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by Aristotle

Translated by S. H. Butcher

November, 1999 [Etext #1974]

****The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Poetics, by Aristotle****
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[Transcriber's Annotations and Conventions: the translator left intact
some Greek words to illustrate a specific point of the original
discourse. In this transcription, in order to retain the accuracy of this
text, those words are rendered by spelling out each Greek letter
individually, such as {alpha beta gamma delta ...}. The reader can
distinguish these words by the enclosing braces {}. Where multiple words
occur together, they are separated by the "/" symbol for clarity. Readers
who do not speak or read the Greek language will usually neither gain nor
lose understanding by skipping over these passages. Those who understand
Greek, however, may gain a deeper insight to the original meaning and
distinctions expressed by Aristotle.]

Analysis of Contents

I 'Imitation' the common principle of the Arts of Poetry.
II The Objects of Imitation.
III The Manner of Imitation.
IV The Origin and Development of Poetry.
V Definition of the Ludicrous, and a brief sketch of the rise of
VI Definition of Tragedy.
VII The Plot must be a Whole.
VIII The Plot must be a Unity.
IX (Plot continued.) Dramatic Unity.
X (Plot continued.) Definitions of Simple and Complex Plots.
XI (Plot continued.) Reversal of the Situation, Recognition, and
Tragic or disastrous Incident defined and explained.
XII The 'quantitative parts' of Tragedy defined.
XIII (Plot continued.) What constitutes Tragic Action.
XIV (Plot continued.) The tragic emotions of pity and fear should
spring out of the Plot itself.
XV The element of Character in Tragedy.
XVI (Plot continued.) Recognition: its various kinds, with examples.
XVII Practical rules for the Tragic Poet.
XVIII Further rules for the Tragic Poet.
XIX Thought, or the Intellectual element, and Diction in Tragedy.
XX Diction, or Language in general.
XXI Poetic Diction.
XXII (Poetic Diction continued.) How Poetry combines elevation of
language with perspicuity.
XXIII Epic Poetry.
XXIV (Epic Poetry continued.) Further points of agreement with Tragedy.
XXV Critical Objections brought against Poetry, and the principles on
which they are to be answered.
XXVI A general estimate of the comparative worth of Epic Poetry and



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 colour 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

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 metres 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
metre. People do, indeed, add the word 'maker' or 'poet' to the name of
the metre, 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 indiscriminately 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 metre, 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 metres, as
Chaeremon did in his Centaur, which is a medley composed of metres 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 metre. Such are Dithyrambic and Nomic poetry,
and also Tragedy and Comedy; but between them 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


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.


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 {kappa omega mu alpha
iota}, by the Athenians {delta eta mu iota}: and they assume that
Comedians were so named not from {kappa omega mu 'alpha zeta epsilon iota
nu}, 'to revel,' but because they wandered from village to village (kappa
alpha tau alpha / kappa omega mu alpha sigma), being excluded
contemptuously from the city. They add also that the Dorian word for
'doing' is {delta rho alpha nu}, and the Athenian, {pi rho alpha tau tau
epsilon iota nu}.

This may suffice as to the number and nature of the various modes of


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
colouring, or some such other cause.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the
instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, metres 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 metre 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 dramatising 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

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 affinities 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.


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, generalised 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 metre, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in
their length: for Tragedy endeavours, 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


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 medium 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
list. 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 thc
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 colours, 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

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

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.


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

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.


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 centre 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.


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 metre 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 will
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 an 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 epeisodic are the worst. I call a plot
'epeisodic' 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 sunrise; and the effect is heightened when, at the
same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will thee
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.


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.


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 recognise 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 recognised 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

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.


[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 thc 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 thc whole have been already mentioned. The
quantitative parts the separate parts into which it is divided--are here


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

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.


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 invention 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,-- 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,
recognising who he is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister
recognises the brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son
recognises 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.


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 valour; but valour 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 unravelling 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 in the Oedipus of Sophocles.

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who s 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.


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

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

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 bow; . . . hence B (the disguised Odysseus) imagined that A would>
recognise the bow which, in fact, he had not seen; and to bring about a
recognition by this means that the expectation A would recognise 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.


