The Poetics: A Critical Analysis & Appreciation

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      At the very outset, it is to be noted, and kept in mind while making a critical appreciation of the Poetics, that the work is in the nature of lecture notes. It is not clear whether they are notes taken by a student, or notes penned by Aristotle to guide him in his lectures. What is more, it is not a complete text. One, therefore, cannot consider it a comprehensive and well-balanced study. Critics have stipulated that the Poetics was really intended to be an answer to Plato's attack on poetry. At any rate, it is obvious that the work was not intended for publication, or it would not perhaps be so disjointed and lopsided' in its emphasis.

The General Plan and Theme

      The Poetics is divided into twenty-six chapters. The book seems fragmentary and gives support to the theory that a part of it was lost. Tha part probably contained a theory of Comedy and Satire, and possibly, an explanation of that controversial term, 'Catharsis'.

It is possible to divide the "Poetics" into six parts:

(i) The first five chapters, (1-5), are in the nature of an introduction to the main treatise, a discussion of poetry and its different kinds. Aristotle summarises on the different imitative arts, gives an outline on the origin of poetry, and the development of its main forms, namely tragedy and comedy.

(ii) Chapters 6-19 deals with tragedy. Aristotle defines tragedy, and discusses its elements. A major portion is accorded to the discussion of plot, with one chapter given to character (15) and two chapters to suggestions to poets on their art. (17 and 18).

(iii) Chapters 20-22 are given to the discussion of diction.

(iv) Chapter 23 deals with narrative poetry, ad compares it with tragedy.

(v) Chapters 24 and 26 deal with the epic, and consider the relative merits and superiority of the two. The treatment, though brief is concise and full of meaning.

(vi) Chapter 25 deals with critical problems and the principles on which the objections can be resolved.

      The Poetics is restricted to the discussion of certain kinds of Greek poetry, or literature. Aristotle groups these into two pairs. The grouping is made on the basis of their historical and aesthetic connections. 'The origin of poetry, according to Aristotle, tended to be in two directions. There is the the heroic' poetry; and the satiric poetry. Out of the 'heroic' or epic poetry developed tragedy, while out of the satiric poetry developed comedy. Since then, the nature of poetry disposed itself into two pairs or kinds. It would thus be seen that the principles valid for epic would, with certain modifications, be valid for judging tragedy; and those applicable to satire will be applicable to comedy. Aristotle was of the opinion, however, that the latter kind in each pair was superior to the earlier one. The later kind represented a higher development of poetic art. It is thus that they would deserve a fuller discussion than the earlier kind.

      The Poetics is incomplete. As such, the scheme of treatment of the subject is indicated, and not proved. We have only the discussion of tragedy and its comparison with the epic. The part which has been lost probably contained a similar discussion of comedy and satire.

The Demerits or Defects of the Work

      The handling of the subjects is rather unbalanced and disproportionate, as has been indicated in the allocation of chapters to different topics. Tragedy forms the subject of discussion in the major part of the book. We may find an excuse for this in that it is the result of one part of the book being lost. But we also find that, within the discussion of tragedy, a large portion is devoted to the discussion of plot. Maybe, this too, is not surprising, as Aristotle considered the plot to be the most important part of tragedy.

      A glaring omission seems to be lyric poetry. Apart from the casual references to the dithyramb and the nome, Aristotle does not give any attention to this variety of poetry. This was probably because Aristotle thought that the lyric belonged more to the department of the music than to poetry. And lyric was included in drama, in the songs of the Chorus. The personal lyric had no structure of plot, like Epic and Drama, and so offered little interest to Aristotle. Further, the Greeks had no descriptive poetry in the modern sense. What there was of it, was incorporated in one of the other main kinds.

      The style of the work is almost 'telegraphic' in its conciseness and concentration. It is a style for the initiated, those who were already familiar with the thought and terminology of the author. But then, once again one remembers that the work was not intended primarily for publication. All the haste, lack of revision, omissions and repetitions, go to prove that.

