Poetics: Chapter 17 - Full Text

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Some Practical Suggestions to Poets

      At the time when he is constructing his Plots, and engaged in the Diction in which they are worked out, the poet should remember (1) to put the actual scenes as far as possible before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the vividness of an eye-witness, as it were, he will devise what is appropriate, and be least likely to overlook incongruities...... (2) As far as may be, the poet should even act his story with the very gestures of his personages. Given the same natural qualifications, he who feels the emotions to be described will be the most convincing; distress and anger, for instance, are portrayed most truthfully by one who is feeling them at the moment. Hence it is that poetry demands a man with special gift for it, or else one with a touch of madness in him; the former can easily assume the required mood and the latter may be actually beside himself with emotions. (3) His story, again whether already made or of his own making, he should first simplify and reduce to a universal form, before proceeding to lengthen it out by the insertion of episodes. The following will show how the universal element in Iphigenia, for instance, may be viewed: a young girl is sacrificed: she disappears mysteriously from th eyes of those who sacrificed her; she is transported to another country where the custom is to offer up all strangers to the goddess. She was made the priestess of this rite. Sometime later her own brother chances to arrive. The fact that the oracle for some reason ordered him to go there, and his purpose in going there, are outside the Plot of the play. However, he comes, 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.

      This done, the next thing, after the proper names have been fixed as a basis for the story, is to work in episodes or accessory incidents. Once must mind, however, that the episodes are appropriate like the fit of madness in Orestes, which leads to his arrest, and the purifying, which brings his salvation. In plays, the episodes are short; in epic poetry, they serve to lengthen the poem.

      The argument of the Odyssey is not a long one. A certain man has been abroad for many years; he is jealously watched by Poseidon, and he is all alone. Meanwhile, his home is in a wretched plight - suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. At length, tempest-tossed, he himself arrives; he meets 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.

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