Imitation and Awakening:
Mimesis in Aristotelian and Romantic Literature
Both Aristotle and Wordsworth agree on the basic nature of the poet; he is an imitator of human life. Aristotle holds that "the capacity to produce an imitation is the essential characteristic of the poet"(Richter 43), and Wordsworth concurs by saying that a poet "describes and imitates" (Wordsworth 256). However, imitation, or mimesis, represents only a vague principle on which the form of art is based. While the form of poetry is heavily discussed and developed by Aristotle and Wordsworth, it is also impossible for us to understand their art without understanding that art pushes beyond its form to manifest an operative function effecting man individually and society in general.
The similarities of form and function between the Aristotelian and the Romantic poem are actually based on a difference of opinion between Aristotle and Wordsworth in regards to what exactly it is that art imitates. For Aristotle, poetry is a mimetic hierarchy in which "the most important of [its] parts is the arrangement of the incidents; for tragedy is not an imitation of men, per se, but of human action and life and happiness, and misery"(Wordsworth 46). It is almost assumed in this passage that in order to imitate the thoughts and emotions of a human being, it is necessary to imitate his actions. In fact, the dramatization of emotion cannot be done any other way.
Wordsworth agrees with Aristotle’s tacit point: that ultimately poetry should depict human emotions. However, he expresses his direct opposition to the notion that art’s primary focus should be the imitation of action. In fact, Wordsworth turns Aristotle’s belief on its head when he tells us "that feeling . . . gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling"(Wordsworth 248). In Wordsworth’s opinion, then, it is more important for the artist to concentrate directly on the imitation of emotions rather than to indirectly depict them through the character’s actions. In Wordsworth’s art, emotions are not born of actions, rather they are the genesis of actions.
Despite the semantic disagreement on the role of actions and emotions in poetry, Aristotle and Wordsworth come back together on an important point in terms of the generation of the work of art: that selection is of the utmost importance to the depiction of the human world. For example, Wordsworth’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads is to "chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them. . . in a selection of language really used by men"(Wordsworth 244). At the same time, however, Wordsworth insists that the poet engage in a sort of selective process through which he would sort out the sublime from the "painful or disgusting"(Wordsworth 257) in the passions of these men.
Aristotelian form looks much the same way in relation to the expression of actions. Even though the well-written tragedy consists of one uniform action, the single action is composed of certain incidents which are themselves selected by the poet. As an example, Aristotle refers us to the Odyssey, saying that "in making the Odyssey [Homer] did not include all the things that ever happened to Odysseus. . . [he] rather organized the Odyssey around one action"(Richter 48). Therefore, art as imitation need not necessarily be an exact replica of reality. Instead, reality is selected and ordered according to the needs of the plot.
This seeming infidelity towards reality is continued in Aristotle’s idea of the generation of the plot itself. For Aristotle, it is not compulsory that the plot come from an actual past event. Quite the contrary, "it is not the function of the poet to narrate events that have actually happened, but rather, events such as might occur and have the capability of occurring in accordance with the laws of probability or necessity"(Richter 48). In other words, the aim of Aristotelian mimesis is not to imitate specific instances of reality, rather it is to imitate reality in general. While depicting situations that could be real, the poet paints a picture of the world that surrounds us. In this case, poetry "is more philosophical and more significant than history, for poetry is more concerned with the universal, and history more with the individual"(Richter 48). Through the universalizing effects of poetry, a specific incident and specific characters are generalized to represent all people within a certain moral framework. Not only could this situation be real, but those characters could be us, and we could suffer the same sort of misfortunes. Poetry then becomes an imitation of us all in general, not one of us in particular, and thus a more accurate representation of reality to the collective audience.
Wordsworth’s use of selection ends in the same sort of superceding effect. A careful selection and an occasional improvement of the language and situations of common men ensure that the poet creates something which "more nearly resemble[s] the passions produced by real events, than anything which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves"(Wordsworth 256). The superior sensitivity of the poet is employed to create an emotion which is grounded in the everyday expressions of the average man, but which far surpasses the real emotions felt by common men. In this way, the poet strives to depict an emotion that is, in its intensity, even more real than men’s actual emotions, and which is therefore a mirror created of the ideal in which we can see our own foggy emotions reflected back to us.
