; hence the measure
is still called the iambic or lampooning measure, being that in which
people lampooned one another. Thus the older poets were distinguished
as writers of heroic or of lampooning verse.
As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he
alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too
first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous
instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same relation
to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy. But when Tragedy
and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets still followed
their natural bent: the lampooners became writers of Comedy, and the
Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama was a larger
and higher form of art.
Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and
whether it is to be judged in itself, or in relation also to the audience-
this raises another question. Be that as it may, Tragedy- as also
Comedy- was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the
authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs,
which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by
slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed.
Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and
there it stopped.
Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance
of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles
raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. Moreover,
it was not till late that the short plot was discarded for one of
greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the earlier satyric
form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic measure then replaced
the trochaic tetrameter, which was originally employed when the poetry
was of the satyric order, and had greater with dancing. Once dialogue
had come in, Nature herself discovered the appropriate measure. For
the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial we see it in the
fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently
than into any other kind of verse; rarely into hexameters, and only
when we drop the colloquial intonation. The additions to the number
of 'episodes' or acts, and the other accessories of which tradition
tells, must be taken as already described; for to discuss them in
detail would, doubtless, be a large undertaking.
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower
type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous
being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect
or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious
example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply
The successive changes through which Tragedy passed, and the authors
of these changes, are well known, whereas Comedy has had no history,
because it was not at first treated seriously. It was late before
the Archon granted a comic chorus to a poet; the performers were till
then voluntary. Comedy had already taken definite shape when comic
poets, distinctively so called, are heard of. Who furnished it with
masks, or prologues, or increased the number of actors- these and
other similar details remain unknown. As for the plot, it came originally
from Sicily; but of Athenian writers Crates was the first who abandoning
the 'iambic' or lampooning form, generalized his themes and plots.
Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in
verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry
admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ,
again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible,
to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly
to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.
This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same
freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.
Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar
to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy,
knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are
found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found
in the Epic poem.
Of the poetry which imitates in hexameter verse, and of Comedy, we
will speak hereafter. Let us now discuss Tragedy, resuming its formal
definition, as resulting from what has been already said.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete,
and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind
of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts
of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity
and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. By 'language
embellished,' I mean language into which rhythm, 'harmony' and song
enter. By 'the several kinds in separate parts,' I mean, that some
parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again
with the aid of song.
Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily follows
in the first place, that Spectacular equipment will be a part of Tragedy.
Next, Song and Diction, for these are the media of imitation. By 'Diction'
I mean the mere metrical arrangement of the words: as for 'Song,'
it is a term whose sense every one understands.
Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies
personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities
both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify
actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two
natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all
success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the
action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents.
By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities
to the agents. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved,
or, it may be, a general truth enunciated. Every Tragedy, therefore,
must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot,
Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts constitute
the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the objects of
imitation. And these complete the fist. These elements have been employed,
we may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular
elements as well as Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought.
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy
is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life
consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.
Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions
that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is
not with a view to the representation of character: character comes
in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot
are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again,
without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.
The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of
character; and of poets in general this is often true. It is the same
in painting; and here lies the difference between Zeuxis and Polygnotus.
Polygnotus delineates character well; the style of Zeuxis is devoid
of ethical quality. Again, if you string together a set of speeches
expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and
thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so
well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet
has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which,
the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia
or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of
the plot. A further proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish
of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct
the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul
of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is
seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will
not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus
Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with
a view to the action.
Third in order is Thought- that is, the faculty of saying what is
possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory,
this is the function of the political art and of the art of rhetoric:
and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak the language
of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the rhetoricians.
Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of
things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not
make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid
anything whatever, are not expressive of character. Thought, on the
other hand, is found where something is proved to be or not to be,
or a general maxim is enunciated.
Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean,
as has been already said, the expression of the meaning in words;
and its essence is the same both in verse and prose.
Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among the embellishments
The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but,
of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with
the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt
even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production
of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist
than on that of the poet.
These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper
structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important
thing in Tragedy.
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action
that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there
may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which
has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does
not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something
naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which
itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or
as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows
something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot,
therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to
Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any
whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement
of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends
on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot
be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen
in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of
vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once,
the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for
instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in
the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary,
and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the
plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily
embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic
competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory.
For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together,
the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock- as indeed
we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature
of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful
will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be
perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the
proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence
of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will
admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to
Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity
of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man's
life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many
actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the
error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid,
a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles
was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer,
as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art
or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. In composing
the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such
as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering
of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable
connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center
round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore,
in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object
imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must
imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts
being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole
will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence
makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the
function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen-
what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.
The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose.
The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still
be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true
difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may
happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing
than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the
particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type
on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity;
and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she
attaches to the personages. The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades
did or suffered. In Comedy this is already apparent: for here the
poet first constructs the plot on the lines of probability, and then
inserts characteristic names- unlike the lampooners who write about
particular individuals. But tragedians still keep to real names, the
reason being that what is possible is credible: what has not happened
we do not at once feel sure to be possible; but what has happened
is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened. Still
there are even some tragedies in which there are only one or two well-known
names, the rest being fictitious. In others, none are well known-
as in Agathon's Antheus, where incidents and names alike are fictitious,
and yet they give none the less pleasure. We must not, therefore,
at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual subjects
of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects
that are known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all.
