Aristotle’s concept of Imitation

Aristotle’s concept of Imitation

The word imitation has great importance in English literature. Aristotle, while defending poetry, explains the meaning of this word. Although is not first, who used this word yet he renewed its meaning. Before Aristotle, the word “imitation” was used in terms of copying things. It is Plato, who has used this word for the first time. He has said that poetry is the shadow of a shadow, thus, it is twice away from reality. It is better to understand the concept of imitation as demonstrated by Plato before discussing that how Aristotle redefined the meaning of this word.

Plato is against poetry and poets. He says that the poets present copy of nature in form of poetry. He quotes the example of a painter and says that a painter first sees the nature and then creates its copy on the canvas. Plato is of the view that the world has been created from an idea; the idea is an original thing, whereas this world is its copy. For instance, when a carpenter builds a chair, he has an idea in his mind to build it but when the same is built, it is a copy; the original thing is in the mind of carpenter but the chair is its copy. Similarly, God has created the world from the idea of His mind, therefore, it is not original but copy of the same. A poet, when writes poetry, imitates nature in shape of poetry and makes copy of a copy, therefore, it becomes twice away from reality. In this way, the poets sell lies to the readers.

Aristotle answers Plato and refutes the charge against poets. He also redefines the meaning of imitation. The whole concept of idea and copy remains the same; in simple words, Aristotle agrees that the Supreme has created the world from an idea, which is in His mind and the world is its copy but he does not consider poetry a lie. He also agrees that a poet imitates the reality/nature but the meaning of word imitation does not mean mere copy; imitation is a creative process in the eyes of Aristotle. He links poetry with music instead of painting. He says that poetry is pleasant just like a flute’s sound that is full of harmony, therefore, it is not right to compare poets with painter and poetry with painting. A poet, further says Aristotle, does not present things as they appear but bestows them his imagination. Hence, poetry is not the process of seeing things and simply converting it to words; a poet reinvents the things while mixing elements of his imagination and experiences in it.  Aristotle writes:-

“objects which in themselves we view with disgust, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and dead bodies.”

Thus, poetry is more philosophical, more conducive to understanding than philosophy itself. He further says:-

“idealised representation of character, emotion, action—under forms manifest in sense.”

Thus, a poet does not tell a lie. He imitates things from his mental power which can touch the senses, therefore he brings the nature close to reality.

Aristotle further describes the mode of imitation. First chapter of the poetics is relevant in this regard, in which Aristotle tries to explain the mode of imitation. Important portion is reproduced as under:-

“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, objects and the manner or mode of imitation, being in each case distinct.”

There are three modes of imitation in the eyes of Aristotle: tragedy, comedy and epic poetry. Aristotle further says that poetry presents “Men in action”. In tragedy and poetry, the manner of poet is action, whereas in the remaining one, his manner is narrative. Supernatural elements cannot be shown in dramatic forms on the stage, therefore, they can be included in epic poetry. Tragedy presents men better then are but comedy presents them worse; the purpose remains the same and it is to imitate things with the power of imagination. Aristotle has not mentioned the third form of poetry. Critics have raised objection on it. They say that Aristotle is not aware with the third form i.e. reality. Many dramatists, in the modern world, are presenting realism in dramas but it does not mean that they have no creative power. Though reality is being presented yet there are feelings and emotions in it. Moreover, emotions and feelings can only be added if the poet/dramatist has a good imaginative power. A true poet illustrates the pain and sorrows of life, which are real but it always touches the senses.

If imitation is the procedure of presentation of facts then there is no creativity in writing poetry. Aristotle further argues that a poet presents men in action. He presents men as they were or are or as they ought to be. If men are being presented as they were without any blend of imagination and creative power then it is not poetry but history. Creativity differentiates the history from poetry. A historian may also write about the sorrows and pains, suffered by humans, but it will not touch the senses. Strong power of imagination is required to convert ordinary and simple incidents to extraordinary events so that they can touch the senses and become highly effective.

The upshot of the above discussion is that Aristotle has encouraged the poets while blowing new soul to the word “imitation”. Plato’s charges against the poets have been successfully refuted by Aristotle in his book “Poetics”. He has shown the world that imitation is not the procedure of copying things but it is a creative process, which requires high imaginative power; therefore, in the eyes of Aristotle, imitation is not the procedure of duplicating things but to create something astonishing from ordinary things while using strong vision. A poet, hence, through imitation brings things closer to reality instead of taking them away twice.

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