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 life-like
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 all 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.


Every tragedy falls into two parts,--Complication and Unravelling 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 Unravelling. 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 Unravelling 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 * * 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. element>, exemplified by the Phorcides, the Prometheus, and scenes laid
in Hades. The poet should endeavour, 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 cavilling 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 Unravelling are
the same. Many poets tie the knot well, but unravel it ill. 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 dramatised 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 marvellous 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: 'it 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?


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 the effects
aimed at in speech 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.


[Language in general includes the following parts:- Letter, Syllable,
Connecting word, Noun, Verb, Inflexion 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 semi-vowel, or a mute. A vowel is that which without
impact of tongue or lip has an audible sound. A semi-vowel, 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 metre.

A Syllable is a non-significant 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 non-significant 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 non-
significant sound, which out of several sounds, each of them significant,
is capable of forming one significant sound,--as {alpha mu theta iota},
{pi epsilon rho iota}, and the like. Or, a non-significant 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
{mu epsilon nu}, {eta tau omicron iota}, {delta epsilon}.

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 {delta omega rho omicron nu} 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.

Inflexion 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 inflexions 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.]


Words are of two kinds, simple and double. By simple I mean those
composed of non-significant elements, such as {gamma eta}. By double or
compound, those composed either of a significant and non-significant
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 {sigma iota gamma upsilon nu
omicron nu}, '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 {alpha rho upsilon rho alpha iota}, 'to draw away,' is used
for {tau alpha mu epsilon iota nu}, 'to cleave,' and {tau alpha mu
epsilon iota nu} again for {alpha rho upsilon alpha iota},--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
{epsilon rho nu upsilon gamma epsilon sigma}, 'sprouters,' for {kappa
epsilon rho alpha tau alpha}, 'horns,' and {alpha rho eta tau eta rho},
'supplicator,' for {iota epsilon rho epsilon upsilon sigma}, '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,--{pi omicron lambda eta omicron
sigma} for {pi omicron lambda epsilon omega sigma}, and {Pi eta lambda
eta iota alpha delta epsilon omega} for {Pi eta lambda epsilon iota delta
omicron upsilon}: of contraction,--{kappa rho iota}, {delta omega}, and
{omicron psi}, as in {mu iota alpha / gamma iota nu epsilon tau alpha
iota / alpha mu phi omicron tau episilon rho omega nu / omicron psi}.

An altered word is one in which part of the ordinary form is left
unchanged, and part is re-cast; as in {delta epsilon xi iota-tau epsilon
rho omicron nu / kappa alpha tau alpha / mu alpha zeta omicron nu},
{delta epsilon xi iota tau epsilon rho omicron nu} is for {delta epsilon
xi iota omicron nu}.

[Nouns in themselves are either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Masculine
are such as end in {nu}, {rho}, {sigma}, or in some letter compounded
with {sigma},--these being two, and {xi}. Feminine, such as end in vowels
that are always long, namely {eta} and {omega}, and--of vowels that admit
of lengthening--those in {alpha}. Thus the number of letters in which
nouns masculine and feminine end is the same; for {psi} and {xi} are
equivalent to endings in {sigma}. No noun ends in a mute or a vowel short
by nature. Three only end in {iota},--{mu eta lambda iota}, {kappa
omicron mu mu iota}, {pi epsilon pi epsilon rho iota}: five end in
{upsilon}. Neuter nouns end in these two latter vowels; also in {nu} and


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
clearness 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: '{Epsilon pi iota chi alpha rho eta
nu / epsilon iota delta omicron nu / Mu alpha rho alpha theta omega nu
alpha delta epsilon / Beta alpha delta iota zeta omicron nu tau alpha},
or, {omicron upsilon kappa / alpha nu / gamma / epsilon rho alpha mu
epsilon nu omicron sigma / tau omicron nu / epsilon kappa epsilon iota nu
omicron upsilon /epsilon lambda lambda epsilon beta omicron rho omicron
nu}. 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: {Phi alpha gamma epsilon delta alpha iota nu alpha / / eta
/ mu omicron upsilon / sigma alpha rho kappa alpha sigma / epsilon rho
theta iota epsilon iota / pi omicron delta omicron sigma}.