It clearly follows that the poet or 'maker' should be the maker of
plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates,
and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a
historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason
why some events that have actually happened should not conform to
the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality
in them he is their poet or maker.
Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot
'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without
probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their
own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they write show
pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its capacity,
and are often forced to break the natural continuity.
But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action,
but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced
when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened
when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic
wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or
by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have
an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which
fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and
killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots,
therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.
Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life,
of which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction.
An action which is one and continuous in the sense above defined,
I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place without Reversal
of the Situation and without Recognition
A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such
Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from
the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be
the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes
all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc
or post hoc.
Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round
to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.
Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free
him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is,
he produces the opposite effect. Again in the Lynceus, Lynceus is
being led away to his death, and Danaus goes with him, meaning to
slay him; but the outcome of the preceding incidents is that Danaus
is killed and Lynceus saved.
Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to
knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by
the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is
coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus. There
are indeed other forms. Even inanimate things of the most trivial
kind may in a sense be objects of recognition. Again, we may recognize
or discover whether a person has done a thing or not. But the recognition
which is most intimately connected with the plot and action is, as
we have said, the recognition of persons. This recognition, combined
with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing
these effects are those which, by our definition, Tragedy represents.
Moreover, it is upon such situations that the issues of good or bad
fortune will depend. Recognition, then, being between persons, it
may happen that one person only is recognized by the other- when the
latter is already known- or it may be necessary that the recognition
should be on both sides. Thus Iphigenia is revealed to Orestes by
the sending of the letter; but another act of recognition is required
to make Orestes known to Iphigenia.
Two parts, then, of the Plot- Reversal of the Situation and Recognition-
turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of Suffering. The Scene
of Suffering is a destructive or painful action, such as death on
the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like.
The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole
have been already mentioned. We now come to the quantitative parts-
the separate parts into which Tragedy is divided- namely, Prologue,
Episode, Exode, Choric song; this last being divided into Parode and
Stasimon. These are common to all plays: peculiar to some are the
songs of actors from the stage and the Commoi.
The Prologue is that entire part of a tragedy which precedes the Parode
of the Chorus. The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy which
is between complete choric songs. The Exode is that entire part of
a tragedy which has no choric song after it. Of the Choric part the
Parode is the first undivided utterance of the Chorus: the Stasimon
is a Choric ode without anapaests or trochaic tetrameters: the Commos
is a joint lamentation of Chorus and actors. The parts of Tragedy
which must be treated as elements of the whole have been already mentioned.
The quantitative parts- the separate parts into which it is divided-
are here enumerated.
As the sequel to what has already been said, we must proceed to consider
what the poet should aim at, and what he should avoid, in constructing
his plots; and by what means the specific effect of Tragedy will be
A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the
simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions
which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic
imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change
of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought
from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear;
it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity
to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy;
it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral
sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall
of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless,
satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear;
for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune
of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither
pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these
two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet
whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by
some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous-
a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such
A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue,
rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should
be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should
come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty,
in a character either such as we have described, or better rather
than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first
the poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best
tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes
of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those
others who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then,
to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this construction.
Hence they are in error who censure Euripides just because he follows
this principle in his plays, many of which end unhappily. It is, as
we have said, the right ending. The best proof is that on the stage
and in dramatic competition, such plays, if well worked out, are the
most tragic in effect; and Euripides, faulty though he may be in the
general management of his subject, yet is felt to be the most tragic
of the poets.
In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first.
Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite
catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best
because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided
in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however,
thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather
to Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies-
like Orestes and Aegisthus- quit the stage as friends at the close,
and no one slays or is slain.
Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also
result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better
way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed
that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told
will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This
is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the
Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less
artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ
spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of
the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must
not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that
which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should
afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it
is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.
Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as
terrible or pitiful.
Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are
either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy
kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act
or the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful.
So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs
between those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example,
a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father,
a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind
is done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He
may not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends- the
fact, for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle
by Alcmaeon- but he ought to show of his own, and skilfully handle
the traditional. material. Let us explain more clearly what is meant
by skilful handling.
The action may be done consciously and with knowledge of the persons,
in the manner of the older poets. It is thus too that Euripides makes
Medea slay her children. Or, again, the deed of horror may be done,
but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered
afterwards. The Oedipus of Sophocles is an example. Here, indeed,
the incident is outside the drama proper; but cases occur where it
falls within the action of the play: one may cite the Alcmaeon of
Astydamas, or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus. Again, there is a
third case- [to be about to act with knowledge of the persons and
then not to act. The fourth case] is when some one is about to do
an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the discovery before
it is done. These are the only possible ways. For the deed must either
be done or not done- and that wittingly or unwittingly. But of all
these ways, to be about to act knowing the persons, and then not to
act, is the worst. It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster
follows It is, therefore, never, or very rarely, found in poetry.
One instance, however, is in the Antigone, where Haemon threatens
to kill Creon. The next and better way is that the deed should be
perpetrated. Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance,
and the discovery made afterwards. There is then nothing to shock
us, while the discovery produces a startling effect. The last case
is the best, as when in the Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her
son, but, recognizing who he is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia,
the sister recognizes the brother just in time. Again in the Helle,
the son recognizes the mother when on the point of giving her up.
