Aristotle's Poetics (Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς; Latin: De Poetica; c. 335 BC) is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory in the West. This has been the traditional view for centuries. However, recent work is now challenging whether Aristotle focuses on literary theory per se (given that not one poem exists in the treatise) or whether he focuses instead on dramatic musical theory that only has language as one of the elements.
In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls "poetry" (a term which in Greek literally means "making" and in this context includes verse drama – comedy, tragedy, and the satyr play – as well as lyric poetry and epic poetry). They are similar in the fact that they are all imitations but different in the three ways that Aristotle describes:
- Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
- Difference of goodness in the characters.
- Difference in how the narrative is presented: telling a story or acting it out.
In examining its "first principles", Aristotle finds two: 1) imitation and 2) genres and other concepts by which that of truth is applied/revealed in the poesis. His analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of the discussion. Although Aristotle's Poetics is universally acknowledged in the Western critical tradition, "almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions".
The work was lost to the Western world for a long time. It was available in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance only through a Latin translation of an Arabic version written by Averroes.