Euripides substitutes {Theta omicron iota nu alpha tau alpha iota}
'feasts on' for {epsilon sigma theta iota epsilon iota} 'feeds on.'
Again, in the line, {nu upsilon nu / delta epsilon / mu /epsilon omega nu
/ omicron lambda iota gamma iota gamma upsilon sigma / tau epsilon /
kappa alpha iota / omicron upsilon tau iota delta alpha nu omicron sigma
/ kappa alpha iota / alpha epsilon iota kappa eta sigma, the difference
will be felt if we substitute the common words, {nu upsilon nu / delta
epsilon / mu / epsilon omega nu / mu iota kappa rho omicron sigma / tau
epsilon / kappa alpha iota / alpha rho theta epsilon nu iota kappa
omicron sigma / kappa alpha iota / alpha epsilon iota delta gamma sigma}.
Or, if for the line, {delta iota phi rho omicron nu / alpha epsilon iota
kappa epsilon lambda iota omicron nu / kappa alpha tau alpha theta
epsilon iota sigma / omicron lambda iota gamma eta nu / tau epsilon / tau
rho alpha pi epsilon iota sigma / omicron lambda iota gamma eta nu / tau
epsilon / tau rho alpha pi epsilon zeta alpha nu),} We read, {delta iota
phi rho omicron nu / mu omicron chi theta eta rho omicron nu / kappa
alpha tau alpha theta epsilon iota sigma / mu iota kappa rho alpha nu /
tau epsilon / tau rho alpha pi epsilon zeta alpha nu}.

Or, for {eta iota omicron nu epsilon sigma / beta omicron omicron omega
rho iota nu, eta iota omicron nu epsilon sigma kappa rho alpha zeta
omicron upsilon rho iota nu}

Again, Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which no one
would employ in ordinary speech: for example, {delta omega mu alpha tau
omega nu / alpha pi omicron} instead of {alpha pi omicron / delta omega
mu alpha tau omega nu}, {rho epsilon theta epsilon nu}, {epsilon gamma
omega / delta epsilon / nu iota nu}, {Alpha chi iota lambda lambda
epsilon omega sigma / pi epsilon rho iota} instead of (pi epsilon rho
iota / 'Alpha chi iota lambda lambda epsilon omega sigma}, 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.


As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a
single metre, 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


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 metre. 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 thc 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 metre, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by the test
of experience. If a narrative poem in any other metre or in many metres
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 metres, 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

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 own, 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

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.


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, 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.' This 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 {omicron upsilon rho eta alpha
sigma / mu epsilon nu / pi rho omega tau omicron nu}, where the poet
perhaps employs {omicron upsilon rho eta alpha sigma} not in the sense of
mules, but of sentinels. So, again, of Dolon: 'ill-favoured 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 {epsilon upsilon epsilon iota
delta epsilon sigma}, 'well-favoured,' to denote a fair face. Again,
{zeta omega rho omicron tau epsilon rho omicron nu / delta epsilon /
kappa epsilon rho alpha iota epsilon}, '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 marvelled 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 . . ,' {omicron iota eta}, '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,--{delta iota delta omicron
mu epsilon nu (delta iota delta omicron mu epsilon nu) delta epsilon /
omicron iota,} and { tau omicron / mu epsilon nu / omicron upsilon
(omicron upsilon) kappa alpha tau alpha pi upsilon theta epsilon tau
alpha iota / omicron mu beta rho omega}.

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 {pi alpha rho omega chi eta kappa
epsilon nu / delta epsilon / pi lambda epsilon omega / nu upsilon xi},
where the word {pi lambda epsilon omega} is ambiguous.

Or by the usage of language. Thus any mixed drink is called {omicron iota
nu omicron sigma}, '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 {chi alpha lambda kappa epsilon alpha sigma}, 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
judgment 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 toga 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 reality.' 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.


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 in 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 Sosi-stratus, 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 all the epic elements--it may even use
the epic metre--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 conform to the Epic canon of length,
it must seem weak and watery.
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, fulfils 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 s 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. * * *

End of The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Poetics, by Aristotle

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