CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book IX

Poetry and History
Since life is not a plot, it is not sufficient for a poet simply to record events as they happen. Such a chronicle is history, but not poetry. Even if history were cast into the same kind of meter as is used in tragedy, Aristotle argues, it would only be history in verse. A poet "should the maker of plots rather than verses" (54), for plots, more than merely organizing events into a coherent structure, serve to represent the universal laws of probability. The true difference between historians and poets, Aristotle states, is that the former records what has happened, while the latter represents what may happen.

Poetry is more "philosophical" than history, according to Aristotle, because in order to unfold a plot in a manner that is convincing to the audience, the poet must grasp and represent the internal logic, the necessity, of the outcome of those events.

Aristotle condemns poets that simply string episodes together, and reminds his readers that tragic plots must not only be coherent but also inspire "fear or pity" in the audience. He concludes this chapter with a suggestive analysis of surprise in drama: a surprising development in a tragedy is most effective when it does not merely produce shock at an unexpected occurance, but rather has an "air of design" (54) and seems to be the necessary, inevitable (but still frightening) outcome of a chain of actions.