October 11, 1999
The Value of Art:
Imitation, Creation and Truth in
Plato and Wordsworth
For both Plato and Wordsworth, the key to regarding art, specifically poetry, lies in the relationship between the poem and its inspiration. The relationship of the poem itself to the truth it endeavors to represent, as well as the process by which the artist creates art from inspiration, determine the nature and the value of the poem. Where Plato and Wordsworth disagree is in the nature of this relationship between art, truth, process, and artist; therefore their conclusions differ greatly on the nature and the value of poetry.
In Plato’s view art is purely mimetic, or imitative (in fact, the word mimesis comes from the Greek word for "imitation"). Poetry, then, is a mere copy, a "mirror" held up to reality. In Book X of the Republic, Plato has Socrates explain that the world of the material is an imitation of the world of the Ideal; art, as a copy of the material world, is yet another imitation. "I think," he writes in the Republic," that we may fairly designate him [the artist] as the imitator of that which others make" (Richter 22).
Wordsworth’s view of poetry is also mimetic—poetry reflects reality—but it is in fact a very different stance on poetry than Plato’s, as it holds that poetry is not purely mimesis. For Wordsworth, art is both imitative and creative; the artist works not only from imitation of perception, but from "…both what they half-create, / and what perceive …" (Lines, lines 107-108). Poetry is not simply a mirror that reflects what it is placed in front of, but a method of producing and interpreting the reality or the meaning behind those images.
These two basic foundations of what poetry is ultimately define how poetry relates to truth. Plato’s view of a three-tiered structure—from the true world of the Ideal, to the copy world of the material, to the next copy world of the artistic—sets up poetry as twice-removed from the Ideal, an imitation of an imitation. Poetry does not bring us closer to but leads us away from the spiritual truth of the world of Ideas. The poet in fact is so far removed from the original that there is no truth in his work: "Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators, who copy images of virtue and the other themes of their poetry, but have no contact with the truth?" (Richter 24).
Wordsworth, on the other hand, believes the opposite. He holds that poetry actually brings us closer to truth, that through the artistic process, the poet actually becomes closer to the truth, which actually lies within rather than without us—in how the poet’s mind works. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth explains that his aim in writing the poems contained in the volume was "to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature … " (Brett and Jones 245). These "primary laws" correspond directly with Plato’s world of Ideas, the concepts and workings which shape our existence. The poet, though, for Wordsworth has a completely different relationship to this world than does the poet for Plato—he delves into this world rather than separating himself from it.
Key to this relationship, as mentioned above, is the artistic process; this process is another element which distinguishes between Plato and Wordsworth’s views of poetry. Plato argues that poetry follows immediately upon inspiration, that there is no time for thought, indeed that the poets are as possessed when they create. In Ion he writes:
Thus for Plato the creation of poetry is immediate; there is virtually no artistic process. Wordsworth, however, adds an extensive process of thought to initial inspiration. He contends that the poet is indeed possessed by inspiration, but that the poet then undergoes a period of "emotion reflected in tranquillity" (Brett and Jones 266). Yes, poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," but it is more importantly produced by a poet "who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply" (Brett and Jones, page 246). Wordsworth continues:
It is this connection between the inspiration of feeling and the direction of thought which is at the heart of Wordsworth’s view of poetry, and which ultimately separates it from Plato’s view of poetry as simple imitation; for it adds a depth of meaning and truth—"what is really important to men"—to art that does not exist in the superficial mimesis of Plato.
This is why, while Plato considers poetry to be all but worthless (except in special cases, such as in praise of gods and heroes), Wordsworth ultimately holds poetry at a high value. For Plato, poetry is a trivial imitation of an imitation, an "inferior who from intercourse with an inferior has inferior offspring" (Richter 26). Poetry has no value, as it does not represent truth; and as it does not represent truth, it is in fact harmful humanity. Plato writes that art is "engaged upon productions which are far removed from truth, and are also the companions and friends and associates of a principle within us which is equally removed from reason, and that they have no true or healthy aim" (Richter 26). And as his poetry is inferior, so is the poet, who contributes nothing to the good of humanity, inferior. Plato writes "And is it conceivable that the contemporaries of Homer, and again of Hesiod, would have allowed either of them to go about as rhapsodists, if they had really been able to help mankind forward in virtue?" (Richter 24). For Wordsworth, however, poetry is just the opposite: it takes us right to the heart of truth, and therefore is invaluable to mankind. As the one who finds this truth, the poet is
a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe … (Brett and Jones 256)
Thus Wordsworth’s poet, and his value, are defined by the poet’s central understanding of the Universe and its Ideas, while Plato’s is dismissed as he skirts the edges grasping at copies of copies of the true nature of the Ideal world. This brings us back to the beginning of the Republic, in which Plato starts with an assertion that it is indeed appropriate for the State to refuse to admit imitative poetry; and to the beginning of the Preface in which Wordsworth explains that his aim in writing his new style of poetry is to steer society away from the savage torpor which popular culture has bred. Plato’s poet is expendable because he can offer nothing to society; but for Wordsworth, it is the poet who can save society.
Brett, R.L., and A.R. Jones, eds. Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads, second edition. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, second edition. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.