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Full text of "Ancient Classic Texts before 400 B.C."

350 BC 
POETICS 
by Aristotle 

Translated by S. H. Butcher 

POETICS 1 



I PROPOSE to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, 
noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of 
the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of 
the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever 
else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of 
nature, let us begin with the principles which come first. 

Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the 
music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all 
in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, 
however, from one another in three respects- the medium, the 
objects, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct. 

For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit, 
imitate and represent various objects through the medium of color 
and form, or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken 
as a whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or 
'harmony, ' either singly or combined. 

Thus in the music of the flute and of the lyre, 'harmony' and rhythm 
alone are employed; also in other arts, such as that of the shepherd's 
pipe, which are essentially similar to these. In dancing, rhythm alone 
is used without 'harmony'; for even dancing imitates character, 
emotion, and action, by rhythmical movement. 

There is another art which imitates by means of language alone, 
and that either in prose or verse- which verse, again, may either 
combine different meters or consist of but one kind- but this has 
hitherto been without a name. For there is no common term we could 
apply to the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues 
on the one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic, 
elegiac, or any similar meter. People do, indeed, add the word 'maker' 
or 'poet' to the name of the meter, and speak of elegiac poets, or 
epic (that is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation 
that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all to the name. 
Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out 
in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet 
Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that 
it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather 
than poet. On the same principle, even if a writer in his poetic 
imitation were to combine all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur, 
which is a medley composed of meters of all kinds, we should bring him 
too under the general term poet. 

So much then for these distinctions. 

There are, again, some arts which employ all the means above 
mentioned- namely, rhythm, tune, and meter. Such are Dithyrambic and 
Nomic poetry, and also Tragedy and Comedy; but between them originally 
the difference is, that in the first two cases these means are all 
employed in combination, in the latter, now one means is employed, now 
another . 

Such, then, are the differences of the arts with respect to the 
medium of imitation 
POETICS | 2 

II 

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must 
be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly 
answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the 



distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must 
represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as 
they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as 
nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true 
to life. 

Now it is evident that each of the modes of imitation above 
mentioned will exhibit these differences, and become a distinct kind 
in imitating objects that are thus distinct. Such diversities may be 
found even in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in 
language, whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music. Homer, for 
example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon 
the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of 
the Deiliad, worse than they are. The same thing holds good of 
Dithyrambs and Nomes; here too one may portray different types, as 
Timotheus and Philoxenus differed in representing their Cyclopes. 
The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at 
representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life. 
POETICS | 3 

III 

There is still a third difference- the manner in which each of these 
objects may be imitated. For the medium being the same, and the 
objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration- in which case 
he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in 
his own person, unchanged- or he may present all his characters as 
living and moving before us. 

These, then, as we said at the beginning, are the three 
differences which distinguish artistic imitation- the medium, the 
objects, and the manner. So that from one point of view, Sophocles 
is an imitator of the same kind as Homer- for both imitate higher 
types of character; from another point of view, of the same kind as 
Aristophanes- for both imitate persons acting and doing. Hence, some 
say, the name of 'drama' is given to such poems, as representing 
action. For the same reason the Dorians claim the invention both of 
Tragedy and Comedy. The claim to Comedy is put forward by the 
Megarians- not only by those of Greece proper, who allege that it 
originated under their democracy, but also by the Megarians of Sicily, 
for the poet Epicharmus, who is much earlier than Chionides and 
Magnes, belonged to that country. Tragedy too is claimed by certain 
Dorians of the Peloponnese. In each case they appeal to the evidence 
of language. The outlying villages, they say, are by them called 
komai, by the Athenians demoi : and they assume that comedians were 
so named not from komazein, 'to revel, ' but because they wandered from 
village to village (kata komas) , being excluded contemptuously from 
the city. They add also that the Dorian word for 'doing' is dran, 
and the Athenian, prattein. 

This may suffice as to the number and nature of the various modes of 
imitation . 
POETICS | 4 

IV 

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them 
lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is 
implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and 
other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, 
and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less 
universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of 
this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view 
with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute 
fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead 
bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the 
liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general; 
whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the 
reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it 



they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, 
that is he . ' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the 
pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the 
execution, the coloring, or some such other cause. 

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the 
instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of 
rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift 
developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude 
improvisations gave birth to Poetry. 

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual 
character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, 
and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the 
actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former 
did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the 
satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than 
Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer 
onward, instances can be cited- his own Margites, for example, and 
other similar compositions. The appropriate meter was also here 
introduced; hence the measure is still called the iambic or lampooning 
measure, being that in which people lampooned one another. Thus the 
older poets were distinguished as writers of heroic or of lampooning 
verse . 

As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he 
alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too 
first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous 
instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same 
relation to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy. But 
when Tragedy and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets 
still followed their natural bent: the lampooners became writers of 
Comedy, and the Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the 
drama was a larger and higher form of art. 

Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and 
whether it is to be judged in itself, or in relation also to the 
audience- this raises another question. Be that as it may, Tragedy- as 
also Comedy- was at first mere improvisation. The one originated 
with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic 
songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy 
advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in 
turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its 
natural form, and there it stopped. 

Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the 
importance of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the 
dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to three, and added 
scene-painting. Moreover, it was not till late that the short plot was 
discarded for one of greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the 
earlier satyric form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic 
measure then replaced the trochaic tetrameter, which was originally 
employed when the poetry was of the satyric order, and had greater 
with dancing. Once dialogue had come in, Nature herself discovered the 
appropriate measure. For the iambic is, of all measures, the most 
colloquial we see it in the fact that conversational speech runs 
into iambic lines more frequently than into any other kind of verse; 
rarely into hexameters, and only when we drop the colloquial 
intonation. The additions to the number of 'episodes' or acts, and the 
other accessories of which tradition tells, must be taken as already 
described; for to discuss them in detail would, doubtless, be a 
large undertaking. 
POETICS | 5 

V 

Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower 
type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous 
being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect 
or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious 



example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply 
pain . 

The successive changes through which Tragedy passed, and the authors 
of these changes, are well known, whereas Comedy has had no history, 
because it was not at first treated seriously. It was late before 
the Archon granted a comic chorus to a poet; the performers were 
till then voluntary. Comedy had already taken definite shape when 
comic poets, distinctively so called, are heard of. Who furnished it 
with masks, or prologues, or increased the number of actors- these and 
other similar details remain unknown. As for the plot, it came 
originally from Sicily; but of Athenian writers Crates was the first 
who abandoning the 'iambic' or lampooning form, generalized his themes 
and plots . 

