350 BC
by Aristotle
Translated by S. H. Butcher

I PROPOSE to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds,
noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of
the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of
the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever
else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of
nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.
Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the
music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all
in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ,
however, from one another in three respects- the medium, the
objects, the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.
For as there are persons who, by conscious art or mere habit,
imitate and represent various objects through the medium of color
and form, or again by the voice; so in the arts above mentioned, taken
as a whole, the imitation is produced by rhythm, language, or
'harmony,' either singly or combined.
Thus in the music of the flute and of the lyre, 'harmony' and rhythm
alone are employed; also in other arts, such as that of the shepherd's
pipe, which are essentially similar to these. In dancing, rhythm alone
is used without 'harmony'; for even dancing imitates character,
emotion, and action, by rhythmical movement.
There is another art which imitates by means of language alone,
and that either in prose or verse- which verse, again, may either
combine different meters or consist of but one kind- but this has
hitherto been without a name. For there is no common term we could
apply to the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues
on the one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic,
elegiac, or any similar meter. People do, indeed, add the word 'maker'
or 'poet' to the name of the meter, and speak of elegiac poets, or
epic (that is, hexameter) poets, as if it were not the imitation
that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all to the name.
Even when a treatise on medicine or natural science is brought out
in verse, the name of poet is by custom given to the author; and yet
Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter, so that
it would be right to call the one poet, the other physicist rather
than poet. On the same principle, even if a writer in his poetic
imitation were to combine all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur,
which is a medley composed of meters of all kinds, we should bring him
too under the general term poet.
So much then for these distinctions.
There are, again, some arts which employ all the means above
mentioned- namely, rhythm, tune, and meter. Such are Dithyrambic and
Nomic poetry, and also Tragedy and Comedy; but between them originally
the difference is, that in the first two cases these means are all
employed in combination, in the latter, now one means is employed, now
Such, then, are the differences of the arts with respect to the
medium of imitation

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must
be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly
answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the
distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must
represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as
they are. It is the same in painting. Polygnotus depicted men as
nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true
to life.
Now it is evident that each of the modes of imitation above
mentioned will exhibit these differences, and become a distinct kind
in imitating objects that are thus distinct. Such diversities may be
found even in dancing, flute-playing, and lyre-playing. So again in
language, whether prose or verse unaccompanied by music. Homer, for
example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon
the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of
the Deiliad, worse than they are. The same thing holds good of
Dithyrambs and Nomes; here too one may portray different types, as
Timotheus and Philoxenus differed in representing their Cyclopes.
The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at
representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

There is still a third difference- the manner in which each of these
objects may be imitated. For the medium being the same, and the
objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration- in which case
he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in
his own person, unchanged- or he may present all his characters as
living and moving before us.
These, then, as we said at the beginning, are the three
differences which distinguish artistic imitation- the medium, the
objects, and the manner. So that from one point of view, Sophocles
is an imitator of the same kind as Homer- for both imitate higher
types of character; from another point of view, of the same kind as
Aristophanes- for both imitate persons acting and doing. Hence, some
say, the name of 'drama' is given to such poems, as representing
action. For the same reason the Dorians claim the invention both of
Tragedy and Comedy. The claim to Comedy is put forward by the
Megarians- not only by those of Greece proper, who allege that it
originated under their democracy, but also by the Megarians of Sicily,
for the poet Epicharmus, who is much earlier than Chionides and
Magnes, belonged to that country. Tragedy too is claimed by certain
Dorians of the Peloponnese. In each case they appeal to the evidence
of language. The outlying villages, they say, are by them called
komai, by the Athenians demoi: and they assume that comedians were
so named not from komazein, 'to revel,' but because they wandered from
village to village (kata komas), being excluded contemptuously from
the city. They add also that the Dorian word for 'doing' is dran,
and the Athenian, prattein.
This may suffice as to the number and nature of the various modes of

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them
lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is
implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and
other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures,
and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less
universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of
this in the facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view
with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute
fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead
bodies. The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the
liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general;
whose capacity, however, of learning is more limited. Thus the
reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it
they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah,
that is he.' For if you happen not to have seen the original, the
pleasure will be due not to the imitation as such, but to the
execution, the coloring, or some such other cause.
Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the
instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of
rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift
developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude
improvisations gave birth to Poetry.
Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual
character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions,
and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the
actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former
did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the
satirical kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than
Homer; though many such writers probably there were. But from Homer
onward, instances can be cited- his own Margites, for example, and
other similar compositions. The appropriate meter was also here
introduced; hence the measure is still called the iambic or lampooning
measure, being that in which people lampooned one another. Thus the
older poets were distinguished as writers of heroic or of lampooning
As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he
alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too
first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous
instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same
relation to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy. But
when Tragedy and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets
still followed their natural bent: the lampooners became writers of
Comedy, and the Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the
drama was a larger and higher form of art.
Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and
whether it is to be judged in itself, or in relation also to the
audience- this raises another question. Be that as it may, Tragedy- as
also Comedy- was at first mere improvisation. The one originated
with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic
songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy
advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in
turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its
natural form, and there it stopped.
Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the
importance of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the
dialogue. Sophocles raised the number of actors to three, and added
scene-painting. Moreover, it was not till late that the short plot was
discarded for one of greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the
earlier satyric form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic
measure then replaced the trochaic tetrameter, which was originally
employed when the poetry was of the satyric order, and had greater
with dancing. Once dialogue had come in, Nature herself discovered the
appropriate measure. For the iambic is, of all measures, the most
colloquial we see it in the fact that conversational speech runs
into iambic lines more frequently than into any other kind of verse;
rarely into hexameters, and only when we drop the colloquial
intonation. The additions to the number of 'episodes' or acts, and the
other accessories of which tradition tells, must be taken as already
described; for to discuss them in detail would, doubtless, be a
large undertaking.

Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower
type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous
being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect
or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious
example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply
The successive changes through which Tragedy passed, and the authors
of these changes, are well known, whereas Comedy has had no history,
because it was not at first treated seriously. It was late before
the Archon granted a comic chorus to a poet; the performers were
till then voluntary. Comedy had already taken definite shape when
comic poets, distinctively so called, are heard of. Who furnished it
with masks, or prologues, or increased the number of actors- these and
other similar details remain unknown. As for the plot, it came
originally from Sicily; but of Athenian writers Crates was the first
who abandoning the 'iambic' or lampooning form, generalized his themes
and plots.
Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in
verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic
poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They
differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as
possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or
but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no
limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at
first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.
Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to
Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows
also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found
in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the
Epic poem.

Of the poetry which imitates in hexameter verse, and of Comedy, we
will speak hereafter. Let us now discuss Tragedy, resuming its
formal definition, as resulting from what has been already said.
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious,
complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with
each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in
separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative;
through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these
emotions. By 'language embellished,' I mean language into which
rhythm, 'harmony' and song enter. By 'the several kinds in separate
parts,' I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of
verse alone, others again with the aid of song.
Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily
follows in the first place, that Spectacular equipment will be a
part of Tragedy. Next, Song and Diction, for these are the media of
imitation. By 'Diction' I mean the mere metrical arrangement of the
words: as for 'Song,' it is a term whose sense every one understands.
Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action
implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive
qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we
qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are
the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again
all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of
the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the
incidents. By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe
certain qualities to the agents. Thought is required wherever a
statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated.
Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine
its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle,
Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the
manner, and three the objects of imitation. And these complete the
fist. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a
man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well as
Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought.
But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For
Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and
life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a
quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by
their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action,
therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character:
character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents
and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief
thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there
may be without character. The tragedies of most of our modern poets
fail in the rendering of character; and of poets in general this is
often true. It is the same in painting; and here lies the difference
between Zeuxis and Polygnotus. Polygnotus delineates character well;
the style of Zeuxis is devoid of ethical quality. Again, if you string
together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well
finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the
essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however
deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically
constructed incidents. Besides which, the most powerful elements of
emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia or Reversal of the
Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of the plot. A further
proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish of diction and
precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot. It is the
same with almost all the early poets.
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of
a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in
painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give
as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is
the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to
the action.
Third in order is Thought- that is, the faculty of saying what is
possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory,
this is the function of the political art and of the art of
rhetoric: and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak
the language of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the
rhetoricians. Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing
what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore,
which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not
choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character.
Thought, on the other hand, is found where something is proved to be
or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated.
Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean,
as has been already said, the expression of the meaning in words;
and its essence is the same both in verse and prose.
Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among the
The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own,
but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least
with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is
felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the
production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage
machinist than on that of the poet.

These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper
structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important
thing in Tragedy.
Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an
action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for
there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that
which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which
does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which
something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is
that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by
necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is
that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well
constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at
haphazard, but conform to these principles.
Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any
whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement
of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty
depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism
cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object
being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again,
can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all
in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the
spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long.
As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain
magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced
in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a
length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length
in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no
part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred
tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been
regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done.
But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this:
the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason
of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the
matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised
within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the
law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad
fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the
unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one
man's life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are
many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action.
Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a
Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as
Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity.
But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether
from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth.
In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of
Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at
the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no
necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and
likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the
word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the
imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being
an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole,
the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of
them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and
disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible
difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the
function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen-
what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The
poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The
work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a
species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true
difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may
happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher
thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history
the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type
on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or
necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the
names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for
example- what Alcibiades did or suffered. In Comedy this is already
apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines
of probability, and then inserts characteristic names- unlike the
lampooners who write about particular individuals. But tragedians
still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is
credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be
possible; but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it
would not have happened. Still there are even some tragedies in
which there are only one or two well-known names, the rest being
fictitious. In others, none are well known- as in Agathon's Antheus,
where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none
the less pleasure. We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the
received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed,
it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are
known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly
follows that the poet or 'maker' should be the maker of plots rather
than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he
imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a historical
subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some
events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of
the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is
their poet or maker.
Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot
'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without
probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their
own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they write
show pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its
capacity, and are often forced to break the natural continuity.
But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action,
but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best
produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is
heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect.
The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of
themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking
when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys
at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a
festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere
chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are
necessarily the best.

Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life, of
which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar
distinction. An action which is one and continuous in the sense
above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place
without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition
A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such
Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise
from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should
be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It
makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of
propter hoc or post hoc.

Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers
round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or
necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus
and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he
is, he produces the opposite effect. Again in the Lynceus, Lynceus
is being led away to his death, and Danaus goes with him, meaning to
slay him; but the outcome of the preceding incidents is that Danaus is
killed and Lynceus saved.
Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to
knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by
the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is
coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus.
There are indeed other forms. Even inanimate things of the most
trivial kind may in a sense be objects of recognition. Again, we may
recognize or discover whether a person has done a thing or not. But
the recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot and
action is, as we have said, the recognition of persons. This
recognition, combined with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear;
and actions producing these effects are those which, by our
definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon such situations
that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend. Recognition, then,
being between persons, it may happen that one person only is
recognized by the other- when the latter is already known- or it may
be necessary that the recognition should be on both sides. Thus
Iphigenia is revealed to Orestes by the sending of the letter; but
another act of recognition is required to make Orestes known to
Two parts, then, of the Plot- Reversal of the Situation and
Recognition- turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of
Suffering. The Scene of Suffering is a destructive or painful
action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the

