The Poetics is a short treatise of twenty-six chapters. It is neither exhaustive nor coherent. The handling of the subject is disproportionate. Lyric poetry has been practically ignored and so has been descriptive poetry of nature.
Comedy and tragedy have been slightly and superficially treated. The larger part of the discussion is devoted to tragedy. Tragedy was regarded in the age as the form in which all earlier poetry culminated and this accounts for the excessive importance which Aristotle attaches to it. The style is telegraphic and highly concentrated. The work is not self-explanatory and self-sufficient. It must constantly be interpreted by other works of the Greek philosopher, more specially his Ethics, Politics and the lost dialogue on the Poet. It is a work obviously not meant for publication. There are irregularities and anamolies, constant digressions, omissions, contradictions, repetitions, showing haste and lack of revision. Often there are signs of hesitation and uncertainty in the use of terminology. Aristotle’s theories are not wholly the result of free and dispassionate reflection. His views are conditioned by contemporary social and literary influences. The main trend of his argument is determined by Plato’s attack upon poetry. Aristotle takes up the challenge of Plato at the end of Republic X, and proceeds to establish the superiority of poetry over philosophy and its educational value.
Much of the Poetics is in the nature of special pleading on behalf of poetry, and so has all the defects of such an advocacy. “Even to accomplished scholars the meaning is often obscure.” Interpretations differ from critic to critic, to the great confusion and bewilderment of the student. Aristotle’stheories are based exclusively on Greek poetry and drama with which he was familiar. Many of his views have grown outdated and unfit
for universal application.
W. Hamilton Fyfe has pointed out two defects in the Poetics. According to him, the Poetics is not upto the mark because Aristotle has overlooked the religious origin of Greek drama.
Inspite of its shortcomings—its unedited and mutilated form, its cryptic utterance, its contradictions and omissions—the Poetics, is an important landmark in the history of literary criticism. It is the most significant thing for the study of literature that has come down to us from Greek civilization. First of all, it represents the final judgment of the Greeks themselves upon two, and perhaps the leading two, Hellenic inventions : Epic Poetry and Tragic Drama. Aristotle has systematized and completed the work of his predecessors with great independence of judgement. The brief treasure is important, secondly, because directly, or indirectly, it has commanded more attention than any other book of literary criticism, so that the course of literary history after it is not intelligible without an acquaintance with the Poetics, at first hand, whether in the original or through a translation.
But further, the work has a permanent value, quite apart from historical considerations. Aristotle’s fundamental assumptions, and the generalization upon which he mainly insists, are as true of any modern literature as they are of his own. That a work of art, for instance—a drama, or the like— may be compared to a living organism every part of whose structure is essential for the function of the whole, is a contention having validity for all ages. And the same may also be said of his contention that poetry has its own standard of correctness or fitness, and is to be judged primarily by its own laws.
The Poetics is further valuable for its method and perspective. Simply and directly it lays emphasis upon what is of first importance ; upon the vital structure of a poem rather than the metre; upon the end and aim of tragedy in its effect upon the emotions rather than on the history of the Chorus. Profound thoughts are expressed in language suited to a scientific inquiry. Starting with the Platonic assumption that a literary form, an oration, for example, or a tragedy, has the nature of a living organism, Aristotle advances to the position that each distinct kind of literature must have a definite and characteristic activity or function. He selects out of a large fund of literature, a small number of tragedies which must necessarily conform more nearly than the rest to ideal type. By a penetrating scrutiny of these, “crucial instances,” in tragedy, he defines the proper effect of this kind of literature upon the ideal spectator, namely, the effect which he terms the catharsis of pity and fear, the purgation of the two disturbing emotions. Then, reasoning from function back to form, and from form again to function, he tests each select tragedy, and every part of it, by the way in which the part and the whole conduced to this emotional relief. In this manner, he arrives at the conception of an ideal structure for tragedy, a pattern which, though never fully realized in any existing Greek drama, must yet constitute the standard for all of its kind.
So the Poetics is an epoch-making work, a work which is a storehouse of literary theories, one of the great ‘world-books’, a book whose influence has been continuous and universal. Some of the more important reasons of its greatness are :—
1. Aristotle discards the earlier, oracular method, in which critical pronouncement were supposed to be the result of some prophetic insight. He also discards Plato’s dialectic method (use of dialogue) as inadequate for arriving at a positive and coherent statement of truth.
