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Poetics | Chapters 1–5 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Aristotle introduces the question "What are the elements of a good poem?" He proposes to inquire into at least two of these elements: plot structure and the number and type of parts that make up a poem. He offers five general categories to be discussed: epic poetry, tragedy, dithyrambic poetry, comedy, and music. All five of these categories share the trait of imitation, and each uses different tools to mimic reality. There are three main ways that each category differs in regard to imitation: the medium of imitation, the things being imitated, and the way those things are imitated. Imitation is expressed through means of harmony, rhythm, language, and poetic meter. Dithyrambic poetry (a Greek hymn usually expressed through song and dance), tragedy, and comedy each incorporate these means of imitation.

Chapter 2

The object that art aims to imitate is humans in action. There are three ways humans may be portrayed: as better than they are in reality, as worse, or as they actually are. Aristotle explains that Homer and Polygnotus both represent people as better than they really are, Hegemon and Pauson portray their characters as less good, and Dionysius and Cleophon draw their characters in the middle. He argues that this division illustrates the difference between tragedy and comedy: tragedy portrays people as better than in reality, and comedy portrays them as worse.

Chapter 3

The third type of imitation is the manner in which things are imitated. For example, a poet may choose to narrate, using their own voice, or may take on a particular personality in their narration, or exist only as a neutral observer. The word drama is often associated with these types of poetry because their focus is on people in action.

Chapter 4

Poetry springs from two deep human instincts: the instinct for imitation and the instinct for harmony and rhythm (including poetic meter). Then poetry splits in two different directions. These can be described as poetry written about noble and good characters and poetry written about more flawed characters. This is how the distinction between tragedy and comedy is created. According to Aristotle, Homer is the first poet to compose satirical poetry and create the basis for comedy.

Aristotle describes tragedy as developing slowly and through many stages. Dialogue gains greater importance, the number of actors gradually increases, sets are introduced, meter changes from trochaic (syllabic pattern of stressed unstressed) to iambic (unstressed stressed), which is considered a more natural speaking pattern. He references Aeschylus as being responsible for incorporating a second actor and reducing the prominence of the chorus, and Sophocles he gives credit for adding yet a third actor and developing the stage scenery.

Chapter 5

Comedy can be described as an imitation of something that is imperfect or ugly in a way that does not communicate or create pain. Unlike tragedy, comedy did not pass through the same extended period of development and originated in Sicily.

Epic poetry and tragedy both deal with characters on a higher moral level. Epic poetry can be distinguished from tragedy by its restriction to a single kind of meter and its longer length.

Analysis

Aristotle introduces the main topics and concepts of his treatise by offering definitions and drawing distinctions between genres. Epic poetry and tragedy are presented as similar forms of art, whereas comedy has a distinct history and separate timeline of development. These art forms are all rooted in the human desire to imitate the surrounding world.

There is a general attitude of disdain toward early comedy, and Aristotle draws a distinction between satirical works produced pre-Homer and the genre of comedy that began with Homer's movement away from personal satire into the dramatization of the absurd. The topic of dithyrambic poetry is introduced but then fades into the background, shifting the discussion more fully to the forms of epic poetry, tragedy, and comedy. Dithyrambic poetry is a form of ecstatic hymn in honor of the god Dionysus.

Aristotle brings up two writers, Sophron and Xenarchus. Sophron was a writer of mimes, as was his son Xenarchus. Xenarchus wrote during the reign of Dionysius I. Both spoke and wrote in the Dorian dialect, which Aristotle also mentions in reference to the creation of the genres of tragedy and comedy. The reader should be careful not to confuse Dionysius, the 5th-century king, with the Greek god Dionysus.

Aristophanes is another important name mentioned in Chapter 2. Aristophanes was a famous writer of comedy in the early 5th and late 4th centuries BCE. He was widely viewed as a merciless satirist, and Aristotle probably brings up his name here with Sophocles because he is discussing the development of both tragedy and comedy. When Aristotle says "Polygnotus depicted men as nobler than they are, Pauson as less noble, Dionysius drew them true to life," the first two names are referring to famous Greek artists of the 5th century BCE, but it is unclear which Dionysius he is referencing.

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