Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle's Poetics Summary and Analysis of Chapters 25-26


Aristotle next tackles 'critical difficulties' that a poet may face and the solutions that will ensure his success. He names three major 'solutions' for poets in attempting to imitate action and life:

a. The poet must imitate either things as they are, things as they are thought to be, or things as they ought to be

b. The poet must imitate in action and language; the latter must be current terms, or metaphors (and occasionally rare words)

c. Errors come when the poet imitates incorrectly - and thus destroys the essence of the poem - or when the poet accidentally makes an error (a factual error, for instance), which does not ultimately sabotage the entire work. The only error that matters is one that touches the essential of the given work - for instance, 'not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.'

Critics often argue with a poet's work if it is seen as either impossible, irrational, morally hurtful, contradictory, or contrary to artistic correctness. Aristotle refutes all of these judgments by saying simply that it is the purpose - the essence - of the work that matters, and its goal in imitating reality as it is, as it is thought to be, or as it ought to be.

Aristotle concludes by tackling the question of whether the epic or tragic form is 'the higher.' Most critics of his time argued that tragedy was for an inferior audience that required the gesture of performers, while epic poetry was for a 'cultivated audience' which could filter a narrative form through their own imagined characters.

Aristotle replies with the following:

a. Epic recitation can be marred with overdone gesticulation in the same way as a tragedy; there is no guarantee that the epic form is not one motivated by the oral gestures of the ones who recite it for audiences

b. Tragedy, like poetry, produces its effect without action - its power is in the mere reading; enacting it onstage should give the exact same effect as reading a good epic loud

c. The tragedy is, in fact, superior, because it has all the epic elements as well as spectacle and music to provide an indulgent pleasure for the audience. Moreover, it maintains a vividness of impression in reading as well as staging.

Tragedy, then, despite the argument of critics is the higher art. And with this quite controversial conclusion Aristotle ends his work.


Aristotle concludes the Poetics by addressing two main criticisms that often plagued poetry in his time. First, there is the question of what makes for 'good' poetry or 'bad' poetry. Aristotle points out that every work of art can be distilled to its 'essence,' meaning its purpose of imitation. Either a work aims to reveal life exactly as it is, as people think it is, or as it ought to be. Thus, depending on which of these three imitative purposes a poet has, his work should be considered under a separate set of criteria.

For instance, a poet who aims to show life as it 'ought to be' certainly has more relaxed standards for the accuracy of representation than a poet who is portraying life as it is. Aristotle uses the example of a poet who might not know that a hind does not have horns -- in the case of a poet trying to portray life realistically, this error would ultimately be more glaring that in the case of a poet presenting an accurate view of life, simply because his purpose leads the reader to expect verisimilitude of detail.

That said, what is also significant for the reader to understand that in neither case does an error of detail necessarily affect the quality of the poem - unless it perverts the essence of the piece. Only if the author makes a fundamental error in the type of imitation he is pursuing is the final work ultimately compromised.

Aristotle ends by addressing what appears to be a long-standing debate between critics over the primacy of tragedy or epic poetry. Critics in his time vaunted epic poetry, but Aristotle takes the opposite view, noting that tragedy has all the same good qualities of an epic in its reading, but also has the added dimension of being able to translate onstage into a drama of spectacle and music, capable of being digested in one sitting.

Just as he began without much of an introduction, so too Aristotle finishes the Poetics with a perfunctory conclusion - no summary or final thought or discussion of significance. He wraps up his argument swiftly, content that he has addressed all the points laid out at the beginning, and confident that he has quashed his critics' preconceptions about the poetic art form.