2. The Greek philosopher starts from concrete facts, that is, existing Greek poetry and drama, and through analysis of facts arrives at his principles and generalisation for which, like a scientist, he claims no finality. His methods are explanatory and tentative. It is an attempt to arrive at the truth, rather than an assertion of some preconceived notions.
3. Throughout he studies poetry in relation to man. He traces it back to the fundamental instincts of human nature, i.e. the instinct of imitation and the instinct for harmony. Thus his method of inquiry is psychological. It is the first psychological study of the poetic process. Tragedy he justifies by its emotional effects.
4. In the Poetics, Aristotle also originates the historical method of inquiry. He notes different phases in the evolution of Greek poetry, and thus his work becomes a stating point for subsequent literary histories.
5. Though Aristotle never claimed any finality for his principles, yet, says Atkins, the miracle of ‘the Poetics’ is that it contains so much that is of permanent and universal interest”. And this is so because the literature on which it was based was no artificial product of a sophisticated society, but the natural expression of a race guided solely by what was elemental
in human nature.”
6. The work is full of ideas that are as today as they were when it was written.
7. Aristotle’s greatness lies in the fact that he raised the essential problems, though he was not always successful in providing solutions. The Poetics is thought-provoking; it is a great stimulant to thought. Aristotle asks the right type of questions, and literary theory has grown and advanced by seeking answers to Aristotle’s questions.
Its Influence on the Future Critics
The influence of the Poetics on the future generations can be traced in another way, that is, by tracing the reaction of major critics of different ages:—
1. Ben Jonson : According to Ben Jonson, Aristotle was the first accurate critic and truest judge, nay, the greatest philosopher the world ever had he taught us two offices together; how we ought to judge rightly of others, and what we ought to imitate specially in ourselves.
2. Milton : Milton called Aristotfe’s Poetics a teacher which teaches sublime art.
3. Sidney: Truly, Aristotle himself, in his Discourse of Poesy, plainly determineth this question, saying that poetry is more philosophical and more studiously serious than history. His reason is, because poesy
dealeth…with the universal consideration, and the history with……….the particular……….which reason of his, as all his, is most full of reason.
4. Coleridge : I adopt with full face the principle of Aristotle, that poetry is essentially ideal, that it avoids and eludes all accident………
5. Wordsworth : Aristotle, I have been told, hath said that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing. It is so : its object is truth, not individual and local but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion.
6. Burke : Aristotle has spoken so much and so solidly upon the force of imitation, in his Poetics, that it makes any further discourse upon this subject the less necessary.
7. Bywater : According to Bywater, Aristotle tells us in his Poetics how to construct a good play and a good epic And in doing this, he
has succeeded in formulating once for all the great first principles of the dramatic art, the canons of dramatic logic which even the most adventurous of modern dramatists can only at his peril forget or set at naught.
8. T. S. Eliot: He (Aristotle) was primarily a man of not remarkable but universal intelligence; and universal intelligence means that he could apply his intelligence to anything.
9. Elder Olso : Aristotle can be said to have developed not only a permanently true but also an indefinitely operable poetic method.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. The Poetics : Short treatise of 26 chapters; mainly discusses tragedy, epic and comedy; ignores lyric poetry—telegraphic style, too brief; needs interpreter; not a book but in the form of lecture-notes of a teacher.
2. Glaring faults—full of irregularities, anomalies, digressions, omissions, repetitions, hasty.
3. Yet valuable—first thoroughly philosophical discussion of literature; a universal exposition of the principles of-literary criticism.
4. Valuable for its method and perspective.
5. A unique and pioneering treatise on tragedy and epic poetry.
6. Also valuable because of its new method, new approach, new insights, new definitions; studies poetry in relation to man; theory of imitation and catharsis—unique contributions.
7. Originates historical method of criticism.
8. Atkins : The Poetics contains a great deal of that which is of permanent and universal interest.
9. Aristotle raised essential and thought-provoking problems.
10. It influenced and inspired future critics and writers—Sidney, Ben Jonson, Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Burke, Arnold, Eliot, and others.