Aristotle’s Poetics, translation and commentary in progress, Chapter 1

2015.11.27 | By Gregory Nagy

Plato and Aristotle, or Philosophy. Marble panel from the North side, lower basement of the bell tower of Florence, Italy. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Image by Luca della Robbia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Plato and Aristotle, or Philosophy. Marble panel from the north side, lower basement of the bell tower of Florence, Italy. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Image by Luca della Robbia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


§0.1. In the posting for 2015.10.15, “Homo ludens in the world of ancient Greek verbal art,” I translated and commented on some of the arguments made by Aristotle in Chapter 4 of his Poetics. In the posting here, I backtrack, translating and commenting on all of Chapter 1. My translation and commentary here are part of a larger project that will cover the text of the Poetics in its entirety.

§0.2. The “base text” for the overall translation of the Poetics here is the original rendition of Samuel H. Butcher (1895), but I plan to replace Butcher’s translation gradually with my own. In Chapter 1 here, for example, the replacement is complete. In future postings, wherever Butcher’s original translation is temporarily retained, the retention will be indicated by way of yellow highlighting; whatever is not highlighted will represent my own translation.

§0.3. As for the commentary, it is part of a larger project involving an intergenerational team. I started in 2010.02, in collaboration with Emrys Bell-Schlatter (EB), who stopped working on the project in 2012. I then restarted in 2014.02 in collaboration with Ioanna Papadopoulou (IP). The project has continued since then, with the additional collaboration of Coleman Connelly (CC) as of 2016.01.28.

§0.4. At present, the commentary is embedded in Word footnotes. At the end of each paragraph of this commentary, the author of the comment (in this case, GN) and the date of authorship (year and month) are indicated (for example, GN 2011.07). In later versions of the project, once the style-tagging of this commentary has been perfected, the Word footnote format will be overhauled.

