Why is poetry more philosophic than history? This is what Aristotle claims in his Poetics.
We can begin with the idea that poetry is mimetic or imitative, just as all human art is. For instance, a cup copies or imitates the way natural vessels hold water. Consider the shape of lakes, ponds, streams, or perhaps the human hand.
In such a case, the mimesis is imitative of shape, of outward form. Such imitation can be very beauty and often useful. But its excellence in its physical shape.
As an aside sculpture, painting, and all visual media may do more than merely represent physical form, if and too the extent that the physical form is capable of communicating or reminding us of what is not merely physical. The body, after all, signifies the soul and all its qualities, and the world too is, as Hopkins and David say “full of grandeur.” Textures, colors, and composition all may evoke much more than physical forms. But to return…
Portraiture, which captures the likeness of a subject is therefore excellent insofar as it reproduces such morphic likeness.
And for a similar reason, History gets its peculiar excellence by being a record of events; it stands and falls on its faithfulness to chronology and the relations of events in time. That is, when we speak of history as such (which is why most history novels are not ‘pure’ history).
Yet, even while history is meaningful and not sheerly accidental, we by no means comprehend its meaning through every single part. For instance, we do not ask whether some military general brushed his teeth before he went to battle or what kind of sweaters Einstein liked. These details gain relevance as humanizing anecdotes and sometimes illuminate an aspect of an event, but they can by no means be considered as essential. World War I did not begin because Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had a comb-over, any more than because of some horseshoe nail.
It is in poetry alone that order approaches the absolute, that cause and intelligibility, rather than accident, unequivocally underlie the structure. Thus we can discuss the opening lines of a book for days, perhaps for a lifetime. We can ask why an author chose such a word; we can wonder why such an event was necessary for a text or character and what it reveals:
Why does Odysseus see Nausicca and land on Phaeacia before he returns home? Why does it matter that Queequeg is an islander? Why does Genesis end in Egypt or Deuteronomy in the wilderness? Why is Dumbledore silent for so long and why does he speak when he does? What is the significance of the island in Nesbit’s Magic city?
These questions are without end, but are also fruitful, particularly with well fashioned work. In fact, the criteria of well fashioned work for Aristotle is its unity, characterized by parts that cohere causally–not as dominoes, but in forming the structure of a single organic reality.
With this in mind, readers of the Iliad might wonder: if the poem is about Achilles and his anger, why do we hear so much back story about other men, their homes, their longings, their lives? Why the catalog of the ships? Why the long discussion of the shield?
Aristotle suggests that poetry is not about the particular but the universal. But by this he cannot not mean man-abstract. He does not mean that poetry is about a species abstracted from history and reality, but about what is most universal to historical-man, to real men and women who live and long, who rejoice and suffer in time.
Thus if Achilles is most miserable of men because he is mortal, his misery is perhaps more intelligible and close to us for this very reason. And if Achilles’s anger and the harm it causes (we might question who is harmed most of all) is a human harm, than our knowledge of human life is then necessarily caught up in the plot.
The glory of Homer is an austere glory, but also a humble one, full of rivers, fields, the crafts and practices of mankind, our wiles, our kindness, our wisdom and folly. Thus the catalog, the histories, the little poetic interludes which reflect upon genealogy, home, nation, ritual, etc., remind us what it is to consider a fully human reality. Because the action of the poem is truly human, so must be its context, its parts. It is in such a context that we understand the significance of the “will of Zeus” and its accomplishment.
And for this reason, Book VI has always been considered a masterpiece, central to the narrative. It is not some domestic interlude, merely episodic and quaint. Yet, rather than focus on Hector and Andromache, we can consider an earlier exchange, that of Glaucus and Diomedes.
In that pericope, two men on opposite sides of battle confront one another. Diomedes questions who Glaucus is and whether he is a mortal. Glaucus by no means denies his mortality, but questions why it matters (in one of the most remarkable figures in literature). He describing the generations of men as leaves on a tree which continually fall to the ground only to be replaced by others later. What use is it to inquire, asks Glaucus, when human history is of such little consequence?
But the poem and the Glaucus’s narrative contradict this image, even as it is offered to us. Somehow the image is in its despair infused with the richness of poetic glory. For Glaucus goes on to recount the various generations of his own lineage, the suffering and glories, which his line (as so many) represents. Themes present in the whole (the Iliad) are present in this part, this poem writ small. And what is discovered is that these two men and their histories indeed intersect, for their fathers are guest-friends. The wound which runs throughout this poem is in some small manner countenanced here.
Something more underlies their relation than that of two strangers on the field of battle. And further, they have discovered this because of memory. Because those leaves are not forgotten, because human glory, when it is remembered, is not simply something which is swept away nu time, there is more in their meeting. They meet in some way much like their fathers, under the banner of fellowship.
This in fact is a problem of the poem writ small, the problem of mortality, of glory, of friendship and fidelity amid the short span of life we have. It is the problem of fame, memory, and insignificance. Yet, readers of the poem today see that poetry itself has lent some lasting quality to those realities; poetry through the power of memory and human craft elevate us above the accidents of time. This is why it is is more philosophic.
Of course, one might argue that the poet does not create the universal, that the poet is not escaping the accidents of time, but revealing that such accidents are not truly accidental.
In that case, the poet may be capable of speaking more truly than the historian only because he acts as the true historian, that is if history is itself authored as an “exquisite poem” by a Poet of supreme genius. But because no man can read such a vast work in total or with perfect fidelity, we need one of smaller size that we might grasp what is intelligible. We need a figure, a shield or aegis, to remind us of the whole. We need a part which is itself somehow the whole–a microcosm.