Universal Significance of Aristotle’s The Poetics

Despite its obvious shortcomings, the Poetics is an important landmark in the history of literary criticism. It is the most significant thing for the study of literature that has come down to us from Greek civilization. First of all, it represents the final judgment of the Greeks themselves upon two, and perhaps the leading two, Hellenic inventions : Epic Poetry and Tragic Drama. Though ample evidence is wanting as to the existence of other strictly scientific investigations into the nature of poetry, before Aristotle or contemporary with him, we may assume that here, as elsewhere in the field of knowledge, he is far from being an isolated scholar ; but he systematizes and completes the work of his predecessors, with an eye to the best thought and practice of his own time—and yet, unquestionably, with great independence of judgment.

The brief treatise is important, secondly, because directly or indirectly, it has commanded more attention than any other book of literary criticism, so that the course of literary history after it is not intelligible without an acquaintance with the Poetics, at first hand whether in the original or through a translation.

But further, the work has a permanent value, quite apart from historical considerations. Aristotle’s fundamental assumptions, and the generalizations upon which he mainly insists, are as true of any modern literature as they are of his own. That a work of art, for instance,—a drama, or the like—may be compared to a living organism, every part of whose structure is essential for the function of the whole, is a conception having validity for all ages. And the same may also be said of his contention that poetry has its own standard of correctness or fitness, and is to be judged primarily by its own laws.

The Poetics is further valuable for its method and perspective. Simply and directly it lays emphasis upon what is of first importance : upon the vital structure of a poem rather than the metre ; upon the end and aim of tragedy, in its effect, upon emotions rather than on the history of the Chorus. Profound thoughts are expressed in language suited to a scientific inquiry. Starting with the Platonic assumption that a literary form, an oration, for example, or a tragedy, has the nature of a living organism, Aristotle advances to the position, that each distinct kind of literature must have a definite and characteristic activity or function, and that this specific function must be equivalent to the effect which the form produces upon a competent observer; that is, form and function being, as it were, interchangeable terms, the organism is what it does to the person who is capable of judging what it does or ought to do. Then further, beginning again with the general literary estimates that had become more or less crystallized during the interval between the age of the Attic drama and his own time, and that enabled him to assign tentative values to one play and another, the great critic found a way to select, out of a large extent, literature, a small number of tragedies which must necessarily conform more nearly than the rest to ideal type. As in his Politics, which is based upon researches among a great number of municipal constitutions, yet with emphasis upon a few, so in the Poetics his conclusions regarding tragedy depend upon a collection of instances as exhaustive as he could make it without loss of perspective; that is. his observation was inclusive so that he might not pass over what since the days of Bacon we have been accustomed to think of as, ‘crucial instances’. By a penetrating security of these crucial instances in tragedy, he still more narrowly defined what ought to be the proper effect of this kind of literature upon the ideal spectator, namely, the effect which he terms the catharsis of pity and fear, the purgation of the two disturbing emotions. Then, reasoning from function back to form, and from form again to function, he would test each select tragedy, and every part of it, by the way in which the part and the whole conduced to this emotional relief. In this manner, he arrived at the conception of an ideal structure for tragedy, a pattern which, though never fully realised in any existing Greek drama, must yet constitute the standard for all of its kind.

Finally, the Poetics, if it be sympathetically studied, may be thought to have a special value at the present time, when a school has arisen, led by Professor Croce, whose notion seems to be that there really are no types in art, and hence no standards of interpretation and criticism, save the aim of the individual writer or painter. In his essay Of Education Milton alludes to some ‘antidote’ in one part of literature to an evil tendency in another. Whenever the Poetics of Aristotle receives the attention it demands, it serves as an antidote to anarchy in criticism.

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