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in 
verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic 
poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They 
differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as 
possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or 
but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no 
limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at 
first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry. 

Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to 
Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows 
also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found 
in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the 
Epic poem. 
POETICS | 6 

VI 

Of the poetry which imitates in hexameter verse, and of Comedy, we 
will speak hereafter. Let us now discuss Tragedy, resuming its 
formal definition, as resulting from what has been already said. 

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, 
complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with 
each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in 
separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; 
through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these 
emotions. By 'language embellished, ' I mean language into which 
rhythm, 'harmony' and song enter. By 'the several kinds in separate 
parts, ' I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of 
verse alone, others again with the aid of song. 

Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily 
follows in the first place, that Spectacular equipment will be a 
part of Tragedy. Next, Song and Diction, for these are the media of 
imitation. By 'Diction' I mean the mere metrical arrangement of the 
words: as for 'Song, ' it is a term whose sense every one understands. 

Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action 
implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive 
qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we 
qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are 
the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again 
all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of 
the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the 
incidents. By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe 
certain qualities to the agents. Thought is required wherever a 
statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated. 
Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine 
its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, 
Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the 
manner, and three the objects of imitation. And these complete the 
fist. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a 
man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well as 
Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought. 

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For 



Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and 
life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a 
quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by 
their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, 
therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: 
character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents 
and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief 
thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there 
may be without character. The tragedies of most of our modern poets 
fail in the rendering of character; and of poets in general this is 
often true. It is the same in painting; and here lies the difference 
between Zeuxis and Polygnotus . Polygnotus delineates character well; 
the style of Zeuxis is devoid of ethical quality. Again, if you string 
together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well 
finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the 
essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however 
deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically 
constructed incidents. Besides which, the most powerful elements of 
emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia or Reversal of the 
Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of the plot. A further 
proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish of diction and 
precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot. It is the 
same with almost all the early poets. 

The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of 
a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in 
painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give 
as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is 
the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to 
the action. 

Third in order is Thought- that is, the faculty of saying what is 
possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory, 
this is the function of the political art and of the art of 
rhetoric: and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak 
the language of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the 
rhetoricians. Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing 
what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, 
which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not 
choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character. 
Thought, on the other hand, is found where something is proved to be 
or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated. 

Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean, 
as has been already said, the expression of the meaning in words; 
and its essence is the same both in verse and prose. 

Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among the 
embellishments 

The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, 
but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least 
with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is 
felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the 
production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage 
machinist than on that of the poet. 
POETICS | 7 

VII 

These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper 
structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important 
thing in Tragedy. 

Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an 
action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for 
there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that 
which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which 
does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which 
something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is 
that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by 



necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is 
that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well 
constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at 
haphazard, but conform to these principles. 

Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any 
whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement 
of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty 
depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism 
cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object 
being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, 
can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all 
in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the 
spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. 
As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain 
magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced 
in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a 
length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length 
in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no 
part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred 
tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been 
regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done. 
But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: 
the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason 
of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the 
matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised 
within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the 
law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad 
fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad. 
POETICS | 8 

VIII 

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the 
unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one 
man's life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are 
many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. 
Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a 
Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as 
Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. 
But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether 
from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth. 
In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of 
Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at 
the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no 
necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and 
likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the 
word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the 
imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being 
an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, 
the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of 
them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and 
disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible 
difference, is not an organic part of the whole. 
POETICS | 9 

IX 

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the 
function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- 
what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The 
poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The 
work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a 
species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true 
difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may 
happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher 
thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history 



the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type 
on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or 
necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the 
names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for 
example- what Alcibiades did or suffered. In Comedy this is already 
apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines 
of probability, and then inserts characteristic names- unlike the 
lampooners who write about particular individuals. But tragedians 
still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is 
credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be 
possible; but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it 
would not have happened. Still there are even some tragedies in 
which there are only one or two well-known names, the rest being 
fictitious. In others, none are well known- as in Agathon ' s Antheus, 
where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none 
the less pleasure. We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the 
received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, 
it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are 
known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly 
follows that the poet or 'maker' should be the maker of plots rather 
than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he 
imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a historical 
subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some 
events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of 
the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is 
their poet or maker. 

Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot 
'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without 
probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their 
own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they write 
show pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its 
capacity, and are often forced to break the natural continuity. 

But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, 
but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best 
produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is 
heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect. 
The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of 
themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking 
when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys 
at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a 
festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere 
chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are 
necessarily the best. 
POETICS | 10 

X 

Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life, of 
which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar 
distinction. An action which is one and continuous in the sense 
above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place 
without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition 

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such 
Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise 
from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should 
be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It 
makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of 
propter hoc or post hoc. 
POETICS | 11 

XI 

Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers 
round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or 
necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus 
and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he 



is, he produces the opposite effect. Again in the Lynceus, Lynceus 
is being led away to his death, and Danaus goes with him, meaning to 
slay him; but the outcome of the preceding incidents is that Danaus is 
killed and Lynceus saved. 

Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to 
knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by 
the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is 
coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus. 
There are indeed other forms. Even inanimate things of the most 
trivial kind may in a sense be objects of recognition. Again, we may 
recognize or discover whether a person has done a thing or not. But 
the recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot and 
action is, as we have said, the recognition of persons. This 
recognition, combined with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; 
and actions producing these effects are those which, by our 
definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon such situations 
that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend. Recognition, then, 
being between persons, it may happen that one person only is 
recognized by the other- when the latter is already known- or it may 
be necessary that the recognition should be on both sides. Thus 
Iphigenia is revealed to Orestes by the sending of the letter; but 
another act of recognition is required to make Orestes known to 
Iphigenia . 

Two parts, then, of the Plot- Reversal of the Situation and 
Recognition- turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of 
Suffering. The Scene of Suffering is a destructive or painful 
action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the 
like. 
POETICS | 12 

XII 

The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the 
whole have been already mentioned. We now come to the quantitative 
parts- the separate parts into which Tragedy is divided- namely, 
Prologue, Episode, Exode, Choric song; this last being divided into 
Parode and Stasimon. These are common to all plays: peculiar to some 
are the songs of actors from the stage and the Commoi. 

