My Notes on Aristotle’s Poetics

Note; this post is largely superceded; its content is incorporated in Writing Theory which also includes further consideration by Plato on writing.

Aristotle – Poetics

Penguin Classics 978-0-14-044636-4



Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Malcolm Heath

Mimesis (imitation)
Hamartia (error)
Katharsis (purification)

This is primarily a blog resource posting. It’s possible that students of poetry (and story form in general) may find some interest in the following notes.


Navigation tags added 09/10/2014.
Aristotle references by chapter (also added as a reference for my later On Poetry post) :
2) Poetry as a Species of Imitation
4) Tragedy
5) Plot: Basic Concepts
6) Plot: Species and Components
7) The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
8) Other Aspects of Tragedy
9) Diction
10) Epic
11) Problems and Solutions


First the work then the moan, finally the notes

Aristotle lived in an age where there were few lengthy narratives. Plays and poetry formed a significant proportion of creative output. His treatise focuses upon these. There were a few outstanding works that fell outside the scope of Poetics and Aristotle refers to these explicitly and says whether they are [partly within / partly beyond] his scope.

Aristotle’s Poetics gives us a point of view / a prism for understanding the work of others. This is a general point. On my reading, much that is written now is encompassed by his analysis.

Initially I read the piece along with the translator’s preparatory text. I confess to some irritation with some of Malcolm Heath’s rationalisations (not your fault Malcolm) – and I was tempted to shout. This became:

My First Thoughts Were:

English affords the opportunity to nuance meaning yet Malcolm tells us that he will translate rigidly and proceeds to do so.
Particularly [Mimesis]. I tried to put this out of my mind but I could see this to be a sticking point. It was. Within the first few pages of the translation I realised I’d need to read it again, without the obfuscation of the introduction.

And the shout?
Imitation – No. No! NO!
Performance – creation anything but imitation (well maybe sometimes).

Yes imitation is a large part if the creative urge is asleep – or disabled by over reliance on formulaic approaches.

Judged by different standards – the Greek triumvirate – codified much that Western civilisation (and its twisted shadow, Islam) have running through their world view & understandings

Anyhow, that’s that out of the way. I read; waited a few months and read again. Here are my notes from the second reading.



2) Poetry as a Species of Imitation

2.1 Medium
Imitation – noted but it could be noted that parallel / resonance / other term signifying a use of a contrasting narrative form, might be inferred here
the medium of imitation is rhythm, language and melody – how about
the portrayal medium is rhythm, language and melody – or delivery

2.2 Object
drama is portrayal of people, better or worse than us – the basis of measurement being? excellence?

2.3 mode = tragedy / comedy (& voice)

3.2 Early History of poetry
Homer is seen as significant, outshining any that preceded him.
Socrates has much to say on the various verse forms; these have lesser significance now

3.3 (Tragedy) & 3.4 (Comedy)
Comedy is imitation of inferior people
Tragedy is imitation of superior people
…doesn’t scan well to me but from this I get:
If Tragedy is encouraging the audience to identify with the protagonists
Then Comedy is deflating their pretensions

Aristotle then goes on to talk about form (a pattern of thought that still echoes down the centuries…)

3.5 Epic

4) Tragedy

4.1 Definition
Language made pleasurable – rhythm & melody = song

4.2 Component Parts of Tragedy
Plot (organisation of events)
Character (protagonists)
Diction (verbal expression)
Reasoning (how a case is put or argued)
Lyric Poetry

4.3 Primacy of Plot
here Aristotle argues that poor characterisation makes poor tragedy

5) Plot: Basic Concepts

5.1 Completeness
The traditional form is a beginning, a middle, an end

5.2 Magnitude
Holdable in memory – up to the limits of simultaneous perspicuity (Archie’s downfall)

5.3 Unity
It must be relevant and contribute to the final denouement in the correct measure

5.4 Determinate Structure
The removal of just one element must impact on and change the whole – or it doesn’t belong

5.5) Universality
The kind of thing that would happen – in accordance with probability or necessity

5.6 Defective Plots
In which the sequence of events are neither necessary nor probable.

It’s very tempting to criticize the judgement of the [translator] – 1 his decision to stick to a rigid word for word translation. In his defence I would say that it his job to get the materials out there; it becomes our job to interpret them.
This being the case, I put my two remaining brain cells (Bert the Obdurate, and Norman the Gormless) to the task. I consider myself more an interested bystander than a philosopher.


6) Plot; Species and Components

6.1 Astonishment
Poetic justice is where events fit a pattern and occur because of one another. More astonishment will be evoked than if the events were random or ill explained.

