In ‘Aristotle’ Collins explores the three major themes of beginnings, middles, and ends. These are represented by the different sections of the poem and the images Collins crafts within them. Some of these images are automatically relatable and clear examples of the section, others are more obscure and require research to understand.
Summary of Aristotle
He speaks on the beginnings of a written work in the first stanza, like the one the reader is engaged within that moment as well as the beginnings of life. There are images associated with creationism and evolution, as well as life dramas and disasters.
The second section is about the middle of all things. It is the “thick” of the action. This section is where the climbers climb to their deaths, people fight, have revelations, and experience change.
In the last lines, he alludes to the fates of Pope Clement I and Sylvia Plath. He also speaks of Aristotle. The “end” is the place we have all been waiting to end up. It is there that everything converges.
You can read the full poem here at Poetry Foundation.
Structure of Aristotle
‘Aristotle’ by Billy Collins is a three-stanza poem that is divided into one set of twenty-six lines, one set of twenty-five, and one of twenty-three. As is common in Billy Collins’ writing, he does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length and number of syllables. But, that does not mean they are without poetic devices.
The poem is separated into three distinct sections. This was done intentionally to reference the philosopher Aristotle and his contributions to the poetic structure. Each section is filled with imagery related to either the beginning, middle or end.
For example, in the “beginning” there are “climbers studying a map” and “you” who have “not yet learned to crawl”. Things are just starting out, they are only beginning. In the middle, there are “Cities…sprouted up along the rivers” and “the thick of things”. We are in the middle, seeing and experiencing the world at its peak. Last, there is the end, which is filled with images like “Sylvia Plath in the kitchen” where she was to commit suicide and “the empty wheelchair”.
Poetic Techniques in Aristotle
Collins makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Aristotle’. These include, but are not limited to, anaphora, accumulation, alliteration, and enjambment. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “thick of things” in the second stanza.
Collins also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. There are a few examples in this poem that help emphasize another technique, accumulation. They can be seen through the use and reuse of the word “This,” “where,” and “what” at the beginning of multiple lines in all three stanzas.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines seven and eight of the second stanza.
Accumulation is a literary device that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings. In a poem, story, or novel, these words are grouped together or appear scattered throughout a work. They collect or pile up, and a theme, image, sensation, or deeper meaning is revealed. Each stanza of this poem is a great example of this technique. They all gather together imagery to create an atmosphere that feels either like the beginning, middle, or end.
Analysis of Aristotle
In the first lines of ‘Aristotle’, the speaker begins by announcing that “this is the beginning”. This is a reference to the structure that contains this piece. The first twenty-six lines contain images that reference the beginning of things. It is where “Almost anything can happen” as nothing has been set in stone. There are no rules dictating who or what one can be.
It is in the beginning that one can find the following images. There is the “creation of light,” a reference to the creation of all things, perhaps alluding to the bible or other creation stories. Alternatively, it could also be referencing the Big Bang.
He also presents an image of a “fish wriggling onto land”. This alludes to the process of evolution and how we, as human beings, came from the sea. In a lovely transition, he speaks of “the first word of Paradise Lost,” Milton’s masterpiece about the war between Heaven and Hell.
Other images of the beginning follow. They are “the letter A,” at the start of the alphabet as well as the beginning of a play. There is the introduction of a narrator and “climbers…studying a map”. These are all, as is this part of the poem itself, symbols of beginnings.
In the next lines, the speaker continues accumulating beginning-related images. He is thinking of time “early on, years before” the creation of the Ark by Noah in the Bible. The speaker thinks about cave painting and “you” who have yet to learn to crawl. By addressing the reader here he is bringing us into the poem with him. He is acknowledging that everything had a beginning even “you”.
The images continue to build up. He uses synonyms for the beginning like “opening” and repetition to emphasize “your first night” with or without “her”. Tension and expectation build in this stanza. This is assisted by the use of anaphora.
Very clearly, the speaker announces that the next section is “the middle”. As was the case in the first stanza, this stanza is filled with imagery related to “middle” things. It is when “Things had had time to get complicated” and even “messy”. The simplicity of the beginning is lost and now there are countless cities and people.
Everyone words at “cross-purposes” seeking out their own futures and trying to enact their “schemes”. These lines are more chaotic and jumbled. The “plot congeals,” drawing the reader in and maybe the “action suddenly reverses”.
There are wonderful moments in this section in which the speaker alludes to other stories and narratives, each of which is right in the middle of playing out. Each of these moments is meant to stimulate a reader’s imagination and make them wonder about the individual stories. But, more than anything, convey to them the feeling of middle-ness.
In the second half of the stanza, the poet speaks about the “aria” in musical composition and what it might bring. The lines move quickly, with Colins making use of em-dashes and enjambment to carry this “middle” section onward. This is the “bridge” of the poem, it is the “thick of things”. The use of alliteration in this line and its relative shortness compare to the lines around it, allows it to stick out. It is emphasized as a representative of “the middle”.
The poet brings back to the “climbing party”. When in the first stanza they were just preparing to climb, now they are “stuck on a ledge / halfway up the mountain”. The stanza concludes with the phrase “too much to name, too much to think about”. This is very much the mood that these lines convey.
As one might expect, the final stanza of ‘Aristotle’ begins with a reference to “the end”. It is the conclusion to this three-part poem, but it contains some of the most moving imagery. The third line is especially interesting as the poet describes the “river losing its name in an ocean”.
Collins presents a number of images like this one throughout the text that gives a reader a new way of thinking about endings but also of seeing endings everywhere. “The last elephant in the parade” and “me hitting the period” are two other powerful examples. The latter alludes, again, to this actual piece of poetry. When he hits the final period it will end. It symbolizes in itself an ending. The climbers are mentioned for the last time, unfortunately now “in their graves”.
The final lines of the poem bring in Sylvia Plath. This is one of the allusions Collins makes use of that might not make sense without context. Plath, who is described as “in the kitchen” represents the end. It was in her kitchen that she committed suicide. Similarly, he mentions St. Clements. He was Pope of the catholic church from 88 AD to 99 AD and was executed by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea. He is now considered to be a patron saint of mariners.
Aristotle is mentioned in the eighteenth line, reminding the reader that this whole poem came about due to his contributions to the poetic structure.
The end is “all” we have been “waiting for” and “what everything comes down to”. It is the pat of life, the destination, the final lines of the poem that we “cannot help imagining”. The poem ends gracefully and softly with the image of falling leaves, rather than one of death and darkness.