Chapter I (Project Gutenberg text)

Public domain status of this translation. CST Approved

Aristotle's discussion and analysis of poetry as an art form, considered by many to be the origin of literary theory and criticism.

It should be noted that, for the most part, Aristotle concentrates in this text on exploring the common elements and structures of dramatic poetry, and as such, this work has become the touchstone of playwrights, screenwriters and others who work in the dramatic arts, even when their work would not be described as poetic in the sense understood by most speakers of early 21st century English.

It may be safe to say that most mainstream Hollywood movies adhere fairly slavishly to most (though rarely all) of Aristotle's ideas about what makes a play work well. Art and independent films will often depart more markedly from one or more of Aristotle's dramatic unities, but it is very rare to find a well-regarded piece of drama that does not in some way adhere to the principles Aristotle laid out.

Bertolt Brecht and many other 20th century playwrights struggled against the straightjacket that Aristotelian structure has often been likened to. Some critics of Aristotle, like Brecht, could probably be said to share a distrust of theater comparable to that expressed in Plato's The Republic.

Plato argued that theater and drama encourage immoral behavior and would not be allowed in his ideal utopian society, as outlined in the dialogues of The Republic. According to tradition, Plato wrote dithyrambs and tragedies while very young, but destroyed them after he met Socrates.

Some key concepts from the Poetics

Concepts from Poetics I through X.
Key and introduction to the public domain e-text of the S.H. Butcher translation, which is (partially) noded in chapter-sized bits elsewhere on E2. Following text is copied verbatim from Project Gutenberg plain-text sources. Details and legal statements intrinsic to the text are provided at the Project Gutenberg node, more specifically at the entry provided by noder "Rancid Pickle." Any mistakes in formatting are those of the node authors or others who may node this and other translations of the text.

Like many Aristotle texts, the Poetics is fragmentary and future scholarship or academic breakthroughs may radically alter the available text and what is available to scholars for interpretation. The Butcher translation is most probably considered grossly inaccurate at this date by the concensus of Aristotle and classics academicians.

With caveats duly given, then, here follows the public domain text in English translation. Those chapters that have been noded to date will show hardlinks under the "Analysis of Contents" quoted below.



(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...}. (noder's note: available greek characters and transliterations have been substituted for the laborious "spelling out" alluded to here in the text) 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

  1. 'Imitation' the common principle of the Arts of Poetry.
  2. The Objects of Imitation.
  3. The Manner of Imitation.
  4. The Origin and Development of Poetry.
  5. Definition of the Ludicrous, and a brief sketch of the rise of Comedy.
  6. Definition of Tragedy.
  7. The Plot must be a Whole.
  8. The Plot must be a Unity.
  9. (Plot continued.) Dramatic Unity.
  10. (Plot continued.) Definitions of Simple and Complex Plots.
  11. (Plot continued.) Reversal of the Situation, Recognition, and Tragic or disastrous Incident defined and explained.
  12. The 'quantitative parts' of Tragedy defined.
  13. (Plot continued.) What constitutes Tragic Action.
  14. (Plot continued.) The tragic emotions of pity and fear should spring out of the Plot itself.
  15. The element of Character in Tragedy.
  16. (Plot continued.) Recognition: its various kinds, with examples.
  17. Practical rules for the Tragic Poet.
  18. Further rules for the Tragic Poet.
  19. Thought, or the Intellectual element, and Diction in Tragedy.
  20. Diction, or Language in general.
  21. Poetic Diction.
  22. (Poetic Diction continued.) How Poetry combines elevation of language with perspicuity.
  23. Epic Poetry.
  24. (Epic Poetry continued.) Further points of agreement with Tragedy.
  25. Critical Objections brought against Poetry, and the principles on which they are to be answered.
  26. A general estimate of the comparative worth of Epic Poetry and Tragedy.

Po*et"ics (?), n. [Cf. F. po'etique, L. poetica, poetice, Gr. (sc. .]

The principles and rules of the art of poetry.

J. Warton.


© Webster 1913.

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