The Prologue is that entire part of a tragedy which precedes the 
Parode of the Chorus. The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy 
which is between complete choric songs. The Exode is that entire 
part of a tragedy which has no choric song after it. Of the Choric 
part the Parode is the first undivided utterance of the Chorus: the 
Stasimon is a Choric ode without anapaests or trochaic tetrameters: 
the Commos is a joint lamentation of Chorus and actors. The parts of 
Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been 
already mentioned. The quantitative parts- the separate parts into 
which it is divided- are here enumerated. 
POETICS | 13 

XIII 

As the sequel to what has already been said, we must proceed to 
consider what the poet should aim at, and what he should avoid, in 
constructing his plots; and by what means the specific effect of 
Tragedy will be produced. 

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the 
simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions 
which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of 
tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the 
change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous 
man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither 
pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man 
passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to 
the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it 
neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, 



again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot 
of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would 
inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited 
misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an 
event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, 
then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is 
not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not 
by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who 
is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, 
or other illustrious men of such families. 

A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, 
rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be 
not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come 
about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, 
in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than 
worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the 
poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best 
tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes of 
Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those 
others who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then, 
to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this 
construction. Hence they are in error who censure Euripides just 
because he follows this principle in his plays, many of which end 
unhappily. It is, as we have said, the right ending. The best proof is 
that on the stage and in dramatic competition, such plays, if well 
worked out, are the most tragic in effect; and Euripides, faulty 
though he may be in the general management of his subject, yet is felt 
to be the most tragic of the poets. 

In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first. 
Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite 
catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best 
because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided in 
what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, 
thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to 
Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies- like 
Orestes and Aegisthus- quit the stage as friends at the close, and 
no one slays or is slain. 
POETICS | 14 

XIV 

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also 
result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, 
and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed 
that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will 
thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the 
impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. 
But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic 
method, and dependent on extraneous aids . Those who employ spectacular 
means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, 
are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of 
Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is 
proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is 
that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident 
that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents. 

Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us 
as terrible or pitiful. 

Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are 
either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy 
kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or 
the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So 
again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs 
between those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example, 
a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a 
mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is 



done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may 
not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends- the fact, 
for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by 
Alcmaeon- but he ought to show of his own, and skilfully handle the 
traditional, material. Let us explain more clearly what is meant by 
skilful handling. 

The action may be done consciously and with knowledge of the 
persons, in the manner of the older poets. It is thus too that 
Euripides makes Medea slay her children. Or, again, the deed of horror 
may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or 
friendship be discovered afterwards. The Oedipus of Sophocles is an 
example. Here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper; but 
cases occur where it falls within the action of the play: one may cite 
the Alcmaeon of Astydamas, or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus. 
Again, there is a third case- [to be about to act with knowledge of 
the persons and then not to act. The fourth case] is when some one 
is about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the 
discovery before it is done. These are the only possible ways. For the 
deed must either be done or not done- and that wittingly or 
unwittingly. But of all these ways, to be about to act knowing the 
persons, and then not to act, is the worst. It is shocking without 
being tragic, for no disaster follows It is, therefore, never, or very 
rarely, found in poetry. One instance, however, is in the Antigone, 
where Haemon threatens to kill Creon. The next and better way is 
that the deed should be perpetrated. Still better, that it should be 
perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards. There 
is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a 
startling effect. The last case is the best, as when in the 
Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her son, but, recognizing who he 
is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister recognizes the 
brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son recognizes the 
mother when on the point of giving her up. This, then, is why a few 
families only, as has been already observed, furnish the subjects of 
tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that led the poets in 
search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots. 
They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses 
whose history contains moving incidents like these. 

Enough has now been said concerning the structure of the 
incidents, and the right kind of plot. 
POETICS | 15 

XV 

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, 
and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that 
manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: 
the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is 
relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; 
though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave 
quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a 
type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous 
cleverness is inappropriate. Thirdly, character must be true to 
life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as 
here described. The fourth point is consistency: for though the 
subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, 
still he must be consistently inconsistent. As an example of 
motiveless degradation of character, we have Menelaus in the 
Orestes; of character indecorous and inappropriate, the lament of 
Odysseus in the Scylla, and the speech of Melanippe; of inconsistency, 
the Iphigenia at Aulis- for Iphigenia the suppliant in no way 
resembles her later self. 

As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of 
character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the 
probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in 
a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just 



as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It 
is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the 
complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be 
brought about by the Deus ex Machina- as in the Medea, or in the 
return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The Deus ex Machina should be 
employed only for events external to the drama- for antecedent or 
subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, 
and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we 
ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must 
be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should 
be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element 
the Oedipus of Sophocles. 

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the 
common level, the example of good portrait painters should be 
followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the 
original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more 
beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or 
indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type 
and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and 
Homer . 

These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he 
neglect those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the 
essentials, are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much 
room for error. But of this enough has been said in our published 
treatises . 
POETICS | 16 

XVI 

What Recognition is has been already explained. We will now 
enumerate its kinds . 

First, the least artistic form, which, from poverty of wit, is 
most commonly employed- recognition by signs. Of these some are 
congenital- such as 'the spear which the earth-born race bear on their 
bodies, ' or the stars introduced by Carcinus in his Thyestes . Others 
are acquired after birth; and of these some are bodily marks, as 
scars; some external tokens, as necklaces, or the little ark in the 
Tyro by which the discovery is effected. Even these admit of more or 
less skilful treatment. Thus in the recognition of Odysseus by his 
scar, the discovery is made in one way by the nurse, in another by the 
swineherds. The use of tokens for the express purpose of proof- and, 
indeed, any formal proof with or without tokens- is a less artistic 
mode of recognition. A better kind is that which comes about by a turn 
of incident, as in the Bath Scene in the Odyssey. 

Next come the recognitions invented at will by the poet, and on that 
account wanting in art. For example, Orestes in the Iphigenia 
reveals the fact that he is Orestes. She, indeed, makes herself 
known by the letter; but he, by speaking himself, and saying what 
the poet, not what the plot requires. This, therefore, is nearly 
allied to the fault above mentioned- for Orestes might as well have 
brought tokens with him. Another similar instance is the 'voice of the 
shuttle' in the Tereus of Sophocles. 