The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the
whole have been already mentioned. We now come to the quantitative
parts- the separate parts into which Tragedy is divided- namely,
Prologue, Episode, Exode, Choric song; this last being divided into
Parode and Stasimon. These are common to all plays: peculiar to some
are the songs of actors from the stage and the Commoi.
The Prologue is that entire part of a tragedy which precedes the
Parode of the Chorus. The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy
which is between complete choric songs. The Exode is that entire
part of a tragedy which has no choric song after it. Of the Choric
part the Parode is the first undivided utterance of the Chorus: the
Stasimon is a Choric ode without anapaests or trochaic tetrameters:
the Commos is a joint lamentation of Chorus and actors. The parts of
Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been
already mentioned. The quantitative parts- the separate parts into
which it is divided- are here enumerated.

As the sequel to what has already been said, we must proceed to
consider what the poet should aim at, and what he should avoid, in
constructing his plots; and by what means the specific effect of
Tragedy will be produced.
A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the
simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions
which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of
tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the
change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous
man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither
pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man
passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to
the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it
neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor,
again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot
of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would
inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited
misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an
event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains,
then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is
not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not
by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who
is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes,
or other illustrious men of such families.
A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue,
rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be
not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come
about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty,
in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than
worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the
poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best
tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes of
Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those
others who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then,
to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this
construction. Hence they are in error who censure Euripides just
because he follows this principle in his plays, many of which end
unhappily. It is, as we have said, the right ending. The best proof is
that on the stage and in dramatic competition, such plays, if well
worked out, are the most tragic in effect; and Euripides, faulty
though he may be in the general management of his subject, yet is felt
to be the most tragic of the poets.
In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first.
Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite
catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best
because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided in
what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however,
thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to
Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies- like
Orestes and Aegisthus- quit the stage as friends at the close, and
no one slays or is slain.

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also
result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way,
and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed
that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will
thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the
impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus.
But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic
method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular
means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous,
are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of
Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is
proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is
that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident
that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.
Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us
as terrible or pitiful.
Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are
either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy
kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or
the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So
again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs
between those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example,
a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a
mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is
done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may
not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends- the fact,
for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by
Alcmaeon- but he ought to show of his own, and skilfully handle the
traditional. material. Let us explain more clearly what is meant by
skilful handling.
The action may be done consciously and with knowledge of the
persons, in the manner of the older poets. It is thus too that
Euripides makes Medea slay her children. Or, again, the deed of horror
may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or
friendship be discovered afterwards. The Oedipus of Sophocles is an
example. Here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper; but
cases occur where it falls within the action of the play: one may cite
the Alcmaeon of Astydamas, or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus.
Again, there is a third case- [to be about to act with knowledge of
the persons and then not to act. The fourth case] is when some one
is about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the
discovery before it is done. These are the only possible ways. For the
deed must either be done or not done- and that wittingly or
unwittingly. But of all these ways, to be about to act knowing the
persons, and then not to act, is the worst. It is shocking without
being tragic, for no disaster follows It is, therefore, never, or very
rarely, found in poetry. One instance, however, is in the Antigone,
where Haemon threatens to kill Creon. The next and better way is
that the deed should be perpetrated. Still better, that it should be
perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards. There
is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a
startling effect. The last case is the best, as when in the
Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her son, but, recognizing who he
is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister recognizes the
brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son recognizes the
mother when on the point of giving her up. This, then, is why a few
families only, as has been already observed, furnish the subjects of
tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that led the poets in
search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots.
They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses
whose history contains moving incidents like these.
Enough has now been said concerning the structure of the
incidents, and the right kind of plot.

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First,
and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that
manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character:
the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is
relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave;
though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave
quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a
type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous
cleverness is inappropriate. Thirdly, character must be true to
life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as
here described. The fourth point is consistency: for though the
subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent,
still he must be consistently inconsistent. As an example of
motiveless degradation of character, we have Menelaus in the
Orestes; of character indecorous and inappropriate, the lament of
Odysseus in the Scylla, and the speech of Melanippe; of inconsistency,
the Iphigenia at Aulis- for Iphigenia the suppliant in no way
resembles her later self.
As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of
character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the
probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in
a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just
as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It
is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the
complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be
brought about by the Deus ex Machina- as in the Medea, or in the
return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The Deus ex Machina should be
employed only for events external to the drama- for antecedent or
subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge,
and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we
ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must
be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should
be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element
the Oedipus of Sophocles.
Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the
common level, the example of good portrait painters should be
followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the
original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more
beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or
indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type
and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and
These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he
neglect those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the
essentials, are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much
room for error. But of this enough has been said in our published

