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Thursday, October 24, 2013


The distinction between narrative, lyric, and drama is often attributed to Plato. But look what he actually says (bold parts are most relevant):
You know the first lines of the Iliad, in which the poet says that Chryses prayed Agamemnon to release his daughter, and that Agamemnon flew into a passion with him; whereupon Chryses, failing of his object, invoked the anger of the God against the Achaeans. Now as far as these lines,

‘And he prayed all the Greeks, but especially the two sons of Atreus, the chiefs of the people,’

the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is any one else. But in what follows he takes the person of Chryses, and then he does all that he can to make us believe that the speaker is not Homer, but the aged priest himself. And in this double form he has cast the entire narrative of the events which occurred at Troy and in Ithaca and throughout the Odyssey.


And a narrative it remains both in the speeches which the poet recites from time to time and in the intermediate passages?

Quite true.

Epic poetry has an element of imitation in the speeches; the rest is simple narrative.

But when the poet speaks in the person of another, may we not say that he assimilates his style to that of the person who, as he informs you, is going to speak?


And this assimiliation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture, is the imitation of the person whose character he assumes?

Of course.

Then in this case the narrative of the poet may be said to proceed by way of imitation?

Very true.

Or, if the poet everywhere appears and never conceals himself, then again the imitation is dropped, and his poetry becomes simple narration. However, in order that I may make my meaning quite clear, and that you may no more say, ‘I don’t understand,’ I will show how the change might be effected. If Homer had said, ‘The priest came, having his daughter’s ransom in his hands, supplicating the Achaeans, and above all the kings;’ and then if, instead of speaking in the person of Chryses, he had continued in his own person, the words would have been, not imitation, but simple narration. The passage would have run as follows (I am no poet, and therefore I drop the metre), ‘The priest came and prayed the gods on behalf of the Greeks that they might capture Troy and return safely home, but begged that they would give him back his daughter, and take the ransom which he brought, and respect the God. Thus he spoke, and the other Greeks revered the priest and assented. But Agamemnon was wroth, and bade him depart and not come again, lest the staff and chaplets of the God should be of no avail to him—the daughter of Chryses should not be released, he said—she should grow old with him in Argos. And then he told him to go away and not to provoke him, if he intended to get home unscathed. And the old man went away in fear and silence, and, when he had left the camp, he called upon Apollo by his many names, reminding him of everything which he had done pleasing to him, whether in building his temples, or in offering sacrifice, and praying that his good deeds might be returned to him, and that the Achaeans might expiate his tears by the arrows of the god,’—and so on. In this way the whole becomes simple narrative.

I understand, he said.

Tragedy and Comedy are wholly imitative; dithyrambic and some other kinds of poetry are devoid of imitation. Epic poetry is a combination of the two.

Or you may suppose the opposite case—that the intermediate passages are omitted, and the dialogue only left.

That also, he said, I understand; you mean, for example, as in tragedy.
What Plato is saying is there are three modes of literary or poetic discourse. One is pure narration, or single-voiced speech, one pure imitation (the absence of a narrative voice) and a third, mixed mode. He doesn't call the single-voiced discourse "lyric," but simply says that is might be found in "dithyrambic and other sorts of poetry." The way he demonstrates single voiced narrative is through Homer (the parts where nobody else is speaking). It seems that the mention of dithyrambic poetry is a mere afterthought, since his main interest is in narration itself. Also notice that imitation is literally imitation of other speakers, not representation or depiction. (Aristotle, in contrast, will say the all poetry and even music are mimetic.)


Vance Maverick said...

What is this "simple narration" he speaks of? Not to take anything away from Plato, obviously, but this is inadequate even to the way ordinary pop music listeners treat the words of songs. The identification of speaker with singer is something to play with.

Vance Maverick said...

Simple historical example: "The House of the Rising Sun". In Dylan's version (I don't know the original), the speaker is one of the girls, but when the Animals covered it, the house became the ruin of many a young boy instead.

Jonathan said...

Presumably Plato knew the rhapsode was not Homer. The question is not the identity of author and performer, but a more simple one: whether there is one "voice" in the text or various.