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ARISTOTLE ON THE ART
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas
Fortunatus et ille, deos qui novit agrestes.
THE short treatise on the Art of Poetry known to
the Poetics 1 comes into our hands recommended, even before we open the volume, by several different considerations. It is the work of no ordinary man of letters (though Aristotle was a lover of books, and perhaps the first who ever formed a library), but of a man who might have said of himself, as only one or two could say in the history of our race, that he had "taken all knowledge for his province”; who, while dealing ?
with the problems of the physical world, and with those of abstract and applied thought, and with the conditions of human nature, in the individual and in the bodypolitic, found his survey incomplete unless it included those Arts which ensure to us the gifts of ordered and beautiful speechRhetoric and her sister Poetry. Again,
this is the earliest attempt to treat de| liberately, and in set form, the subject of
literature.' The ground had been prepared by the teaching of the rhetoricians, by the Middle Comedy, above all by the speculations of Plato, so lofty and so penetrating, yet often ironical and sometimes bewildering ; but here for the first time questions as to the nature and office of Poetry are asked directly and are answered with authority. And, once more, over what a noble field of existing poetry did the gaze of the philosopher travel : Homer, the whole of Greek Tragedy,—for in Aristotle's time Tragedy, for all creative
purposes, was a thing of the past, the whole of the Old Comedy, the whole of Greek Lyric. The poetry of the world, as we now know it, is doubtless a fuller as well as a more complex whole than this. Many languages, new civilisations, intellectual forces unknown to the Greek, a widening of the affections 4 inconceivable to the ancient world, have renovated and enriched the material which is still poured into poetic moulds.
Yet something is gained to the critic whose effort is concentrated on a single language ; and what single volume of national poetry can compare in brilliance with that which was open to Aristotle--what in life and in lifegiving power ? And, lastly, how much of the literary criticism of later time has been avowedly based on the results obtained by him. Often his words have been misunderstood, and his authority claimed for doctrines which he never contemplated. Yet how many has his method
impelled to true inquiry ; how often has he been a guide to reasonable and fruitful judgments; how many of his conclusions, faithfully worked out in the field of his own observation, remain literally true for the wider regions in which the modern critic moves.
I ask you to-day, first, to look into the substance and content of the Poetics, in the form in which the book has come down to us; and afterwards to examine some of the leading thoughts which are, as you will see, successively brought under our notice in it.
In approaching the book itself two cautions are not unnecessary. First, let us not be disappointed if we fail to find much which we may have expected to be there. The treatment (let us at once allow it) is severe and scientific; there is not a very large addition to our knowledge of facts about Greek poetry ; there are few judgments about particular poets and their works. And, secondly, let us be content with what is written, not asking to read into the words of the Greek writer our own thoughts, formed among surroundings and traditions other than his, and, in some points, essentially different.
We will now take the opening sentence, and consider the plan of treatment which the Author, with care and close definition, proposes to himself.
“My design is to treat of Poetry in C. 1. general and of its several species — to inquire, what is the proper effect of each —what construction of a fable or plan is essential to a good Poem-of what and how many parts each species consists ; with whatever else belongs to the same subject : and I shall begin, as Nature directs, with first principles.” 5
The several species of poetry here mentioned are explained to be Tragedy, Epic, Comedy, and. Lyric ; the other matters belonging to the same inquiry