Poetics: Chapter 23 - Full Text

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Chapter 23

Construction of Epic poetry; Homer's skill

      As for the poetry which merely narrates or imitates by means of versified language, it is evident that it has several points in common with Tragedy.

      The construction of its stories should clearly be like that in a drama; they should be based on a single action, one that is a complete whole in itself, a beginning, middle, and end, so as to enable the word to produce its own proper pleasure with all the organic unity of a living creature. Nor should one suppose that there is anything like them in our usual histories. A history has to deal not with one action, but with one period and all that happened in that one or more persons, however, disconnected. Several events may take place at the same time, e.g., the sea-fight off Salamis and the battle with Carthaginians in Sicily', without converging to the same end, So, too, of two consecutive events one may sometimes come after the other with no one end as their common issue. Nevertheless, most of our epic poets, one may say, ignore the distinction.

      Herein, then, to repeat what we have said before, we have further proof of Homer's marvelous superiority to the rest. He did not attempt to deal even with the Trojan War in its entirety, though it was a whole with a definite beginning and end - through a feeling apparently that it was too long a story to be' taken in one view, or if not that, too complicated from the variety of incidents in it. As it is, he has singled out one section of the whole; many of the other incidents, however, he brings in episodes, using the Catalogue of the Ships, for instance, and other episodes to relieve the uniformity of his narrative. As for other epic poets, they take a single hero, a single period, or a single action indeed, but with a multiplicity of parts. This last is what the authors of the Cypria and Little Iliad have done. And result is that 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.

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