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Chapter II. Classical Poetic

1. Aristotle

A survey of what Aristotle includes in his Poetics, what he excludes, and what he ignores, will be a helpful initial step in an investigation of what he meant by poetic. Five kinds of poetry are mentioned by name in the Poetics: epic, dramatic, dithyrambic, nomic, and satiric; and lyric is included by implication as a form of epic, where the poet narrates in his own person.[10]

The choruses, also, are lyric. Otherwise Aristotle does not discuss lyric poetry. Of the other five kinds, nomic, dithyrambic, and satiric poetry are mentioned only as illustrative of something Aristotle wishes to say about epic or drama. Aristotle's Poetics discusses only epic and, especially, drama. Thus of the twenty-six books into which the Poetics is conventionally divided, five are devoted to the general theory of poetry, three to diction, two to epic, and sixteen to drama. Although Aristotle includes dithyrambic, nomic, satiric, and lyric poetry in his discussion, he practically ignores them.

On the other hand he specifically excludes from poetry such scientific works as those of Empedocles and historical writings as those of Herodotus.[11] The rhetorical element in the speeches of the characters of drama or epic, Aristotle calls Thought (διÎνια). Although Aristotle includes Thought as an element in drama, he does not discuss it in the Poetics, but refers his reader to the Rhetoric. Metrics, which occupies so large a place in modern treatises on the theory of poetry, Aristotle likewise mentions several times, but does not discuss. A metrical structure he accepts as the usual practice in poetical composition, but he rejects verse as the distinguishing mark of poetic. Thus he refuses to classify as poetry the scientific writings which Empedocles had composed in meter as well as the histories of Herodotus, even if he had written them in verse. On the other hand, the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus, although composed in prose, he considers within the scope of poetic.[12]

If to Aristotle, then, verse is not the characteristic quality of poetic, the next step in an investigation must be to discover the criterion by which he classifies some literature as poetry and other as not poetry. The characteristic quality, according to Aristotle, which is possessed by the Socratic dialogs, by the Homeric epics, and by the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and which classifies them together as poetic, is not verse but mimesis, imitation.[13] Exactly what Aristotle meant by imitation has furnished subsequent critics with an excuse for writing many volumes. The usual meaning of the word to the Greek, as to the modern, seems to be little more than an aping or mimicking. Aristotle himself uses imitate in this sense when he speaks of the delight children take in imitation.[14] But in establishing imitation as the criterion of poetic, Aristotle seems to have injected something of a private, or at least a special scientific meaning into the word. As the characteristic quality of poetic, imitation to Aristotle evidently did not mean a literal copy. Plato had attacked poetry as unreal, a thrice-removed imitation of the only true reality. To defend poetic against the strictures of his master Aristotle reads more into the word than that.

In discovering what Aristotle had in mind when he speaks of imitation, the student must read from one treatise to another, for few writers of any period are so addicted to the habit of cross-reference. In thePsychology Aristotle states that all stimuli received by the senses at the moment of perception are impressed upon the mind as in wax. The images held by the image-forming faculty are thus the after effect of sensation. These images remain and may be recalled by the image-forming faculty. From this store-house of images, or after effects of sensation, the reasoning faculty derives the materials for thought as well as those for artistic expression.[15] Imagination evidently has much to do with Aristotle's conception of the nature of poetic. Imitation, then, to him, meant a conscious selection and plastic mastery of the sense impressions stored as images by the image-forming faculty of the author, whose writings are addressed to the imagination of the reader or auditor. Furthermore, Butcher's interpretation of “imitation of nature” seems both sound and suggestive. According to him the imitation of nature is the imitation of nature's ways. In this sense the act of the poet may well be called creation.

