Poetics: Chapter 24 - Summary

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Epic and Tragedy

      The discussion of the epic is continued in this chapter. Aristotle compares epic and tragedy, and brings out their salient features. To a large extent, epic and tragedy have common features. The species of the epic are as many as the species of tragedy. The basis of dividing the epic into different kinds is the same as it is in the tragedy. Epic poetry may be like tragedy, simple or complex. Or, its effect may be predominantly due to characterization, or suffering. The 'Spectacle' of course is excluded from epic poetry. The thought and diction, too, must be good in their own way. The constituents of the epic are the, same as those of tragedy, except that of Spectacle and choric song, which are constituents of tragedy alone.

Meter and Length

      In matter of length, an epic poem can be much longer than a tragedy. Tragedy tries, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun. Epic has no limits of length. This observation led to the concept of 'Unity of Time', which later critics developed. But it will be noted that Aristotle is not stating a rigid or principle. He is merely making a general observation based on the practice of Greek dramatists. The rigidity of the rule came with later critics, who tried to 'out-Greek' the Greeks.

      In general, the epic's length should also be such that can b taken in at one view.

      The extension in length enjoyed by the epic gives it certain advantages over tragedy. The epic poet is able to relate happenings which take place simultaneously in different places, to different persons. The tragedy, confined to being represented on stage, cannot deal with different incidents at the same time, or with several sets of persons. Once again, Aristotle is stating an observation based on the contemporary Greek theatre. It was not possible to present actions taking place simultaneously in different places on the stage, (though this is possible now with a divided stage.) Later, this observation was turned into the rigid rule of 'Unity of Place'. There is nothing to warrant that Aristotle is laying down an unshakeable principle. He merely brings out a difference between tragedy, as it was practiced in his day, and the epic. What he says, furthermore, is not as absurd as what later critics made out of it.

      The ability to relate incidents happening simultaneously gives the epic a grandeur and richness, as well as a variety of interests. The episodes of tragedy have to be treated in brief, while in the case of the epic these very episodes can be lengthened out. The epic gains in interest, as the variety of episodes relieve the poem of boredom and dullness.

      In the matter of metres, too the epic is different from tragedy. Tragedy admits a variety of meters. But the epic allows the only the heroic meter, i.e. the hexameter. The hexameter has the advantage of being the gravest and most dignified. It thus allows the inclusion of rare and strange words. The iambic metre used for tragedy is nearer to ordinary speech, the hence it has no place for rare words. Aristotle says that Nature has established the heroic verse for epic purposes.

The Marvelous

      Tragedy requires the marvelous to some extent. But in the epic, there is more scope for the marvelous. This is not because it allows more scope for the improbable (the chief factor of the marvelous) The epic is not enacted in front of our eyes, as drama is. Thus the improbable does not seem so absurd in an epic. The effect produced by the irrational in epic. is powerfully imaginative. According to Aristotle, the irrational, if it has to be present in any poetry, needs special justification. It does against laws of casualty. Therefore, it needs good justification for its presence: Its justification is there in the heightened wonder and admiration, which he regards as proper, to a special degree, to epic poetry, He gives an instance from Homer's Iliad, which clearly proves what he wants to say. The scene would indeed seem absurd or ludicrous in a drama being enacted on stag. It does not seem absurd at all in the narrative of the epic. However, Aristotle, on the whole, seems unfavorable towards the irrational, except in cases where the effect is impressive, or so pleasurably astonishing that the sense of incongruity is affected, and the aesthetic sense is satisfied.

The Likely Impossibility

      Aristotle makes a very shrewd and observant statement whose acute artistic truth can never be disputed. Homer, he tells us, was a master in the art of telling lies in a convincing manner. The effect of fiction, he tells us, is due to a logical fallacy so employed by the author that the reader or spectator accepts without demur, events which could possibly happen. It depends on poetic illusion. Perhaps, it is what Coleridge calls 'suspension of disbelief." It is the presentation which has to be convincing, otherwise, even true, historic events seem incredible.

      F. R. Lucas offers an interesting explanation, as to why we accept the most stupendous things in real life as 'real' while the same fantastic thing on stage, if it is not convincingly presented, at once seems ridiculous. In real life, we know that it has happened; life is real, and we are enthralled by its becoming fantastic. But in drama, knowing it unreal (after all, the suspension of disbelief is there only to a certain extent), we need to believe it real, before we can enjoy its strangeness. It is thus of the utmost importance for a dramatist to present his incidentS convincingly. The plausibility matters more than its actual truth. It is futile to present incidents which are historically true, and hence 'possible', if in the presentation they are unconvincing. Probability, or 'invincibility' is the criterion of success in art.

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