Aristotle’s Poetics Chapter 1

1447a.8 Περὶ ποιητικῆς αὐτῆς τε καὶ τῶν εἰδῶν αὐτῆς, ἥν τινα δύναμιν ἕκαστον ἔχει, καὶ πῶς δεῖ συνίστασθαι τοὺς μύθους 1447a.10 εἰ μέλλει καλῶς ἕξειν ἡ ποίησις, ἔτι δὲ ἐκ πόσων καὶ ποίων ἐστὶ μορίων, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἄλλων ὅσα τῆς αὐτῆς ἐστι μεθόδου, λέγωμεν ἀρξάμενοι κατὰ φύσιν πρῶτον ἀπὸ τῶν πρώτων. ἐποποιία δὴ καὶ ἡ τῆς τραγῳδίας ποίησις ἔτι δὲ κωμῳδία καὶ ἡ διθυραμβοποιητικὴ καὶ τῆς 1447a.15 αὐλητικῆς ἡ πλείστη καὶ κιθαριστικῆς πᾶσαι τυγχάνουσιν οὖσαι μιμήσεις τὸ σύνολον· διαφέρουσι δὲ ἀλλήλων τρισίν, ἢ γὰρ τῷ ἐν ἑτέροις μιμεῖσθαι ἢ τῷ ἕτερα ἢ τῷ ἑτέρως καὶ μὴ τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον. ὥσπερ γὰρ καὶ χρώμασι καὶ σχήμασι πολλὰ μιμοῦνταί τινες ἀπεικάζοντες (οἱ μὲν 1447a.20 διὰ τέχνης οἱ δὲ διὰ συνηθείας), ἕτεροι δὲ διὰ τῆς φωνῆς, οὕτω κἀν ταῖς εἰρημέναις τέχναις ἅπασαι μὲν ποιοῦνται τὴν μίμησιν ἐν υθμῷ καὶ λόγῳ καὶ ἁρμονίᾳ, τούτοις δ’ ἢ χωρὶς ἢ μεμιγμένοις· οἷον ἁρμονίᾳ μὲν καὶ υθμῷ χρώμεναι μόνον ἥ τε αὐλητικὴ καὶ ἡ κιθαριστικὴ κἂν εἴ τινες 1447a.25 ἕτεραι τυγχάνωσιν οὖσαι τοιαῦται τὴν δύναμιν, οἷον ἡ τῶν συρίγγων, αὐτῷ δὲ τῷ υθμῷ [μιμοῦνται] χωρὶς ἁρμονίας ἡ τῶν ὀρχηστῶν (καὶ γὰρ οὗτοι διὰ τῶν σχηματιζομένων ῥυθμῶν μιμοῦνται καὶ ἤθη καὶ πάθη καὶ πράξεις)· ἡ δὲ [ἐποποιία] 1447b.7 μόνον τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς ἢ τοῖς μέτροις καὶ τούτοις εἴτε 1447b.8 μιγνῦσα μετ’ ἀλλήλων εἴθ’ ἑνί τινι γένει χρωμένη τῶν μέ-1447b.9-τρων ἀνώνυμος τυγχάνει οὖσα μέχρι τοῦ νῦν· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἂν 1447b.10 ἔχοιμεν ὀνομάσαι κοινὸν τοὺς Σώφρονος καὶ Ξενάρχου μίμους καὶ τοὺς Σωκρατικοὺς λόγους οὐδὲ εἴ τις διὰ τριμέτρων ἢ ἐλεγείων ἢ τῶν ἄλλων τινῶν τῶν τοιούτων ποιοῖτο τὴν μίμησιν. πλὴν οἱ ἄνθρωποί γε συνάπτοντες τῷ μέτρῳ τὸ ποιεῖν ἐλεγειοποιοὺς τοὺς δὲ ἐποποιοὺς ὀνομάζουσιν, οὐχ ὡς 1447b.15 κατὰ τὴν μίμησιν ποιητὰς ἀλλὰ κοινῇ κατὰ τὸ μέτρον προσαγορεύοντες· καὶ γὰρ ἂν ἰατρικὸν ἢ φυσικόν τι διὰ τῶν μέτρων ἐκφέρωσιν, οὕτω καλεῖν εἰώθασιν· οὐδὲν δὲ κοινόν ἐστιν Ὁμήρῳ καὶ Ἐμπεδοκλεῖ πλὴν τὸ μέτρον, διὸ τὸν μὲν ποιητὴν δίκαιον καλεῖν, τὸν δὲ φυσιολόγον μᾶλλον ἢ ποιη-1447b.20-τήν· ὁμοίως δὲ κἂν εἴ τις ἅπαντα τὰ μέτρα μιγνύων ποιοῖτο τὴν μίμησιν καθάπερ Χαιρήμων ἐποίησε Κένταυρον μικτὴν αψῳδίαν ἐξ ἁπάντων τῶν μέτρων, καὶ ποιητὴν προσαγορευτέον. περὶ μὲν οὖν τούτων διωρίσθω τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον. εἰσὶ δέ τινες αἳ πᾶσι χρῶνται τοῖς εἰρη-1447b.25-μένοις, λέγω δὲ οἷον υθμῷ καὶ μέλει καὶ μέτρῳ, ὥσπερ ἥ τε τῶν διθυραμβικῶν ποίησις καὶ ἡ τῶν νόμων καὶ ἥ τε τραγῳδία καὶ ἡ κωμῳδία· διαφέρουσι δὲ ὅτι αἱ μὲν ἅμα πᾶσιν αἱ δὲ κατὰ μέρος. ταύτας μὲν οὖν λέγω τὰς διαφορὰς τῶν τεχνῶν ἐν οἷς ποιοῦνται τὴν μίμησιν.

Concerning the craft of poetic composition [poiētikē (tekhnē)][1] in and of itself, and its 1447 a forms [eidē, plural of eidos],[2] and what is the potential of each form; and how mythical-plots [mūthoi][3] must be put together if the poetic composition [poiēsis][4] is to be good at doing what it does; and how many parts it is made of, and what kinds of parts they are,[5] and, likewise, all other questions that belong to the same line-of-inquiry [methodos]—let us speak about all these things by starting, in accordance with the natural order, from first principles.

