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- The Poetics - 1/10 -




OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS FIRST PUBLISHED 1920 REPRINTED 1925, 1928, 1932, 1938, 1945, 1947 1951, 1954, 1959. 1962 PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN


In the tenth book of the _Republic_, when Plato has completed his final burning denunciation of Poetry, the false Siren, the imitator of things which themselves are shadows, the ally of all that is low and weak in the soul against that which is high and strong, who makes us feed the things we ought to starve and serve the things we ought to rule, he ends with a touch of compunction: 'We will give her champions, not poets themselves but poet-lovers, an opportunity to make her defence in plain prose and show that she is not only sweet--as we well know--but also helpful to society and the life of man, and we will listen in a kindly spirit. For we shall be gainers, I take it, if this can be proved.' Aristotle certainly knew the passage, and it looks as if his treatise on poetry was an answer to Plato's challenge.

Few of the great works of ancient Greek literature are easy reading. They nearly all need study and comment, and at times help from a good teacher, before they yield up their secret. And the _Poetics_ cannot be accounted an exception. For one thing the treatise is fragmentary. It originally consisted of two books, one dealing with Tragedy and Epic, the other with Comedy and other subjects. We possess only the first. For another, even the book we have seems to be unrevised and unfinished. The style, though luminous, vivid, and in its broader division systematic, is not that of a book intended for publication. Like most of Aristotle's extant writing, it suggests the MS. of an experienced lecturer, full of jottings and adscripts, with occasional phrases written carefully out, but never revised as a whole for the general reader. Even to accomplished scholars the meaning is often obscure, as may be seen by a comparison of the three editions recently published in England, all the work of savants of the first eminence, [1] or, still more strikingly, by a study of the long series of misunderstandings and overstatements and corrections which form the history of the _Poetics_ since the Renaissance.

[1] Prof. Butcher, 1895 and 1898; Prof. Bywater, 1909; and Prof. Margoliouth, 1911.

But it is of another cause of misunderstanding that I wish principally to speak in this preface. The great edition from which the present translation is taken was the fruit of prolonged study by one of the greatest Aristotelians of the nineteenth century, and is itself a classic among works of scholarship. In the hands of a student who knows even a little Greek, the translation, backed by the commentary, may lead deep into the mind of Aristotle. But when the translation is used, as it doubtless will be, by readers who are quite without the clue provided by a knowledge of the general habits of the Greek language, there must arise a number of new difficulties or misconceptions.

To understand a great foreign book by means of a translation is possible enough where the two languages concerned operate with a common stock of ideas, and belong to the same period of civilization. But between ancient Greece and modern England there yawn immense gulfs of human history; the establishment and the partial failure of a common European religion, the barbarian invasions, the feudal system, the regrouping of modern Europe, the age of mechanical invention, and the industrial revolution. In an average page of French or German philosophy nearly all the nouns can be translated directly into exact equivalents in English; but in Greek that is not so. Scarcely one in ten of the nouns on the first few pages of the _Poetics_ has an exact English equivalent. Every proposition has to be reduced to its lowest terms of thought and then re-built. This is a difficulty which no translation can quite deal with; it must be left to a teacher who knows Greek. And there is a kindred difficulty which flows from it. Where words can be translated into equivalent words, the style of an original can be closely followed; but no translation which aims at being written in normal English can reproduce the style of Aristotle. I have sometimes played with the idea that a ruthlessly literal translation, helped out by bold punctuation, might be the best. For instance, premising that the words _poesis_, _poetes_ mean originally 'making' and 'maker', one might translate the first paragraph of the _Poetics_ thus:--

MAKING: kinds of making: function of each, and how the Myths ought to be put together if the Making is to go right.

Number of parts: nature of parts: rest of same inquiry.

Begin in order of nature from first principles.

Epos-making, tragedy-making (also comedy), dithyramb-making (and most fluting and harping), taken as a whole, are really not Makings but Imitations. They differ in three points; they imitate (a) different objects, (b) by different means, (c) differently (i.e. different manner).

Some artists imitate (i.e. depict) by shapes and colours. (Obs. sometimes by art, sometimes by habit.) Some by voice. Similarly the above arts all imitate by rhythm, language, and tune, and these either (1) separate or (2) mixed.

