Defects of Aristotle’s The Poetics

The Poetics is in the nature of class notes of an intelligent teacher and has certain obvious defects :

  1. The handling of the subject is disproportionate.
  2. Lyric poetry has been practically ignored, probably because (a) it was thought to constitute an elementary stage in poetic development, (b) it was supposed to belong to the domain of music, and not poetry proper, and (c) it was assimilated in the drama.
  3. Most probably it is also for this last reason that descriptive poetry—poetry of nature—has also been ignored.
  4. Comedy and Epic have been slightly and cursorily treated.
  5. The large part of the discussion is devoted to tragedy, but here, too, the attention has been focused on the nature of the plot, and the effects of tragedy. Tragedy was regarded in the age as the form in which all earlier poetry culminated and this accounts for the excessive importance which Aristotle attaches to it. In this respect, as in many others, Aristotle was displaying contemporary influences and limitations.
  6. The style is telegrphic and highly concentrated, a style for the initiated, i.e. for those who were already familiar with the author’s terminology and thought. Commenting on the style of the Poetics, Abercrombie writes, “It is abrupt, disjointed, awkwardly terse, as awkwardly digressive; essential ideas are left unexplained ; inessential things are elaborated. In short, it has all the defects of lecture notes.” The Poetics is not self-explanatory and self-sufficient. It must constantly be interpreted by the other works of the Greek philosopher, more specially, his Ethics, Politics, and the lost dialogue on the Poet.
  7. It is a work obviously not meant for publication. There is irregularities and anomalies, constant disgressions, omissions, contradictions, repetitions, showing haste and lack of revision.
  8. Often there are signs of hesitation and uncertainty in the use of terminology.
  9. Aristotle’s theories are not wholly the result of free and dispassionate reflection.’ His views are conditioned by contemporary social and literary influences. They are based on earlier theories’, and are also conditioned by the fact that he had to confute certain theories current at the time. The main trend of his argument is determined by Plato’s attack upon poetry. Aristotle takes up the challenge of Plato at the end of Republic X, and proceeds to establish the superiority of poetry over philosophy, and its educational value. Much of it is in the nature of special leading on behalf of poetry, and so has all the defects of such an advocacy.
  10. “Even to accomplished scholars the meaning is often obscure.” This difficulty is further increased by the fact that the average reader is not familiar with the Greek language, its idiom, syntax and Grammar. Many of the Greek words do not admit of literal translation into English, and even scholars have gone astray. There is a wide gulf between Greek and English usage, and hence the wide divergence among the numerous English translations of the Poetics. Interpretations differ from critic to critic, to the great confusion and bewilderment of the student.
  11. Aristotle’s theories are based exclusively on Greek poetry and drama with which he was familiar. Many of his views have grown outdated and unfit for universal application.

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