So, the composition-of-epic [epopoiiā = the poiēsis of epos] and the composition [poiēsis] of tragedy [tragōidiā],[6] as well as comedy [kōmōidiā][7] and the poetic craft [poiētikē (tekhnē)] of the dithyramb [dithurambos][8] and most sorts of crafts related to the reed [aulos][9] and the lyre [kitharā][10]—all of these crafts, as it happens, are instances of re-enactment [mīmēsis plural],[11] taken as a whole.[12] There are three things that make these instances of re-enactment different from each other: (1) re-enacting [mīmeîsthai] things in different media, or (2) re-enacting different things, or (3) re-enacting in a mode [tropos] that is different and not the same as the other modes.[13] You see, just as there are some people who, by way of craft [tekhnē] or habituation [sunētheia], make-a-mimesis [mīmeîsthai] by making-likenesses [ap-eikazein] of various objects through the media of color [khrōma] and shape [skhēma],[14] or again by the voice [phōnē], so also in the case of the crafts [tekhnai] above mentioned, taken as a whole, the mimesis [mīmēsis] is made [poieîn] by way of rhythm  [rhuthmos], language [logos], or tune [harmoniā], either one-by-one or combined.[15] Thus in the crafts of the aulos-player and the kitharā-player, tune [harmoniā] and rhythm [rhuthmos] alone are used, as also in other crafts that have this kind of potential, such as the craft of the Pan-pipes [suringes, plural of surinx].[16] As for the craft of dancers, rhythm all by itself can be used without tune [harmoniā]. That is because even dancers, by way of using rhythms [rhuthmoi] related to pose [skhēma] in dance, can make-mimesis [mīmeîsthai] of characters [ēthos plural], emotions [pathos plural], and actions [praxis plural]. Then there is another craft, which makes mimesis by means of bare language [psilos plural + logos plural] alone or in meter [metron plural]. And when it is in meter, it may 1447b either combine different meters or use simply one kind of meter. But this craft[17] as it happens has hitherto been without a name. You see, there is no common term we could apply to the mimes [mīmoi] of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues [logoi] on the one hand and, on the other hand, to the mimesis [mīmēsis] one might make using trimeter,[18] elegiacs,[19] or any similar meters. People do, however, add the word poieîn in the sense of ‘poetically make’ to the given name of the given meter when they refer to ‘elegiac poets’ [elegopoioi], that is, poets of elegiac meter, and to ‘epic poets’ [epopoioi], that is, poets of epic meter—as if it were not because of mimesis [mīmēsis] but because of the meter [metron] that people call them all ‘poets’ [poiētai]. Even when they produce something about medicine or natural science in metrical form, people will still refer to them the same way, as poets [poiētai]. And yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common but the meter [metron]. Thus it would be right to call the one a poet [poiētēs], and the other a natural scientist [phusiologos] rather than a poet [poiētēs]. Similarly, even if someone made [poieîn] his mimesis [mīmēsis] by combining all meters, as Chaeremon did in his Centaur, which is a rhapsodic-composition [rhapsōidiā][20] consisting of meters [metra] of all kinds, we should call him a poet [poiētēs] as well. About these things, then, let the distinctions be made this way[, as I have made them]. There are, again, some [crafts (tekhnai)] that employ all the means above mentioned—namely, rhythm [rhuthmos], melody [melos], and meter [metron singular]—such as the composition [poiēsis] of dithyrambic [dithurambikos] forms and the composition of nomes [nomoi], also tragedy and comedy. But they differ: in the former [= the pair of dithyrambic poetry and nomes] these means are all employed in combination, and in the latter [= the pair of tragedy and comedy], now one means is employed, now another. Such, then, are the differences [diaphorai] of the crafts [tekhnai] with which people make [poieîn] mimesis [mīmēsis].


HC. See Nagy 2009|2008.

Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.

PH. See Nagy 1990.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

Nagy, G. 2010. “Language and Meter.” Online second edition of an original printed version that appeared as Chapter 25 in A Companion to the Ancient Greek Language (ed. E. J. Bakker) 370–387. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World.

Tarán, L., and Gutas, D., eds. 2012. Aristotle ‘Poetics’: Editio Maior of the Greek Text with Historical Introductions and Philological Commentaries. Leiden/Boston.


1 The term poiētikē (tekhnē) in the original Greek means simply ‘craft of composition’. Aristotle clearly has in mind here the craft of what we know as poetic composition, but the Greek verb poieîn ‘make’ from which the adjective poiētikē ‘poetic’ derives can refer to any artistic composition, not just the artistic composition of what we know as poetry. [[GN 2011.07.]]

2 This word eidos, meaning basically ‘kind’ or ‘form’, is used here in the sense of ‘genre’. The same word is used in a comparable way by the teacher of Aristotle, Plato, in contexts of analyzing the genres of poetry and songmaking as found in the performances of drama. See for example Laws 3.700a. But Plato also uses eidos in the absolutized sense of ‘Form’ with reference to his Theory of Forms. See for example Republic 10.596a. [[GN 2011.07.]]

3 From the standpoint of Aristotle, mūthoi are traditional story patterns accepted by society: they are not fictional, which is what we assume when we say myth or mythical. [[GN 2012.10. More to be inserted later here by GN 2016.02.]]