This, then, is why a few families only, as has been already observed,
furnish the subjects of tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance,
that led the poets in search of subjects to impress the tragic quality
upon their plots. They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse
to those houses whose history contains moving incidents like these.
Enough has now been said concerning the structure of the incidents,
and the right kind of plot.
In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First,
and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that
manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character:
the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative
to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though
the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite
worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type
of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is
inappropriate. Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is
a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The
fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation,
who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently
inconsistent. As an example of motiveless degradation of character,
we have Menelaus in the Orestes; of character indecorous and inappropriate,
the lament of Odysseus in the Scylla, and the speech of Melanippe;
of inconsistency, the Iphigenia at Aulis- for Iphigenia the suppliant
in no way resembles her later self.
As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character,
the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable.
Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given
way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this
event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is
therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the
complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought
about by the Deus ex Machina- as in the Medea, or in the return of
the Greeks in the Iliad. The Deus ex Machina should be employed only
for events external to the drama- for antecedent or subsequent events,
which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to
be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing
all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If
the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope
of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element the Oedipus of Sophocles.
Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the
common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed.
They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make
a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the
poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other
defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it.
In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and Homer.
These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he neglect
those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the essentials,
are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much room for
error. But of this enough has been said in our published treatises.
What Recognition is has been already explained. We will now enumerate
First, the least artistic form, which, from poverty of wit, is most
commonly employed- recognition by signs. Of these some are congenital-
such as 'the spear which the earth-born race bear on their bodies,'
or the stars introduced by Carcinus in his Thyestes. Others are acquired
after birth; and of these some are bodily marks, as scars; some external
tokens, as necklaces, or the little ark in the Tyro by which the discovery
is effected. Even these admit of more or less skilful treatment. Thus
in the recognition of Odysseus by his scar, the discovery is made
in one way by the nurse, in another by the swineherds. The use of
tokens for the express purpose of proof- and, indeed, any formal proof
with or without tokens- is a less artistic mode of recognition. A
better kind is that which comes about by a turn of incident, as in
the Bath Scene in the Odyssey.
Next come the recognitions invented at will by the poet, and on that
account wanting in art. For example, Orestes in the Iphigenia reveals
the fact that he is Orestes. She, indeed, makes herself known by the
letter; but he, by speaking himself, and saying what the poet, not
what the plot requires. This, therefore, is nearly allied to the fault
above mentioned- for Orestes might as well have brought tokens with
him. Another similar instance is the 'voice of the shuttle' in the
Tereus of Sophocles.
The third kind depends on memory when the sight of some object awakens
a feeling: as in the Cyprians of Dicaeogenes, where the hero breaks
into tears on seeing the picture; or again in the Lay of Alcinous,
where Odysseus, hearing the minstrel play the lyre, recalls the past
and weeps; and hence the recognition.
The fourth kind is by process of reasoning. Thus in the Choephori:
'Some one resembling me has come: no one resembles me but Orestes:
therefore Orestes has come.' Such too is the discovery made by Iphigenia
in the play of Polyidus the Sophist. It was a natural reflection for
Orestes to make, 'So I too must die at the altar like my sister.'
So, again, in the Tydeus of Theodectes, the father says, 'I came to
find my son, and I lose my own life.' So too in the Phineidae: the
women, on seeing the place, inferred their fate- 'Here we are doomed
to die, for here we were cast forth.' Again, there is a composite
kind of recognition involving false inference on the part of one of
the characters, as in the Odysseus Disguised as a Messenger. A said
[that no one else was able to bend the bow; ... hence B (the disguised
Odysseus) imagined that A would] recognize the bow which, in fact,
he had not seen; and to bring about a recognition by this means- the
expectation that A would recognize the bow- is false inference.
But, of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents
themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means.
Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles, and in the Iphigenia; for
it was natural that Iphigenia should wish to dispatch a letter. These
recognitions alone dispense with the artificial aid of tokens or amulets.
Next come the recognitions by process of reasoning.
In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction,
the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes.
In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he
were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping
with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. The need
of such a rule is shown by the fault found in Carcinus. Amphiaraus
was on his way from the temple. This fact escaped the observation
of one who did not see the situation. On the stage, however, the Piece
failed, the audience being offended at the oversight.
Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his power,
with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are most convincing
through natural sympathy with the characters they represent; and one
who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, with the most lifelike
reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain
of madness. In the one case a man can take the mould of any character;
in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self.
As for the story, whether the poet takes it ready made or constructs
it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then
fill in the episodes and amplify in detail. The general plan may be
illustrated by the Iphigenia. A young girl is sacrificed; she disappears
mysteriously from the eyes of those who sacrificed her; she is transported
to another country, where the custom is to offer up an strangers to
the goddess. To this ministry she is appointed. Some time later her
own brother chances to arrive. The fact that the oracle for some reason
ordered him to go there, is outside the general plan of the play.
The purpose, again, of his coming is outside the action proper. However,
he comes, he is seized, and, when on the point of being sacrificed,
reveals who he is. The mode of recognition may be either that of Euripides
or of Polyidus, in whose play he exclaims very naturally: 'So it was
not my sister only, but I too, who was doomed to be sacrificed'; and
by that remark he is saved.
