Summaries of Sections from Aristotle's The Poetics


Section I

A poem should be judged on how it is written rather than what it is written about. While there are several different types of poems, all are forms of imitation. What determines one type of a poem from another is how the subject of the poem is presented to the audience. In fact, music is a form of imitation as well, but uses harmony and rhythm as opposed to language and voice. The problem that arises among the various arts is that the title of "poet" is given to those authors who write in only specific styles. That is to say that an author who writes a scientific publication with a similar meter as used by Homer could also be called a "poet." In addition, an author who would write a poem using all the different styles of meter in one poem should also be labeled a "poet," thereby diluting the very label.


Section II

When imitating human subjects in art there is an association of the individual's integrity ranging from "goodness" to "badness". This is reflected by the artist's desire to display a specific quality prominently. For example, Aristotle cites artists' depiction of an object's nobility as greater in some, minor in others, and realistically mixed, accordingly. He concludes by pointing out that the imitation then possesses unique traits because of this classification.
Karin Brereton --


Section III

The third difference in artistic imitation is defined by Aristotle as 'manner', meaning the narrative form a work takes while the other two elements remain constant. Using the three differences: the medium, the objects, and the manner which he has defined up to this point, he then uses them to compare and contrast different artists based on how they have utilized these imitative qualities in their works. Due to this classification, certain areas lay claim to the creation of Tragedy, Comedy, or both because of the way in which their native poets have demonstrated various forms of the three differences.
Ishie Butler-Williams --


Section IV

According to Aristotle, poetry emerged from two human instincts: imitation and harmony. The early poetry was of an improvisational nature and after a time, a split occurred, resulting in the solemn contributors celebrating the noble actions of heroic individuals while others preferred chronicling the misdeeds of baser characters in forms such as satire. The latter of these gave rise to the Iambic measure which the authors then applied to Comedy. The "graver spirits" as Aristotle put it, who became the epic poets, paved the way for the emergence of Tragedy.
Thomas Ferguson --


Section V

Book V serves to distinguish the boundaries between Tragic, Comedic, and Epic poetry. Comedy is considered to be a "lower form" of tragedy, and is not accompanied by the same degree of history due to its previous lack of seriousness. Although there are differences between Epic and Tragic poetry, Tragic poetry contains all the same elements as Epic, but Tragic holds elements that Epic poetry does not.
Christopher Hughes --


Section VI

Section VI defines Tragedy as "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude," written in "language embellished," presented as action rather than as narrative, and which "through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions." Because Tragedy is an imitation of action, and because the emotionally-powerful Reversal and Recognition scenes are part of the plot, Aristotle assigns this the "first principle" of tragedy. After plot, in order of importance, Aristotle prioritizes the remaining elements of tragedy as follows: Character, Thought (the motivation and/or likelihood of an action), Diction, Song and Spectacle.
Andy Jones --


Section VII

Tragedy imitates action and has a certain magnitude and a beginning, middle, and end. A beginning can’t depend on previous action, an end must follow something, but can have nothing follow it, and a middle follows something and is followed by something. A good plot must obey these principles. A tragedy’s beauty increases as its length (magnitude) increases, provided that the whole is understandable and within the bounds of a reader’s limited memory. The action is dependent on change, and therefore the plot must, through chance or necessity, change bad fortune to good, or good to bad.
Trevor Hunt --



Poetry has no logical structure when the plot contains a hero. According to Aristotle, there is no possibility that a hero would have one destiny, especially since there are various incidents which make the hero's life and journey complete. Aristotle believes that poetry written by Heracleid, Theseid and Homer are full of errors because the "structural union" of the poem is omitted and focused on a unified moral decision.
Amy Jine --


Section IX

The poet is superior to the historian because the poet talks about universal truths while the historian simply regurgiatates events of the past.
Andrea Johnson --


Section X

Book X distinguishes between Simple and Complex plots. A Complex plot involves knowledge newly recognized or the reversal of a situation; A Simple plot does not.
Ryan Kerbow --


