Poetics

Aristotle is always refreshingly plain on a subject. So when I read him, I find it easy to think he’s simply making a useful summary of a well known issue. But often he was creating the entire discipline; the first known thinker to frame or classify it. This makes his clarity and brevity all the more remarkable. And all this in 350 BC.

Among his intellectual inventions was the first setting out of the principles of ‘Poetics’, covering drama, tragedy and a lost volume on comedy.

Here he explains the origins and evolution of poetry:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry, myth and tragedy played important roles in Ancient Greece. According to Nietzsche they were instrumental in maintaining the vitality and optimism of Greek culture. Poetry, myth and tragedy also captured the essence of Ancient History. As Aristotle said:

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history. For poetry expresses the universal and history only the particular.

Perhaps, like philosophy, poetry is less central to modern culture. But it’s still takes the same courage and skill:

Constantly risking absurdity, whenever he performs above the heads of his audience, the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1958)

It also connects the sublime with the ridiculous in the human condition:

Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. (Carl Sandburg, 1928)

But philosophy and poetry can still bring happiness, fulfilment and an opportunity to develop our natural gifts – till our ‘rude improvisations’ give birth to our own poetry.

Xerxes

Xerxes – controversially portrayed as a narcissistic androgynous giant in the blood-spattered film 300 – broke with Persian tradition and laid waste to allies and enemies with enormous forces, before losing interest, losing ground and retiring to lotus eating and luxury. Or so some say.

His patina of invincibility was chipped by Leonidas’s legendary 300 Spartans’ suicidal defiance at the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae. A Persian General said of them: “Ye Gods, Mardonius, what men have you brought us to fight against? Men that fight not for gold, but for glory.” Spartans sought their immortality in glorious death.

In film and folklore Xerxes was a god amongst men before succumbing to human frailties. Is Xerxes a myth, a legend or history? Probably a bit of all three. A reading of Robert Graves’ Greek Myths suggests most ancient history, legend and mythology is in fact a bit of all three.

But a tale from Montaigne’s suggests that even as Xerxes set out to conquer all, he saw, in the same instant, the limits to his dominance:

Montaigne XXXVII

Artabanus coming by surprise once upon his nephew Xerxes, chid him for the sudden alteration of his countenance. He was considering the immeasurable greatness of his forces passing over the Hellespont for the Grecian expedition: he was first seized with a palpitation of joy, to see so many millions of men under his command, and this appeared in the gaiety of his looks: but his thoughts at the same instant suggesting to him that of so many lives, within a century at most, there would not be one left, he presently knit his brows and grew sad, even to tears.

Greek myths tell us that power and glory are always transient. Even the most powerful among us are mayflies in historical, let alone geological time. Xerxes is a reminder that men cannot be gods. We have at best three score and ten, whether we are millions or 300 men. It behoves us to use our time well.