After this, the names being once given, it remains to fill in the
episodes. We must see that they are relevant to the action. In the
case of Orestes, for example, there is the madness which led to his
capture, and his deliverance by means of the purificatory rite. In
the drama, the episodes are short, but it is these that give extension
to Epic poetry. Thus the story of the Odyssey can be stated briefly.
A certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously
watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a
wretched plight- suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against
his son. At length, tempest-tost, he himself arrives; he makes certain
persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his own hand,
and is himself preserved while he destroys them. This is the essence
of the plot; the rest is episode.
Every tragedy falls into two parts- Complication and Unraveling or
Denouement. Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently combined
with a portion of the action proper, to form the Complication; the
rest is the Unraveling. By the Complication I mean all that extends
from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point
to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that which extends from
the beginning of the change to the end. Thus, in the Lynceus of Theodectes,
the Complication consists of the incidents presupposed in the drama,
the seizure of the child, and then again ... [the Unraveling] extends
from the accusation of murder to
There are four kinds of Tragedy: the Complex, depending entirely on
Reversal of the Situation and Recognition; the Pathetic (where the
motive is passion)- such as the tragedies on Ajax and Ixion; the Ethical
(where the motives are ethical)- such as the Phthiotides and the Peleus.
The fourth kind is the Simple. [We here exclude the purely spectacular
element], exemplified by the Phorcides, the Prometheus, and scenes
laid in Hades. The poet should endeavor, if possible, to combine all
poetic elements; or failing that, the greatest number and those the
most important; the more so, in face of the caviling criticism of
the day. For whereas there have hitherto been good poets, each in
his own branch, the critics now expect one man to surpass all others
in their several lines of excellence.
In speaking of a tragedy as the same or different, the best test to
take is the plot. Identity exists where the Complication and Unraveling
are the same. Many poets tie the knot well, but unravel it Both arts,
however, should always be mastered.
Again, the poet should remember what has been often said, and not
make an Epic structure into a tragedy- by an Epic structure I mean
one with a multiplicity of plots- as if, for instance, you were to
make a tragedy out of the entire story of the Iliad. In the Epic poem,
owing to its length, each part assumes its proper magnitude. In the
drama the result is far from answering to the poet's expectation.
The proof is that the poets who have dramatized the whole story of
the Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions, like Euripides; or
who have taken the whole tale of Niobe, and not a part of her story,
like Aeschylus, either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the
stage. Even Agathon has been known to fail from this one defect. In
his Reversals of the Situation, however, he shows a marvelous skill
in the effort to hit the popular taste- to produce a tragic effect
that satisfies the moral sense. This effect is produced when the clever
rogue, like Sisyphus, is outwitted, or the brave villain defeated.
Such an event is probable in Agathon's sense of the word: 'is probable,'
he says, 'that many things should happen contrary to probability.'
The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should
be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, in the
manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles. As for the later poets,
their choral songs pertain as little to the subject of the piece as
to that of any other tragedy. They are, therefore, sung as mere interludes-
a practice first begun by Agathon. Yet what difference is there between
introducing such choral interludes, and transferring a speech, or
even a whole act, from one play to another.
It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy
having been already discussed. concerning Thought, we may assume what
is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly
belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced
by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation
of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion
of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic
incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic
speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance,
or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak
for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in
should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.
For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed
quite apart from what he says?
Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question,
an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things involves
no serious censure upon the poet's art. For who can admit the fault
imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, 'Sing, goddess,
of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he utters a prayer?
For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it is, he says, a
command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an inquiry that belongs
to another art, not to poetry.
Language in general includes the following parts: Letter, Syllable,
Connecting Word, Noun, Verb, Inflection or Case, Sentence or Phrase.
A Letter is an indivisible sound, yet not every such sound, but only
one which can form part of a group of sounds. For even brutes utter
indivisible sounds, none of which I call a letter. The sound I mean
may be either a vowel, a semivowel, or a mute. A vowel is that which
without impact of tongue or lip has an audible sound. A semivowel
that which with such impact has an audible sound, as S and R. A mute,
that which with such impact has by itself no sound, but joined to
a vowel sound becomes audible, as G and D. These are distinguished
according to the form assumed by the mouth and the place where they
are produced; according as they are aspirated or smooth, long or short;
as they are acute, grave, or of an intermediate tone; which inquiry
belongs in detail to the writers on meter.
A Syllable is a nonsignificant sound, composed of a mute and a vowel:
for GR without A is a syllable, as also with A- GRA. But the investigation
of these differences belongs also to metrical science.
A Connecting Word is a nonsignificant sound, which neither causes
nor hinders the union of many sounds into one significant sound; it
may be placed at either end or in the middle of a sentence. Or, a
nonsignificant sound, which out of several sounds, each of them significant,
is capable of forming one significant sound- as amphi, peri, and the
like. Or, a nonsignificant sound, which marks the beginning, end,
or division of a sentence; such, however, that it cannot correctly
stand by itself at the beginning of a sentence- as men, etoi, de.
A Noun is a composite significant sound, not marking time, of which
no part is in itself significant: for in double or compound words
we do not employ the separate parts as if each were in itself significant.
Thus in Theodorus, 'god-given,' the doron or 'gift' is not in itself
A Verb is a composite significant sound, marking time, in which, as
in the noun, no part is in itself significant. For 'man' or 'white'
does not express the idea of 'when'; but 'he walks' or 'he has walked'
does connote time, present or past.