What Recognition is has been already explained. We will now
enumerate its kinds.
First, the least artistic form, which, from poverty of wit, is
most commonly employed- recognition by signs. Of these some are
congenital- such as 'the spear which the earth-born race bear on their
bodies,' or the stars introduced by Carcinus in his Thyestes. Others
are acquired after birth; and of these some are bodily marks, as
scars; some external tokens, as necklaces, or the little ark in the
Tyro by which the discovery is effected. Even these admit of more or
less skilful treatment. Thus in the recognition of Odysseus by his
scar, the discovery is made in one way by the nurse, in another by the
swineherds. The use of tokens for the express purpose of proof- and,
indeed, any formal proof with or without tokens- is a less artistic
mode of recognition. A better kind is that which comes about by a turn
of incident, as in the Bath Scene in the Odyssey.
Next come the recognitions invented at will by the poet, and on that
account wanting in art. For example, Orestes in the Iphigenia
reveals the fact that he is Orestes. She, indeed, makes herself
known by the letter; but he, by speaking himself, and saying what
the poet, not what the plot requires. This, therefore, is nearly
allied to the fault above mentioned- for Orestes might as well have
brought tokens with him. Another similar instance is the 'voice of the
shuttle' in the Tereus of Sophocles.
The third kind depends on memory when the sight of some object
awakens a feeling: as in the Cyprians of Dicaeogenes, where the hero
breaks into tears on seeing the picture; or again in the Lay of
Alcinous, where Odysseus, hearing the minstrel play the lyre,
recalls the past and weeps; and hence the recognition.
The fourth kind is by process of reasoning. Thus in the Choephori:
'Some one resembling me has come: no one resembles me but Orestes:
therefore Orestes has come.' Such too is the discovery made by
Iphigenia in the play of Polyidus the Sophist. It was a natural
reflection for Orestes to make, 'So I too must die at the altar like
my sister.' So, again, in the Tydeus of Theodectes, the father says,
'I came to find my son, and I lose my own life.' So too in the
Phineidae: the women, on seeing the place, inferred their fate-
'Here we are doomed to die, for here we were cast forth.' Again, there
is a composite kind of recognition involving false inference on the
part of one of the characters, as in the Odysseus Disguised as a
Messenger. A said [that no one else was able to bend the bow; ...
hence B (the disguised Odysseus) imagined that A would] recognize
the bow which, in fact, he had not seen; and to bring about a
recognition by this means- the expectation that A would recognize
the bow- is false inference.
But, of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the
incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural
means. Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles, and in the Iphigenia;
for it was natural that Iphigenia should wish to dispatch a letter.
These recognitions alone dispense with the artificial aid of tokens or
amulets. Next come the recognitions by process of reasoning.

In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction,
the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his
eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as
if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in
keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. The
need of such a rule is shown by the fault found in Carcinus.
Amphiaraus was on his way from the temple. This fact escaped the
observation of one who did not see the situation. On the stage,
however, the Piece failed, the audience being offended at the
Again, the poet should work out his play, to the best of his
power, with appropriate gestures; for those who feel emotion are
most convincing through natural sympathy with the characters they
represent; and one who is agitated storms, one who is angry rages,
with the most lifelike reality. Hence poetry implies either a happy
gift of nature or a strain of madness. In the one case a man can
take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his
proper self.
As for the story, whether the poet takes it ready made or constructs
it for himself, he should first sketch its general outline, and then
fill in the episodes and amplify in detail. The general plan may be
illustrated by the Iphigenia. A young girl is sacrificed; she
disappears mysteriously from the eyes of those who sacrificed her; she
is transported to another country, where the custom is to offer up
an strangers to the goddess. To this ministry she is appointed. Some
time later her own brother chances to arrive. The fact that the oracle
for some reason ordered him to go there, is outside the general plan
of the play. The purpose, again, of his coming is outside the action
proper. However, he comes, he is seized, and, when on the point of
being sacrificed, reveals who he is. The mode of recognition may be
either that of Euripides or of Polyidus, in whose play he exclaims
very naturally: 'So it was not my sister only, but I too, who was
doomed to be sacrificed'; and by that remark he is saved.
After this, the names being once given, it remains to fill in the
episodes. We must see that they are relevant to the action. In the
case of Orestes, for example, there is the madness which led to his
capture, and his deliverance by means of the purificatory rite. In the
drama, the episodes are short, but it is these that give extension
to Epic poetry. Thus the story of the Odyssey can be stated briefly. A
certain man is absent from home for many years; he is jealously
watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in a
wretched plight- suitors are wasting his substance and plotting
against his son. At length, tempest-tost, he himself arrives; he makes
certain persons acquainted with him; he attacks the suitors with his
own hand, and is himself preserved while he destroys them. This is the
essence of the plot; the rest is episode.

Every tragedy falls into two parts- Complication and Unraveling
or Denouement. Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently
combined with a portion of the action proper, to form the
Complication; the rest is the Unraveling. By the Complication I mean
all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which
marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that
which extends from the beginning of the change to the end. Thus, in
the Lynceus of Theodectes, the Complication consists of the
incidents presupposed in the drama, the seizure of the child, and then
again ... [the Unraveling] extends from the accusation of murder to
the end.
There are four kinds of Tragedy: the Complex, depending entirely
on Reversal of the Situation and Recognition; the Pathetic (where
the motive is passion)- such as the tragedies on Ajax and Ixion; the
Ethical (where the motives are ethical)- such as the Phthiotides and
the Peleus. The fourth kind is the Simple. [We here exclude the purely
spectacular element], exemplified by the Phorcides, the Prometheus,
and scenes laid in Hades. The poet should endeavor, if possible, to
combine all poetic elements; or failing that, the greatest number
and those the most important; the more so, in face of the caviling
criticism of the day. For whereas there have hitherto been good poets,
each in his own branch, the critics now expect one man to surpass
all others in their several lines of excellence.
In speaking of a tragedy as the same or different, the best test
to take is the plot. Identity exists where the Complication and
Unraveling are the same. Many poets tie the knot well, but unravel
it Both arts, however, should always be mastered.
Again, the poet should remember what has been often said, and not
make an Epic structure into a tragedy- by an Epic structure I mean one
with a multiplicity of plots- as if, for instance, you were to make
a tragedy out of the entire story of the Iliad. In the Epic poem,
owing to its length, each part assumes its proper magnitude. In the
drama the result is far from answering to the poet's expectation.
The proof is that the poets who have dramatized the whole story of the
Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions, like Euripides; or who
have taken the whole tale of Niobe, and not a part of her story,
like Aeschylus, either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the
stage. Even Agathon has been known to fail from this one defect. In
his Reversals of the Situation, however, he shows a marvelous skill in
the effort to hit the popular taste- to produce a tragic effect that
satisfies the moral sense. This effect is produced when the clever
rogue, like Sisyphus, is outwitted, or the brave villain defeated.
Such an event is probable in Agathon's sense of the word: 'is
probable,' he says, 'that many things should happen contrary to
The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be
an integral part of the whole, and share in the action, in the
manner not of Euripides but of Sophocles. As for the later poets,
their choral songs pertain as little to the subject of the piece as to
that of any other tragedy. They are, therefore, sung as mere
interludes- a practice first begun by Agathon. Yet what difference
is there between introducing such choral interludes, and
transferring a speech, or even a whole act, from one play to another.

