Textual Comment on Aristotle, Poetics 1447b7–9, Part 1

2016.01.31 | By Coleman Connelly

Francesco Hayez (1791–1882), “Aristotle” (1811). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. As part of our ongoing commentary-project on Aristotle’s Poetics, Gregory Nagy has asked me to comment on what light the Arabic tradition of the Poetics can shed on a textually fraught passage occurring early in that work at 1447b7–9. In fact, this passage provides an ideal case study that demonstrates the rewards of using a medieval Arabic translation of a Greek author when editing his text. At the same time, it provides a neat illustration of the dangers an editor can run into without properly appreciating the role played by the lost Syriac intermediary that stood between the Greek original and the surviving Arabic translation, as occurred in the case of the Poetics and many other Greek texts. In Part 1 of this two-part comment, I will present the reader with two recent editions of the Poetics and show how the text printed in each presents a fundamentally different understanding of Aristotle’s sense in this short passage. In Part 2, I will explain in detail how the text arrived at in the more recent edition is superior, and explain how the Syriac and Arabic evidence helped the editors arrive at that text.

§2. In a half-sentence running from Poetics 1447b7 to 1447b9, Aristotle laments that the Greek of his day lacked an all-encompassing word for ‘mimetic verbal art’, that is, verbal art that reenacts or represents reality, regardless of what meter that literature is written in or indeed regardless of whether it was written in meter at all. As Aristotle goes on to say, people must refer to authors by the meter in which they write, speaking of ‘elegiac poets’ and ‘epic poets’. What he really wants, though, is a term that embraces not only these diverse poetic genres but also such essentially different, but equally mimetic prose genres as the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus or the Sōkratikoi logoi (‘dialogues with Socrates’)—a fourth-century Athenian genre of which Plato and Xenophon are the chief practitioners to survive to our time. This is an important passage, occurring toward the beginning of the Poetics, for in it Aristotle first articulates an idea that will recur in similar form in this work, namely that what makes poetry poetry is not its meter but its mīmēsis.[1] Indeed, elsewhere, in a fragment of his exoteric (or published) work On Poets, Aristotle makes the same point even more forcefully.[2] Moreover, the lack of such terminology may have vexed others among his contemporaries as well: the Stranger in Plato’s Sophist 267d voices a somewhat similar complaint.[3]

§3. Yet, despite the importance of the passage, the Greek text of Poetics 1447b7–9 has until quite recently remained disputed and unclear in several minor respects, and in one major respect, due to the faulty nature of its transmission. The major question provoked by the uncertainty of the Greek text is as follows. Does Aristotle really want a single term for ‘mimetic verbal art’, encompassing both metrical and prose works, as I suggested in my summary above? Or, rather, might he in fact be calling for two terms, one covering mimetic works in meter and one covering mimetic works in prose? If the latter is true, then we would be forced to reevaluate just how radically Aristotle wanted to eliminate the distinction between metrical works and prose works in his discussion of what makes poetry poetry, at least in this passage. If we were to accept what was for many decades the standard critical edition of the Poetics—that of Kassel 1966—then we would be inclined to think that Aristotle is calling for—or at least pointing out the lack of—two separate terms, one for mimetic verse and one for mimetic prose:

ἡ δὲ [ἐποποιία][4] μόνον τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς <καὶ> ἡ τοῖς μέτροις καὶ τούτοις εἴτε μιγνῦσα μετ’ ἀλλήλων εἴθ’ ἑνί τινι γένει χρωμένη τῶν μέτρων ἀνώνυμοι τυγχάνουσι μέχρι τοῦ νῦν . . .

The (craft) which employs prose[5] alone <and> the (craft) which employs meters—either mixing these together with each other or using one single type from among the meters—(these two crafts) have [note the plural] until now been nameless.

§4. Yet if we look at the most recent edition of the Poeticsthat of Gutas and Tarán 2012—and the first edition to take an expert and thorough look at the Syriac and Arabic tradition of Aristotle’s work, then we arrive at the opposite conclusion. That is, from text produced by Tarán in collaboration with Gutas, we deduce that Aristotle is in fact lamenting the lack of a single term covering both metrical and non-metrical texts:

ἡ δὲ [ἐποποιία] μόνον τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς ἢ τοῖς μέτροις καὶ τούτοις εἴτε μιγνῦσα μετ’ ἀλλήλων εἴθ’ ἑνί τινι γένει χρωμένη τῶν μέτρων ἀνώνυμος τυγχάνει οὖσα μέχρι τοῦ νῦν . . .

The (craft) which employs prose alone or meters[6]—either mixing these together with each other or using one single type from among the meters—(this craft) has [note the singular] until now been nameless.

§5. Now from the context of the wider passage and from the views Aristotle expresses elsewhere in the Poetics and the fragmentary On Poets, it should be obvious that the text produced by Gutas’s and Tarán’s collaboration makes eminently more sense. Clearly, we should expect the philosopher, who is trying to minimize the importance of metrical versus non-metrical language when defining representational literature, to speak of one single mimetic craft requiring one single term. Yet how, philologically, did Gutas and Tarán arrive at their reading? In Part 2 of this comment, I would like to walk the reader through their reasoning and through the crucial textual evidence provided by the Syriac and Arabic tradition of the Poetics. I shall explain not only how they arrived at the reading ἀνώνυμος τυγχάνει οὖσα rather than ἀνώνυμοι τυγχάνουσιupon which the question of two names or one rests—but also point out some of the other ways in which the Syro-Arabic Poetics can help us edit the Greek text of this passage. In treating this one example, I hope to demonstrate to Hellenists the importance of Graeco-Syriaca and Graeco-Arabica to their work.



Janko, R. 1987. Aristotle: Poetics I, with the Tractatus Coislinianus. A Hypothetical Reconstruction of Poetics II. The Fragments of the On poets. Indianapolis.

Janko, R. 2011. Philodemus. On Poems Books Three and Four. With the fragments of Aristotle On Poets. Oxford.

Kassel, R. 1965 [1966]. Aristotelis, De arte poetica liber. Oxford.

Rose, V. 1886. Aristotelis qui ferebantur librorum fragmenta. Leipzig.

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

Überweg, F. 1870. Aristotelis Ars Poetica. Ad fidem potissimum codicis antiquissimi Ac (Parisiensis 1741) edidit. Berlin.



[1] Cf. especially 51a37–b12.

[2] F44a (Janko 2011) = F72b (Rose3).

[3] See with references the discussion in Janko 1987:69.

[4] The reader should not be distracted by this word, an obvious intrusion into the text which has been bracketed by editors since Überweg 1870 and has no bearing on our current discussion: for more on ἐποποιία, though, see Part 2 of this comment. It is traditionally retained by editors in brackets, presumably because its presence in the Graeco-Latin tradition influenced Renaissance and early modern readers, who considered it a genuine part of the text: see Gutas and Tarán 2012:59.

[5] Literally, “bare (ψιλοῖς) words.”

[6] A good argument can be made that in the phrase “τοῖς λόγοις ψιλοῖς ἢ τοῖς μέτροις”, ψιλοῖς should be construed with both λόγοις and μέτροις, in which case Aristotle refers to ‘bare words’ (i.e. prose) and to ‘bare meters’ (i.e. poetry unaccompanied by song or μέλος): see Gutas and Tarán 2012: 229–230 (Tarán’s commentary).