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  • 1447a1. What is poetry, how many kinds of it are there, and what are
  • their specific effects? That is our topic, and we will inquire how
  • stories are to be put together to make a good poetical work, and
  • 10what is the number and nature of poetry's component parts,
  • and raise other questions arising in the same area of inquiry. We
  • shall make our start, as is natural, from first principles.

Poetry as a species of representation

  • Epic poetry and tragedy, as well as comedy and dithyramb,*
  • 15and most music for flute and lyre are all, taken as a whole, forms
  • of representation. They differ from each other in three ways,
  • either in respect of the medium, the object, or the mode of
  • their representation.

Differences of medium

  • People represent and portray objects by using colours and
  • shapes to make visible images of them; some do this by skill,
  • 20and others by practice. Others again make use of the voice.
  • In like manner, all the literary genres mentioned make use of
  • rhythm, language, and melody, whether separately or in com-
  • bination. Music for flute and lyre and other instruments with
  • 25similar effects, such as pipes, make use of melody and rhythm
  • only. Dancers make use of rhythm alone: it is by rhythm ex-
  • pressed in bodily movement that they mime character, emotion,
  • and action. There is an art that uses language unaccompanied,
  • whether prose or verse, sometimes in a single metre and some-
  • 1447btimes in combination: this so far remains unnamed. For there
  • is no common name for us to give to the skits of Sophron and
  • pg 1810Xenarchus* on the one hand and to the Socratic dialogues* on
  • the other. Nor is there one for any other representation that one
  • might produce in iambic trimeters or elegiac couplets or any
  • other metre.* To be sure, people attach the name 'poetry' to the
  • verse-form, and speak of elegiac poets and epic poets. But this
  • classification has no regard to the representative aspect of their
  • 15poetry but only to the metre they share, so that writers are so
  • described even if they publish medical or scientific treatises in
  • metrical form. In fact Homer and Empedocles* have nothing
  • in common except their metre; the former can be called a poet,
  • but the latter should be termed a scientist. On the other hand,
  • 20if someone were to compose in the greatest possible variety of
  • metres—as Chaeremon did in his Centaur, a rhapsody con-
  • taining every single metre—he would still deserve to be called
  • a poet. That is how we should classify in this area. There are
  • also arts that make use of all the media we have mentioned—
  • 25rhythm, melody, and metre. Examples are dithyramb, nomes,*
  • tragedy, and comedy. They differ in that the first two make use
  • of them all together, and the last two in specific parts. These
  • different ways in which the arts effect representation are what I
  • call differences of medium.

Differences of objects

  • 1448a2. The things that representative artists represent are the ac-
  • tions of people, and if people are represented they are neces-
  • sarily either superior or inferior, better or worse, than we are.
  • (Differences in character you see derive from these categories,
  • since it is by virtue or vice that people are ethically distinct from
  • 5each other.) So too with painters: Polygnotus* portrayed better
  • people, Pauson worse people, and Dionysius people just like us.
  • Clearly, each of the kinds of representation so far mentioned
  • will exhibit these differences, and will differ from the others by
  • representing objects that are distinct in this way. These dissimi-
  • larities can occur even in ballet and in music for flute and lyre,
  • 10no less than in prose and unaccompanied verse. For instance,
  • pg 19Homer represents people better than us and Cleophon people
  • similar to us, while people worse than us figure in the works of
  • Hegemon of Thasos, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares
  • who wrote the Deiliad.* The same is the case with dithyrambs
  • and nomes: one could represent Cyclopses in the manner of
  • 15Timotheus and Philoxenus.* The very same difference makes
  • the distinction between tragedy and comedy: the latter aims to
  • represent people as worse, and the former as better, than people
  • nowadays are.

Differences in mode

  • 3. A third difference is in the mode of representation of each of
  • 20these objects. Within the same medium it is possible to repre-
  • sent the same objects either by narrative or by dramatization.
  • Narrative may be borne throughout by a single narrator, or
  • with variation as in Homer. In dramatization all the personages
  • play their parts as active agents.
  • So representation, as we said initially, can be differentiated in
  • 25these three respects: medium, object, and mode. So, in respect
  • of representation, Sophocles belongs in one way with Homer,
  • since they both represent superior people, but in another way
  • with Aristophanes, since they both represent people in dra-
  • matic activity. This is why, according to some people, drama
  • got its name—for the word is derived from a Greek verb for
  • 30doing, namely dran. This too is why the Dorians* claim owner-
  • ship of both tragedy and comedy, offering the names as evi-
  • dence. Comedy is claimed by the Megarians—both those on
  • the mainland who date it to the time of their democracy, and
  • those in Sicily which was the birthplace of the poet Epichar-
  • mus, who lived long before Chionides and Magnes.* Tragedy is
  • 35claimed by some inhabitants of the Peloponnese. The Dorians
  • point out that they call villages komai while the Athenians
  • call them demoi; the assumption is that comedians got their
  • name not because the Greek word for revelry is komazein, but
  • because they strolled through villages having been ejected in
  • pg 20disgrace from the city. Again the Dorians say that their word
  • 1448bfor doing is dran, while the Athenians say prattein.
  • So much, then, for the number of ways in which representa-
  • tion can be classified, and what they are.