Inflection belongs both to the noun and verb, and expresses either
the relation 'of,' 'to,' or the like; or that of number, whether one
or many, as 'man' or 'men'; or the modes or tones in actual delivery,
e.g., a question or a command. 'Did he go?' and 'go' are verbal inflections
of this kind.
A Sentence or Phrase is a composite significant sound, some at least
of whose parts are in themselves significant; for not every such group
of words consists of verbs and nouns- 'the definition of man,' for
example- but it may dispense even with the verb. Still it will always
have some significant part, as 'in walking,' or 'Cleon son of Cleon.'
A sentence or phrase may form a unity in two ways- either as signifying
one thing, or as consisting of several parts linked together. Thus
the Iliad is one by the linking together of parts, the definition
of man by the unity of the thing signified.
Words are of two kinds, simple and double. By simple I mean those
composed of nonsignificant elements, such as ge, 'earth.' By double
or compound, those composed either of a significant and nonsignificant
element (though within the whole word no element is significant),
or of elements that are both significant. A word may likewise be triple,
quadruple, or multiple in form, like so many Massilian expressions,
e.g., 'Hermo-caico-xanthus [who prayed to Father Zeus].'
Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental,
or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered.
By a current or proper word I mean one which is in general use among
a people; by a strange word, one which is in use in another country.
Plainly, therefore, the same word may be at once strange and current,
but not in relation to the same people. The word sigynon, 'lance,'
is to the Cyprians a current term but to us a strange one.
Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either
from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to
species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. Thus from genus to species,
as: 'There lies my ship'; for lying at anchor is a species of lying.
From species to genus, as: 'Verily ten thousand noble deeds hath Odysseus
wrought'; for ten thousand is a species of large number, and is here
used for a large number generally. From species to species, as: 'With
blade of bronze drew away the life,' and 'Cleft the water with the
vessel of unyielding bronze.' Here arusai, 'to draw away' is used
for tamein, 'to cleave,' and tamein, again for arusai- each being
a species of taking away. Analogy or proportion is when the second
term is to the first as the fourth to the third. We may then use the
fourth for the second, or the second for the fourth. Sometimes too
we qualify the metaphor by adding the term to which the proper word
is relative. Thus the cup is to Dionysus as the shield to Ares. The
cup may, therefore, be called 'the shield of Dionysus,' and the shield
'the cup of Ares.' Or, again, as old age is to life, so is evening
to day. Evening may therefore be called, 'the old age of the day,'
and old age, 'the evening of life,' or, in the phrase of Empedocles,
'life's setting sun.' For some of the terms of the proportion there
is at times no word in existence; still the metaphor may be used.
For instance, to scatter seed is called sowing: but the action of
the sun in scattering his rays is nameless. Still this process bears
to the sun the same relation as sowing to the seed. Hence the expression
of the poet 'sowing the god-created light.' There is another way in
which this kind of metaphor may be employed. We may apply an alien
term, and then deny of that term one of its proper attributes; as
if we were to call the shield, not 'the cup of Ares,' but 'the wineless
A newly-coined word is one which has never been even in local use,
but is adopted by the poet himself. Some such words there appear to
be: as ernyges, 'sprouters,' for kerata, 'horns'; and areter, 'supplicator',
for hiereus, 'priest.'
A word is lengthened when its own vowel is exchanged for a longer
one, or when a syllable is inserted. A word is contracted when some
part of it is removed. Instances of lengthening are: poleos for poleos,
Peleiadeo for Peleidou; of contraction: kri, do, and ops, as in mia
ginetai amphoteron ops, 'the appearance of both is one.'
An altered word is one in which part of the ordinary form is left
unchanged, and part is recast: as in dexiteron kata mazon, 'on the
right breast,' dexiteron is for dexion.
Nouns in themselves are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Masculine
are such as end in N, R, S, or in some letter compounded with S- these
being two, PS and X. Feminine, such as end in vowels that are always
long, namely E and O, and- of vowels that admit of lengthening- those
in A. Thus the number of letters in which nouns masculine and feminine
end is the same; for PS and X are equivalent to endings in S. No noun
ends in a mute or a vowel short by nature. Three only end in I- meli,
'honey'; kommi, 'gum'; peperi, 'pepper'; five end in U. Neuter nouns
end in these two latter vowels; also in N and S.
The perfection of style is to be clear without being mean. The clearest
style is that which uses only current or proper words; at the same
time it is mean- witness the poetry of Cleophon and of Sthenelus.
That diction, on the other hand, is lofty and raised above the commonplace
which employs unusual words. By unusual, I mean strange (or rare)
words, metaphorical, lengthened- anything, in short, that differs
from the normal idiom. Yet a style wholly composed of such words is
either a riddle or a jargon; a riddle, if it consists of metaphors;
a jargon, if it consists of strange (or rare) words. For the essence
of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations.
Now this cannot be done by any arrangement of ordinary words, but
by the use of metaphor it can. Such is the riddle: 'A man I saw who
on another man had glued the bronze by aid of fire,' and others of
the same kind. A diction that is made up of strange (or rare) terms
is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of these elements is necessary
to style; for the strange (or rare) word, the metaphorical, the ornamental,
and the other kinds above mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace
and mean, while the use of proper words will make it perspicuous.
