Theory and criticism: Aristotle :on imitation in poetry

According to Aristotle poetic imitation is not a mere act of servile copying, but it is an act of imaginative creation by which the poet, drawing his material from the phenomenal world, makes something new out of it. Poetry shifts and orders its material, disregards the non essential, the purely accidental, and thus gives us the universal. In this way, it achieves a higher reality, even higher than nature.

 Imitation: The Common Basis of All the Arts

In Aristotle’s view it is the principle of imitation which unites poetry with the other fine arts. While Plato had equated poetry with painting, Aristotle equates it with music. It no longer remains a mere servile representation of the appearance of things, but in his theory it becomes a representation of the passions, and emotions of men, which are also imitated by music. Thus Aristotle by his theory enlarged the scope of imitation. The poet imitates not the surface of things but the higher reality embedded within. As the emotions are also the objects of imitation of music, poetry has close affinities with music. It is a mistake to compare poetry with painting as Plato did, it is more akin to music.

In the very first chapter of the Poetics, Aristotle says, “Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy, also and Dithyrambic poetry, as also the music of the flute and the lyre in most of their forms, are in their general conception modes of imitation. They differ, however, from one another in three respects—their medium, the objects, and the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.” Thus the medium of the poet and the painter are different. The one imitates through forms and colour, and the other through language, rhythm and harmony. The musician imitates through rhythm and harmony. In this way, poetry is nearer to music than painting. Further, the manner of a poet may be purely narrative as in the Epic, or representation through action, as in drama. Thus different kinds of poetry differ from each other in their manner of imitation. Even dramatic poetry is differentiated into tragedy and comedy, accordingly as it imitates men as better or worse.

As regards the objects of imitation, Aristotle says that the objects of poetic imitation are “men of action,” The poet may imitate “men as they were or are, or as they ought to be.” In other words, he may represent men either as better than in real life or worse or as they are. This means that according to Aristotle’s theory, imitation is not a mere photographic representation of the surface of things, but is a creative process. The poet selects and orders his material and in this way re-creates reality. He can represent men better than in real life. Thus he gives us a truth of an ideal or universal kind; he tells us not what men are but what they can be or what they ought to be. His mind is not tied to reality: “It is not function of the poet to relate what has happened but what may happen—according to the laws of probability or necessity.” History tells us what actually happened, poetry what may happen. Poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. In this way, he demonstrates the superiority of poetry over history. The poet freed from the tyranny of facts, takes a larger or generalized view of things, represents the universal in and through the particular and so shares the philosopher’s quest for ultimate truth. There is a universal element in great poetry, and hence its permanent appeal. He thus equates poetry with philosophy and shows that both are means to a higher truth, both contribute to a better understanding of man and his life.

The object of the poet’s imitation are “men in action”, or the actions of men. The action may be external or may be internal. It may be the action within the soul caused by all that befalls a man. In this way, he brings human experiences, emotions and passions—alt that happens or is likely to happen to man—within the scope of poetic imitation.
Tragedy and epic represent men on a heroic scale, better than they are, and comedy represents men of a lower type, worse than they are. Aristotle does not discuss the third possibility. It means that poetry does not aim at photographic realism.


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