As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs
a single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be constructed
on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a single action,
whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It will thus
resemble a living organism in all its unity, and produce the pleasure proper
to it. It will differ in structure from historical compositions, which
of necessity present not a single action, but a single period, and all
that happened within that period to one person or to many, little connected
together as the events may be. For as the sea-fight at Salamis and the
battle with the Carthaginians in Sicily took place at the same time, but
did not tend to any one result, so in the sequence of events, one thing
sometimes follows another, and yet no single result is thereby produced.
Such is the practice, we may say, of most poets. Here again, then, as has
been already observed, the transcendent excellence of Homer is manifest.
He never attempts to make the whole war of Troy the subject of his poem,
though that war had a beginning and an end. It would have been too vast
a theme, and not easily embraced in a single view. If, again, he had kept
it within moderate limits, it must have been over-complicated by the variety
of the incidents. As it is, he detaches a single portion, and admits as
episodes many events from the general story of the war- such as the Catalogue
of the ships and others- thus diversifying the poem. All other poets take
a single hero, a single period, or an action single indeed, but with a
multiplicity of parts. Thus did the author of the Cypria and of the Little
Iliad. For this reason the Iliad and the Odyssey each furnish the subject
of one tragedy, or, at most, of two; while the Cypria supplies materials
for many, and the Little Iliad for eight- the Award of the Arms, the Philoctetes,
the Neoptolemus, the Eurypylus, the Mendicant Odysseus, the Laconian Women,
the Fall of Ilium, the Departure of the Fleet.
Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must
be simple, or complex, or ‘ethical,’or ‘pathetic.’ The parts also, with
the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires Reversals
of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering. Moreover, the
thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all these respects Homer
is our earliest and sufficient model. Indeed each of his poems has a twofold
character. The Iliad is at once simple and ‘pathetic,’ and the Odyssey
complex (for Recognition scenes run through it), and at the same time ‘ethical.’
Moreover, in diction and thought they are supreme.
Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is constructed,
and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have already laid down
an adequate limit: the beginning and the end must be capable of being brought
within a single view. This condition will be satisfied by poems on a smaller
scale than the old epics, and answering in length to the group of tragedies
presented at a single sitting.
Epic poetry has, however, a great- a special- capacity for enlarging
its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot imitate
several lines of actions carried on at one and the same time; we must confine
ourselves to the action on the stage and the part taken by the players.
But in Epic poetry, owing to the narrative form, many events simultaneously
transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add
mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage, and one that
conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and
relieving the story with varying episodes. For sameness of incident soon
produces satiety, and makes tragedies fail on the stage.
As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by
hexameter test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other meter or
in many meters were now composed, it would be found incongruous. For of
all measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive; and hence
it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is another point
in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone. On the other hand,
the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring measures, the latter
being akin to dancing, the former expressive of action. Still more absurd
would it be to mix together different meters, as was done by Chaeremon.
Hence no one has ever composed a poem on a great scale in any other than
heroic verse. Nature herself, as we have said, teaches the choice of the
Homer, admirable in all respects, has the special merit of being
the only poet who rightly appreciates the part he should take himself.
The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for it is
not this that makes him an imitator. Other poets appear themselves upon
the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer, after a
few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or other personage;
none of them wanting in characteristic qualities, but each with a character
of his own.
The element of the wonderful is required in Tragedy. The irrational,
on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects, has wider scope in
Epic poetry, because there the person acting is not seen. Thus, the pursuit
of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the stage- the Greeks standing
still and not joining in the pursuit, and Achilles waving them back. But
in the Epic poem the absurdity passes unnoticed. Now the wonderful is pleasing,
as may be inferred from the fact that every one tells a story with some
addition of his knowing that his hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly
taught other poets the art of telling lies skilfully. The secret of it
lies in a fallacy For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second
is or becomes, men imagine that, if the second is, the first likewise is
or becomes. But this is a false inference. Hence, where the first thing
is untrue, it is quite unnecessary, provided the second be true, to add
that the first is or has become. For the mind, knowing the second to be
true, falsely infers the truth of the first. There is an example of this
in the Bath Scene of the Odyssey.
Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to
improbable possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of irrational
parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be excluded; or, at all
events, it should lie outside the action of the play (as, in the Oedipus,
the hero’s ignorance as to the manner of Laius’ death); not within the
drama- as in the Electra, the messenger’s account of the Pythian games;
or, as in the Mysians, the man who has come from Tegea to Mysia and is
still speechless. The plea that otherwise the plot would have been ruined,
is ridiculous; such a plot should not in the first instance be constructed.
But once the irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted
to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity. Take even the irrational
incidents in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is left upon the shore of Ithaca.
How intolerable even these might have been would be apparent if an inferior
poet were to treat the subject. As it is, the absurdity is veiled by the
poetic charm with which the poet invests it.
The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of the action, where there is no expression of character or thought. For, conversely, character and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is over-brilliant
Poetics By Aristotle