But nothing contributes more to produce a cleanness of diction that
is remote from commonness than the lengthening, contraction, and alteration
of words. For by deviating in exceptional cases from the normal idiom,
the language will gain distinction; while, at the same time, the partial
conformity with usage will give perspicuity. The critics, therefore,
are in error who censure these licenses of speech, and hold the author
up to ridicule. Thus Eucleides, the elder, declared that it would
be an easy matter to be a poet if you might lengthen syllables at
will. He caricatured the practice in the very form of his diction,
as in the verse:
"Epicharen eidon Marathonade badizonta,
"I saw Epichares walking to Marathon, "
"ouk an g'eramenos ton ekeinou elleboron.
"Not if you desire his hellebore. "
To employ such license at all obtrusively is, no doubt, grotesque;
but in any mode of poetic diction there must be moderation. Even metaphors,
strange (or rare) words, or any similar forms of speech, would produce
the like effect if used without propriety and with the express purpose
of being ludicrous. How great a difference is made by the appropriate
use of lengthening, may be seen in Epic poetry by the insertion of
ordinary forms in the verse. So, again, if we take a strange (or rare)
word, a metaphor, or any similar mode of expression, and replace it
by the current or proper term, the truth of our observation will be
manifest. For example, Aeschylus and Euripides each composed the same
iambic line. But the alteration of a single word by Euripides, who
employed the rarer term instead of the ordinary one, makes one verse
appear beautiful and the other trivial. Aeschylus in his Philoctetes
"phagedaina d'he mou sarkas esthiei podos.
"The tumor which is eating the flesh of my foot. "
Euripides substitutes thoinatai, 'feasts on,' for esthiei, 'feeds
on.' Again, in the line,
"nun de m'eon oligos te kai outidanos kai aeikes,
"Yet a small man, worthless and unseemly, "
the difference will be felt if we substitute the common words,
"nun de m'eon mikros te kai asthenikos kai aeides.
"Yet a little fellow, weak and ugly. "
Or, if for the line,
"diphron aeikelion katatheis oligen te trapezan,
"Setting an unseemly couch and a meager table, "
"diphron mochtheron katatheis mikran te trapezan.
"Setting a wretched couch and a puny table. "
Or, for eiones booosin, 'the sea shores roar,' eiones krazousin,
'the sea shores screech.'
Again, Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which
no one would employ in ordinary speech: for example, domaton apo,
'from the house away,' instead of apo domaton, 'away from the house;'
sethen, ego de nin, 'to thee, and I to him;' Achilleos peri, 'Achilles
about,' instead of peri Achilleos, 'about Achilles;' and the like.
It is precisely because such phrases are not part of the current idiom
that they give distinction to the style. This, however, he failed
It is a great matter to observe propriety in these several modes of
expression, as also in compound words, strange (or rare) words, and
so forth. But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.
This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius,
for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.
Of the various kinds of words, the compound are best adapted to dithyrambs,
rare words to heroic poetry, metaphors to iambic. In heroic poetry,
indeed, all these varieties are serviceable. But in iambic verse,
which reproduces, as far as may be, familiar speech, the most appropriate
words are those which are found even in prose. These are the current
or proper, the metaphorical, the ornamental.
Concerning Tragedy and imitation by means of action this may suffice.
As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs
a single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be
constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject
a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and
an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity,
and produce the pleasure proper to it. It will differ in structure
from historical compositions, which of necessity present not a single
action, but a single period, and all that happened within that period
to one person or to many, little connected together as the events
may be. For as the sea-fight at Salamis and the battle with the Carthaginians
in Sicily took place at the same time, but did not tend to any one
result, so in the sequence of events, one thing sometimes follows
another, and yet no single result is thereby produced. Such is the
practice, we may say, of most poets. Here again, then, as has been
already observed, the transcendent excellence of Homer is manifest.
He never attempts to make the whole war of Troy the subject of his
poem, though that war had a beginning and an end. It would have been
too vast a theme, and not easily embraced in a single view. If, again,
he had kept it within moderate limits, it must have been over-complicated
by the variety of the incidents. As it is, he detaches a single portion,
and admits as episodes many events from the general story of the war-
such as the Catalogue of the ships and others- thus diversifying the
poem. All other poets take a single hero, a single period, or an action
single indeed, but with a multiplicity of parts. Thus did the author
of the Cypria and of the Little Iliad. For this reason the Iliad and
the Odyssey each furnish the subject of one tragedy, or, at most,
of two; while the Cypria supplies materials for many, and the Little
Iliad for eight- the Award of the Arms, the Philoctetes, the Neoptolemus,
the Eurypylus, the Mendicant Odysseus, the Laconian Women, the Fall
of Ilium, the Departure of the Fleet.
Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be
simple, or complex, or 'ethical,'or 'pathetic.' The parts also, with
the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires
Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering.
Moreover, the thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all these
respects Homer is our earliest and sufficient model. Indeed each of
his poems has a twofold character. The Iliad is at once simple and
'pathetic,' and the Odyssey complex (for Recognition scenes run through
it), and at the same time 'ethical.' Moreover, in diction and thought
they are supreme.
Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is constructed,
and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have already laid
down an adequate limit: the beginning and the end must be capable
of being brought within a single view. This condition will be satisfied
by poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and answering in length
to the group of tragedies presented at a single sitting.
Epic poetry has, however, a great- a special- capacity for enlarging
its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot imitate
several lines of actions carried on at one and the same time; we must
confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by
the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many
events simultaneously transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant
to the subject, add mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here
an advantage, and one that conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting
the mind of the hearer, and relieving the story with varying episodes.
