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Aristotle: Poetics

January 5th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Aristotle’s Poetics, Aristotle begins by discussing basic principles. He specifically notes:

  1. Epic composition;
  2. the writing of tragedy and comedy;
  3. the composing of dithyrambs;
  4. and the greater part of making music with flute and lyre,

taken collectively, are imitative processes.

Imitative processes is hard to nail down, as the meaning is not precise for English translation, and I have been left with the impression (from the translator, Gerald F. Else) that it means actions that imitate other actions that have occurred elsewhere at another time.The types of imitative art mentioned above are differentiated by different means, different objects, and different methods of imitation.

With regard to different means, Aristotle states that there are a variety of media in which poetic composition can take place, but always through at least two of the following media: rhythm, speech, and melody. He comments on the arts of lyre and flute music or panpipe produce their imitation using melody and rhythm alone; another uses speeches or verses alone (hence, speech and rhythm), bare of music, either mixing the verses with one another or employing on certain kind; likewise, a person could mix all the kinds of verse.

Different objects begins by stating that those who imitate imitate men in action, and that these men must be worthwhile or worthless people. Thus beginning the distinction between tragedy and comedy: tragedy dealing with superior persons; comedy with inferior persons.

Finally, there are different modes of imitation: by narrating part of the time and dramatizing the rest of the time (speaking and acting), as Homer composes, this is a mixed mode; by straight narrative; or by all persons performing the imitation, or acting, in a straight dramatic mode.

Aristotle wraps it all up by stating again that "Poetic imitation–shows these three differentiae: in the media, objects, and modes of imitation." As stated, "So in one way Sophocles would be the same kind of imitator as Homer, since they both imitate worthwhile people, and in another way the same as Aristophanes, for they both imitate people engaged in action, doing things." 19

Aristotle attributes the development of poetry to two sources: "(1) the habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood;" anyone who has children will know that this is decidedly the case; "(2) the pleasure that all men take in works of imitation." That is, men enjoy watching imitations of past actions or supposed actions. Television and movies are the best answer to the truth or falsity of this assertion. 20

Comedy is an imitation of those who are inferior; though not necessarily villainous. It is a form for imitating what is ugly, or ludicrous, or distorted.

Epic poetry is defined by Aristotle as (1) good-sized (2) imitation (3) in verse (4) of people who are to be taken seriously; however, its verse is unmixed and the Epic is of a narrative style.

In difference, Aristotle notes that Tragedy "tries as hard as it can to exist during a single daylight period, or to vary but little, while the epic is not limited in its time and so differs in that respect." The translator of my volume, Gerald F. Else, notes that this, in his opinion, does NOT refer to the idea of "representing the events of a single day" but rather the "actual length of the respective poems, and therefore of the respective performances." That is, a Tragedy should be performed in one day, but an Epic can take as long as it wants. Our professor notes that this misconception: "representing the events of a single day" led to the Renaissance notion of "Unity of Time." 89

Tragedy consists of Six Elements

Aristotle defines Tragedy as "a process of imitating an action which as serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language it has been made sensuously attractive–is enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of tragic acts which have those emotional characteristics." 25

Since the imitation is performed through action (acting), the "adornment of their visual appearance–will constitute some part of the making of tragedy; and song-composition and verbal expression also, for those are the media in which they perform the imitation." 26

I find the last comment very interesting as it suggests that the language, cadence, accent, and other features of the spoken words of the actors are, in fact, as much a part of the appearance and so could be equated with the costumes. I always felt that the language, cadence, accent, rhythm, etc. is a part of the writing, that is integral to the actual process of penning the play ("verbal expression") which it is but to categorize it with the costumes and external features of the action, rather than as an internal feature of the writing, is highly intriguing to me and suggests a strong course of action in looking at playwriting.

Also, "since it is an imitation of an action and is enacted by certain people who are performing the action, and since those people must necessarily have certain traits both of character and thought (for it is by way of these two factors that we speak of people’s actions as having defined character); and since imitation of the action is the plot, for by ‘plot’ I mean here the structuring of events, and by the ‘characters’ that in accordance with which we say that the persons who are acting have a defined moral character, and by ‘thought’ all the passages in which they attempt to prove some thesis or set forth some opinion it follows of necessity, then, that tragedy as a whole has just six constituent elements: plot, characters, verbal expression, thought, visual adornment, and song-composition." 26-7

The "elements by which they imitate are two: verbal expression and song composition; the manner in which they imitate is one: visual adornment; the things they imitate are three: plot, characters, thought–and there is nothing more than these. These then are the constituent forms they use." 27

Hence, means, objects, and methods.

I’ll continue this at a later time.

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