The Preface to Aristotle's Art of Poetry

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Dacier's insistence that the primary function of poetry is to instruct and that pleasure is merely an aid to that end could easily be distorted into a crudely moralistic view of the art. Doubtless it was this that recommended the treatise to minor critics and poets who were creating the atmosphere out of which came Jeremy Collier's attack on contemporary dramatists in 1698.

Blackmore's preface to Prince Arthur (1695) is a long plea for the reformation of poetry, whose "true and genuine End is, by universal Confession, the Instruction of our Minds and Regulation of our Manners...." One is not surprised, when toward the end he names his authorities, that they turn out to be Rapin, Le Bossu, Dacier (as commentators on Aristotle and Horace) and "our own excellent Critick, Mr. Rymer."[13] W.J. who translated Le Bossu in 1695, dedicated his work to Blackmore. In his preface he linked Blackmore and Dacier as proponents of the thesis that poetry's "true Use and End is to instruct and profit the world more than to delight and please it."[14] And Jeremy Collier himself quoted Dacier from time to time, and on one occasion invoked his commentary on Horace, "The Theater condemned as inconsistent with Prudence and Religion," as one of many answers to the unrepentant Congreve.[15]

But besides starting these minor controversies Dacier's preface states some of the typical themes of neo-Aristotelian criticism: the idea that proper tragedy is based on a fable that imitates an "Allegorical and Universal Action" intended "to[Pg iv] Form the Manners," a view that closely relates tragic fable to epic fable as interpreted by Le Bossu;[16] that modern tragedy, being concerned with individuals and their intrigues, cannot be universal and is therefore necessarily defective; that love is an improper subject for tragedy; that the Aristotelian katharsis proposes as its end not the expulsion of passions from the soul, but the moderation of excessive passions and the inuring of the audience to the inevitable calamities of life, and so on. Finally, he is nowhere more typical of French critics in his time than in his vigorous defense of the rules, which he declares are valid because of the nature of poetry which, being an art, must have an end, and there must necessarily be some way to arrive at it; because of the authority of Aristotle, whose knowledge of our passions equipped him to give rules for poetry; because of the illustrious works from which Aristotle deduced his rules; because of the quality of the poetry that they produce when followed; because, since they are drawn from "the common Sentiment of Mankind," they must be reasonable; because nothing can please that is not conformable to the rules, "for good Sense and right Reason, is of all Countries and places;" and finally "because they are the Laws of Nature who always acts uniformly, reviews them incessantly, and gives them a perpetual Existence." It is his simultaneous appeal to the authority of the ancients, to the consensus gentium, to general nature, and to good sense that makes Dacier seem to us to represent the final phase of French neo-classical critical theory.

Samuel Holt Monk
University of Minnesota



[Pg v]

Notes to the Introduction

[1] Willard H. Durham, ed., Critical Essays of the Eighteenth Century, New Haven, 1915, pp. 62-72.

[2] Tatler 165.

[3] Spectator 592.

[4] For Dacier in England see A.F.B. Clark, Boileau and the French Classical Critics in England (1660-1830) , Paris, 1925, pp. 286-288. As late as 1895, S. H. Butcher, in Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, mentioned Dacier frequently, if only to disagree with him as often as he mentioned him.

[5] Thomas Rymer, Critical Works (ed. C.A. Zimansky), New Haven, 1956, p. 83.

[6] This view, announced in the Preface, was elaborately argued by Dacier in Remarque 27, Ch. XIX.

[7] Rymer, op. cit., p. 84. Zimansky, in his introduction and notes, discusses the influence of Dacier on Rymer and other English critics.

[8] Ibid. p. 84 and pp. 80-93.

[9] John Dennis, Critical Works (ed. Edward N. Hooker), Baltimore (1939-43), I, 30-35. For a succinct account of the English controversy about the chorus see ibid., I, 437-438. Though Dennis did not agree with Dacier on this point, he admired him. As late as 1726, in the preface to The Stage Defended, he quoted Dacier's preface and spoke of him as "that most judicious Critick." Ibid., II, 309.

[10] John Dryden, Letters (ed. C.E. Ward), Duke University Press, 1942, pp. 71-72. Hooker has noticed the similarity of two of Dennis's opinions to views expressed by Dryden in his then unpublished "Heads of an Answer" to Rymer's Tragedies of the Last Age, 1678.[Pg vi]

[11] W.P. Ker, Essays of John Dryden, Oxford, 1926, II, 136.

[12] Ker, II, 144. Cf. Dennis's similar remark in The Impartial Critick, Hooker, I, 31. Racine, in his preface to Esther, said nothing doctrinaire about the use of the chorus. He merely mentioned that it had occurred to him to introduce the chorus in order to imitate the ancients and to sing the praises of the true God.

[13] J.E. Spingarn, Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, Oxford, 1908-09, III, 227 and 240.

[14] Treatise of the Epick Poem, London, 1695, sig. [A 3] verso- A 4, recto.

[15] Jeremy Collier, "A Defence of the Short View.... Being a Reply to Mr. Congreve's Amendments," A Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage, etc., London, 1738, p. 251.

[16] Traité du Poëme Epique, I, ch. vi and vii.




If I was to speak here of Aristotle's Merit only, the excellence of his Poetick Art, and the reasons I had to publish it, I need do no more than refer the Reader to that Work, to shew the disorders into which the Theatre is long since fallen, and to let him see that as the Injustice of Men, gave occasion to the making of Laws; so the decay of Arts and the Faults committed in them, oblig'd first to the making Rules, and the renewing them. But in order to prevent the Objections of some, who scorn to be bound to any Rules, only that of their own fancy, I think it necessary, to prove, not only that Poetry is an Art, but that 'tis known and its Rules so certainly those which Aristotle gives us, that 'tis impossible to succeed any other way. This being prov'd, I shall examine the two Consequences which naturally flow from thence: First, that the Rules, and what pleases, are never contrary to one another, and that you can never obtain the latter without the former. Secondly, That Poesie being an Art can never be prejudicial to Mankind, and that 'twas invented and improv'd for their advantage only.

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