      A limitation - one cannot really call it a defect is that the Poetics is based entirely on Greek drama. This is naturally so, because Aristotle was familiar only with Greek drama. It is only natural that some of the views expressed in it seem outdated. But this limitation would be there in any critical work if judged after so many centuries.

The Merits of The Book

      No one would deny the great significance of the Poetics, notwithstanding its defects. Its influence has been continuous over the centuries. Indeed, it has commanded more interest and attention than any other book of literary criticism. The assumptions made by Aristotle, and the generalizations arrived at by him, many of them, are as valid to modern literature as they were to ancient Greek literature. His assumption that a work of art should have a coherent and well-knit structure, is a universally valid point.

      These generalizations are arrived at through studying and analyzing the particular, concrete facts. But these generalizations are not made in a rigid tone. They are tentative and exploratory; they are not assertions of some preconceived notion. The Poetics becomes the very foundation of all subsequent critical discussions of literature. What he says, illustrates Greek thought and literature. But also, at the same time, is an universal statement on literature in general. That is what makes the Poetics remarkable. It has statements of permanent and universal importance; its original ideas are often as true now as they were when first propounded. This, is so, in spite the fact that Aristotle was merely trying to generalize from existing particular facts.

      Aristotle was perhaps that first to employ the historical method of inquiry. He attempts to trace the stages of development of Greek poetry. All through the Poetics, he deals with poetry in relation to man. He traces its origin to the basic instincts of man - the instinct for imitation and the instinct for harmony. This brings a psychological aspect to his method of inquiry.

      The treatise is valuable for its method and perspective. It emphasizes on the essentials, simply and directly. It comes to the vital structure of a poem rather than the meter. It goes to the end aim of tragedy rather than to the history of the Chorus. As F.R. Lucas remarks, "it shows a very keen eye for vital points." His conception of tragedy may not be the last work on the subject. Everyone has realized that it has too many limitations.

      The Poetics is full of thought-provoking material. As Atkins remarks, the "miracle of the Poetics is that it contains so much that is of permanent and universal interest. And this is so because the literature on which it was based was no artificial product of a sophisticated society, but the natural expression of a race guided solely by what was elemental in human nature."

The Universal Significance of the Poetics: Its Epoch-making Nature

      The Poetics has, with justice, been called an important landmark in the history of literary criticism. It is the final statement by the Greeks themselves upon two of their most important poetic inventions, namely the Epic and the Tragedy. Before Aristotle, there apparently did not exist such a comprehensive and systematic work, which also shows a keen independent judgment. The Poetics focuses on the best thought and practice of the time in which it was written.

      The Poetics is important because it more or less initiated the art of criticism. Later criticism inevitably looks back to Aristotle and it becomes necessary to read the Poetics. Furthermore, many of the ideas and assumptions it puts forward are universal - they are valid even for modern works of literature. Unity of conception and artistic coherence are generalizations which are and will always be appreciated and accepted. It is equally true that poetry is to be judged by its own laws and not by extraneous standards.

      Aristotle's methods and perspective in the Poetics also gives the Work its value. It concentrates on essentials and treats the thoughts in a scientific manner. He arrives at the conception of an ideal Structure for tragedy methodically, after testing each Select tragedy and by reasoning from function to form, and from form gain to function. The Poetics thus stands as a standard-universally valid in so many of its assumptions and yet flexible enough to allow modifications. Indeed, it forms a foundation for all subsequent critical discussions. It is, after all, the "first attempt made by a man of astounding genius to build up in the region of creative art a rational order", as Gilbert Murray points out.

The 'Poetics' Through the Ages

      It has to be remembered that Aristotle's views are based on the Greek drama he knew, The modern reader has to exercise his own sense of history, and avoid being a blind follower of Aristotle. But there is no denying the fact that Aristotle and Plato have been the originating point of much of literary thought in Europe. The ideas of Aristotle have been revived from time to time. But it is also necessary to note that his thoughts have been revived in the context of particular ages. The philosophical and literary concepts of Plato and Aristotle were something original and intuitive. The reassessment of Aristotle was possible because the ideas continued to change in a smooth and gradual manner, without upsetting the fundamentals of the ancient Greeks.