Rhythm and tune alone, harping, fluting, and other arts with same effect--e.g. panpipes.

Rhythm without tune: dancing. (Dancers imitate characters, emotions, and experiences by means of rhythms expressed in form.)

Language alone (whether prose or verse, and one form of verse or many): this art has no name up to the present (i.e. there is no name to cover mimes and dialogues and any similar imitation made in iambics, elegiacs, &c. Commonly people attach the 'making' to the metre and say 'elegiac-makers', 'hexameter-makers,' giving them a common class-name by their metre, as if it was not their imitation that makes them 'makers').

Such an experiment would doubtless be a little absurd, but it would give an English reader some help in understanding both Aristotle's style and his meaning.

For example, there i.e.lightenment in the literal phrase, 'how the myths ought to be put together.' The higher Greek poetry did not make up fictitious plots; its business was to express the heroic saga, the myths. Again, the literal translation of _poetes_, poet, as 'maker', helps to explain a term that otherwise seems a puzzle in the _Poetics_. If we wonder why Aristotle, and Plato before him, should lay such stress on the theory that art is imitation, it is a help to realize that common language called it 'making', and it was clearly not 'making' in the ordinary sense. The poet who was 'maker' of a Fall of Troy clearly did not make the real Fall of Troy. He made an imitation Fall of Troy. An artist who 'painted Pericles' really 'made an imitation Pericles by means of shapes and colours'. Hence we get started upon a theory of art which, whether finally satisfactory or not, is of immense importance, and are saved from the error of complaining that Aristotle did not understand the 'creative power' of art.

As a rule, no doubt, the difficulty, even though merely verbal, lies beyond the reach of so simple a tool as literal translation. To say that tragedy 'imitate.g.od men' while comedy 'imitates bad men' strikes a modern reader as almost meaningless. The truth is that neither 'good' nor 'bad' is an exact equivalent of the Greek. It would be nearer perhaps to say that, relatively speaking, you look up to the characters of tragedy, and down upon those of comedy. High or low, serious or trivial, many other pairs of words would have to be called in, in order to cover the wide range of the common Greek words. And the point is important, because we have to consider whether in Chapter VI Aristotle really lays it down that tragedy, so far from being the story of un-happiness that we think it, is properly an imitation of _eudaimonia_--a word often translated 'happiness', but meaning something more like 'high life' or 'blessedness'. [1]

[1] See Margoliouth, p. 121. By water, with most editors, emends the text.

Another difficult word which constantly recurs in the _Poetics_ is _prattein_ or _praxis_, generally translated 'to act' or 'action'. But _prattein_, like our 'do', also has an intransitive meaning 'to fare' either well or ill; and Professor Margoliouth has pointed out that it seems more true to say that tragedy shows how men 'fare' than how they 'act'. It shows thei.e.periences or fortunes rather than merely their deeds. But one must not draw the line too bluntly. I should doubt whether a classical Greek writer was ordinarily conscious of the distinction between the two meanings. Certainly it i.e.sier to regard happiness as a way of faring than as a form of action. Yet Aristotle can use the passive of _prattein_ for things 'done' or 'gone through' (e.g. 52a, 22, 29: 55a, 25).

The fact is that much misunderstanding is often caused by our modern attempts to limit too strictly the meaning of a Greek word. Greek was very much a live language, and a language still unconscious of grammar, not, like ours, dominated by definitions and trained upon dictionaries. An instance is provided by Aristotle's famous saying that the typical tragic hero is one who falls from high state or fame, not through vice or depravity, but by some great _hamartia_. _Hamartia_ means originally a 'bad shot' or 'error', but is currently used for 'offence' or 'sin'. Aristotle clearly means that the typical hero is a great man with 'something wrong' in his life or character; but I think it is a mistake of method to argue whether he means 'an intellectual error' or 'a moral flaw'. The word is not so precise.

Similarly, when Aristotle says that a deed of strife or disaster is more tragic when it occurs 'amid affections' or 'among people who love each other', no doubt the phrase, as Aristotle's own examples show,

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