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 style being telegraphic and highly concentrated. The work is not self-explanatory and self-sufficient. It must be interpreted by the 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 anomalies, 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, and proceeds to establish the superiority of poetry over philosophy and its educational value.
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 ignored descriptive poetry of nature. The treatment of Comedy and Tragedy is incomplete.
Much of 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’s theories 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 Many of his views have grown outdated and unfit for universal application.
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. “An advocate might argue that English drama had a similar origin in the church and that an exponent of Shakespeare may well be aware of the fact yet find no need to stress it..,..Aristotle’s theory here remains a puzzle. It is as if a writer on primitive Italian painting, observing that the painters took all their subjects from the Bible, should offer as an explanation that nowhere else could they find subjects proper for painting. We can only suppose either that the religious function of Tragedy was less obvious in the Fourth century B.C. than it seems to us, or else that this was another of the very few matters in which Aristotle took no interest.”
Secondly, the weakest feature of the Poetics is the treatment of literary style. ‘Style’, says Cardinal Newman; “is the shadow of personality, and Longinus finds in the sublime language of great literature ‘the true ring of a great soul’. To Aristotle all that would sound sentimental. In considering the subject-matter of Tragedy he was not concerned to recognize dramatists as prophets whose themes were the major problems of human destiny. He gives no hint that Aeschylus had a sweep and grandeur, infinitely greater than his Fourth-century successors, so in dealing with style he has no concern with personality or souls.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
The Shortcomings of ‘The Poetics’ :—
1. Too brief; neither exhaustive nor coherent.
2. Disproportionate handling of the subject; no treatment of lyric poetry.
3. Neither self-explanatory nor self-sufficient.
4. Full of irregularities, anomalies, digressions, omissions, contradic-tions, repetitions.
5. Views conditioned by contemporary social and literary conditions.
6. Advocacy of poetry : hence one sided ; partial.
7. Overlooks the religious origin of the drama.
8. Inadequate treatment of style.
9. Too primitive.
Conclusion : All these shortcomings should not be allowed to belittle Aristotle’s greatness. These crept into it because the Poetics was not attempted as a book but was produced by scholars of later generations from Aristotle’s lecture-notes. Many links were either not available or were lost or were not intelligible.