With respect to critical difficulties and their solutions, the
number and nature of the sources from which they may be drawn may be thus
The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist,
must of necessity imitate one of three objects- things as they were or
are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought
to be. The vehicle of expression is language- either current terms or,
it may be, rare words or metaphors. There are also many modifications of
language, which we concede to the poets. Add to this, that the standard
of correctness is not the same in poetry and politics, any more than in
poetry and any other art. Within the art of poetry itself there are two
kinds of faults- those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental.
If a poet has chosen to imitate something, [but has imitated it incorrectly]
through want of capacity, the error is inherent in the poetry. But if the
failure is due to a wrong choice- if he has represented a horse as throwing
out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in
medicine, for example, or in any other art- the error is not essential
to the poetry. These are the points of view from which we should consider
and answer the objections raised by the critics.
First as to matters which concern the poet’s own art. If he describes
the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error may be justified,
if the end of the art be thereby attained (the end being that already mentioned)-
if, that is, the effect of this or any other part of the poem is thus rendered
more striking. A case in point is the pursuit of Hector. if, however, the
end might have been as well, or better, attained without violating the
special rules of the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every
kind of error should, if possible, be avoided.
Again, does the error touch the essentials of the poetic art, or
some accident of it? For example, not to know that a hind has no horns
is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.
Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to
fact, the poet may perhaps reply, ‘But the objects are as they ought to
be’; just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be; Euripides,
as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If, however, the representation
be of neither kind, the poet may answer, ‘This is how men say the thing
is.’ applies to tales about the gods. It may well be that these stories
are not higher than fact nor yet true to fact: they are, very possibly,
what Xenophanes says of them. But anyhow, ‘this is what is said.’ Again,
a description may be no better than the fact: ‘Still, it was the fact’;
as in the passage about the arms: ‘Upright upon their butt-ends stood the
spears.’ This was the custom then, as it now is among the
Again, in examining whether what has been said or done by some
one is poetically right or not, we must not look merely to the particular
act or saying, and ask whether it is poetically good or bad. We must also
consider by whom it is said or done, to whom, when, by what means, or for
what end; whether, for instance, it be to secure a greater good, or avert
a greater evil.
Other difficulties may be resolved by due regard to the usage of
language. We may note a rare word, as in oureas men proton, ‘the mules
first [he killed],’ where the poet perhaps employs oureas not in the sense
of mules, but of sentinels. So, again, of Dolon: ‘ill-favored indeed he
was to look upon.’ It is not meant that his body was ill-shaped but that
his face was ugly; for the Cretans use the word eueides, ‘well-flavored’
to denote a fair face. Again, zoroteron de keraie, ‘mix the drink livelier’
does not mean ‘mix it stronger’ as for hard drinkers, but ‘mix it
Sometimes an expression is metaphorical, as ‘Now all gods and men
were sleeping through the night,’ while at the same time the poet says:
‘Often indeed as he turned his gaze to the Trojan plain, he marveled at
the sound of flutes and pipes.’ ‘All’ is here used metaphorically for ‘many,’
all being a species of many. So in the verse, ‘alone she hath no part…
, oie, ‘alone’ is metaphorical; for the best known may be called the only
Again, the solution may depend upon accent or breathing. Thus Hippias
of Thasos solved the difficulties in the lines, didomen (didomen) de hoi,
and to men hou (ou) kataputhetai ombro.
Or again, the question may be solved by punctuation, as in Empedocles:
‘Of a sudden things became mortal that before had learnt to be immortal,
and things unmixed before mixed.’
Or again, by ambiguity of meaning, as parocheken de pleo nux, where
the word pleo is ambiguous.
Or by the usage of language. Thus any mixed drink is called oinos,
‘wine’. Hence Ganymede is said ‘to pour the wine to Zeus,’ though the gods
do not drink wine. So too workers in iron are called chalkeas, or ‘workers
in bronze.’ This, however, may also be taken as a metaphor.
Again, when a word seems to involve some inconsistency of meaning,
we should consider how many senses it may bear in the particular passage.
For example: ‘there was stayed the spear of bronze’- we should ask in how
many ways we may take ‘being checked there.’ The true mode of interpretation
is the precise opposite of what Glaucon mentions. Critics, he says, jump
at certain groundless conclusions; they pass adverse judgement and then
proceed to reason on it; and, assuming that the poet has said whatever
they happen to think, find fault if a thing is inconsistent with their
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
In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic
requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion. With respect
to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred
to a thing improbable and yet possible. Again, it may be impossible that
there should be men such as Zeuxis painted. ‘Yes,’ we say, ‘but the impossible
is the higher thing; for the ideal type must surpass the realty.’ To justify
the irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be. In addition to
which, we urge that the irrational sometimes does not violate reason; just
as ‘it is probable that a thing may happen contrary to
Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same
rules as in dialectical refutation- whether the same thing is meant, in
the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve the
question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is tacitly
assumed by a person of intelligence.
The element of the irrational, and, similarly, depravity of character,
are justly censured when there is no inner necessity for introducing them.
Such is the irrational element in the introduction of Aegeus by Euripides
and the badness of Menelaus in the Orestes.
Thus, there are five sources from which critical objections are drawn. Things are censured either as impossible, or irrational, or morally hurtful, or contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness. The answers should be sought under the twelve heads above mentioned.
Poetics By Aristotle