As imitative arts Aristotle mentions poetry, dancing, music, and painting. They differ, he says, in their medium, objects, and manner. Poetry, dancing, and music he classifies together because they use the similar media of rhythm, language, or harmony either singly or combined. Music, for instance, uses both rhythm and harmony, dancing uses rhythm alone, and poetry uses language alone. Aristotle by this does not, as might seem, exclude rhythm and harmony from poetry. Indeed, he states explicitly that most forms of poetry do use all of the media mentioned: rhythm, tune, and meter. He is only insisting that imitation in unmetrical language is still poetry; that meter is not the characteristic element of poetic.[16] It is important to recognize that in classifying poetry with music and dancing, Aristotle is insisting that the common element in these arts is movement. Movement is characteristic of poetry, as color and form are characteristic of painting and sculpture. Thus in discussing the plot of tragedy, which he holds to be the highest and most characteristic form of poetry, Aristotle urges the necessity of unity and magnitude, both of which he defines in terms not of space relations, but of movement. For instance, to possess unity a plot must have a beginning, a middle and an end.

  A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal 
  necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An 
  end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other 
  thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. 
  A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows 
  it.[17]

Furthermore, the magnitude which this dramatic movement should possess is also discussed not in terms of bulk, but of length.

  As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms, a certain 
  magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in 
  one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length 
  which can easily be embraced by the memory.[18]

It is noteworthy that to Aristotle the characteristic movement of poetic depends on the dramatic unity and progression of a dramatic action, a plot. In the Rhetoric he shows that the arrangement of the movement of a speech is governed by entirely different considerations. The unity of rhetoric is not dramatic, but logical. The order of the parts of a speech is determined not by a plot, but by the needs of presentation to an audience. For instance, a statement of the case is given first, and then the proof is marshalled.

The objects of poetic imitation, Aristotle says, are character, emotion, and deed, i.e., men in action,[19] inanimate nature and the life of dumb animals being subordinate to these. The manner of imitating, if poetic, Aristotle says is either narrative or dramatic. Under the narrative manner he includes lyric, where the speaker expresses himself in the first person, and epic, where the speaker tells his story in the third person. In the dramatic manner he says that the characters are made to live and move before us.[20]

Answering Plato's charge that poetic is not real, Aristotle erects the distinction between the real and the actual, claiming a reality for poetic which is not the actuality of science or of practical affairs. It is thus that he distinguishes the poet from the historian: although the historian also uses images, he is restricted to relating what has happened—that is, to fact; while the poet relates what should happen—what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. Instead of rehearsing facts, the dramatist or the epic poet creates truth. We expect him to be “true to life,” and that is what is implied in Aristotle's “imitation of nature.”[21] This truth to life controls, according to Aristotle, both the characterization and the action. In the first place

  Poetry tends to express the universal—how a person of a certain type 
  will on occasion speak or act according to the law of probability or 
  necessity.[22]

Aristotle goes so far as to say that probability, not actuality, controls the structure of a narrative or dramatic plot in that, “what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action,”[23] even to the extent that the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities, for by a logical fallacy even an irrational premise in an action may seem probable provided that the conclusion is logical and made to seem real.[24] For instance, the irrational elements in the Odyssey “are presented to the imagination with such vividness and coherence that the impossible becomes plausible; the fiction looks like truth.”[25] Such a result occurs only when the characters and action are made real. We believe that which we see, even though we know in our hearts that it is not so.

How important Aristotle feels it to be that the spectator or reader should see before him the characters and situations of an epic or drama is evinced by his suggestion to the poet on the process of composing. The author, he says, should visualize the situations he is presenting, working out the appropriate gestures, for he who feels emotion is best at transmitting it to an audience.[26] It is only when the poet thus completely realizes his characters and situations that the audience can be induced to feel sympathetically the pity and fear which produces the katharsis, so important a result of successful tragedy. If human beings did not possess that tendency to feel within themselves the emotions of the people on the stage, they would be unable to experience vicariously the fear animating the tragic hero. Thus tragedy, which is the type of all poetic, depends vitally, according to Aristotle, on imaginative realization.

2. “Longinus”

Aristotle's theory of poetry, which influenced so profoundly the criticism of the renaissance, was not followed by other classical treatises of the same scope. In fact, very little Greek or Roman literary criticism is concerned with poetical theory as compared with the keen interest of many critics in oratory. Perhaps the most significant and valuable critical treatise after Aristotle is that golden pamphlet On the Sublimeerroneously ascribed to Longinus, which, anonymous and mutilated as it is, still holds our attention by its sincerity, insight, and enthusiastic love for great poetry.

