Poetics | Study Guide


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Poetics | Main Ideas


Epic Poetry

Epic poetry is a narrative or storytelling form that features a plot with a beginning, middle, and end and is built around a single action. This action is often broader and more far-reaching than that in tragedy, as epic poetry is not meant to be performed on the stage. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are primary examples, often referenced by Aristotle, of epic poetry. These poems cover large amounts of time and many different episodes of the characters' experiences. For instance, The Odyssey has multiple working parts: it covers the 10 years of hardship and adventures that Odysseus must undergo to return home, but it also tells the story of Penelope and her son, Telemachus, as they attempt to fend off suitors and keep faith that Odysseus is still alive.

Aristotle explains epic poetry as poetry that uses heroic meter, which in classical Greek poetry is the same as dactylic hexameter, to convey its story. Hexameter refers to the meter, or pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, of the poem. Dactylic describes a poetic foot, referring to the number and pattern of stressed syllables. A dactyl is one long followed by two short syllables. Hexameter indicates that there will be six feet in each line of the poem: the first five feet are dactyls, and the last foot is a two-syllable foot called a spondee. The rhythm created is something like DUM dah dah | DUM dah dah | DUM dah dah | DUM dah dah | DUM dah dah | DUM DUM. This structure is much more natural in Greek and Latin poetry and has not been successfully used in English poetry very often.

Greek Tragedy

Tragedy is different from epic poetry in the scope of its plot. It is a type of dramatic poetry that can be broken down into six elements: plot, character, thought, diction, lyrical song, and spectacular presentment (the acting or stage element). Tragedy has several requirements: There must be a tragic action, a reversal of situation, a reveal or recognition, and a stirring of fear and pity. The audience should then purge these emotions when it experiences catharsis at the end of the tragedy. Aristotle also argues that tragedies should almost always end with a reversal from good to bad fortune.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were three great Greek tragedians whose work still exists today. Aristotle frequently uses their plays as examples when illustrating various points about the tragic form. Sophocles's play Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus the King, tells the story of King Oedipus of Thebes who unknowingly fulfills a prophecy to kill his father and marry his mother. This play remains one of the most famous of the Greek tragedies and is still performed in modern times.


Plot is the key element in both tragedy and the epic poem. Aristotle illustrates how both these forms use imitation in order to create their characters and their plots. Plots must demonstrate unity in order to feel natural and believable and should evoke a feeling of catharsis in the audience. In Aristotle's view, the characters are secondary to the plot, although he insists it is also vital to have characters perform believable actions that are consistent with their characters.

Aristotle proposes that the plot in either type should be a unified whole based around the imitation of a central action. Plot always requires a beginning, middle, and end, and Aristotle emphasizes the importance of each of these parts naturally being the cause or the effect of the next part. It is essential that plot develops in an organic way and not as a result of the poet's forcing events via unlikely character actions or motivations.


In Poetics, imitation is the core idea behind the creation of any art. According to Aristotle, it is the primary motivation behind all poetry. Aristotle explains imitation in this context as the driving force behind humankind's desire to create art. In the cases of drama and poetry, the thing being imitated is human action.


Catharsis is something that sets tragedy apart from epic poetry and other forms. Aristotle proposes that a tragedy should evoke an emotional response in the reader. More specifically, the tragedy should make the audience go through an emotional process that begins with their feeling a sense of horror or fear that in the climax and denouement of the play subsequently turns into a feeling of pity or sorrow. This allows the audience to purge their feelings and experience a feeling of wonder in the end of the story.


Unity of plot is crucial to both tragic and epic poetry, and it occurs when all parts of the plot work in harmony to create an organic whole. This means that the plot cannot jump around in space or time in confusing ways, and it should be based around a single main event. It is also important that the plot feels organic, meaning that the characters are not committing actions solely as tools of the plot. The characters should act and react in ways natural to them, and this should in turn play into the overall shape and movement of the plot.

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