An essai on Chapter 1 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


Our subject being Poetry, I propose to speak not only of the art in general but also of its species and their respective capacities; of the structure of plot required for a good poem; of the number and nature of the constituent parts of a poem; and likewise of any other matters in the same line of inquiry.

—Aristotle, Poetics (tr. Ingram Bywater)

The Greek word ποιητής meant originally ‘maker’, and was applied by the Greeks to everything from potters and carpenters to God himself. Most European languages have borrowed this word, either directly or through the Latin poeta, to mean specifically a maker of verse. It often happens that when we borrow a word from Greek, we use it only in a restricted or technical sense, and so lose a wealth of interesting meanings and associations that went with the word in the original language. So it is here.

The gradually narrowing sense of the word poet is worth pausing to trace, since it shows up a particular aesthetic malady that Western culture is prey to. The Latin poeta means simply ‘imaginative writer’ — a dramatist or story-writer — since the Romans had perfectly good words for people who make pottery or furniture, but needed to borrow a word for people who make up stories. They also borrowed the word historia in something like its Greek sense, where ἱστορία means an inquiry, or the knowledge gained by an inquiry. The etymological distinction was that a poet wrote fiction (usually, but not always, in verse) and a historian, nonfiction (usually, but not always, in prose). But this distinction was often blurred and eventually forgotten, so that historia came to mean any kind of prose narrative — that is, a story, true or fictitious — and poema was restricted to works in verse. This was a natural change, since classical Greek and Latin fiction are nearly always written in verse, but not an altogether helpful one. To this day, French, for instance, has only the one word histoire for narrative accounts whether true or false, and we English-speakers have had to invent one of our characteristic English doubles — history for the factual kind, story for the other. Meanwhile poem has gradually languished, as the art of popular verse has slowly died out and the quality of elitist verse has decayed: so that to most English-speaking people, I am afraid, poetry now means ‘boring gibberish written with line breaks in funny places’, and poet means ‘annoying poseur who hangs about in expensive coffee-shops, gazing at his navel and pretending to write’. This semantic drift is deplorable, but not as deplorable as the reality it reflects — which is that verse-writing has been largely abandoned to gibberers and poseurs.

In Aristotle’s time, the Greeks had not advanced (as it is called) so far. Where we stand as the tired and blasé heirs of three thousand years of literary tradition, the classical Athenians knew only the literature of their own country and culture, and only three or four hundred years’ worth of it at that. Ordinary Athenians were not literati even when they were lettered, and the oral tradition of the ἀοιδοί, the Greek minstrels, was still alive and bearing fruit. To this day there are minstrels of that kind in some of the Balkan countries, some of whom, I am told, can extemporaneously compose oral epics as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Long after Aristotle’s time they were to be found all over Europe, reciting and singing in many languages, and several of their names have passed into modern English: skáld, scop, bard, troubadour. In such a culture it was quite natural for a storyteller to work in verse, as natural as it is today for a songwriter. Even serious philosophical works were occasionally written in what we would now call poetry.

But Aristotle would not have called it poetry. He drew a sharp line, not between prose and verse, but between ‘making’ (ποίησις) and nonfiction writing (ἱστορία, though he does not use that term in the Poetics):

Even if a theory of medicine or physical philosophy be put forth in a metrical form, it is usual to describe the writer in this way; Homer and Empedocles, however, have really nothing in common apart from their metre; so that, if one is to be called a poet, the other should be termed a physicist rather than a poet.

It is difficult today to imagine a physicist putting forth his theories in verse, but that is just what Empedocles (and a good many others) did. We still have Lucretius’ De rerum natura as an example of how it was done, though Lucretius was setting down Epicurus’ theories and not his own. In a society where books were scarce and had to be copied individually by hand, the mnemonic value of verse clearly was worth the trouble of composition. Or rather, the audience so much preferred verse (which was easy to remember) that many authors took the extra trouble of versifying even when writing on technical subjects. Verse has, of course, other virtues, such as a stronger rhetorical effect compared to prose; much nonsense has been celebrated in verse that would have been ignored in prose, because verse speaks to the emotions in a way that can overrule reason. (St. Thomas Aquinas deliberately wrote the dullest prose he could for this very reason: he knew that he might be wrong on any given point, and did not want people to be convinced by the seductiveness of his language, but by the soundness of his arguments. If one of his arguments was unsound, better that it should not convince people at all.)

Empedocles, then, may have been a ‘maker’ of verses in the epic metre, but he was not a Maker in the special sense Aristotle had in mind. Aristotle indeed seems to have been the first to use the word ποιητής in the general sense of ‘imaginative writer’. So he found himself forced to complain:

This form of imitation is to this day without a name. We have no common name for a mime of Sophron or Xenarchus and a Socratic Conversation . . . though it is the way with people to tack on ‘poet’ to the name of a metre, and talk of elegiac-poets and epic-poets, thinking that they call them poets not by reason of the imitative nature of their work, but indiscriminately by reason of the metre they write in.

