Plato was the first to use the word imitation in connection with poetry, but Aristotle breathed into it a new and definite meaning, so that poetic imitation is no longer considered a mere act of servile copying, but is regarded as an act of imaginative creation by which the poet, drawing his material from the phenomenal world, makes something new out of it.
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. Imitation is the common basis of all the fine arts. While Plato had equated poetry with painting, Aristotle equates it with music. It no longer remains a mere servile representation of the surface or 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.
Imitation : Medium and Manner
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.
Poetic Imitation : Its Objects
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 generalised 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.
Scope of Imitation
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.
Poetry may imitate men as better or worse than they are in real life, or it may imitate them as they really are. 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.
Comparison with Plato’s view
Aristotle by his theory of imitation answers the charge of Plato that poetry is an imitation of “shadow of shadows”, thrice removed from truth and that the poet beguiles us with lies. Plato condemned poetry on the ground that in the very nature of things poets can have no idea of truth. The phenomenal world is not the reality, but a copy of the reality in the mind of the Supreme. The poet imitates this copy, the object and phenomena of the world, which are shadowy and unreal. Hence, Plato concluded that poetry is thrice removed from reality, it being a mere, ‘shadow or shadow of shadows.’ The poets have no knowledge of truth, they are liars, and deceive us with the lies which they tell in their poetry. Poetry, therefore, is “the mother of lies.”
Aristotle, on the contrary, tells us that art imitates not the mere show of things, but the ‘ideal reality,’ embodied in every object of the world. The process of nature is a ‘creative process’; everywhere in, ‘nature there is a ceaseless and upward progress’, everything in nature is constantly growing and moving up, and the poet imitates this upward movement of nature. Art reproduces the original not as it is, but it appears to the senses, i.e., it is reproduced imaginatively. Art moves in a world of images, and reproduces the external, according to the idea or image in his mind. Thus the poet does not copy the external world, but creates according to his ‘idea’ of it. Thus even an ugly object well-imitated becomes a source of pleasure. We are told in the Poetics, “objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity : such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and dead bodies.” Thus is so because of the imaginative colouring of reality in the process of poetic imitation.
Thus Aristotle successfully and finally refuted the charges of Plato, and provided a defence of poetry which has ever since been used by lovers of poetry in justification of their Muse. He breathed new life and soul into the concept of poetic imitation, enlarged its scope, and showed that it is, in reality, a creative process.