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of
Tragedy having been already discussed. concerning Thought, we may
assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more
strictly belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has
to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and
refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger,
and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. Now, it is
evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same
points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke
the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. The only
difference is that the incidents should speak for themselves without
verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the
speaker, and as a result of the speech. For what were the business
of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed quite apart from what he
Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a
question, an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things
involves no serious censure upon the poet's art. For who can admit the
fault imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, 'Sing,
goddess, of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he
utters a prayer? For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it
is, he says, a command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an
inquiry that belongs to another art, not to poetry.

Language in general includes the following parts: Letter,
Syllable, Connecting Word, Noun, Verb, Inflection or Case, Sentence or
A Letter is an indivisible sound, yet not every such sound, but only
one which can form part of a group of sounds. For even brutes utter
indivisible sounds, none of which I call a letter. The sound I mean
may be either a vowel, a semivowel, or a mute. A vowel is that which
without impact of tongue or lip has an audible sound. A semivowel that
which with such impact has an audible sound, as S and R. A mute,
that which with such impact has by itself no sound, but joined to a
vowel sound becomes audible, as G and D. These are distinguished
according to the form assumed by the mouth and the place where they
are produced; according as they are aspirated or smooth, long or
short; as they are acute, grave, or of an intermediate tone; which
inquiry belongs in detail to the writers on meter.
A Syllable is a nonsignificant sound, composed of a mute and a
vowel: for GR without A is a syllable, as also with A- GRA. But the
investigation of these differences belongs also to metrical science.
A Connecting Word is a nonsignificant sound, which neither causes
nor hinders the union of many sounds into one significant sound; it
may be placed at either end or in the middle of a sentence. Or, a
nonsignificant sound, which out of several sounds, each of them
significant, is capable of forming one significant sound- as amphi,
peri, and the like. Or, a nonsignificant sound, which marks the
beginning, end, or division of a sentence; such, however, that it
cannot correctly stand by itself at the beginning of a sentence- as
men, etoi, de.
A Noun is a composite significant sound, not marking time, of
which no part is in itself significant: for in double or compound
words we do not employ the separate parts as if each were in itself
significant. Thus in Theodorus, 'god-given,' the doron or 'gift' is
not in itself significant.
A Verb is a composite significant sound, marking time, in which,
as in the noun, no part is in itself significant. For 'man' or 'white'
does not express the idea of 'when'; but 'he walks' or 'he has walked'
does connote time, present or past.
Inflection belongs both to the noun and verb, and expresses either
the relation 'of,' 'to,' or the like; or that of number, whether one
or many, as 'man' or 'men'; or the modes or tones in actual
delivery, e.g., a question or a command. 'Did he go?' and 'go' are
verbal inflections of this kind.
A Sentence or Phrase is a composite significant sound, some at least
of whose parts are in themselves significant; for not every such group
of words consists of verbs and nouns- 'the definition of man,' for
example- but it may dispense even with the verb. Still it will
always have some significant part, as 'in walking,' or 'Cleon son of
Cleon.' A sentence or phrase may form a unity in two ways- either as
signifying one thing, or as consisting of several parts linked
together. Thus the Iliad is one by the linking together of parts,
the definition of man by the unity of the thing signified.