However important its contribution to classical theory of poetry, the treatise is not specifically on poetic. In fact, it sets out as if to treat rhetoric, and actually treats both; for it is mainly a treatise on style, which as Aristotle says in the Poetics[27] is in essence the same both in prose and verse. Nevertheless it does distinguish between rhetoric and poetic and does contribute to the theory of poetry.[28]

Sublimitas,” misleadingly translated “sublimity,” the author defines as elevation and greatness of style. It springs from the faculty of grasping great conceptions and from passion, both gifts of nature. It is assisted by art through the appropriate use of figures, noble diction, and dignified and spirited composition of the words into sentences. It is the insistence on passion, emotion, which makes the treatise On the Sublime stand out above other classical treatises on writing. Both poets and orators attain the sublime, says the author, but passion is more characteristic of the poets.[29]

Passion moves the poet to intensity, which is attained by selection of those sensory images which are significant. Thus the treatise praises the ode by Sappho which it quotes, because the poet has taken the emotions incident to the frenzy of love from the attendant symptoms, from actuality, and first selected and then closely combined those which were conspicuous and intense.[30] This intensity which is characteristic of the poet he contrasts with the amplification of the orators, which strengthens the fabric of an argument by insistence and is especially “appropriate in perorations and digressions, and in all passages written for the style and for display, in writings of historical and scientific nature.” Yet Demosthenes when moved by passion attains the sublimity of intensity and strikes like lightning.[31] Both in oratory and in poetry sublimity is attained by image-making, as when “moved by enthusiasm and passion, you seem to see the things of which you speak, and place them under the eyes of your hearers.”[32] It would be difficult to phrase better the conditions of imaginative realization. But the author felt truly that this realization was different in poetry from what it was in rhetoric. In commenting on a quotation from theOrestes, of Euripides, he says:

  There the poet saw the Furies with his own eyes, and what his 
  imagination presented he almost compelled his hearers to behold.

And after an imaginative passage from the lost Phaethon, of the same author, he says:

  Would you not say that the soul of the writer treads the car with the 
  driver, and shares the peril, and wears wings as the horses do?

From this the rhetorical imagination differs in that it is at its best when it has fact for its object.[33] Longinus would seem to say that the realization of poetic is untrammeled by fact, while the imagination of the orator is bound by the actual; it is always practical.

Because the imaginative realization of poetry is characterized by passion, intensity, and immediacy, the author of the treatise feels with Aristotle that the dramatic is the most characteristically poetic. On this basis he judges the Odyssey to be less great than the Iliad. It is narrative instead of dramatic; fable prevails over action; passion has degenerated into character-drawing. This grouping of drama, action, and passion as the qualities of great poetry is significant. Bald narrative can never realize character or situation as can the dramatic form, either in narrative or for the stage, when the whole action takes place before the mind's eye instead of being told.

The treatise makes this point exceedingly clear by two quotations which bear repeating.

“The author of the Arimaspeia thinks these lines terrible:

  “Here too, is mighty marvel for our thought: 
  'Mid seas men dwell, on water, far from land: 
  Wretches they are, for sorry toil is theirs; 
  Eyes on the stars, heart on the deep they fix; 
  Oft to the gods, I ween, their hands are raised; 
  Their inward parts in evil case upheaved.

“Anyone, I think, will see that there is more embroidery than terror in it all. Now for Homer:

  “As when a wave by the wild wind's blore 
  Down from the clouds upon a ship doth light, 
  And the whole hulk with scattering foam is white, 
  And through the sails all tattered and forlorn 
  Roars the fell blast: the seamen with affright 
  Shake, and from death a hand-breadth they are borne.”[34]

The first quoted passage is indeed not only “embroidery,” but mere talk about shipwrecks, and the terrors of the deep. Homer realizes the situation by sensory images; he makes the reader see the white foam, and hear the wind howl through the torn sails, yes, and shake with the frightened sailors.