The third kind depends on memory when the sight of some object 
awakens a feeling: as in the Cyprians of Dicaeogenes, where the hero 
breaks into tears on seeing the picture; or again in the Lay of 
Alcinous, where Odysseus, hearing the minstrel play the lyre, 
recalls the past and weeps; and hence the recognition. 

The fourth kind is by process of reasoning. Thus in the Choephori : 
'Some one resembling me has come: no one resembles me but Orestes: 
therefore Orestes has come. ' Such too is the discovery made by 
Iphigenia in the play of Polyidus the Sophist. It was a natural 
reflection for Orestes to make, 'So I too must die at the altar like 
my sister. ' So, again, in the Tydeus of Theodectes, the father says, 
'I came to find my son, and I lose my own life. ' So too in the 
Phineidae: the women, on seeing the place, inferred their fate- 



'Here we are doomed to die, for here we were cast forth. ' Again, there 
is a composite kind of recognition involving false inference on the 
part of one of the characters, as in the Odysseus Disguised as a 
Messenger. A said [that no one else was able to bend the bow; . . . 
hence B (the disguised Odysseus) imagined that A would] recognize 
the bow which, in fact, he had not seen; and to bring about a 
recognition by this means- the expectation that A would recognize 
the bow- is false inference. 

But, of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the 
incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural 
means. Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles, and in the Iphigenia; 
for it was natural that Iphigenia should wish to dispatch a letter. 
These recognitions alone dispense with the artificial aid of tokens or 
amulets. Next come the recognitions by process of reasoning. 
POETICS | 17 

XVII 

In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, 
the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his 
eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as 
if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in 
keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. The 
need of such a rule is shown by the fault found in Carcinus . 
Amphiaraus was on his way from the temple. This fact escaped the 
observation of one who did not see the situation. On the stage, 
however, the Piece failed, the audience being offended at the 
oversight . 

Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his 
power, with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are 
most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they 
represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages, 
with the most lifelike reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy 
gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can 
take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his 
proper self. 

As for the story, whether the poet takes it ready made or constructs 
it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then 
fill in the episodes and amplify in detail. The general plan may be 
illustrated by the Iphigenia. A young girl is sacrificed; she 
disappears mysteriously from the eyes of those who sacrificed her; she 
is transported to another country, where the custom is to offer up 
an strangers to the goddess. To this ministry she is appointed. Some 
time later her own brother chances to arrive. The fact that the oracle 
for some reason ordered him to go there, is outside the general plan 
of the play. The purpose, again, of his coming is outside the action 
proper. However, he comes, he is seized, and, when on the point of 
being sacrificed, reveals who he is. The mode of recognition may be 
either that of Euripides or of Polyidus, in whose play he exclaims 
very naturally: 'So it was not my sister only, but I too, who was 
doomed to be sacrificed'; and by that remark he is saved. 

After this, the names being once given, it remains to fill in the 
episodes. We must see that they are relevant to the action. In the 
case of Orestes, for example, there is the madness which led to his 
capture, and his deliverance by means of the purificatory rite. In the 
drama, the episodes are short, but it is these that give extension 
to Epic poetry. Thus the story of the Odyssey can be stated briefly. A 
certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously 
watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a 
wretched plight- suitors are wasting his substance and plotting 
against his son. At length, tempest-tost, he himself arrives; he makes 
certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his 
own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them. This is the 
essence of the plot; the rest is episode. 
POETICS | 18 



XVIII 

Every tragedy falls into two parts- Complication and Unraveling 
or Denouement. Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently 
combined with a portion of the action proper, to form the 
Complication; the rest is the Unraveling. By the Complication I mean 
all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which 
marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that 
which extends from the beginning of the change to the end. Thus, in 
the Lynceus of Theodectes, the Complication consists of the 
incidents presupposed in the drama, the seizure of the child, and then 
again . . . [the Unraveling] extends from the accusation of murder to 
the end. 

There are four kinds of Tragedy: the Complex, depending entirely 
on Reversal of the Situation and Recognition; the Pathetic (where 
the motive is passion)- such as the tragedies on Ajax and Ixion; the 
Ethical (where the motives are ethical)- such as the Phthiotides and 
the Peleus . The fourth kind is the Simple. [We here exclude the purely 
spectacular element], exemplified by the Phorcides, the Prometheus, 
and scenes laid in Hades. The poet should endeavor, if possible, to 
combine all poetic elements; or failing that, the greatest number 
and those the most important; the more so, in face of the caviling 
criticism of the day. For whereas there have hitherto been good poets, 
each in his own branch, the critics now expect one man to surpass 
all others in their several lines of excellence. 

In speaking of a tragedy as the same or different, the best test 
to take is the plot. Identity exists where the Complication and 
Unraveling are the same. Many poets tie the knot well, but unravel 
it Both arts, however, should always be mastered. 

Again, the poet should remember what has been often said, and not 
make an Epic structure into a tragedy- by an Epic structure I mean one 
with a multiplicity of plots- as if, for instance, you were to make 
a tragedy out of the entire story of the Iliad. In the Epic poem, 
owing to its length, each part assumes its proper magnitude. In the 
drama the result is far from answering to the poet's expectation. 
The proof is that the poets who have dramatized the whole story of the 
Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions, like Euripides; or who 
have taken the whole tale of Niobe, and not a part of her story, 
like Aeschylus, either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the 
stage. Even Agathon has been known to fail from this one defect. In 
his Reversals of the Situation, however, he shows a marvelous skill in 
the effort to hit the popular taste- to produce a tragic effect that 
satisfies the moral sense. This effect is produced when the clever 
rogue, like Sisyphus, is outwitted, or the brave villain defeated. 
Such an event is probable in Agathon ' s sense of the word: 'is 
probable, ' he says, 'that many things should happen contrary to 
probability . ' 

The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be 
an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, in the 
manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles. As for the later poets, 
their choral songs pertain as little to the subject of the piece as to 
that of any other tragedy. They are, therefore, sung as mere 
interludes- a practice first begun by Agathon. Yet what difference 
is there between introducing such choral interludes, and 
transferring a speech, or even a whole act, from one play to another. 
POETICS | 19 

XIX 

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of 
Tragedy having been already discussed, concerning Thought, we may 
assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more 
strictly belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has 
to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and 
refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, 



and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. Now, it is 
evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same 
points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke 
the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. The only 
difference is that the incidents should speak for themselves without 
verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the 
speaker, and as a result of the speech. For what were the business 
of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed quite apart from what he 
says? 

Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the 
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the 
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for 
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a 
question, an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things 
involves no serious censure upon the poet's art. For who can admit the 
fault imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, 'Sing, 
goddess, of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he 
utters a prayer? For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it 
is, he says, a command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an 
inquiry that belongs to another art, not to poetry. 
POETICS | 20 

XX 

Language in general includes the following parts: Letter, 
Syllable, Connecting Word, Noun, Verb, Inflection or Case, Sentence or 
Phrase . 

A Letter is an indivisible sound, yet not every such sound, but only 
one which can form part of a group of sounds. For even brutes utter 
indivisible sounds, none of which I call a letter. The sound I mean 
may be either a vowel, a semivowel, or a mute. A vowel is that which 
without impact of tongue or lip has an audible sound. A semivowel that 
which with such impact has an audible sound, as S and R. A mute, 
that which with such impact has by itself no sound, but joined to a 
vowel sound becomes audible, as G and D. These are distinguished 
according to the form assumed by the mouth and the place where they 
are produced; according as they are aspirated or smooth, long or 
short; as they are acute, grave, or of an intermediate tone; which 
inquiry belongs in detail to the writers on meter. 

A Syllable is a nonsignificant sound, composed of a mute and a 
vowel: for GR without A is a syllable, as also with A- GRA . But the 
investigation of these differences belongs also to metrical science. 

A Connecting Word is a nonsignificant sound, which neither causes 
nor hinders the union of many sounds into one significant sound; it 
may be placed at either end or in the middle of a sentence. Or, a 
nonsignificant sound, which out of several sounds, each of them 
significant, is capable of forming one significant sound- as amphi, 
peri, and the like. Or, a nonsignificant sound, which marks the 
beginning, end, or division of a sentence; such, however, that it 
cannot correctly stand by itself at the beginning of a sentence- as 
men, etoi, de . 

A Noun is a composite significant sound, not marking time, of 
which no part is in itself significant: for in double or compound 
words we do not employ the separate parts as if each were in itself 
significant. Thus in Theodorus, 'god-given, ' the doron or 'gift' is 
not in itself significant. 

A Verb is a composite significant sound, marking time, in which, 
as in the noun, no part is in itself significant. For 'man' or 'white' 
does not express the idea of 'when'; but 'he walks' or 'he has walked' 
does connote time, present or past. 

Inflection belongs both to the noun and verb, and expresses either 
the relation 'of, ' 'to, ' or the like; or that of number, whether one 
or many, as 'man' or 'men'; or the modes or tones in actual 
delivery, e.g., a question or a command. 'Did he go?' and 'go' are 
verbal inflections of this kind. 



A Sentence or Phrase is a composite significant sound, some at least 
of whose parts are in themselves significant; for not every such group 
of words consists of verbs and nouns- 'the definition of man, ' for 
example- but it may dispense even with the verb. Still it will 
always have some significant part, as 'in walking, ' or 'Cleon son of 
Cleon. ' A sentence or phrase may form a unity in two ways- either as 
signifying one thing, or as consisting of several parts linked 
together. Thus the Iliad is one by the linking together of parts, 
the definition of man by the unity of the thing signified. 
POETICS | 21 

XXI 

Words are of two kinds, simple and double. By simple I mean those 
composed of nonsignificant elements, such as ge, 'earth. ' By double or 
compound, those composed either of a significant and nonsignificant 
element (though within the whole word no element is significant) , or 
of elements that are both significant. A word may likewise be 
triple, quadruple, or multiple in form, like so many Massilian 
expressions, e.g., ' Hermo-caico-xanthus [who prayed to Father Zeus] .' 

Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or 
ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered. 

By a current or proper word I mean one which is in general use among 
a people; by a strange word, one which is in use in another country. 
Plainly, therefore, the same word may be at once strange and 
current, but not in relation to the same people. The word sigynon, 
'lance, ' is to the Cyprians a current term but to us a strange one. 

Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference 
either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from 
species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. Thus from 
genus to species, as: 'There lies my ship'; for lying at anchor is a 
species of lying. From species to genus, as: 'Verily ten thousand 
noble deeds hath Odysseus wrought'; for ten thousand is a species of 
large number, and is here used for a large number generally. From 
species to species, as: 'With blade of bronze drew away the life, ' and 
'Cleft the water with the vessel of unyielding bronze. ' Here arusai, 
'to draw away' is used for tamein, 'to cleave, ' and tamein, again 
for arusai- each being a species of taking away. Analogy or proportion 
is when the second term is to the first as the fourth to the third. We 
may then use the fourth for the second, or the second for the 
fourth. Sometimes too we qualify the metaphor by adding the term to 
which the proper word is relative. Thus the cup is to Dionysus as 
the shield to Ares. The cup may, therefore, be called 'the shield of 
Dionysus, ' and the shield 'the cup of Ares. ' Or, again, as old age 
is to life, so is evening to day. Evening may therefore be called, 
'the old age of the day, ' and old age, 'the evening of life, ' or, in 
the phrase of Empedocles, 'life's setting sun. ' For some of the 
terms of the proportion there is at times no word in existence; 
still the metaphor may be used. For instance, to scatter seed is 
called sowing: but the action of the sun in scattering his rays is 
nameless. Still this process bears to the sun the same relation as 
sowing to the seed. Hence the expression of the poet 'sowing the 
god-created light.' There is another way in which this kind of 
metaphor may be employed. We may apply an alien term, and then deny of 
that term one of its proper attributes; as if we were to call the 
shield, not 'the cup of Ares, ' but 'the wineless cup' . 

A newly-coined word is one which has never been even in local use, 
but is adopted by the poet himself. Some such words there appear to 
be: as ernyges, 'sprouters, ' for kerata, 'horns'; and areter, 
' supplicator ' , for hiereus, 'priest.' 

A word is lengthened when its own vowel is exchanged for a longer 
one, or when a syllable is inserted. A word is contracted when some 
part of it is removed. Instances of lengthening are: poleos for 
poleos, Peleiadeo for Peleidou; of contraction: kri, do, and ops, as 
in mia ginetai amphoteron ops, 'the appearance of both is one. ' 



An altered word is one in which part of the ordinary form is left 
unchanged, and part is recast: as in dexiteron kata mazon, 'on the 
right breast, ' dexiteron is for dexion. 