Words are of two kinds, simple and double. By simple I mean those
composed of nonsignificant elements, such as ge, 'earth.' By double or
compound, those composed either of a significant and nonsignificant
element (though within the whole word no element is significant), or
of elements that are both significant. A word may likewise be
triple, quadruple, or multiple in form, like so many Massilian
expressions, e.g., 'Hermo-caico-xanthus [who prayed to Father Zeus].'
Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or
ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered.
By a current or proper word I mean one which is in general use among
a people; by a strange word, one which is in use in another country.
Plainly, therefore, the same word may be at once strange and
current, but not in relation to the same people. The word sigynon,
'lance,' is to the Cyprians a current term but to us a strange one.
Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference
either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from
species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. Thus from
genus to species, as: 'There lies my ship'; for lying at anchor is a
species of lying. From species to genus, as: 'Verily ten thousand
noble deeds hath Odysseus wrought'; for ten thousand is a species of
large number, and is here used for a large number generally. From
species to species, as: 'With blade of bronze drew away the life,' and
'Cleft the water with the vessel of unyielding bronze.' Here arusai,
'to draw away' is used for tamein, 'to cleave,' and tamein, again
for arusai- each being a species of taking away. Analogy or proportion
is when the second term is to the first as the fourth to the third. We
may then use the fourth for the second, or the second for the
fourth. Sometimes too we qualify the metaphor by adding the term to
which the proper word is relative. Thus the cup is to Dionysus as
the shield to Ares. The cup may, therefore, be called 'the shield of
Dionysus,' and the shield 'the cup of Ares.' Or, again, as old age
is to life, so is evening to day. Evening may therefore be called,
'the old age of the day,' and old age, 'the evening of life,' or, in
the phrase of Empedocles, 'life's setting sun.' For some of the
terms of the proportion there is at times no word in existence;
still the metaphor may be used. For instance, to scatter seed is
called sowing: but the action of the sun in scattering his rays is
nameless. Still this process bears to the sun the same relation as
sowing to the seed. Hence the expression of the poet 'sowing the
god-created light.' There is another way in which this kind of
metaphor may be employed. We may apply an alien term, and then deny of
that term one of its proper attributes; as if we were to call the
shield, not 'the cup of Ares,' but 'the wineless cup'.
A newly-coined word is one which has never been even in local use,
but is adopted by the poet himself. Some such words there appear to
be: as ernyges, 'sprouters,' for kerata, 'horns'; and areter,
'supplicator', for hiereus, 'priest.'
A word is lengthened when its own vowel is exchanged for a longer
one, or when a syllable is inserted. A word is contracted when some
part of it is removed. Instances of lengthening are: poleos for
poleos, Peleiadeo for Peleidou; of contraction: kri, do, and ops, as
in mia ginetai amphoteron ops, 'the appearance of both is one.'
An altered word is one in which part of the ordinary form is left
unchanged, and part is recast: as in dexiteron kata mazon, 'on the
right breast,' dexiteron is for dexion.
Nouns in themselves are either masculine, feminine, or neuter.
Masculine are such as end in N, R, S, or in some letter compounded
with S- these being two, PS and X. Feminine, such as end in vowels
that are always long, namely E and O, and- of vowels that admit of
lengthening- those in A. Thus the number of letters in which nouns
masculine and feminine end is the same; for PS and X are equivalent to
endings in S. No noun ends in a mute or a vowel short by nature. Three
only end in I- meli, 'honey'; kommi, 'gum'; peperi, 'pepper'; five end
in U. Neuter nouns end in these two latter vowels; also in N and S.

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 cleanness 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

Epicharen eidon Marathonade badizonta,
I saw Epichares walking to Marathon,


ouk an g'eramenos ton ekeinou elleboron.
Not if you desire his hellebore.

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'he mou sarkas esthiei podos.
The tumor which is eating the flesh of my foot.

Euripides substitutes thoinatai, 'feasts on,' for esthiei, 'feeds on.'
Again, in the line,

nun de m'eon oligos te kai outidanos kai aeikes,
Yet a small man, worthless and unseemly,

the difference will be felt if we substitute the common words,

nun de m'eon mikros te kai asthenikos kai aeides.
Yet a little fellow, weak and ugly.

Or, if for the line,

diphron aeikelion katatheis oligen te trapezan,
Setting an unseemly couch and a meager table,

we read,

diphron mochtheron katatheis mikran te trapezan.
Setting a wretched couch and a puny table.

Or, for eiones booosin, 'the sea shores roar,' eiones krazousin,
'the sea shores screech.'
Again, Ariphrades ridiculed the tragedians for using phrases which
no one would employ in ordinary speech: for example, domaton apo,
'from the house away,' instead of apo domaton, 'away from the
house;' sethen, ego de nin, 'to thee, and I to him;' Achilleos peri,
'Achilles about,' instead of peri Achilleos, 'about Achilles;' 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

As to that poetic imitation which is narrative in form and employs a
single meter, the plot manifestly ought, as in a tragedy, to be
constructed on dramatic principles. It should have for its subject a
single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle, and
an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity,
and produce the pleasure proper to it. It will differ in structure
from historical compositions, which of necessity present not a
single action, but a single period, and all that happened within
that period to one person or to many, little connected together as the
events may be. For as the sea-fight at Salamis and the battle with the
Carthaginians in Sicily took place at the same time, but did not
tend to any one result, so in the sequence of events, one thing
sometimes follows another, and yet no single result is thereby
produced. Such is the practice, we may say, of most poets. Here again,
then, as has been already observed, the transcendent excellence of
Homer is manifest. He never attempts to make the whole war of Troy the
subject of his poem, though that war had a beginning and an end. It
would have been too vast a theme, and not easily embraced in a
single view. If, again, he had kept it within moderate limits, it must
have been over-complicated by the variety of the incidents. As it
is, he detaches a single portion, and admits as episodes many events
from the general story of the war- such as the Catalogue of the
ships and others- thus diversifying the poem. All other poets take a
single hero, a single period, or an action single indeed, but with a
multiplicity of parts. Thus did the author of the Cypria and of the
Little Iliad. For this reason the Iliad and the Odyssey each furnish
the subject of one tragedy, or, at most, of two; while the Cypria
supplies materials for many, and the Little Iliad for eight- the Award
of the Arms, the Philoctetes, the Neoptolemus, the Eurypylus, the
Mendicant Odysseus, the Laconian Women, the Fall of Ilium, the
Departure of the Fleet.