      It has been realized that Plato's approach to the world is that of an idealist. Plato approached nature to "woo it with mind and Soul". But Aristotle's approach was that of a rationalist, or one who wished to conquer Nature through scientific analysis. Thus we see Plato and Aristotle at opposite ends. Modern philosophers, however, strike a middle path between idealism and realism. Kant proved that realism and idealism do not run parallel but are convergent. A synthesis between the idealism of Plato and the realism of Aristotle has been established in philosophy, but this has not been done in the world of literature, where Aristotle continues to suffer from his own limitations.

      In the Poetics, Aristotle does not consider the importance of the Higher Powers in tragedy. He was a rationalist; he even excludes chance or accident from the sphere of dramatic art. He forgets or chooses to ignore, the very valid part played by the 'theological situation' in Greek tragedy. The Greek dramatist uses a myth from tradition. It is used to indicate the 'ultimate reality behind the human situation. The characters and plot are developed with the ends in view of probing the mystery behind human success or failure. The dramatist's main purpose is to assert the universal order. This is what makes the spectator feel an awe and understanding of the conference in the universe. Perhaps, Aristotle does touch on this when he says that the poet induces a sense of inevitability in the events depicted.

      The 'universal' forces at play is very much evident in Elizabethan drama as well. Lear and Macbeth emphasize the eternal conflict between good and evil. The concept of tragedy has changed through the ages. With the modern, tragedy has shifted from the 'heroic' scale of values. The tragedies written by Sartre and Proust strike a different note. The dramatist's concept of tragedy is becoming private. Death of a Salesman strikes us immediately as an example. It is a play more poignant than tragic. Traditional beliefs have weakened; society has been leveled, and accepted codes of conduct questioned. The tragic hero is no longer a man of stature, moral or otherwise. He is someone about whom the audience can show curiosity, one with whom they can identify themselves.

      Aristotle's Poetics was of a deductive nature. It was based on the practice of the Greek dramatists of his day. He discusses the problem of tragedy as an art form not in the abstract, but with particular reference to Sophocles. Any attempt to generalize or universalize his conclusion is hampered by the fact that tragedy has changed its objectives from that of ancient Greeks to the modern age. The modern age has approached the Poetics with discerning eyes. The approach is not one of blind idolatry. The approach has led to a better understanding and appreciation of its merits, as well as its demerits and limitations.


      The Poetics, then, is not without defects. Most of these arise from the fact that the treatise was never, perhaps, meant to be published. Its value and significance, however, overwhelm its drawbacks. The book is of permanent intellectual value, as Gilbert Murray observes. He further continues: "The book is a store of information about Greek literature, and as an original or first-hand statement of what we may call the classical view of artistic criticism. It does not regard poetry as a matter of unanalyzed inspiration. It is characteristic of the classical view that Aristotle lays his greatest stress, first on the need for Unity in a work of art, that each part should subserve the whole, while irrelevancies, however brilliant in themselves, should be cast away; and next, on the demand that great art must have for its subject the great way of living. These judgments have often been misunderstood, but the truth in them is profound and goes near to the heart of things.

      The Poetics is a thought-provoking work. It is still alive, because it is a study of a great art by a peculiarly acute, learned, and methodical critic. It is the first work of literary criticism and it is written by the world's first scientist says Hamilton Fyfe. Its profundity might have been exaggerated. But it is terse; it is honest and it gets to grips with the most essential points.


1. Consider Aristotle's Poetics, "as an original or first-hand statement of what we call the classical view of artistic criticism".

2. What is the significance of the Poetics? How does its study help us to appreciate later tragedy?

3. Estimate Aristotle's permanent contribution to literary criticism.

4. The Poetics is a great world book and a great irritant to thought." Justify.

5. The Poetics is not only the first thoroughly philosophical discussion of literature, but the foundation of all subsequent discussions." Justify.

6. What, in your view, is the validity of the Poetics in the modern age?

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