Section XI

Book XI seeks to define the parts that constitute a complex plot. Reversal of Situation is the point at which the action changes to its opposite. Recognition occurs when previously unknown information is revealed to one or more of the characters. The greatest effect, creating in the audience feelings of fear or pity, is when the Recognition coincides with the Reversal of Situation. For either of these parts to occur, the plot must provide some element of surprise. A final part of the plot is that of the Scene of Suffering, in which a painful or destructive act occurs.
JoAnn Kohlbrand --


Section XII

Aristotle introduces the quantitative parts of Tragedy, which dictate the traditional form to which Tragic plays must conform: Prologue, Episode, Exode, Choric song. First comes the Prologue, which Aristotle explains: "precedes the Parode of the Chorus," the Parode being: "the first undivided utterance of the Chorus." The Episode is next, and is defined as: "that entire part of a tragedy which is between choric songs." The Exode is: "the entire part of a tragedy which has no choric song after it." Aristotle goes on to define a Stasimon, which is "a choric ode without anaepests (two short sounds, then a long one), or trochaic tetrameters, (one strong beat followed by a short one, in verse of four feet), and the Commos, "a joint lamentation of Chorus and actors." Some Tragic plays, Aristotle adds, include songs sung by the actors, or sung by both the actors and the Chorus.
Robert McNamara --


Section XIII

Section XIII is a veritable list of the do's and don'ts of plot construction, particularly in Tragedy. First and foremost, one should develop a complex plot. Complexity is obtained by evoking two emotions: pity and fear. Such emotional responses result when one develops a character with whom the intended audience can identify. According to Aristotle, this character is one "who is not eminently good and just," and whose "misfortune is brought about by some error or frailty." That is to say that the character should not be above suffering the misfortune that befalls him, nor should the character exhibit a nature deserving of such misfortune. Finally, the character's circumstances must worsen throughout the course of the tragedy, as reconciliation at the close is a characteristic of Comedy.


Section XIV


Section XV

Aristotle articulates a series of rules he believes the poet should observe as he develops Character in a poem. First, in the development of character, the poet should aim for goodness, followed by propriety, and then "be(ing) true to life."The poet should also strive to develop character that remains consistent. The poet must "aim either at the necessary or the probable," and must ensure that the speech and actions of his character are not irrational. Finally, the poet must follow the painter, who "preserves the type" of his subject, "yet ennoble(s) it." However, in all these rules, the poet must not forget to appeal to the senses.
Bethany Sorbello --


Section XVI

Aristotle elaborates on the types of recognition used in a textbook tragedy. The most widely used form of recognition involves the use of "tokens" and "signs" as they function to unveil the truth. Aristotle gives examples of birthmarks, scars, and necklaces, being tokens included in a Tragedy. Another type of recognition relies on the discretion or invention of the author. A great example of this would be when Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father. The third type of recognition relies on the character's memory when sparked through an identifier. The fourth is made through the process of reasoning, e.g. Odysseus is recognized once he is able to use the "crossbow. According to Aristotle, the best recognition comes naturally from the character.
Chris Lubawy --


Section XVII

In Aristotle's opinion, a brilliant piece of work depends upon its plot formation. Inconsistencies in plot spell disaster; however, the writer can avoid such mishaps by taking a step back from the scene, and becoming a spectator. A poet must take into consideration the spectrum of emotions, so the readers (audience) can connect with the poem. When writing a story or drama, Aristotle strongly feels the author's first priority is to create a general outline. After completing the outline, the author merely needs to fill in the details. The general outline forms the plot, thus tiny details are not a requirement for greatness.
Gary Miller --


Section XVIII

Tragedy divides into two parts: "the Complication," where the story's climax begins to take shape, and "the Unravelling or Denouement," which extends from the turning point until the end. Aristotle names four types of tragedy: "the Complex," or the "reversal of...Situation and Recognition;" "the pathetic," in which passion motivates; the ethical dilemma; and finally, "the simple," which excludes "the spectacular." The best tragedy consistently ties "the Complication" to "the Unravelling." Finally, Aristotle reminds the poet not to make a tragedy into an epic, and that choral interludes are an "integral part" of a tragic plot.
Corey Owens --


