Poetics: Chapter 24 - Full Text

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Kinds of Epic poetry; how it Differs from Tragedy

      Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy; it must be either a simple or complex story of Character or one of Suffering. Its parts too, with the exception of Song and Spectacle, must be the same, as it requires Peripeties, Discoveries and scenes of Suffering, just like Tragedy. Lastly, the Thought and Diction in it must be good in their own way. All these elements appear in Homer first; and he has made due use of them. His two poems are each examples of construction the Iliad a simple story of suffering, the Odyssey complex (there is Discovery throughout) story of Character. And they are more than this, since in Diction and Thought too they surpass all other poems.

      There is, however, a difference in Epic as compared with Tragedy, (1) in its length, and (2) in its meter. (1) As to its length, the limit already suggested will suffice; it must be possible for the beginning and end of the work to be taken in one view - a condition which will be fulfilled if the poem is shorter than the old epics, and about as long as the group of tragedies offered for one hearing. In the extension of its length, epic poetry has a special advantage, of which it makes large use. The reason is that in a play one cannot represent an action with a number of parts going on simultaneously; one is limited to the action on the stage and the part played by the actors. Whereas in epic poetry, the narrative form makes it possible for one to describe a number of simultaneous actions; these, if relevant to the subject, increase the length and dignity of the poem. This then is a gain to Epic, tending to give it grandeur, and also variety of interests and room for episodes of diverse kinds. The sameness of incident by the satiety it soon creates is apt to ruin tragedies on the stage. (2) As for its meter, the heroic has been assigned it from experiences; were anyone to attempt a narrative poem in one, or several, of the other meters, the incongruity of the thing would be apparent. The heroic, in fact, is the gravest and loftiest of meters - which is what makes it more tolerant than other meters of unfamiliar or rare words and metaphors, that also being a point in which the narrative form of poetry goes beyond all others. The iambic and trochaic, on the other hand, are meters of movement, the one representing that of life and action, the other dance. Still more unnatural would it appear, if one were to write an epic in a medley of meters, as Chaeremon did. Hence it is that no one has ever written a long story in any verse but the heroic nature herself, as we have said, teaches us to select the meter appropriate to such a story.

      Homer, admirable as he is in every other respect, is especially so in this, that he alone among epic poets rightly understands the part to be played by the poet himself in the poem. The poet should say very little in propria persona', as he is no imitator when doing that. Whereas the other poets are perpetually coming forward in person, and say but little, and that only here and there, as imitators, Homer after a brief preface brings in forthwith a man, a woman or some other character no one of them characterless, but each with distinctive characteristics.

      The marvelous is certainly required in Tragedy. The Epic, however, affords more opening for the improbable (or irrational), the chief factor in the marvelous, because in it the agents are not visible before one. The scene of the pursuit of Hector would be ridiculous on the stage - the Greek halting instead of pursuing him and Achilles shaking his head to stop them; but in the pic poem, the absurdity is overlooked. The marvelous, however, is a cause of pleasure, as is shown by the fact that we all tell a story with additions, in the belief that we are doing our listeners a favor.

      It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully. The secret of it lies in a fallacy. Por, 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.

      A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility The story should never be made up of improbable (irrational) incidents; there should be nothing of the sort in it. If, however, such incidents are unavoidable, they should be outside the piece, like the hero's ignorance in Oedipus, of the circumstances of Laius' death; not within, like the report of the Pythian games in Electra, or the man's leaving to Mysia from Tegea without uttering a word on the way, in The Mysians". So that it is ridiculous to say that one's Plot would have been spoilt without them, since it is fundamentally wrong to make up such plots. If the poet has taken such a Plot, however, and one sees that he might have put it in a more probable form, he is guilty of absurdity as well as a fault in art. Even in Odyssey, the improbabilities in the setting ashore of Ulysses would be clearly intolerable in the hands of an inferior poet. As it is, the poet conceals them, his other excellences veiling their absurdity. Elaborate (ornate) Diction, however, is required only in the places where there is no action, and no Character or Thought to be revealed. Where there is Character or Thought, on other hand, an over-ornate Diction tends to obscure them.

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