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Aristotle's Observations on Poetry

Updated: Mar 31, 2022


Its Nature:

Aristotle following his master Plato calls the poet an imitator (the one who imitates what is past or present, what is commonly believed and is ideal). A poet or an artist is just a grown-up child indulging in imitation for the pleasure it affords. But it’s not twice removed from reality and unreal like Plato believed it to be. Aristotle believes they reveal truths of a permanent or universal kind.

To prove this he has done a comparison between poetry and history. The difference between a poet and a historian is not by writing in verse or in prose, it’s one that relates what has happened and the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical than history. Poetry tends to express universal history in particular. The pictures of poetry, therefore, are not the mere reproduction of facts but the truths embedded in those facts that apply to all places and times. Hereby Aristotle answers Plato’s severest charge against poetry.

Its function:

The function of poetry is to please. The very two instincts of imitation- of harmony and of rhythm are for pleasure. Therefore the outcome of poetry should be pleasing both the writer and the readers. Such pleasure should even be regarded as superior to all because it serves a dual purpose- that of itself and of civic morality.

Its Emotional Appeal:

According to Plato, poetry kindles emotions. Aristotle too accepts this considering the highest form of poetry: Tragedy that arouses emotions of pity and fear- pity for the suffering hero and fear for the worst that may befall him.

He has no fears like Plato did (Plato believed this would weaken the people’s minds) Aristotle says these emotions are aroused with a view to their purgation or catharsis (removal of a painful element and purifying of the remains). Tragedy shows people the pain of others and in turn, makes them nobler than before. It is this that pleases in a tragic tale, which normally is painful. In this perception, tragedy transmutes these disturbing emotions into what Milton calls, ‘calm of mind, all passions spent. Thus, Aristotle answers Plato that the emotional appeal of poetry is not harmful but health-giving and artistically satisfying.


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