Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’

Tragedy, comedy, and agon

An essai on chapter 4 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in imitation.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Along with imitation, Aristotle lists harmony and rhythm as natural human faculties that cause us to enjoy poetry and drama; and we should add (though the philosopher omits it) the faculty of language itself. None of us were born speaking Greek, and a few of us here and there have not got the hang of it even yet. But everybody speaks some language, unless prevented by some bodily defect. And every language I know of has some form of poetry.

In the fourth chapter of the Poetics, however, language is a side issue. Aristotle here is concerned with two things: first, to show how and why poetry develops as an imitative art, and second, to briefly trace the history of Greek poetry down to the full development of tragedy. [Read more…]

Medium and genre

An essai on chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Poetics.

A third difference in these arts is the manner in which each kind of object is represented. Given both the same means and the same kind of object or imitation, one may either (1) speak at one moment in narrative and at another in assumed character, as Homer does; or (2) one may remain the same throughout, without any such change; or (3) the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically, as though they were actually doing the things described.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Here Aristotle arrives at the fundamental distinction of genre, in the older sense of the word. In the Greek system of classification (which he here describes), all poesis is divisible into three genres: drama, dithyramb, and epic. The dithyramb is pure narrative, without any direct dialogue; it is very rare in modern fiction, though it sometimes occurs in popular songs. As writers, we are likely to use this mode mostly for writing synopses or outlines; and then we will use prose narrative, rather than the dithyramb proper (which is a particular verse form, in one of those Greek metres I mentioned earlier, which will not go into English).
[Read more…]

Vice and virtue

An essai on chapter 2 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad — the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are.

—Aristotle, Poetics

The second chapter of the Poetics is one of the shortest in the book; but it is here that we come to a pons asinorum, an obstacle that many would-be critics never get across, and I am not entirely sure that Aristotle himself had crossed it when he wrote this particular book. But as writers we must get across, because the entire business of character and its depiction in poesis lies on the other side. [Read more…]


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. [Read more…]