Aristotle took the word “imitation” from Plato, but read a new and wider significance into it. However, his theory of imitation, too, is not without difficulties. It includes both presentation of objects with a photographic realism and the reproduction of emotional states which cannot be realistic in a photographic sense. It includes presentation, both idealistic and caricature. Aristotle does not fully explain or resolve the ambiguities involved in the term, “imitation”. As a consequence, his theory requires extension and limitations.
Aristotle declares that poetry imitates men in action. Such a statement seems to exclude all expressive or lyrical forms of poetry which apparently do not seelc to imitate men in action. The theory seems to fit the representational or the dramatic mode alone. In this context, the theory of imitation has to be extended by trying to understand its implications. The actions of men are really the external manifestation of their inner motives—feelings, passion, thoughts and will. The phrase “imitation of men in action” can be understood as imitation of the inner forces which determine a man’s behaviour. Thus Aristotle’s theory can be extended to include lyric as well, for this form “imitates” the feelings and emotions of man.
The idea of “imitation” in literature was rather uncertainly suggested by Aristotle, as Graham Hough remarks. Aristotle suggests that it is the “mimetic quality” which distinguishes poetry from other forms of discourse. But actually, the point is not that literature imitates objects in the real world—for that is done even by history and scientific writing. The .point is that literature creates fictitious objects. The “mimetic quality” that distinguishes poetry from history is clearly not imitative in the sense of presenting actual facts which exist or have happened in the world around us. It is the fictional or imaginary quality which differentiates poetry from history. It is thus that Homer ‘imitates’ the shield of Achilles though no such shield has ever existed. Thus the “imitation” involved in literature is concerned not so much with things “as they are” as with things which “can be” or .ought to be”.