The origins of poetry and its early development

  • 4. Two things, both of them natural, seem likely to have been
  • 5the causes of the origin of poetry. Representation comes natur-
  • ally to human beings from childhood,* and so does the univer-
  • sal pleasure in representations. Indeed, this marks off humans
  • from other animals: man is prone to representation beyond all
  • others, and learns his earliest lessons through representation. A
  • common phenomenon is evidence of this: even when things are
  • 10painful to look upon—corpses, for instance, or the shapes of
  • the most revolting animals—we take pleasure in viewing highly
  • realistic images of them. The further explanation of this is that
  • learning is delightful not only to philosophers but to ordinary
  • people as well, even though they have less capacity for it. That
  • 15is why people like seeing images, because as they look at them
  • they understand and work out what each item is, for example,
  • 'this is so-and-so'.* Whereas, if one is unacquainted with the
  • subject, one's pleasure will not be in the representation, but in
  • the technique or the colour or some other element.
  • 20Representation, then, comes naturally to us, as do melody
  • and rhythm (which obviously includes metre as a sub-class);
  • and so it was that, from the beginning, those with the greatest
  • natural gift for such things by a gradual process of improve-
  • ment developed poetry out of improvisation.
  • This, however, took two different forms according to the
  • 25characters of the authors: the more serious among them repre-
  • sented noble people and noble actions, and the more frivolous
  • represented the actions of ignoble people. The latter began by
  • composing invectives, while the former produced hymns and
  • panegyrics. We cannot identify a poem of that kind by any poet
  • earlier than Homer, though there are likely to have been many
  • pg 2130such; but from Homer onwards we can do so, beginning with
  • his own Margites and similar poems.* Because of its suitability
  • the iambic metre came into use in these poems, and the reason
  • why it is now called 'iambic' is because iambizein is the Greek
  • word for 'lampoon'. So some of the ancient poets composed
  • heroic epics and others iambic lampoons. Just as Homer was
  • the greatest poet in the serious style, unsurpassed not only in
  • composition but also in the dramatic power of his representa-
  • 35tion, so too he was the first to put comedy into shape for us,
  • no mere invective, but a dramatization of the ridiculous rather.
  • Thus his Margites stands in the same relation to our comedies
  • 1449aas the Iliad and the Odyssey do to our tragedies. Once tragedy
  • and comedy had made their appearance those who had an in-
  • clination towards either kind of poetry followed their natural
  • bent and either composed comedies in place of lampoons or
  • 5composed tragedies in place of epics. This was because these
  • new art forms were grander and more highly esteemed than
  • the old.


  • This is not the place to inquire whether even now tragedy is all
  • that it should be in respect of its constituent elements, whether
  • in itself or in relation to its audiences. Certainly it originally
  • took shape out of improvisations. (This is true of tragedy as
  • 10well as of comedy: the former began with the leaders of the
  • dithyramb, and the latter from the leaders of the phallic sing-
  • ing* that is a tradition that still survives in many cities.) Then
  • it developed gradually as people exploited new possibilities as
  • they came to light. After undergoing many changes tragedy
  • 15ceased to evolve, having achieved its natural condition.
  • The number of actors was first increased from one to two
  • by Aeschylus, who also reduced the choral element and gave
  • primacy to the spoken word. The third actor and the practice of
  • scene-painting were introduced by Sophocles. Length was also
  • a factor. Tragedy acquired its dignity only at a late stage, when,
  • pg 2220after a satyric period of short stories and comic diction, it
  • adopted the iambic trimeter instead of the trochaic tetrameter.
  • Tetrameter had been used at first as suitable to satyric verse and
  • easy to dance to, but when the spoken word prevailed nature
  • itself found the appropriate metre, because the iambic trimeter
  • 25is the metre closest to speech. Evidence of this is the fact that
  • we very often use iambics in conversation, while we utter hex-
  • ameters very rarely and only when departing from our normal
  • tone. Another change took place in the number of episodes. Let
  • 30us take as read a number of further embellishments: it would no
  • doubt be laborious to discuss them individually.