Section XIX

Two other components of Tragedy are Diction and Thought. Each result of Thought must be produced by speech and elements conveyed through speech: subdivisions such as "proof and refutation", importance or lack thereof, and the expression of feeling. When the speaker aims to evoke feeling, Aristotle states that dramatic incidents and dramatic speeches must be judged from the same standpoint. In doing so, however, the "dramatic incidents must speak for themselves". The speaker should have the power to control the result of his/her speech not only due to oratory skills, but should express the feeling in the actual oration as well. Diction shows how the Thoughts will be represented. Aristotle emphasizes the point that what the speaker may intend to say may be interpreted or digested differently than it was intended. This is the very action that may belong "to another art, not to poetry."
Leticia Madrigal --


Section XX

Aristotle defines several basic grammatical ideas here. L e t t e r s are divided into three subcategories: vowels (which work without the tounge or lip), semi-vowels (which require them), and mutes (which have no sound unless joined by a vowel. S y l l a b l e s are seen as "non-significant" sounds made of mutes and vowels only. N o u n s and v e r b s are significant sounds that can not be divided into meaningful, significant parts; verbs indicate time, while nouns do not. I n f l e x i o n expresses relation, plurality, or tone. Finally, s e n t a n c e s are said to be sets of composite, significant sounds that can be divided and yet retain signficant parts.
Jason Valdivia --


Section XXI

Here, Aristotle defines some of the stylistic tools that poets use when composing their "imitations." Simple and compound words, of course, are as natural a part of the poet's repetoire as with any other kind of writer. Aristotle also notes the poet's ability to restructure, lengthen, and contract the vowels and syllables in words when it is to his/her aesthetic interest. However, although this use of new and exotic words often gives a more original flavor to what the poet is trying to say, it also tends to leave out the common (uneducated) reader. Thus Aristotle sites the use of metaphor or analogy to "transfer" or "compare" the meanings of these new words into a vocabulary which the audience can understand.
Stephen Van Schaack --


Section XXII

The perfect poetic style is one that is lucid, yet far from mundane. In order to achieve such a balance between clarity and extremity, a poet must carefully equilibrate conventional word choice (the clarity component) with extraordinary diction (the extremity component). Diction becomes extraordinary when a poet engages the use of stylistic elements such as metaphor, jargon, and word alteration. Certain literary elements lend better to specific types of poetry. For example, metaphors work best in iambic poetry. However, jargon is more suitable in heroic poetry. Indeed, misuse of these stylistic elements can interfere with the clarity of the poem.
Ann Verenkoff --


Section XXIII

In terms of structure, an epic poem should focus on a single action and be comprised of a beginning, middle, and end. Developing his idea of plot and time unity, Aristotle distinguishes narrative poems from historical compositions by their treatment of time. An historical composition covers a large expanse of time comprised of unrelated events that do not always resolve to a single end, and this structure should not be emulated for the epic. The successful epic draws on episodes that resolve to a single end. 
Austin Yu --


Section XXIV

In section XXIV, Aristotle discusses how epic poetry is similar to and distinct from tragedy. Both forms can be "simple, or complex, or ethical or pathetic." Epic poetry differs from tragedy in that it can present many different events or story lines owing to its narrative form. The great advantage to the epic form rests in this quality. The poet is able to use the epic to provide the audience with a variety of events thereby preventing boredom. In epic form, the poet can present fabulous scenes that would appear ludicrous if they were enacted on stage. Additionally, the narrative quality of the epic allows the absurdity of certain events or situations to be accepted by the audience. Aristotle credits this acceptance of the absurd to a poet's ability to present the absurd in a charming manner.
Mary Fleming --


Section XXV


Section XXVI

Closing his defense of poetry, Aristotle considers which art is higher: Epic poetry or Tragedy. Specifically, he claims that tragedy is the higher form. Aristotle's contemporaries believe tragic performances overshadow tragic content, and thus tragedy is unrefined. But Aristotle argues that since both epic poetry and tragedy can be performed poorly, neither should be cited for performance faults. Aristotle declares that tragedy is superior to epic poetry because it contains all epic elements along with visual elements, vividness in reading and representation, and a high concentration of plot. Wheras epic poetry is lengthy in time and contains diverse subjects, tragedy is brief and singular in subject. Thus, Aristotle concludes that since tragedy is superior to epic poetry in these respects and fulfills its specific function better, tragedy is the higher art.
David Stewart --



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