By means of the expression of the real through the generalized ideal, art seems to come full circle for both Aristotle and Wordsworth. The origin of art is reality, which the poet observes, rearranges, embellishes, and represents as a vaguely familiar copy called either tragedy or poetry. The art itself may not be a particularly convincing imitation of what really exists (as was Plato’s complaint), but for Wordsworth and Aristotle, this is not the function of art. The real function of art is to expand beyond itself to its audience through universality. Neither Wordsworth nor Aristotle’s ideal poet necessarily represents emotions or actions that are factual, rather he represents prototypical situations which elicit real emotions from his audience and "these passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men"(Wordsworth 261). Following this logic, it would be fair to say that the mimetic effect of art is more present in the audience than it is contained in the art itself.
If the audience provides the emotional response that the poet is attempting to develop, then the mimesis is a success. However, art works on a grander scheme, and mimesis is only the means to a higher end in either Aristotelian or Romantic form. Specifically, mimesis performs the role of supporting a morality specific to Aristotle and Wordsworth’s respective views. Aristotle confronts the claim of his teacher, Plato, that "the pity which has been nourished and strengthened in the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own"(Richter 28). Plato would have us believe that the strong feelings of pity and sympathy aroused in us during a tragedy carry over to our tragic lives, encouraging us to confront misfortune with an unproductive display of emotion. This could eventually be a danger to society as all theatre-going citizens yield up their logically ordered lives to live chaotically at the mercy of their emotions. But Aristotle holds the opposite opinion: that tragedy allows us to express, and thereby to expel, these undesirable emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Through the "violent driving-out of the emotions of pity and fear"(Richter 41), a catharsis, or purging, of the emotional self takes place during a mere representation of life, and man is once again able to rule himself according to logic during his actual life. If this thinking holds, then tragedy is integral to the well ordered state because it solidifies order in men’s minds.
Wordsworth’s art is also integral to the state, insofar as Wordsworth’s state is ideally democratic. Because of the emphasis on the human in Wordsworth’s ideal state, the enemy in the midst of the industrial revolution is not the unbridled passions of men of Aristotle’s fears, rather it is the opposite. Wordsworth fears that the very nature of man -- his emotions -- is atrophied by a "degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation" (Wordsworth 249). This atrophy is caused by the dehumanizing atmosphere of the cities and the unforgiving lives of work to which more and more people were subject. The more humans are treated as mere tools, the more they search for a quick escape from their working lives in fantastic novels and the less they invest themselves intellectually in the subtleties of truly artistic literature. As the problem facing Wordsworth’s society is the opposite to the problem of Aristotle’s society, so is Wordsworth’s solution: in order to save the state, one must save the human, and to do this, he must be awakened through accessible, powerful renditions of ideal emotions. Only through the influence of these emotions can man be returned to his natural state of sentient being.
Therefore we can see that both Aristotle and Wordsworth see mimetic art as possessing a sort of salvific quality, and that its accuracy is defined by its moral outcome: catharsis for Aristotle and emotion relived for Wordsworth. Beyond this, art can lead us to a personal manifestation of truth. For Aristotle, the cathartic effect of art allows us to impose an order on our comportment, and this order mirrors the order of the divine cosmos (White 2). We therefore exhibit our understanding of the truth that there is order outside of appearances when we face the seeming confusion of the world with emotional restraint. For Wordsworth, on the other hand, our understanding of our own natures is apparent when we combat the emotional restraint imposed on us by an impersonal society. Therefore, we find truth in our emotional reactions to the world of art that surrounds us. Just as Aristotle’s tragedy points us beyond the human construct of daily chaos to the truth of divine order, so does Wordsworth’s poetry point us beyond the human construct of industrial order to the truth of natural emotion.
Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998.
White, Dan. "Aristotle’s Poetics: Creative Mimesis and the Force of Method Position Paper." Paper for English 490. September 6, 1999.
Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1991.