For sameness of incident soon produces satiety, and makes tragedies
fail on the stage.
As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by hexameter
test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other meter or in many
meters were now composed, it would be found incongruous. For of all
measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive; and hence
it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is another
point in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone. On the
other hand, the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring measures,
the latter being akin to dancing, the former expressive of action.
Still more absurd would it be to mix together different meters, as
was done by Chaeremon. Hence no one has ever composed a poem on a
great scale in any other than heroic verse. Nature herself, as we
have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure.
Homer, admirable in all respects, has the special merit of being the
only poet who rightly appreciates the part he should take himself.
The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for
it is not this that makes him an imitator. Other poets appear themselves
upon the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer,
after a few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or
other personage; none of them wanting in characteristic qualities,
but each with a character of his own.
The element of the wonderful is required in Tragedy. The irrational,
on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects, has wider scope
in Epic poetry, because there the person acting is not seen. Thus,
the pursuit of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the stage-
the Greeks standing still and not joining in the pursuit, and Achilles
waving them back. But in the Epic poem the absurdity passes unnoticed.
Now the wonderful is pleasing, as may be inferred from the fact that
every one tells a story with some addition of his knowing that his
hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the
art of telling lies skilfully. The secret of it lies in a fallacy
For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second is or becomes,
men imagine that, if the second is, the first likewise is or becomes.
But this is a false inference. Hence, where the first thing is untrue,
it is quite unnecessary, provided the second be true, to add that
the first is or has become. For the mind, knowing the second to be
true, falsely infers the truth of the first. There is an example of
this in the Bath Scene of the Odyssey.
Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable
possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of irrational
parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be excluded; or,
at all events, it should lie outside the action of the play (as, in
the Oedipus, the hero's ignorance as to the manner of Laius' death);
not within the drama- as in the Electra, the messenger's account of
the Pythian games; or, as in the Mysians, the man who has come from
Tegea to Mysia and is still speechless. The plea that otherwise the
plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such a plot should not
in the first instance be constructed. But once the irrational has
been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept
it in spite of the absurdity. Take even the irrational incidents in
the Odyssey, where Odysseus is left upon the shore of Ithaca. How
intolerable even these might have been would be apparent if an inferior
poet were to treat the subject. As it is, the absurdity is veiled
by the poetic charm with which the poet invests it.
The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of the action, where
there is no expression of character or thought. For, conversely, character
and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is over-brilliant
With respect to critical difficulties and their solutions, the number
and nature of the sources from which they may be drawn may be thus
The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must
of necessity imitate one of three objects- things as they were or
are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought
to be. The vehicle of expression is language- either current terms
or, it may be, rare words or metaphors. There are also many modifications
of language, which we concede to the poets. Add to this, that the
standard of correctness is not the same in poetry and politics, any
more than in poetry and any other art. Within the art of poetry itself
there are two kinds of faults- those which touch its essence, and
those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something,
[but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the error
is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a wrong choice-
if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at
once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example,
or in any other art- the error is not essential to the poetry. These
are the points of view from which we should consider and answer the
objections raised by the critics.
First as to matters which concern the poet's own art. If he describes
the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error may be justified,
if the end of the art be thereby attained (the end being that already
mentioned)- if, that is, the effect of this or any other part of the
poem is thus rendered more striking. A case in point is the pursuit
of Hector. if, however, the end might have been as well, or better,
attained without violating the special rules of the poetic art, the
error is not justified: for every kind of error should, if possible,
Again, does the error touch the essentials of the poetic art, or some
accident of it? For example, not to know that a hind has no horns
is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.
Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact,
the poet may perhaps reply, 'But the objects are as they ought to
be'; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be;
Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If,
however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer,
'This is how men say the thing is.' applies to tales about the gods.
It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet
true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them.
But anyhow, 'this is what is said.' Again, a description may be no
better than the fact: 'Still, it was the fact'; as in the passage
about the arms: 'Upright upon their butt-ends stood the spears.' This
was the custom then, as it now is among the Illyrians.
Again, in examining whether what has been said or done by some one
is poetically right or not, we must not look merely to the particular
act or saying, and ask whether it is poetically good or bad. We must
also consider by whom it is said or done, to whom, when, by what means,
or for what end; whether, for instance, it be to secure a greater
good, or avert a greater evil.
Other difficulties may be resolved by due regard to the usage of language.
We may note a rare word, as in oureas men proton, 'the mules first
[he killed],' where the poet perhaps employs oureas not in the sense
of mules, but of sentinels. So, again, of Dolon: 'ill-favored indeed
he was to look upon.' It is not meant that his body was ill-shaped
but that his face was ugly; for the Cretans use the word eueides,
'well-flavored' to denote a fair face. Again, zoroteron de keraie,
'mix the drink livelier' does not mean 'mix it stronger' as for hard
drinkers, but 'mix it quicker.'
Sometimes an expression is metaphorical, as 'Now all gods and men
were sleeping through the night,' while at the same time the poet
says: 'Often indeed as he turned his gaze to the Trojan plain, he
marveled at the sound of flutes and pipes.' 'All' is here used metaphorically
for 'many,' all being a species of many. So in the verse, 'alone she
hath no part... , oie, 'alone' is metaphorical; for the best known
may be called the only one.