To this day, ‘this form of imitation’ is not adequately covered by any general term. Narrative and literature are too broad, because they can cover nonfiction as well as imaginative writing; story and poetry are too narrow, because they are restricted (in ordinary use) to prose and verse respectively. What we want is a general term that covers the art of telling deliberately made-up stories — not true stories, and not even lies, for a lie is intended to deceive by being passed off as truth — in whatever form and medium. And despite Aristotle’s valiant attempt to claim ποιητής for this usage, we still have not got one. The closest thing we have in English is fiction, but that is so generally restricted to prose that it still does not quite cover the ground. Even prose recited on the stage is beyond the limits of what most writers and critics mean by the word, so that fiction (in practice) is thought of as an art form distinct from and contrasted with drama. Whereas for Aristotle, tragedy (i.e., ‘serious’ stage-plays) and epic (i.e., long narratives designed to be read by one person) are forms of the same art, which he called Poetry.

The essence of Poetry, to Aristotle, is μίμησις, which is usually translated as ‘imitation’, but more nearly corresponds to the modern jargon term ‘representational art’. The art of Poetry, then, is simply the art of making up stories that represent life; not accounts of real events, but of lifelike ones. Since the English word poetry is, I am afraid, indissolubly wedded to the idea of verse, I shall take on the powers of Humpty-Dumpty and refer to this art henceforward by the Greek word ποίησις; and since the repeated use of Greek letters is tiresome to the romanized eye, I shall spell it as in Latin: poesis. (Poiesis, with the extra i, is a valid English word, but it is a technical term in biology. Let’s stick to Latin and avoid ambiguity.)

Of course, not all aspects of life are imitated by this art of poesis. Aristotle describes how a dancer

by the rhythms of his attitudes, may represent men’s characters, as well as what they do and suffer.

This will do fairly well for a beginning. Poesis, as I shall use the term, is the art of using language to represent the characters of people, and the things that they do and suffer. These people may be dramatized versions of real persons, they may be wholly fictitious, they may not even be human, but they must answer to what we may call the emotional meaning of the word ‘people’: that is, they must be agents capable of desire and choice, with some capacity for reason, so that we can identify with them imaginatively.

The creatures of Greek mythology, such as nymphs, centaurs, or the Olympian gods, are ‘people’ by this definition; so are most of the creatures of modern fantasy. Zombies, on the other hand, are not people; though human in shape, they are pure automatons and have no power to do anything interesting. For that reason, zombie fiction either is about people reacting to an outbreak of zombies, or it is a crashing bore. (These two classes can and do overlap.)

Again, the actions and sufferings of the characters may be dramatizations of real events, or they may be entirely invented; but they must be psychologically grounded in motivations that we humans either share, or can at least participate in by analogy. Superman can fly and I can’t, Superman is stopped cold by kryptonite and I am blithely indifferent to it; but there are times when I would fly if I could, and I at least know what it means to be allergic to walnuts. Therefore Superman, as presented in the comics, is a valid character for poesis. A tree, generally speaking, is not. A tree grows, and so do I (when I eat too much), but I do not choose to grow any more than the tree does; it is a thing that happens quite autonomously in both cases, and so is not an action suitable for poesis. I cannot imagine the subjective experience of being a tree; as far as the evidence goes, trees have no subjective experience. A tree that learns to talk and move and exert conscious control over its environment, like Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings, is a valid character; but in so far as it begins to be a character, it ceases to be what we call a tree.

With these modifications and extensions to the philosopher’s terms, we can let his definition stand. We can further define drama as that kind of poesis in which the actions are visibly performed, either by actors on a stage (or film-set), or by animated drawings and other kinds of special effects. Indeed, it is only by the latter technique that characters not in human form can be convincingly included in a drama at all. For me the musical Cats, considered as a drama, is a complete failure, for many reasons, but for one above all: the actors are so obviously not cats, but human beings in silly costumes. As Tolkien once said of a stage performance of ‘Puss-in-Boots’, I cannot just suspend my disbelief; I have to have it hanged, drawn, and quartered. This I am seldom willing to do, especially if I have to pay Broadway prices for the privilege. Aristotle makes drama out to be a different art-form from that which I am calling poesis; but it will do better to treat it as a species or subset of poesis, in which the additional elements of scenery and performance are present.

The rest of the first chapter is taken up with a discussion of various Greek metres and their uses. This will be useful to anyone who takes up the interesting hobby of reading Greek verse, but it has nothing to do with our present purpose. The one thing that centuries of English poets have proved by trying to imitate Greek metrical forms is that Greek metres simply do not go into English. I shall therefore leave this matter aside.


  1. Cats is not drama but spectacle, or rather it is drama in which spectacle is the primary element.

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