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Aristotle: Poetry and its various kinds

Art as Imitation
Poetry in all its various forms is an imitation.  It imitates character, emotion, and action by rhythm, language or harmony.

Differences in this work
Imitations are various, and the variety flows from three main differences in the arts:

1. The Medium of imitation
2. The Objects of imitation (how humans are presented: better than they are, as they are, or worse than they are)
3. The Manner in which these objects may be imitated (If the medium and objects are the same, the author can imitate by narration, his own person, or may be present in all his characters).

Therefore, Aristotle presents medium, objects, and manner as the three differences that distinguish artistic imitation.

Source of Poetics Expression
Poetry comes from two causes deep within our nature:

1. Our instinct of imitation is present from childhood onward.  Humans are the most imitative of creatures.  Imitation brings pleasure and lessons.
2. Our instinct for harmony and rhythm.  This instinct for harmony and rhythm developed into poetry.

Tragedy and Comedy
Poetry, as it developed, moved into two main categories: the imitation of noble actions and the imitation of meaner or lower persons.  The imitation of noble action was done through hymns and heroic epics.  These works fall under the category of “Tragedy.”  The imitation of meaner or lower action was done through satire or lampooning.  These works fall under the category of “Comedy.”

Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude.

Comedy imitates a lower form, but this lower form is not necessarily morally bad.  Rather, it carries the idea of ugly; some defect or ugliness which is not necessarily painful or destructive.

T.S. Eliot on The Social Function of Poetry

Without the poet’s unique gift of combining an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.

– T. S. Eliot, The Social Function of Poetry

The essential social function of poetry is first the most obvious function – to give pleasure.  A poem must perform this function if it is to perform any.  What kind of pleasure?  Eliot writes, “I can only answer, the kind of pleasure that poetry gives.”

Eliot starts with pleasure but moves beyond this first function.  “For if it were only pleasure, the pleasure itself could not be of the highest kind.”  While there are various types of poetry, one general function is the communication of some new experience of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility.  Concerning our individual experience of pleasure and refined sensibility, Eliot writes, “We all understand I think, both the kind of pleasure which poetry can give, and the kind of difference, beyond pleasure, which it makes to our lives.  Without producing these two effects it simply is not poetry.”

Eliot moves beyond the individual’s experience of poetry to speak about the broad social function.  “The duty of the poet, as poet, is only indirectly to his people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.”  In this function the poet impacts his people and society even if few know his name.  This social  impact of poetry comes in that it “makes a difference to the speech, to the sensibility, to the lives of all the members of society, to all the members of the community.”  This influence is indirect and diffused.

Exceptional Language and Exceptional Sensibility
There is much to consider from such an argument.  One detail worthy of attention – especially in terms of religious experience and faith – is what Eliot calls “sensibility.”  Both directly and indirectly the poet aids her people in the ability to express, understand,  and consequently be able to feel their emotions.  Poetry is especially concerned with using the common language of the people – the language, structure, rhythm, sound, and idiom common to all classes – to express emotions and feelings.  The poet has a unique function in his society, but he is not mad or just eccentric.  The poet not only has feelings but feelings that can be shared, and he “discovers new variations of sensibility which can be appropriated by others.”  The poet has a social function in that by “expressing what other people feel he is also changing the feeling by making it more conscious; he is making people more aware of what they feel already, and therefore teaching them something about themselves.”

Without the poet’s unique gift of combining an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.