Literature Study GuidesPoeticsChapters 20 22 Summary

Poetics | Study Guide


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Poetics | Chapters 20–22 | Summary



Chapter 20

This chapter is likely an aside and focuses primarily on the basic elements of language. Aristotle begins with the concept of a letter, which he defines as a single sound grouped with other sounds to form syllables and words. He explains syllables as consonants, or mutes, grouped with a vowel to form a single sound. The chapter continues to describe connecting words, verbs, and nouns. Sentences and phrases are explained as groups of words that contain significant meaning.

Chapter 21

Aristotle delves deeper into the significance of words. He postulates that all words can fall into the following categories: current, strange, metaphorical, ornamental, or newly coined or altered. Current words refer to terms in popular usage, whereas strange words are words used in other countries and languages. Metaphor seems to encompass the use of an "alien term" to describe something outside the term's normal range of meaning, as well as the use of analogy and hyperbole. The description of ornamental words is missing from the chapter. Newly coined and altered words are words changed or put into use by the poet when they are not also in general usage. The chapter includes an aside at the end that details the masculine, feminine, and neuter gender of Greek nouns.

Chapter 22

In Chapter 22, Aristotle describes the importance of using the correct amount of metaphorical language and strange/altered words in poetry. Use too much metaphor, and the meaning becomes an overly complex riddle. Use too many strange or altered terms, and the poem becomes indecipherable jargon. In both cases, the text will become ridiculous, and the interesting language will lose any effect. However, moderate use of these two types of language is necessary for elevating a poem above the mundane.


These three chapters are slightly tangential to the core topic of tragic and epic poetry. Aristotle focuses more on the micro elements of language and their workings before zooming back out to poetry. He concerns himself with how language works on an elementary level to create certain effects in poetry.

True to many of Aristotle's other works in classification, Chapter 20 delves into a method of deconstructing language into its most basic elements. Aristotle classifies the "letter" as an "indivisible sound, yet not every such sound, but only one which can form part of a group of sounds." Letters are the building blocks of syllables, which in turn are used to build connecting words, nouns, and verbs, and these build sentences. Although this chapter is only fragmentary and probably doesn't impart more than a glimpse of Aristotle's ideas about linguistic classification, it is an interesting insight into his views of the elements of language.

Metaphor is another focal point, and Aristotle gives many examples from Greek texts to illustrate the different ways his definition of metaphor can be understood. Aristotle's concept of metaphor seems to be relatively broad and sometimes extends to other literary devices. For instance, he gives the example "'Verily ten thousand noble deeds hath Odysseus wrought'" and calls this a type of metaphor, explaining that "ten thousand is a species of large number, and is here used for a large number generally." This would be classified in contemporary language as hyperbole and not as metaphor.

Aristotle again mentions the word propriety, but this time he is referring to a tasteful use of metaphor and unusual language in a poem, instead of the broader concept of assigning believable qualities to certain classes or types of character.

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