Nouns in themselves are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. 
Masculine are such as end in N, R, S, or in some letter compounded 
with S- these being two, PS and X. Feminine, such as end in vowels 
that are always long, namely E and 0, and- of vowels that admit of 
lengthening- those in A. Thus the number of letters in which nouns 
masculine and feminine end is the same; for PS and X are equivalent to 
endings in S. No noun ends in a mute or a vowel short by nature. Three 
only end in I- meli, 'honey'; kommi, 'gum'; peperi, 'pepper'; five end 
in U. Neuter nouns end in these two latter vowels; also in N and S. 
POETICS | 22 

XXII 

The perfection of style is to be clear without being mean. The 
clearest style is that which uses only current or proper words; at the 
same time it is mean- witness the poetry of Cleophon and of Sthenelus . 
That diction, on the other hand, is lofty and raised above the 
commonplace which employs unusual words. By unusual, I mean strange 
(or rare) words, metaphorical, lengthened- anything, in short, that 
differs from the normal idiom. Yet a style wholly composed of such 
words is either a riddle or a jargon; a riddle, if it consists of 
metaphors; a jargon, if it consists of strange (or rare) words. For 
the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible 
combinations. Now this cannot be done by any arrangement of 
ordinary words, but by the use of metaphor it can. Such is the riddle: 
'A man I saw who on another man had glued the bronze by aid of 
fire, ' and others of the same kind. A diction that is made up of 
strange (or rare) terms is a jargon. A certain infusion, therefore, of 
these elements is necessary to style; for the strange (or rare) 
word, the metaphorical, the ornamental, and the other kinds above 
mentioned, will raise it above the commonplace and mean, while the use 
of proper words will make it perspicuous. But nothing contributes more 
to produce a cleanness of diction that is remote from commonness 
than the lengthening, contraction, and alteration of words. For by 
deviating in exceptional cases from the normal idiom, the language 
will gain distinction; while, at the same time, the partial conformity 
with usage will give perspicuity. The critics, therefore, are in error 
who censure these licenses of speech, and hold the author up to 
ridicule. Thus Eucleides, the elder, declared that it would be an easy 
matter to be a poet if you might lengthen syllables at will. He 
caricatured the practice in the very form of his diction, as in the 
verse : 

Epicharen eidon Marathonade badizonta, 
I saw Epichares walking to Marathon, 

or, 

ouk an g'eramenos ton ekeinou elleboron. 
Not if you desire his hellebore. 

To employ such license at all obtrusively is, no doubt, grotesque; but 
in any mode of poetic diction there must be moderation. Even 
metaphors, strange (or rare) words, or any similar forms of speech, 
would produce the like effect if used without propriety and with the 
express purpose of being ludicrous. How great a difference is made 
by the appropriate use of lengthening, may be seen in Epic poetry by 
the insertion of ordinary forms in the verse. So, again, if we take 
a strange (or rare) word, a metaphor, or any similar mode of 
expression, and replace it by the current or proper term, the truth of 
our observation will be manifest. For example, Aeschylus and Euripides 
each composed the same iambic line. But the alteration of a single 



word by Euripides, who employed the rarer term instead of the ordinary 
one, makes one verse appear beautiful and the other trivial. Aeschylus 
in his Philoctetes says: 

phagedaina d'he mou sarkas esthiei podos . 

The tumor which is eating the flesh of my foot. 

Euripides substitutes thoinatai, 'feasts on, ' for esthiei, 'feeds on. ' 
Again, in the line, 

nun de m'eon oligos te kai outidanos kai aeikes, 
Yet a small man, worthless and unseemly, 

the difference will be felt if we substitute the common words, 

nun de m'eon mikros te kai asthenikos kai aeides . 
Yet a little fellow, weak and ugly. 

Or, if for the line, 

diphron aeikelion katatheis oligen te trapezan, 
Setting an unseemly couch and a meager table, 

we read, 

diphron mochtheron katatheis mikran te trapezan. 
Setting a wretched couch and a puny table. 

Or, for eiones booosin, 'the sea shores roar, ' eiones krazousin, 
'the sea shores screech.' 

Again, Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which 
no one would employ in ordinary speech: for example, domaton apo, 
'from the house away, ' instead of apo domaton, 'away from the 
house;' sethen, ego de nin, 'to thee, and I to him;' Achilleos peri, 
'Achilles about, ' instead of peri Achilleos, 'about Achilles;' and the 
like. It is precisely because such phrases are not part of the current 
idiom that they give distinction to the style. This, however, he 
failed to see. 

It is a great matter to observe propriety in these several modes 
of expression, as also in compound words, strange (or rare) words, and 
so forth. But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of 
metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark 
of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances. 

Of the various kinds of words, the compound are best adapted to 
dithyrambs, rare words to heroic poetry, metaphors to iambic. In 
heroic poetry, indeed, all these varieties are serviceable. But in 
iambic verse, which reproduces, as far as may be, familiar speech, the 
most appropriate words are those which are found even in prose. 
These are the current or proper, the metaphorical, the ornamental. 

Concerning Tragedy and imitation by means of action this may 
suffice . 
POETICS | 23 

XXIII 

As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a 
single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be 
constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a 
single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and 
an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity, 
and produce the pleasure proper to it. It will differ in structure 
from historical compositions, which of necessity present not a 
single action, but a single period, and all that happened within 
that period to one person or to many, little connected together as the 
events may be. For as the sea-fight at Salamis and the battle with the 



Carthaginians in Sicily took place at the same time, but did not 
tend to any one result, so in the sequence of events, one thing 
sometimes follows another, and yet no single result is thereby 
produced. Such is the practice, we may say, of most poets. Here again, 
then, as has been already observed, the transcendent excellence of 
Homer is manifest. He never attempts to make the whole war of Troy the 
subject of his poem, though that war had a beginning and an end. It 
would have been too vast a theme, and not easily embraced in a 
single view. If, again, he had kept it within moderate limits, it must 
have been over-complicated by the variety of the incidents. As it 
is, he detaches a single portion, and admits as episodes many events 
from the general story of the war- such as the Catalogue of the 
ships and others- thus diversifying the poem. All other poets take a 
single hero, a single period, or an action single indeed, but with a 
multiplicity of parts. Thus did the author of the Cypria and of the 
Little Iliad. For this reason the Iliad and the Odyssey each furnish 
the subject of one tragedy, or, at most, of two; while the Cypria 
supplies materials for many, and the Little Iliad for eight- the Award 
of the Arms, the Philoctetes, the Neoptolemus, the Eurypylus, the 
Mendicant Odysseus, the Laconian Women, the Fall of Ilium, the 
Departure of the Fleet. 
POETICS | 24 
XXIV 

Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be 
simple, or complex, or 'ethical, 'or 'pathetic. ' The parts also, with 
the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires 
Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering. 
Moreover, the thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all 
these respects Homer is our earliest and sufficient model. Indeed each 
of his poems has a twofold character. The Iliad is at once simple 
and 'pathetic, ' and the Odyssey complex (for Recognition scenes run 
through it), and at the same time 'ethical. ' Moreover, in diction 
and thought they are supreme. 

Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is 
constructed, and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have 
already laid down an adequate limit: the beginning and the end must be 
capable of being brought within a single view. This condition will 
be satisfied by poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and 
answering in length to the group of tragedies presented at a single 
sitting . 

Epic poetry has, however, a great- a special- capacity for enlarging 
its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot 
imitate several lines of actions carried on at one and the same 
time; we must confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the 
part taken by the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the 
narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be 
presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add mass and dignity 
to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage, and one that conduces 
to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and 
relieving the story with varying episodes. For sameness of incident 
soon produces satiety, and makes tragedies fail on the stage. 

As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by 
hexameter test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other meter 
or in many meters were now composed, it would be found incongruous . 
For of all measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive; 
and hence it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is 
another point in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone. 
On the other hand, the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring 
measures, the latter being akin to dancing, the former expressive of 
action. Still more absurd would it be to mix together different 
meters, as was done by Chaeremon. Hence no one has ever composed a 
poem on a great scale in any other than heroic verse. Nature herself, 
as we have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure. 



Homer, admirable in all respects, has the special merit of being the 
only poet who rightly appreciates the part he should take himself. The 
poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for it is 
not this that makes him an imitator. Other poets appear themselves 
upon the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer, 
after a few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or 
other personage; none of them wanting in characteristic qualities, but 
each with a character of his own. 

The element of the wonderful is required in Tragedy. The irrational, 
on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects, has wider 
scope in Epic poetry, because there the person acting is not seen. 
Thus, the pursuit of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the 
stage- the Greeks standing still and not joining in the pursuit, and 
Achilles waving them back. But in the Epic poem the absurdity passes 
unnoticed. Now the wonderful is pleasing, as may be inferred from 
the fact that every one tells a story with some addition of his 
knowing that his hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly taught 
other poets the art of telling lies skilfully. The secret of it lies 
in a fallacy For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second 
is or becomes, men imagine that, if the second is, the first 
likewise is or becomes. But this is a false inference. Hence, where 
the first thing is untrue, it is quite unnecessary, provided the 
second be true, to add that the first is or has become. For the 
mind, knowing the second to be true, falsely infers the truth of the 
first. There is an example of this in the Bath Scene of the Odyssey. 

Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to 
improbable possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of 
irrational parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be 
excluded; or, at all events, it should lie outside the action of the 
play (as, in the Oedipus, the hero's ignorance as to the manner of 
Laius ' death); not within the drama- as in the Electra, the 
messenger's account of the Pythian games; or, as in the Mysians, the 
man who has come from Tegea to Mysia and is still speechless. The plea 
that otherwise the plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such 
a plot should not in the first instance be constructed. But once the 
irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to 
it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity. Take even the 
irrational incidents in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is left upon the 
shore of Ithaca. How intolerable even these might have been would be 
apparent if an inferior poet were to treat the subject. As it is, 
the absurdity is veiled by the poetic charm with which the poet 
invests it. 

The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of the action, 
where there is no expression of character or thought. For, conversely, 
character and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is 
over-brilliant 
POETICS | 25 

XXV 

With respect to critical difficulties and their solutions, the 
number and nature of the sources from which they may be drawn may be 
thus exhibited. 

The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must 
of necessity imitate one of three objects- things as they were or are, 
things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to 
be. The vehicle of expression is language- either current terms or, it 
may be, rare words or metaphors. There are also many modifications 
of language, which we concede to the poets. Add to this, that the 
standard of correctness is not the same in poetry and politics, any 
more than in poetry and any other art. Within the art of poetry itself 
there are two kinds of faults- those which touch its essence, and 
those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something, 
[but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the 
error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a 



wrong choice- if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his 
off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, 
for example, or in any other art- the error is not essential to the 
poetry. These are the points of view from which we should consider and 
answer the objections raised by the critics. 

First as to matters which concern the poet's own art. If he 
describes the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error 
may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained (the end 
being that already mentioned)- if, that is, the effect of this or 
any other part of the poem is thus rendered more striking. A case in 
point is the pursuit of Hector, if, however, the end might have been 
as well, or better, attained without violating the special rules of 
the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every kind of error 
should, if possible, be avoided. 

Again, does the error touch the essentials of the poetic art, or 
some accident of it? For example, not to know that a hind has no horns 
is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically . 

Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact, 
the poet may perhaps reply, 'But the objects are as they ought to be'; 
just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; 
Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If, 
however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer, 
'This is how men say the thing is. ' applies to tales about the gods. 
It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet 
true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them. 
But anyhow, 'this is what is said. ' Again, a description may be no 
better than the fact: 'Still, it was the fact'; as in the passage 
about the arms: 'Upright upon their butt-ends stood the spears. ' 
This was the custom then, as it now is among the Illyrians. 

Again, in examining whether what has been said or done by some 
one is poetically right or not, we must not look merely to the 
particular act or saying, and ask whether it is poetically good or 
bad. We must also consider by whom it is said or done, to whom, 
when, by what means, or for what end; whether, for instance, it be 
to secure a greater good, or avert a greater evil. 