Again, Epic poetry must have as many kinds as Tragedy: it must be
simple, or complex, or 'ethical,'or 'pathetic.' The parts also, with
the exception of song and spectacle, are the same; for it requires
Reversals of the Situation, Recognitions, and Scenes of Suffering.
Moreover, the thoughts and the diction must be artistic. In all
these respects Homer is our earliest and sufficient model. Indeed each
of his poems has a twofold character. The Iliad is at once simple
and 'pathetic,' and the Odyssey complex (for Recognition scenes run
through it), and at the same time 'ethical.' Moreover, in diction
and thought they are supreme.
Epic poetry differs from Tragedy in the scale on which it is
constructed, and in its meter. As regards scale or length, we have
already laid down an adequate limit: the beginning and the end must be
capable of being brought within a single view. This condition will
be satisfied by poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and
answering in length to the group of tragedies presented at a single
Epic poetry has, however, a great- a special- capacity for enlarging
its dimensions, and we can see the reason. In Tragedy we cannot
imitate several lines of actions carried on at one and the same
time; we must confine ourselves to the action on the stage and the
part taken by the players. But in Epic poetry, owing to the
narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be
presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add mass and dignity
to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage, and one that conduces
to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and
relieving the story with varying episodes. For sameness of incident
soon produces satiety, and makes tragedies fail on the stage.
As for the meter, the heroic measure has proved its fitness by
hexameter test of experience. If a narrative poem in any other meter
or in many meters were now composed, it would be found incongruous.
For of all measures the heroic is the stateliest and the most massive;
and hence it most readily admits rare words and metaphors, which is
another point in which the narrative form of imitation stands alone.
On the other hand, the iambic and the trochaic tetrameter are stirring
measures, the latter being akin to dancing, the former expressive of
action. Still more absurd would it be to mix together different
meters, as was done by Chaeremon. Hence no one has ever composed a
poem on a great scale in any other than heroic verse. Nature herself,
as we have said, teaches the choice of the proper measure.
Homer, admirable in all respects, has the special merit of being the
only poet who rightly appreciates the part he should take himself. The
poet should speak as little as possible in his own person, for it is
not this that makes him an imitator. Other poets appear themselves
upon the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer,
after a few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or
other personage; none of them wanting in characteristic qualities, but
each with a character of his own.
The element of the wonderful is required in Tragedy. The irrational,
on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects, has wider
scope in Epic poetry, because there the person acting is not seen.
Thus, the pursuit of Hector would be ludicrous if placed upon the
stage- the Greeks standing still and not joining in the pursuit, and
Achilles waving them back. But in the Epic poem the absurdity passes
unnoticed. Now the wonderful is pleasing, as may be inferred from
the fact that every one tells a story with some addition of his
knowing that his hearers like it. It is Homer who has chiefly taught
other poets the art of telling lies skilfully. The secret of it lies
in a fallacy For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second
is or becomes, men imagine that, if the second is, the first
likewise is or becomes. But this is a false inference. Hence, where
the first thing is untrue, it is quite unnecessary, provided the
second be true, to add that the first is or has become. For the
mind, knowing the second to be true, falsely infers the truth of the
first. There is an example of this in the Bath Scene of the Odyssey.
Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to
improbable possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of
irrational parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be
excluded; or, at all events, it should lie outside the action of the
play (as, in the Oedipus, the hero's ignorance as to the manner of
Laius' death); not within the drama- as in the Electra, the
messenger's account of the Pythian games; or, as in the Mysians, the
man who has come from Tegea to Mysia and is still speechless. The plea
that otherwise the plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such
a plot should not in the first instance be constructed. But once the
irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to
it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity. Take even the
irrational incidents in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is left upon the
shore of Ithaca. How intolerable even these might have been would be
apparent if an inferior poet were to treat the subject. As it is,
the absurdity is veiled by the poetic charm with which the poet
invests it.
The diction should be elaborated in the pauses of the action,
where there is no expression of character or thought. For, conversely,
character and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is

