Item of the Day: Pye’s Poetics of Aristotle (1792)

Full Title:

A Commentary Illustrating the Poetic of Aristotle, By Examples Taken Chiefly from the Modern Poets.  To Which is Prefixed, A new and corrected edition of the Translation of the Poetic.  By Henry James Pye, Esq.  London: Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly.  M.DCC.XCII.

COMMENTARY.  Chap. I. Note I.

The Epopee and Tragedy, as also comedy and dithyrambics, and the greater part of those compositions which are set to the flute and the lyre, all agree in the general character of being imitations. 

By imitation, Aristotle does not mean merely description, but a lively representation of human actions, passions, and manners.  It would be superfluous to say much on a subject which has been so amply and clearly treated by Mr. Twining, in his ‘Dissertation on Poetry considered as an imitative art,’ and to which I refer such of my readers as desire full and satisfactory information on this subject.  Aristotle, undoubtedly, places that species of imitation in the first class, which is performed by persons acting, as in the drama, and, for the most part, in the epopees of Homer.  This appears from what he says of the epopee, in the twenty-fourth chapter.  ‘The poet (he observes) should appear himself as little as possible, for whenever he speaks in his own person he ceases to be an imitator;’ seeming even to contradict what he had before allowed in the third chapter, ‘that the poet might imitate, either like Homer, sometimes by simple narration, and sometimes by assuming a different character; or entirely by narration, without assuming any character.’  It may perhaps be impossible strictly to reconcile this difference of opinion, but it obviously shews the great preference he gave personal imitation to any other, from which arose his strong predilection for tragedy; and I think we may fairly deduce from it, that even the poet whose imitation is solely narrative, must paint in strong colours the effects of action, passions and manners, and not merely relate a fable though fictitious, like an historian, for the purpose of drawing moral reflections from it.

Those passages, nevertheless, of an epic poem, where the poet speaks in his own person, have great beauty from their contrast with the impassioned parts, and the relief they give the mind, provided they are neither too frequent nor too long, and the rule laid down by Aristotle, in his twenty-fourth chapter, concerning the elegance of the versification be carefully observed.  Mr. Twining quotes a beautiful example from the first Aeneid.

‘Urbs antique fuit, (Tyrii tenuêre coloni,)

Carthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe

Ostia—.’

Innumerable instances may be produced from Milton; as the description of evening and of paradise, in the fourth book of Paradise Lost; in this he is superior to any poet ancient or modern, though there are many striking passages of the same kind in the Odyssey.

The modern invention of reciting a tale, by means of an epistolary correspondence between the persons concerned, is a very happy mode of imitation, uniting in some measure the different advantages of epopee and the drama.  Perhaps a work of this nature, where the character and style of all the persons corresponding, is nicely discriminated and rigidly observed, is yet a desideratum in imitative composition.    

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Filed under 1790's, Ancient Greece, Criticism, Drama, Eighteenth century, Greek/Roman Translations, Literature, Posted by Matthew Williams

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