Other difficulties may be resolved by due regard to the usage of 
language. We may note a rare word, as in oureas men proton, 'the mules 
first [he killed] , ' where the poet perhaps employs oureas not in the 
sense of mules, but of sentinels. So, again, of Dolon: 'ill-favored 
indeed he was to look upon. ' It is not meant that his body was 
ill-shaped but that his face was ugly; for the Cretans use the word 
eueides, 'well-flavored' to denote a fair face. Again, zoroteron de 
keraie, 'mix the drink livelier' does not mean 'mix it stronger' as 
for hard drinkers, but 'mix it quicker. ' 

Sometimes an expression is metaphorical, as 'Now all gods and men 
were sleeping through the night, ' while at the same time the poet 
says: 'Often indeed as he turned his gaze to the Trojan plain, he 
marveled at the sound of flutes and pipes. ' 'All' is here used 
metaphorically for 'many, ' all being a species of many. So in the 
verse, 'alone she hath no part... , oie, 'alone' is metaphorical; 
for the best known may be called the only one. 

Again, the solution may depend upon accent or breathing. Thus 
Hippias of Thasos solved the difficulties in the lines, didomen 
(didomen) de hoi, and to men hou (ou) kataputhetai ombro. 

Or again, the question may be solved by punctuation, as in 
Empedocles : 'Of a sudden things became mortal that before had learnt 
to be immortal, and things unmixed before mixed. ' 

Or again, by ambiguity of meaning, as parocheken de pleo nux, 
where the word pleo is ambiguous. 

Or by the usage of language. Thus any mixed drink is called oinos, 
'wine' . Hence Ganymede is said 'to pour the wine to Zeus, ' though 
the gods do not drink wine. So too workers in iron are called 
chalkeas, or 'workers in bronze. ' This, however, may also be taken 
as a metaphor. 



Again, when a word seems to involve some inconsistency of meaning, 
we should consider how many senses it may bear in the particular 
passage. For example: 'there was stayed the spear of bronze'- we 
should ask in how many ways we may take 'being checked there.' The 
true mode of interpretation is the precise opposite of what Glaucon 
mentions. Critics, he says, jump at certain groundless conclusions; 
they pass adverse judgement and then proceed to reason on it; and, 
assuming that the poet has said whatever they happen to think, find 
fault if a thing is inconsistent with their own fancy. 

The question about Icarius has been treated in this fashion. The 
critics imagine he was a Lacedaemonian. They think it strange, 
therefore, that Telemachus should not have met him when he went to 
Lacedaemon. But the Cephallenian story may perhaps be the true one. 
They allege that Odysseus took a wife from among themselves, and 
that her father was Icadius, not Icarius. It is merely a mistake, 
then, that gives plausibility to the objection. 

In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to 
artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received 
opinion. With respect to the requirements of art, a probable 
impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet 
possible. Again, it may be impossible that there should be men such as 
Zeuxis painted. 'Yes, ' we say, 'but the impossible is the higher 
thing; for the ideal type must surpass the realty. ' To justify the 
irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be. In addition to 
which, we urge that the irrational sometimes does not violate 
reason; just as 'it is probable that a thing may happen contrary to 
probability . ' 

Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules 
as in dialectical refutation- whether the same thing is meant, in 
the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve 
the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is 
tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence. 

The element of the irrational, and, similarly, depravity of 
character, are justly censured when there is no inner necessity for 
introducing them. Such is the irrational element in the introduction 
of Aegeus by Euripides and the badness of Menelaus in the Orestes. 

Thus, there are five sources from which critical objections are 
drawn. Things are censured either as impossible, or irrational, or 
morally hurtful, or contradictory, or contrary to artistic 
correctness. The answers should be sought under the twelve heads above 
mentioned . 
POETICS | 26 

XXVI 

The question may be raised whether the Epic or Tragic mode of 
imitation is the higher. If the more refined art is the higher, and 
the more refined in every case is that which appeals to the better 
sort of audience, the art which imitates anything and everything is 
manifestly most unrefined. The audience is supposed to be too dull 
to comprehend unless something of their own is thrown by the 
performers, who therefore indulge in restless movements. Bad 
flute-players twist and twirl, if they have to represent 'the 
quoit-throw, ' or hustle the coryphaeus when they perform the Scylla. 
Tragedy, it is said, has this same defect. We may compare the 
opinion that the older actors entertained of their successors. 
Mynniscus used to call Callippides 'ape' on account of the 
extravagance of his action, and the same view was held of Pindarus . 
Tragic art, then, as a whole, stands to Epic in the same relation as 
the younger to the elder actors. So we are told that Epic poetry is 
addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture; 
Tragedy, to an inferior public. Being then unrefined, it is 
evidently the lower of the two. 

Now, in the first place, this censure attaches not to the poetic but 
to the histrionic art; for gesticulation may be equally overdone in 



epic recitation, as by Sosistratus, or in lyrical competition, as by 
Mnasitheus the Opuntian. Next, all action is not to be condemned- 
any more than all dancing- but only that of bad performers. Such was 
the fault found in Callippides, as also in others of our own day, 
who are censured for representing degraded women. Again, Tragedy 
like Epic poetry produces its effect even without action; it reveals 
its power by mere reading. If, then, in all other respects it is 
superior, this fault, we say, is not inherent in it. 

And superior it is, because it has an the epic elements- it may even 
use the epic meter- with the music and spectacular effects as 
important accessories; and these produce the most vivid of 
pleasures. Further, it has vividness of impression in reading as 
well as in representation. Moreover, the art attains its end within 
narrower limits for the concentrated effect is more pleasurable than 
one which is spread over a long time and so diluted. What, for 
example, would be the effect of the Oedipus of Sophocles, if it were 
cast into a form as long as the Iliad? Once more, the Epic imitation 
has less unity; as is shown by this, that any Epic poem will furnish 
subjects for several tragedies. Thus if the story adopted by the 
poet has a strict unity, it must either be concisely told and appear 
truncated; or, if it conforms to the Epic canon of length, it must 
seem weak and watery. [Such length implies some loss of unity,] if, 
I mean, the poem is constructed out of several actions, like the Iliad 
and the Odyssey, which have many such parts, each with a certain 
magnitude of its own. Yet these poems are as perfect as possible in 
structure; each is, in the highest degree attainable, an imitation 
of a single action. 

If, then, tragedy is superior to epic poetry in all these 
respects, and, moreover, fulfills its specific function better as an 
art- for each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the 
pleasure proper to it, as already stated- it plainly follows that 
tragedy is the higher art, as attaining its end more perfectly. 

Thus much may suffice concerning Tragic and Epic poetry in 
general; their several kinds and parts, with the number of each and 
their differences; the causes that make a poem good or bad; the 
objections of the critics and the answers to these objections.... 



-THE END-