With respect to critical difficulties and their solutions, the
number and nature of the sources from which they may be drawn may be
thus exhibited.
The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must
of necessity imitate one of three objects- things as they were or are,
things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to
be. The vehicle of expression is language- either current terms or, it
may be, rare words or metaphors. There are also many modifications
of language, which we concede to the poets. Add to this, that the
standard of correctness is not the same in poetry and politics, any
more than in poetry and any other art. Within the art of poetry itself
there are two kinds of faults- those which touch its essence, and
those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something,
[but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the
error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a
wrong choice- if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his
off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine,
for example, or in any other art- the error is not essential to the
poetry. These are the points of view from which we should consider and
answer the objections raised by the critics.
First as to matters which concern the poet's own art. If he
describes the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error
may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained (the end
being that already mentioned)- if, that is, the effect of this or
any other part of the poem is thus rendered more striking. A case in
point is the pursuit of Hector. if, however, the end might have been
as well, or better, attained without violating the special rules of
the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every kind of error
should, if possible, be avoided.
Again, does the error touch the essentials of the poetic art, or
some accident of it? For example, not to know that a hind has no horns
is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.
Further, if it be objected that the description is not true to fact,
the poet may perhaps reply, 'But the objects are as they ought to be';
just as Sophocles said that he drew men as they ought to be;
Euripides, as they are. In this way the objection may be met. If,
however, the representation be of neither kind, the poet may answer,
'This is how men say the thing is.' applies to tales about the gods.
It may well be that these stories are not higher than fact nor yet
true to fact: they are, very possibly, what Xenophanes says of them.
But anyhow, 'this is what is said.' Again, a description may be no
better than the fact: 'Still, it was the fact'; as in the passage
about the arms: 'Upright upon their butt-ends stood the spears.'
This was the custom then, as it now is among the Illyrians.
Again, in examining whether what has been said or done by some
one is poetically right or not, we must not look merely to the
particular act or saying, and ask whether it is poetically good or
bad. We must also consider by whom it is said or done, to whom,
when, by what means, or for what end; whether, for instance, it be
to secure a greater good, or avert a greater evil.
Other difficulties may be resolved by due regard to the usage of
language. We may note a rare word, as in oureas men proton, 'the mules
first [he killed],' where the poet perhaps employs oureas not in the
sense of mules, but of sentinels. So, again, of Dolon: 'ill-favored
indeed he was to look upon.' It is not meant that his body was
ill-shaped but that his face was ugly; for the Cretans use the word
eueides, 'well-flavored' to denote a fair face. Again, zoroteron de
keraie, 'mix the drink livelier' does not mean 'mix it stronger' as
for hard drinkers, but 'mix it quicker.'
Sometimes an expression is metaphorical, as 'Now all gods and men
were sleeping through the night,' while at the same time the poet
says: 'Often indeed as he turned his gaze to the Trojan plain, he
marveled at the sound of flutes and pipes.' 'All' is here used
metaphorically for 'many,' all being a species of many. So in the
verse, 'alone she hath no part... , oie, 'alone' is metaphorical;
for the best known may be called the only one.
Again, the solution may depend upon accent or breathing. Thus
Hippias of Thasos solved the difficulties in the lines, didomen
(didomen) de hoi, and to men hou (ou) kataputhetai ombro.
Or again, the question may be solved by punctuation, as in
Empedocles: 'Of a sudden things became mortal that before had learnt
to be immortal, and things unmixed before mixed.'
Or again, by ambiguity of meaning, as parocheken de pleo nux,
where the word pleo is ambiguous.
Or by the usage of language. Thus any mixed drink is called oinos,
'wine'. Hence Ganymede is said 'to pour the wine to Zeus,' though
the gods do not drink wine. So too workers in iron are called
chalkeas, or 'workers in bronze.' This, however, may also be taken
as a metaphor.
Again, when a word seems to involve some inconsistency of meaning,
we should consider how many senses it may bear in the particular
passage. For example: 'there was stayed the spear of bronze'- we
should ask in how many ways we may take 'being checked there.' The
true mode of interpretation is the precise opposite of what Glaucon
mentions. Critics, he says, jump at certain groundless conclusions;
they pass adverse judgement and then proceed to reason on it; and,
assuming that the poet has said whatever they happen to think, find
fault if a thing is inconsistent with their own fancy.
The question about Icarius has been treated in this fashion. The
critics imagine he was a Lacedaemonian. They think it strange,
therefore, that Telemachus should not have met him when he went to
Lacedaemon. But the Cephallenian story may perhaps be the true one.
They allege that Odysseus took a wife from among themselves, and
that her father was Icadius, not Icarius. It is merely a mistake,
then, that gives plausibility to the objection.
In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to
artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received
opinion. With respect to the requirements of art, a probable
impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet
possible. Again, it may be impossible that there should be men such as
Zeuxis painted. 'Yes,' we say, 'but the impossible is the higher
thing; for the ideal type must surpass the realty.' To justify the
irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be. In addition to
which, we urge that the irrational sometimes does not violate
reason; just as 'it is probable that a thing may happen contrary to
Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules
as in dialectical refutation- whether the same thing is meant, in
the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve
the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is
tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence.
The element of the irrational, and, similarly, depravity of
character, are justly censured when there is no inner necessity for
introducing them. Such is the irrational element in the introduction
of Aegeus by Euripides and the badness of Menelaus in the Orestes.
Thus, there are five sources from which critical objections are
drawn. Things are censured either as impossible, or irrational, or
morally hurtful, or contradictory, or contrary to artistic
correctness. The answers should be sought under the twelve heads above

The question may be raised whether the Epic or Tragic mode of
imitation is the higher. If the more refined art is the higher, and
the more refined in every case is that which appeals to the better
sort of audience, the art which imitates anything and everything is
manifestly most unrefined. The audience is supposed to be too dull
to comprehend unless something of their own is thrown by the
performers, who therefore indulge in restless movements. Bad
flute-players twist and twirl, if they have to represent 'the
quoit-throw,' or hustle the coryphaeus when they perform the Scylla.
Tragedy, it is said, has this same defect. We may compare the
opinion that the older actors entertained of their successors.
Mynniscus used to call Callippides 'ape' on account of the
extravagance of his action, and the same view was held of Pindarus.
Tragic art, then, as a whole, stands to Epic in the same relation as
the younger to the elder actors. So we are told that Epic poetry is
addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture;
Tragedy, to an inferior public. Being then unrefined, it is
evidently the lower of the two.
Now, in the first place, this censure attaches not to the poetic but
to the histrionic art; for gesticulation may be equally overdone in
epic recitation, as by Sosistratus, or in lyrical competition, as by
Mnasitheus the Opuntian. Next, all action is not to be condemned-
any more than all dancing- but only that of bad performers. Such was
the fault found in Callippides, as also in others of our own day,
who are censured for representing degraded women. Again, Tragedy
like Epic poetry produces its effect even without action; it reveals
its power by mere reading. If, then, in all other respects it is
superior, this fault, we say, is not inherent in it.
And superior it is, because it has an the epic elements- it may even
use the epic meter- with the music and spectacular effects as
important accessories; and these produce the most vivid of
pleasures. Further, it has vividness of impression in reading as
well as in representation. Moreover, the art attains its end within
narrower limits for the concentrated effect is more pleasurable than
one which is spread over a long time and so diluted. What, for
example, would be the effect of the Oedipus of Sophocles, if it were
cast into a form as long as the Iliad? Once more, the Epic imitation
has less unity; as is shown by this, that any Epic poem will furnish
subjects for several tragedies. Thus if the story adopted by the
poet has a strict unity, it must either be concisely told and appear
truncated; or, if it conforms to the Epic canon of length, it must
seem weak and watery. [Such length implies some loss of unity,] if,
I mean, the poem is constructed out of several actions, like the Iliad
and the Odyssey, which have many such parts, each with a certain
magnitude of its own. Yet these poems are as perfect as possible in
structure; each is, in the highest degree attainable, an imitation
of a single action.
If, then, tragedy is superior to epic poetry in all these
respects, and, moreover, fulfills its specific function better as an
art- for each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the
pleasure proper to it, as already stated- it plainly follows that
tragedy is the higher art, as attaining its end more perfectly.
Thus much may suffice concerning Tragic and Epic poetry in
general; their several kinds and parts, with the number of each and
their differences; the causes that make a poem good or bad; the
objections of the critics and the answers to these objections....



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