6.2 Simple and Complex Plots
A simple plot is where event and consequence occur with no reversals or recognition.
Complex plots involve events where reversal or recognition occurs one or more times AND are as a result of what has gone before.

6.2 Reversals
…are where an action achieves the opposite of its intent ie harm occurs although the intention is to help.

6.4 Recognition
…is a change from ignorance to knowledge. This may be final outcome e.g. a brother and sister discover they have unwittingly married, or may provoke further actions.

6.5 Suffering
Pain, wounding, agony…

6.6 Quantitative parts of Tragedy
choral part: entry song
episode + odes / other choral part

7) The Best Kinds of Tragic Plot
7.1 What should we aim at?

7.2 First Deduction
Complex, evoking fear and pity are desirable
It shouldn’t be predictable or too easy
reversal in fortune of bad guy / good guy is trite and simplistic
we are left with mr average – some flaws who has a change in circumstance
invariably the best results are bad stuff happening in a plausible way
(eg Alcemon, Oedipus, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus
second best is reversals in fortune that leads to reconciliation (and no one gets killed by anybody)

7.3 Second introduction
The retelling of a plot should be sufficient to evoke fear / pity. The staging of spectacle should nor be confused with plot. Spectacle can be monstrous but that does not compensate for a poor plot.

7.4 Second deduction
Enemy slaying enemy, or neutral slaying neutral evokes little empathy. But close kin…
Terrible actions can be
harm planned in knowledge and not carried through – pointless
harm planned in ignorance, but no recognition occurs
harm planned in ignorance, recognition occurs after the act
recognition pre-empts the act – best

8) Other Aspects of Tragedy

8.1 Character
Goodness – denoted by speech or action (women more likely to be ruled by passion)
Appropriateness – women may be courageous but is this always appropriate?
Likeness – (obscure – presumably similar to what we know)
Consistency – even inconsistent actions should have consistency

In all things: is this plausible? probable?
Plot resolution should come from within the plot itself (joining things together / demonstrating unity) not from theatrical devices.
These devices may affect matters outside the piece.
People aren’t perfect – they can and should have flaws.

8.2 Kinds of Recognition
via omens, tokens, scars – reversals are the best
contrived by the author – not revealed in the natural flow of the story
memory (of a character)
inference – who else could it be?
nb false inference – identity is claimed by one method but proved by another
actual course of events (likely & probable) is best

8.3 Visualising the Action
…as if present to test if it works
gestures and expressions convey mood more authentically

8.4 Outlines and Episodisation
Lay the story in universal terms
determine the main narrative
each branch becomes an episode

8.5 Complication and Resolution
Everything before the change of fortune is complication
All after is resolution

8.6 Kinds of Tragedy
Complex (depending on reversal and recognition)
tragedy of suffering
tragedy of character
simple tragedy

8.7 Tragedy and Epic
Multiple stories are unsuitable for a tragedy.
Within an epic, each must be weighted appropriately

8.8 Astonishment
Astonishment is more agreeable when it achieves artistic objectives
eg someone clever but bad is deceived;
someone courageous but unjust is defeated

8.9 The Chorus
The chorus should be treated as another actor and should contribute to the story


9) Diction

9.1 Introduction

Reasoning includes proof, refutation, production of emotions and establishing importance and unimportance. It is covered in rhetoric (Archie hasn’t done rhetoric)
emotions should be evident without explicit statement
There follows an analysis of speech beginning from consonants and vowels, moving through grammar through ornament and devices that make diction seem striking

10.6 Diction should not be so brilliant that it overshadows character and reasoning

10) Epic

10.1 main plot, sub plots are episodes
different plots can develop simultaneously
conceal plot irrationalities through good story telling

11) Problems and Solutions

imitation = representation
An impossibility is an error
an error becomes bad art if it is clumsy or diminishes impact
it becomes good art if it enhances the artistic objective
an error of fact may be less important than one of art
things may be portrayed as they should be even if they aren’t
if a thing is neither true nor as it ought to be, then make it ‘this is what people say’
or say ‘this is how things were’ as if it is no longer true
an utterance or action can take account of time, place and person
use non-standard diction in place of overly accurate detail
use emphasis to clarify diction
and punctuation
and ambiguity (I do this a lot ‘more of the night passed’ more is ambiguous)
and common linguistic usage – (cf over accurate detail)
a contradiction may arise because a word has alternate meanings


About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
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4 Responses to My Notes on Aristotle’s Poetics

  1. tparchie says:

    This was my third attempt at this work. My first attempt ended abysmally.

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