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Aristotle: Poetics—Chapter XXII

The Butcher translation retains the traditional chapter numbering. Some modern translations break the chapters somewhat differently.


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: 'epicharen eidon marathonade badizonta'    {επιχαρη ν   ειδον   μαραθων αδε   βαδιζοντα}, or, 'ouk an g'eramenos ton ekeinou elleboron'    {ουκ   αν   γ' εραμ ενοσ   τον   εκειν ου   ελλεβορο ν}. 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: 'phagedaina <d>e mou sarkas ertiei podos'   {φαγεδαινα   <δ>η   μου   σαρκασ   ερθιει   ποδοσ}.

Euripides substitutes thoinatai   {θοιναται} 'feasts on' for esthiei   {εσθιει} 'feeds on.' Again, in the line, nun dê m'êôn oligigus tê kai outidanos kai aêikes    {νυν   δε   μ   εων   ολιγιγυσ   τε   και   ουτιδανοσ   και   αεικησ, the difference will be felt if we substitute the common words, nun dê m' êôn mikros tê kai asthênikos kai aêides    {νυν   δε   μ'   εων   μικροσ   τ ε   και   αρθενικ οσ   και   αειδησ}. Or, if for the line, 'diphron aêikêlion katatheis oligen te trapeis oligen te trapezan'    {διφρον   αει κελιον   καταθ εισ   ολιγην   τε   τ ραπεισ   ολιγην   τ ε   τραπεζαν ),} We read, diphron mochteron katatheis mikran te trapezan    {δι φρον   μοχθηρον   κ αταθεισ   μικραν   τε   τραπεζαν }. Or, for eines booôrin, eioneskrazourin    {ηιονεσ   βοοω ριν},   {ηιονεσκραζ ουριν} Again, Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which no one would employ in ordinary speech: for example, domaton apo    δωματ ων   απο} instead of apo domaton    απο   δω ματων}, rethen    {ρεθεν}, ego de nin    {εγ ω   δε   νιν}, Achilleos peri    {αχιλlambda εωσ   περι} instead of peri 'Achilleos   (περ ι   'αχιλλεωσ}, 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.

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