Aristotle's Definition of Epic in Poetics and his Consideration of Tragedy as Superior to an Epic

To Aristotle, an Epic is a narrative poem written in heroic hexa-metre. It has four constituent parts namely plot , character, thought, & diction. Aristotle defines every point in much detail & finally, having compared between tragedy & epic, comes to the conclusion that a tragedy is superior to an epic.

According to Aristotle, the plots of epics should be dramatically constructed like those of tragedies. They should centre upon a single action whole & complete & having a beginning, middle & an end. Nor should epics be constructed like the common run of histories. The aim of history is to focus on a single period, while the task of an epic is to focus on a single action that is required. In this respect, Aristotle appreciates the greatness of Homer beyond all other poets. Though the Trojan War had a beginning & a war, Homer didn't attempt to put the whole of it to 'The Iliad'. As whole would have been too vast a theme to be easily embraced by a single view. Homer has selected one part of the story & has introduced mant incidents from other parts as episodes in order to give the poem a touch of variety. Other epic like the authors of 'Cypria' & 'The Little Iliad' have used many separate incident in their works. 

Thus, while only one tragedy could be made out of the 'Iliad' & the ‘Odyssey’. Several might be made out of the 'Cypria' & more than eight out of the 'Little Iliad’. Again epic poetry must divide into the same type as tragedy; it must me simple or complex or ethical or pathetic, & its thoughts & diction should be as artistic as they are in tragedy. The best models,again,supplied by Homer. His 'Iliad' is at once simple & pathetic & ‘Odyssey’, complex & ethical. Moreover,in diction & thought, they surpass all other poems. The epic, like tragedy, requires reversals of the situation, recognition & scenes of suffering.

Epic can be greater in length than tragedy. Unlike tragedy, an epic action should have no limit in time. It is the special advantage of epic that it may be of considerable length. In tragedy, it isn't possible to represent several parts of the story as taking palce simultaneously. Epic poetry, on the contrary, is able to represent several incidents that are taking place simultaneously. And if these incidents are relevant, they increase the gravity of the poems & also relieve the poems of monotony & dullness.

Epic represents the life of an entire period & relates an action concerning the fortunes or destiny of a nation.

The marvellous has a function in epic . The irrational on which the wonderful depends for its chief effects,has a wider scope in epic poetry because there the persons' acting ain't visible. The pursuit of Hector by Achilles in Homer's 'The Ilaid' before the Greeks, standing still & watching the scene with passive interest, would be simply laughable on the stage, whereas in the epic the absurdity passes unnoticed.

In the final chapter of poetics Aristotle raises the question whether the epic or the tragic drama is the higher form of imitation. According to him , the better form of art is less vulgar & the less vulgar is always that which is designed to appeal to the better type of audience . Now it's obvious that the form that appeals everyone is extremely vulgar. Thus epic is said to appeal to cultivated readers who don't need the help of visible forms, while tragedy appeals to meaner minds. If ,then, it is a vulgar art, it is obviously inferior to epic.

But this accusation can be defended by saying that the tragic drama can achieve its end without the help of action. Like epics, the quality of a tragic drama can be staged, while tragic drama can be staged as well as recited. Moreover, the disadvantage that tragic drama appeals to meaner minds can be compensated by the other respects in which tragedy is definitely superior.

The second accusation inherent to tragedy is that when the performers act on the stage ,they sometimes do a great deal of unnecessary movements. The performers can't act the parts of respectable women.

The flute players can't do their job properly. And the older actors always criticize the younger.But this kind of arguing is a criticism of acting, not of poetry , for it is also possible for a bard to exaggerate his gestures while reciting, & for a singer too.

The tragic drama is also superior because it has all the epic elements, while epic doesn't have all the elements of tragedy. Tragic drama may even employ the epic metre ,& it has the additional attraction of music & spectacular effects which are the sources of distinct feeling of pleasure. Then the effect is as vivid when a play is need as when it is acted.

Aristotle is a teleologian, the upholder of the theory that everything has a purpose to fulfill. The purpose of a poetic imitation is to give pleasure. In this respect, tragic drama achieves its ends in shorter compass, and what is more compact gives more pleasure than what is extended over a long period . For example, if the play 'Oedipus Rex' by Sophocles was cast in a form as long as the epic ''The Iliad' , the effect of the play would greatly be diminished. An epic has less unity than a tragedy. An epic can furnish subject for several tragedies & this shows that , then, is less unity in an epic poem.

Concluding his discussion Aristotle says that if tragedy is superior to epic in all these respects , it fulfills its artistic function in achieving its end better than epic. It must be the better form of art & also fulfilling its artistic function then, obviously, in achieving its ends better than epic; it must be the better form.