  • 5. Comedy is, as we said, representation of people who are in-
  • ferior but not wholly vicious: the ridiculous is one category of
  • the embarrassing. What is ridiculous is some error or embarrass-
  • 35ment that is neither painful nor life-threatening; for example, a
  • comic mask is ugly and distorted but does not cause pain. The
  • stages in the development of tragedy, and those responsible for
  • them, have stayed in people's memory; but the early history of
  • 1449bcomedy is unknown because no serious interest was taken in it.
  • It was only relatively recently that a magistrate* made provision
  • for a comic chorus; before that performers were volunteers.
  • The first mention of people called comic poets dates from a
  • time when comedy had already taken shape. It is not known
  • who introduced masks, prologues, multiple actors, and the like.
  • 5Comic stories, however, originated in Sicily; among Athenians,
  • it was Crates* who first abandoned the iambic style and began
  • to compose stories and plots of a general kind.


  • 10Epic poetry resembles tragedy in so far as it is a representation
  • in verse of superior subjects; but the two differ in that epic uses
  • only a single metre and is in narrative mode. They differ also in
  • pg 23length: tragedy tries so far as possible to keep within a period
  • of twenty-four hours or thereabouts, while epic, in contrast, is
  • 15unrestricted in time. (Initially, however, in this respect no dis-
  • tinction was made between tragedy and epic.) Epic and tragedy
  • have some elements in common, while others are peculiar to
  • tragedy. Hence, anyone who can tell what is good and what is
  • bad in tragedy understands epic too, since all the elements of
  • epic are present in tragedy even though not all the elements of
  • 20tragedy are present in epic.
  • Leaving aside representation in hexameters and comedy for
  • later discussion, let us now treat of tragedy, gathering up from
  • what has already been said a definition of its essence.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
17 dithyramb: a choral lyric in honour of the god Dionysus.
Editor’s Note
18 Sophron and Xenarchus: father and son, Sicilian writers of prose comic skits in the latter half of the fifth century bc.
Editor’s Note
Socratic dialogues: elsewhere Aristotle often quotes Socratic utterances in Plato's dialogues as if they were Socrates' own words: here he shows an awareness that the dialogues involve creative writing. The point he is making is that there is no Greek word corresponding to our word 'prose' for a genre that includes both skits and dialogues.
Editor’s Note
or any other metre: similarly, there is no Greek word corresponding to our word 'verse' to cover all poems irrespective of their particular metre. Aristotle's overall conclusion is that it is content, not form, that settles whether something is poetry.
Editor’s Note
Empedocles: fifth-century Sicilian thinker who composed two volumes of natural philosophy in hexameter verse.
Editor’s Note
nomes: instrumental melodies to which texts could be improvised.
Editor’s Note
Polygnotus: was the most famous wall-painter of fifth-century Greece. Nothing is known for certain about the other two artists. Henceforth, no comment will be attached to names of persons known only from Aristotle's references.
Editor’s Note
19 Deiliad: the Iliad is an epic about Ilium (Troy); the Deiliad, therefore, will be an epic about Deilos ('The Coward').
Editor’s Note
Timotheus and Philoxenus: Timotheus of Miletus (c.450–c.360) wrote an account of the battle of Salamis in irregular verse; his contemporary Philoxenus wrote a dithyramb in which the Cyclops sang a solo to the lyre.
Editor’s Note
the Dorians: one of the three main branches of the Greek race, who occupied the Peloponnese and counted among their cities Megara (on the Gulf of Corinth) and several Sicilian colonies. Their dialect, Doric, differed from the Attic dialect spoken in Athens.
Editor’s Note
19 Chionides and Magnes: the earliest Attic comic poets, active about 475 bc.
Editor’s Note
20 from childhood: it is no accident that the word 'play' designates both childish pretending and dramatic performance.
Editor’s Note
'this is so-and-so': perhaps Aristotle has in mind not simply the recognition of the sitter of a portrait, but also the identification of a divine or mythical subject of a statue.
Editor’s Note
21 Margites and similar poems: modern scholars contest the accuracy of Aristotle's chonrological sketch. The Margites is a lost burlesque dubiously attributed to Homer.
Editor’s Note
phallic singing: in many Greek religious fertility festivals an icon of the male organ of generation was carried in procession.
Editor’s Note
22 magistrate: at Athens a city official, the archon, chose and funded plays for performance at the annual festival of Dionysus.
Editor’s Note
Crates: a fifth-century poet who wrote six plays, now lost. He won prizes in the Dionysia in 450 and later years.
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