Again, the solution may depend upon accent or breathing. Thus Hippias
of Thasos solved the difficulties in the lines, didomen (didomen)
de hoi, and to men hou (ou) kataputhetai ombro.
Or again, the question may be solved by punctuation, as in Empedocles:
'Of a sudden things became mortal that before had learnt to be immortal,
and things unmixed before mixed.'
Or again, by ambiguity of meaning, as parocheken de pleo nux, where
the word pleo is ambiguous.
Or by the usage of language. Thus any mixed drink is called oinos,
'wine'. Hence Ganymede is said 'to pour the wine to Zeus,' though
the gods do not drink wine. So too workers in iron are called chalkeas,
or 'workers in bronze.' This, however, may also be taken as a metaphor.
Again, when a word seems to involve some inconsistency of meaning,
we should consider how many senses it may bear in the particular passage.
For example: 'there was stayed the spear of bronze'- we should ask
in how many ways we may take 'being checked there.' The true mode
of interpretation is the precise opposite of what Glaucon mentions.
Critics, he says, jump at certain groundless conclusions; they pass
adverse judgement and then proceed to reason on it; and, assuming
that the poet has said whatever they happen to think, find fault if
a thing is inconsistent with their own fancy.
The question about Icarius has been treated in this fashion. The critics
imagine he was a Lacedaemonian. They think it strange, therefore,
that Telemachus should not have met him when he went to Lacedaemon.
But the Cephallenian story may perhaps be the true one. They allege
that Odysseus took a wife from among themselves, and that her father
was Icadius, not Icarius. It is merely a mistake, then, that gives
plausibility to the objection.
In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic
requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion. With
respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to
be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible. Again, it may
be impossible that there should be men such as Zeuxis painted. 'Yes,'
we say, 'but the impossible is the higher thing; for the ideal type
must surpass the realty.' To justify the irrational, we appeal to
what is commonly said to be. In addition to which, we urge that the
irrational sometimes does not violate reason; just as 'it is probable
that a thing may happen contrary to probability.'
Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules
as in dialectical refutation- whether the same thing is meant, in
the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve
the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what
is tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence.
The element of the irrational, and, similarly, depravity of character,
are justly censured when there is no inner necessity for introducing
them. Such is the irrational element in the introduction of Aegeus
by Euripides and the badness of Menelaus in the Orestes.
Thus, there are five sources from which critical objections are drawn.
Things are censured either as impossible, or irrational, or morally
hurtful, or contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness. The
answers should be sought under the twelve heads above mentioned.
The question may be raised whether the Epic or Tragic mode of imitation
is the higher. If the more refined art is the higher, and the more
refined in every case is that which appeals to the better sort of
audience, the art which imitates anything and everything is manifestly
most unrefined. The audience is supposed to be too dull to comprehend
unless something of their own is thrown by the performers, who therefore
indulge in restless movements. Bad flute-players twist and twirl,
if they have to represent 'the quoit-throw,' or hustle the coryphaeus
when they perform the Scylla. Tragedy, it is said, has this same defect.
We may compare the opinion that the older actors entertained of their
successors. Mynniscus used to call Callippides 'ape' on account of
the extravagance of his action, and the same view was held of Pindarus.
Tragic art, then, as a whole, stands to Epic in the same relation
as the younger to the elder actors. So we are told that Epic poetry
is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture; Tragedy,
to an inferior public. Being then unrefined, it is evidently the lower
of the two.
Now, in the first place, this censure attaches not to the poetic but
to the histrionic art; for gesticulation may be equally overdone in
epic recitation, as by Sosistratus, or in lyrical competition, as
by Mnasitheus the Opuntian. Next, all action is not to be condemned-
any more than all dancing- but only that of bad performers. Such was
the fault found in Callippides, as also in others of our own day,
who are censured for representing degraded women. Again, Tragedy like
Epic poetry produces its effect even without action; it reveals its
power by mere reading. If, then, in all other respects it is superior,
this fault, we say, is not inherent in it.
And superior it is, because it has an the epic elements- it may even
use the epic meter- with the music and spectacular effects as important
accessories; and these produce the most vivid of pleasures. Further,
it has vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation.
Moreover, the art attains its end within narrower limits for the concentrated
effect is more pleasurable than one which is spread over a long time
and so diluted. What, for example, would be the effect of the Oedipus
of Sophocles, if it were cast into a form as long as the Iliad? Once
more, the Epic imitation has less unity; as is shown by this, that
any Epic poem will furnish subjects for several tragedies. Thus if
the story adopted by the poet has a strict unity, it must either be
concisely told and appear truncated; or, if it conforms to the Epic
canon of length, it must seem weak and watery. [Such length implies
some loss of unity,] if, I mean, the poem is constructed out of several
actions, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, which have many such parts,
each with a certain magnitude of its own. Yet these poems are as perfect
as possible in structure; each is, in the highest degree attainable,
an imitation of a single action.
If, then, tragedy is superior to epic poetry in all these respects,
and, moreover, fulfills its specific function better as an art- for
each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure
proper to it, as already stated- it plainly follows that tragedy is
the higher art, as attaining its end more perfectly.
Thus much may suffice concerning Tragic and Epic poetry in general;
their several kinds and parts, with the number of each and their differences;
the causes that make a poem good or bad; the objections of the critics
and the answers to these objections....