The Poetics

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(1) See my Euripides and his Age, pp. 221-45.

One can see the effect of the tradition also in his treatment of the terms Anagnorisis and Peripeteia, which Professor Bywater translates as 'Discovery and Peripety' and Professor Butcher as 'Recognition and Reversal of Fortune'. Aristotle assumes that these two elements are normally present in any tragedy, except those which he calls 'simple'; we may say, roughly, in any tragedy that really has a plot. This strikes a modern reader as a very arbitrary assumption. Reversals of Fortune of some sort are perhaps usual in any varied plot, but surely not Recognitions? The clue to the puzzle lies, it can scarcely be doubted, in the historical origin of tragedy. Tragedy, according to Greek tradition, is originally the ritual play of Dionysus, performed at his festival, and representing, as Herodotus tells us, the 'sufferings' or 'passion' of that God. We are never directly told what these 'sufferings' were which were so represented; but Herodotus remarks that he found in Egypt a ritual that was 'in almost all points the same'. (1) This was the well-known ritual of Osiris, in which the god was torn in pieces, lamented, searched for, discovered or recognized, and the mourning by a sudden Reversal turned into joy. In any tragedy which still retained the stamp of its Dionysiac origin, this Discovery and Peripety might normally be expected to occur, and to occur together. I have tried to show elsewhere how many of our extant tragedies do, as a matter of fact, show the marks of this ritual.(2)

(1) Cf. Hdt. ii. 48; cf. 42,144. The name of Dionysus must not be openly mentioned in connexion with mourning (ib. 61, 132, 86). This may help to explain the transference of the tragic shows to other heroes.

(2) In Miss Harrison's Themis, pp. 341-63.

I hope it is not rash to surmise that the much-debated word __katharsis__, 'purification' or 'purgation', may have come into Aristotle's mouth from the same source. It has all the appearance of being an old word which is accepted and re-interpreted by Aristotle rather than a word freely chosen by him to denote the exact phenomenon he wishes to describe. At any rate the Dionysus ritual itself was a katharmos or katharsis—a purification of the community from the taints and poisons of the past year, the old contagion of sin and death. And the words of Aristotle's definition of tragedy in Chapter VI might have been used in the days of Thespis in a much cruder and less metaphorical sense. According to primitive ideas, the mimic representation on the stage of 'incidents arousing pity and fear' did act as a katharsis of such 'passions' or 'sufferings' in real life. (For the word pathemata means 'sufferings' as well as 'passions'.) It is worth remembering that in the year 361 B.C., during Aristotle's lifetime, Greek tragedies were introduced into Rome, not on artistic but on superstitious grounds, as a katharmos against a pestilence (Livy vii. 2). One cannot but suspect that in his account of the purpose of tragedy Aristotle may be using an old traditional formula, and consciously or unconsciously investing it with a new meaning, much as he has done with the word mythos.

Apart from these historical causes of misunderstanding, a good teacher who uses this book with a class will hardly fail to point out numerous points on which two equally good Greek scholars may well differ in the mere interpretation of the words. What, for instance, are the 'two natural causes' in Chapter IV which have given birth to Poetry? Are they, as our translator takes them, (1) that man is imitative, and (2) that people delight in imitations? Or are they (1) that man is imitative and people delight in imitations, and (2) the instinct for rhythm, as Professor Butcher prefers? Is it a 'creature' a thousand miles long, or a 'picture' a thousand miles long which raises some trouble in Chapter VII? The word zoon means equally 'picture' and 'animal'. Did the older poets make their characters speak like 'statesmen', politikoi, or merely like ordinary citizens, politai, while the moderns made theirs like 'professors of rhetoric'? (Chapter VI, p. 38; cf. Margoliouth's note and glossary).

It may seem as if the large uncertainties which we have indicated detract in a ruinous manner from the value of the Poetics to us as a work of criticism. Certainly if any young writer took this book as a manual of rules by which to 'commence poet', he would find himself embarrassed. But, if the book is properly read, not as a dogmatic text-book but as a first attempt, made by a man of astounding genius, to build up in the region of creative art a rational order like that which he established in logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, physics, psychology, and almost every department of knowledge that existed in his day, then the uncertainties become rather a help than a discouragement. They give us occasion to think and use our imagination. They make us, to the best of our powers, try really to follow and criticize closely the bold gropings of an extraordinary thinker; and it is in this process, and not in any mere collection of dogmatic results, that we shall find the true value and beauty of the Poetics.

The book is of permanent value as a mere intellectual achievement; as a store of information about Greek literature; and as an original or first-hand statement of what we may call the classical view of artistic criticism. It does not regard poetry as a matter of unanalysed inspiration; it makes no concession to personal whims or fashion or ennui. It tries by rational methods to find out what is good in art and what makes it good, accepting the belief that there is just as truly a good way, and many bad ways, in poetry as in morals or in playing billiards. This is no place to try to sum up its main conclusions. But it is characteristic of the classical view that Aristotle lays his greatest stress, first, on the need for Unity in the work of art, the need that each part should subserve the whole, while irrelevancies, however brilliant in themselves, should be cast away; and next, on the demand that great art must have for its subject the great way of living. These judgements have often been misunderstood, but the truth in them is profound and goes near to the heart of things.

Characteristic, too, is the observation that different kinds of art grow and develop, but not indefinitely; they develop until they 'attain their natural form'; also the rule that each form of art should produce 'not every sort of pleasure but its proper pleasure'; and the sober language in which Aristotle, instead of speaking about the sequence of events in a tragedy being 'inevitable', as we bombastic moderns do, merely recommends that they should be 'either necessary or probable' and 'appear to happen because of one another'.

Conceptions and attitudes of mind such as these constitute what we may call the classical faith in matters of art and poetry; a faith which is never perhaps fully accepted in any age, yet, unlike others, is never forgotten but lives by being constantly criticized, re-asserted, and rebelled against. For the fashions of the ages vary in this direction and that, but they vary for the most part from a central road which was struck out by the imagination of Greece.

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