Guest post by Timothy E.G. Bartel
The Ancient world must have been a great place to be a storyteller. The mythic quests of heroes, the horror of monstrous beasts, the dark schemes of gods—these were the bread and butter of the ancient storyteller. And from the Odyssey of Homer to the Mahabharata of India and the Gilgamesh epic of Babylon, there was a single technology for all storytelling—the poem.
Aristotle’s Story Rules
We have the philosopher Aristotle to thank for giving us the inside scoop on how ancient poets told their stories. In his book Poetics, written around the 4th century B.C., Aristotle says that there are basically three story-forms—or genres—in which a poet can write: Epic, Tragedy, and Comedy. To these story-forms, Aristotle added a fourth genre, lyric, which didn’t tell stories so much as lament lost love or praise the gods. But the genre that Aristotle was really interested in was Tragedy.
Tragedy, Aristotle explains, is all about the plot. A tragic plot is simple: a man of high standing falls to a low standing (or even dies) due to some error or personal flaw. For a poem to truly be a Tragedy, according to Aristotle, this fall can’t be a random coincidence—it has to be caused by the tragic flaw of the tragic hero.
So far, Aristotle’s description of Tragedy seems like it could happen in any medium—a film, a novel, even a video game. But what is unique to a poetic tragedy is that it is written in the form of a play, with each line of dialogue in a specific poetic rhythm: iambic meter. Aristotle explains that iambic meter, which in English consists of repeating patterns of unstressed and stressed syllables, is actually closest to how most people talk. Thus the poet who uses this meter will make their dialogue sound like real conversation.
Epic Meter and Tragic Meter
If you’re going to recount the mythic deeds of a hero in an Epic poem Aristotle has a meter for that as well. It’s called dactylic hexameter, and it consists of a repeating three-syllable pattern: stressed, unstressed, unstressed. Lest this just seem like a random rule, let’s look at an example of tragic meter and epic meter in action. First, here are two lines of iambic meter from a Shakespearean tragedy:
Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (Hamlet 5.2)
The rhythm and length of these lines, spoken to the dying Hamlet by his best friend, work well to express a sorrowful farewell. Now compare them to these lines from Longfellow’s hexameter epic Evangeline:
Vain was the hope of escape; and cries and fierce imprecations
Rang through the house of prayer; and high o’er the heads of the others
Rose, with his arms uplifted, the figure of Basil the blacksmith,
As, on a stormy sea, a spar is tossed by the billows.
Longer, more detailed, and more throbbing with menace than Shakespeare’s iambic meter, Longfellow’s hexameter captures the drama of a scene that is about to break out into violence.
As minor as they may seem to us, we have Aristotle’s rules to thank for the greatest stories of the Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance worlds. Among the poems influenced by them are Vigril’s Aeneid, the passion plays of the early church, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the tragedies of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Thus, after Aristotle defined their relationship, poems and stories were inseparable for over two thousand years.
How does this play into long form storytelling, like the novel? Stay tuned for Part 2!
Want to read more? Check out “Castle in the Sky: Breaking from Character Cliches” or “Four Tips for Developing a Story Bible.”
Timothy E. G. Bartel is a poet and educator who currently serves as Assistant Professor of Literature at Houston Baptist University. His poems and translations have appeared in such publications as Christianity and Literature, Dreams and Nightmares, Pilgrimage, Relief, and Saint Katherine Review. His first book of poems is The Martyr, The Grizzly, The Gold (Damascene Press, 2012), and his second, Arroyos, is forthcoming this spring (Mariscat Press, 2015). Timothy is the founding editor of Californios Review, which features new writing from West Coast writers.