4 Just as the adjective poiētikē can be translated as ‘poetic’ simply because it refers to the craft of composing poetry, so also the noun poiēsis can be translated as ‘poetry’ simply because it refers to the act of composing poetry. But the more basic idea inherent in these words derived from the verb poieîn is ‘composition’ pure and simple. This verb poieîn, which means ‘compose’ or simply ‘make’, can refer to the making of any artifact, not only an artifact that happens to be a poem. And, as we are about to see, Aristotle has in mind not only poetry but also any kind of songmaking when he uses the words poiēsis and poiētikē. Still, the fact that Aristotle uses poiēsis and poiētikē exclusively to refer to the making of poetry or song, not to any other kind of making, shows that poetry and song were considered to be a most basic kind of ‘making’. That is why poiēsis means not just any kind of making but rather, more specifically, the making of poetry and song. [[GN 2011.07.]]

5 In the original Greek, moria refers to ‘parts’ that add up to a whole. [[GN 2011.07.]]

6 For Aristotle, an eidos or ‘genre’ like epic is to be defined comparatively in relation to the other genres that he is considering, such as tragedy. [[GN 2011.07.]]

7 Aristotle will go on to analyze tragedy and comedy comparatively. [[GN 2011.07.]]

8 Aristotle will go on to analyze dithyramb comparatively with tragedy and comedy. [[GN 2011.07.]]

9 The aulos was a double reed, most similar in morphology to the oboe. As we will see later, Aristotle is referring here to two genres that involved the aulos. One is the genre of aulōidiā ‘aulos-singing’, where the aulōidos ‘aulode, aulos-singer’ sings to the accompaniment of the aulos. The other is the genre of aulēsisaulos-playing, where the aulētēs ‘aulete, aulos-player’ plays the aulos without any singing. [[GN 2011.07.]]

10 The kitharā was a seven-string “lyre.” As we will also see later, Aristotle is referring here to two genres that involved the kitharā. One is the genre of kitharōidiā ‘kitharā-singing’, where the kitharōidos ‘citharode, kitharā-singer’, sings while accompanying himself on the kitharā. The other is the genre of kitharisiskitharā-playing’, where the kitharistēs ‘citharist, kitharā-player’ plays the kitharā without any singing. [[GN 2011.07.]]

11 Here the word mīmēsis is in the plural, and I render it as ‘instances of re-enactment’. In referring to mīmēsis, I will write the word simply as “mimesis”—without italics or diacritics. In the singular, the basic idea of mimesis is ‘re-enactment’: for more on this idea, see PH 1§§46-50. [[GN 2011.07.]]

12 All six of the genres to which Aristotle is referring here can be analyzed as media of performance as well as composition. [[GN 2011.07.]]

13 As we learn from Aristotle’s subsequent analysis in the Poetics, the act of re-enactment or mimesis was considered to be an act of representing a pre-existing something. The various different media used for representation in verbal arts involved various different combinations or non-combinations of recitation, singing, dancing, and the playing of musical instruments like the kitharā and the aulos. In the case of epic in the time of Aristotle, its medium was recitation, without instrumental accompaniment. [[GN 2011.07; revised GN 2012.10.09.]]

14 The term skhēma can refer to ‘shape’ in the media of painting and sculpting and to ‘pose’ in the medium of dancing. [[GN 2011.07.]]

15 The terms rhuthmos and harmoniā refer respectively to rhythm and melody as components of songmaking. GN 2011.07. See also Nagy 2010, “Language and meter.” [[GN 2012.05.]]

16 The naming of this craft “sneaks in,” almost as an afterthought; it is not a Panathenaic craft, like the crafts that Aristotle mentioned at the beginning. [[GN 2010.03.]]

17 The Greek textual tradition is garbled here, but the Arabic translation shows that there is a new clause starting at this point. Here is where Coleman Connelly (CC) is invited to comment further, in Classical Inquiries 2016.01.28. My translation follows the reading of Tarán and Gutas 2012:  ἡ δὲ [ἐποποιία] 1447b.7 μόνον τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς ἢ τοῖς μέτροις καὶ τούτοις εἴτε 1447b.8 μιγνῦσα μετ’ ἀλλήλων εἴθ’ ἑνί τινι γένει χρωμένη τῶν μέ-1447b.9-τρων ἀνώνυμος τυγχάνει οὖσα μέχρι τοῦ νῦν.

18 Aristotle is referring here to the meter known to us as the iambic trimeter. [[GN 2010.03.]]

19 Aristotle is referring here to the meter known to us as the elegiac couplet. [[GN 2010.03.]]

20 The medium of a performer called the rhapsōidos ‘rhapsode’ was recitative poetry composed in mostly three types of meter: (1) dactylic hexameters, (2) elegiac couplets (consisting of a dactylic hexameter combined with an “elegiac pentameter”), and (3) iambic trimeters. [[GN 2010.03.08.]]