3. Plutarch

But judgments like those of the appreciative and discerning author of the treatise On the Sublime are rare. Plutarch in his essay On the Reading of Poets, is much more representative of late Greek criticism. This essay is not a treatise on the theory of poetry, but a thoughtful discussion of the place of poetry in the education of young men. Consequently the greater part of the essay is devoted to the moral purpose of poetry, and as such will be treated in the second section of this study. Two points, however, are of importance to treat here: his theory of poetical imitation, and his comparison of poetry with painting.

The “imitation” of Plutarch was far narrower than that of Aristotle. To Plutarch, imitation meant a naturalistic copy of things as they are. “While poetry is based on imitations ... it does not resign the likeness of the truth, since the charm of imitation is probability.”[35] As a result of his naturalism, Plutarch admitted as appropriate poetical material immorality and obscenity as well as virtue, because these things are in life. If the copy is good, the poem is artistic and praiseworthy, just as a painting of a venomous spider, if a faithful representation of its loathsome subject, is praised for its art.

Perhaps it was Plutarch's naturalistic theory of imitation in poetry which led him to compare poetry with painting. This he does in what he says was a common phrase that “poetry is vocal painting, and painting, silent poetry.”[36] The false analogy, “ut pictura poesis,” establishing, as it does, a sanction in criticism for the static in drama, flourished until Lessing exposed it in his Laocoon. Aristotle at the beginning had made clear that the essential element in drama is movement, a movement which could have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

4. Horace

The remains of Roman literary criticism are not so philosophical as are the Greek. The treatise of Horace is not in Aristotle's sense a poetic; it is an ars poetica. Ars, to the Roman, meant a body of rules which a practitioner would find useful as a guide in composing. As a practitioner himself, Horace is more interested in the craft of poetry than in its philosophy or theory. He writes as a poet to young men who desire to become poets. The essence of poetry he ignores or takes for granted. He says, in effect, “Here are some practical suggestions which I have found of assistance.”

In structure, also, the ars poetica is not a critical analysis, but a text-book. The first ninety-eight lines cover the fundamental considerations which the poet must have in mind before he starts to compose. He should choose a subject he can handle; he should plan it so that it be unified and coherent, and have each element in the right place; he should choose words in good use, and write in an appropriate meter.

The subject of the second section is the Roman theatre. From line 99 to line 288, Horace devotes his attention to the rules governing the writing of tragedy. This is significant, again, of the classical opinion that the most important poetical form is drama. Whatever differences there are between the views of Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace, they all agree in that. In his treatment of characters and plot, however, Horace places his emphasis on character, while Aristotle had emphasized plot. Of plot Horace says little, only suggesting that the poet should not begin ab ovo but plunge at once into the midst of the action. Concerning character he says much. The language should be appropriate to the emotions supposed to be animating the character who is speaking. No person in the play should be made to do or say anything out of character. By the laws of decorum, for instance, old men should be querulous and young boys given to sudden anger. The chorus, also, must be an actor and carry along the action of the play instead of interrupting the play to sing. Horace further warns his pupils to restrict the number of acts to the conventional five, and the number of characters to the conventional three. As an episode presented on the stage is more vivid than if it were narrated as having taken place off stage, horrors and murders should be kept off lest they offend.

The third section of the book is mainly concerned with revision. This is good pedagogy, for advice as to how to improve sentences or verses is appropriate only after the sentences have been planned and written. Besides urging the young poet to revise and correct his manuscript carefully, to put it aside nine years, and to seek the criticism of a sincere friend, Horace considers the value of the finished product. A poem will please more people if it combines the pleasant with the profitable. If a poem is not really good, it is bad. If the young poet finds that his work is not of high excellence, he would do better not to publish it. A poem is like a picture, Horace says, in that some poems appear to better advantage close up, and others at a distance. It is noteworthy that in his “ut pictura poesis” Horace is not pressing the analogy between the arts as did subsequent critics who quoted his phrase incompletely.

Of the four classical discussions of the theory of poetry which are here treated, that of Horace was best known throughout the middle ages and the early renaissance. Just what the influence of the Ars poeticawas and why it was so great a favorite will be discussed in subsequent chapters.