The Preface to Aristotle's Art of Poetry

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I won't pretend nevertheless that the Rules of this Art, are so firmly established, that 'tis impossible to add any thing to them, for tho' Tragedy has all its proper Parts, 'tis probable one of those may yet arrive to greater Perfection. I am perswaded, that tho' we have been able to add nothing to the Subject, or Means, yet we have added something to the Manner, as you'l find in the Remarks, and all the new Discoveries are so far from destroying this Establishment, that they do nothing more than confirm it; for Nature is never contrary to herself, and one may apply to the Art of Poetry, what Hippocrates says of Physick,[17] Physick is of long standing, hath sure Principles, and a certain way by which in the Course of many Ages, an Infinity of Things have been discovered, of which, Experience confirms the Goodness; All that is wanting, for the perfection of this Art, will without doubt be found out, by those Ingenious Men, who will search for it, according to the Instructions and Rules of the Ancients, and endeavour to arrive at what is unknown, by what is already plain: For whoever shall boast that he has obtained this Art by rejecting the ways of the Ancients, and taking a quite different one, deceives others, and is himself deceived; because that's absolutely impossible. This Truth extends it self to all Arts and Sciences, 'tis no difficult matter to find a proper Example in our Subject, there is no want of Tragedies, where the management is altogether opposite to that of the Ancients. According to the Rules of Aristotle, a Tragedy is the Imitation of an Allegorical and Universal Action, which by the means of Terror, and Compassion, moderates and corrects our Inclinations. But according to these new Tragedies 'tis an imitation of some particular Action, which affects no body, and is only invented to amuse the Spectators, by the Plot, and unravelling a vain Intrigue, which tends only to excite and satisfie their Curiosity, and stir up their Passions, instead of rend'ring them calm and quiet. This is not only not the same Art, but can be none at all, since it tends to no good, and 'tis a pure Lye without any mixture of Truth; what advantage can be drawn from this Falshood? In a word, 'tis not a Fable, and by consequence, is in no wise a Tragedy, for a Tragedy cannot subsist without a Fable,[18] as you will see elsewhere.

We come now to the first Consequence, which we draw, from what we have Establish'd, and shall endeavour to prove, that our Laws, and what pleases, can never be opposite, since the Rules were made only for what pleases, and tend only to show the way you must walk in, to do so. By this we shall destroy the false Maxim, That, all that pleases is good, and assert that we ought on the contrary to say, That, all that is good pleases, or ought to please. For the goodness of any Work whatsoever, does not proceed from this, that it gives us pleasure, but the pleasure that we have proceeds from its goodness, unless our deluded Eyes and corrupt Imaginations mislead us, for that which causes our mistakes, is not, where is, but what is not.

If the Rules, and what pleased, were things opposite, you would never arrive at the giving pleasure, but by meer chance, which is absurd: There must for that reason be a certain way, which leads thither, and that way is the Rule which we ought to learn; but what is that Rule? 'Tis a Precept, which being drawn from the Pleasant and Profitable, leads us to their source. Now what is the Pleasant and Profitable? 'Tis that which pleases naturally, in all Arts 'tis this we consult, 'tis the most sure and perfect Model we can Imitate; in it we find perfect Unity and Order, for it self is Order, or to speak more properly, the effect of Order, and the Rule which conducts us thither; there is but one way to find Order, but a great many to fall into Confusion.

There would be nothing bad in the World, if all that pleas'd were good; for there is nothing so ridiculous, but what will have its Admirers. You may say indeed, 'tis no truer, that what is good pleases, because we see ev'ry day Disputes about the Good and Pleasant, that the same Thing pleases some, and displeases others; nay, it pleases and displeases the very same Persons at different times: from whence then proceeds this difference? It comes either from an absolute Ignorance of the Rule, or that the Passions alter it. Rightly to clear this Truth, I believe I may lay down this Maxim, that all sensible Objects are of two sorts; some may be judged of, by Sense independantly from Reason. I can Sense that Impression which the animal Spirits make on the Soul, others can't be judged of but by Reason exercised in Science, Things simply agreeable, or disagreeable, are of the first Sort, all the World may judge alike of these, for example the most Ignorant in Musick, perceives very well, when a Player on the Lute strikes one String for another, because he judges by his Sense, and that Sense is the Rule; in such occasions, we may therefore very well say, that all that pleases is good, because that which is Good doth please, or that which is Evil never fails to displease; for neither the Passions, nor Ignorance dull the Senses, on the contrary they sharpen them. 'Tis not so in Things which spring from Reason; Passion and Ignorance act very strongly on it, and oftentimes choak it, this is the Reason, why we ordinarily judge so ill, and differently concerning those Things, of which, that is the Rule and the Cause. Why, what is Bad often pleases, and that which is Good doth not always so, 'tis not the fault of the Object, 'tis the fault of him who judges; but what is Good will infallibly please those who can judge, and that's sufficient. By this we may see, that a Play, that shall bring those Things which are to be judg'd of by Reason, within the Rules, as also what is to be judg'd of by the Sense, shall never fail to please, for it will please both the Learned, and Ignorant: Now this Conformity of suffrages is the most sure,[19] or according to Aristotle the only Mark of the Good, and Pleasant, as he proves in the following part of his Discourse. Now these Suffrages are not obtained, but by the observation of the Rules, and consequently, these Rules are the only Cause of the Good, and Pleasant, whether they are follow'd Methodically and with Design, or by Hazard only; for 'tis certain, there are many Persons who are entirely Ignorant of these Rules, and yet don't fail to succeed in several Affairs: This is far from destroying the Rules, and serves to shew their Beauty, and proves how far they are conformable to Nature, since those often follow them, who know nothing of 'em. In the Remarks you shall find many Examples of the vast difference, the observance or neglect of the Rules make in the same Subject, and by that be throughly convinc'd that they are the two only Causes of Good, or Bad Works, and that there can never be any occasion, where the perfect Harmony which is between the Rules, and what pleases, shou'd be broken.

'Tis true to come to the last Consequence, that Poetry is an Art, invented for the Instruction of Mankind, and consequently must be profitable: 'Tis a general Truth that ev'ry Art is a good Thing, because there is none whose End is not Good: But, as it is not less true, that Men ordinarily abuse the best Things, that which was design'd for an wholsome Remedy, may in time become a very dangerous Poison. I declare then that I don't speak of corrupted Tragedy, for 'tis not in vitious and depraved Works, that we must look for Reason, and the intent of Nature, but in those which are sound and perfect; I speak of Ancient Tragedy, that which is conform to Aristotle's Rules, and I dare say, 'tis the most profitable, and necessary of all Diversions.

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