October 10, 1999
Combating the Platonic Mimesis:
Poetry as Creative and Universal according to Aristotle and Wordsworth
The theory and poetry of William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads reflects Aristotelian mimesis developed in the classical text Poetics. Contrary to the Platonic notion of mimesis described in Republic, art in the theory of Wordsworth and Aristotle transcends mere imitation. Rather than simply holding a mirror up to the outside world, Aristotle and Wordsworth infuse art with a creative element which raises poetry, in particular, to an artform worthy of our consideration, as readers. This creativity coupled with a certain resonance with the common man achieved through the careful use of universal language and evoking elemental emotions offers a much fuller and more accessible portrait of poetry than that proposed by the Platonic model. In effect, Aristotle and Wordsworth in their similar theory of poetry combat the narrow, inaccessible view of art proposed by Platonic mimesis. Whereas Plato refuses to credit poetry with anything beyond a trace of truth, Aristotle and Wordsworth find universal meaning in the order, structure, language and emotion of poetry.
One major stumbling block in the debate on art in the classical tradition between Plato and Aristotle lies in the question of art’s creative capacity. Can art which imitates the outside world be creative? Can art reveal any trace of the truth or is it mere imitation? Plato takes the stance in Republic, Book X, in accordance with his theory of ideal forms, that art imitates the physical world which in turn imitates the ideal world of forms conceived of by the one Creator. Thus, art in the Platonic view is thrice removed from the truth, and thereby, reveals nothing of value.
Furthermore, Plato extends his theory to claim "all poetic imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers" (21). For Plato, poetry can have no other end than to deceive because it reveals nothing of the ideal truth and appeals to the weakness in humankind—the irrational mind—he labels "the inferior part of the soul" (27). (The one exception he makes to this rule allows for "hymns to the gods and praises of famous men" (28).) Such a view constrains man to purely rational engagements, occupations based on reason and logic alone. Plato allows no outlet for man’s creative instincts; at the very least his theory stigmatizes and condemns any such activity. The common man, therefore, cannot enjoy or relate to art free of that "evil constitution" (27) Plato assigns to the poet and those who indulge his work. In short, the people can regard poetry only as falsity and harmful to their own constitution.
Contrary to Plato, Aristotle regards poetic art as a creative act with the power to illuminate truth amidst the chaos of reality. Aristotle takes the seemingly random actions in reality and selectively arranges them in a probable sequence. Out of this emerges an order and unity in which Aristotle discovers the meaning, or truth, which Plato deems inaccessible. It is this act of selectivity which renders the artist more than imitator, rather creative in Aristotelian mimeses. Aristotelian tragedy reshapes events, connects them in accordance with their necessity and probability, with the ultimate goal of revealing meaning and order always in mind. Thus, poetry must be a complete and whole action consisting of parts "put together in such a way that if any one part is transposed or removed, the whole will be disordered and unified" (48). The artist, moreover, creatively chooses the actions which hold some necessary and probable connection, disregarding those extraneous to the universal design or order. Therein lies the meaning for Aristotle—in finding that universal order and structure which unifies the work as "an action that is one and whole" (48).
Like Aristotle, Wordsworth too stresses the selectivity and universality of poetry. He places particular emphasis on the careful selection of language toward the proposed goal of his poetry, namely the pleasure of the reader. Language, he maintains, "if selected truly and judiciously," (255) will lead to the experience of this desired end. To further ensure this, Wordsworth in his poetry proposes "to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of men" (250). His poem "Simon Lee" exemplifies this simplicity of language. For example, "No man like him the horn could sound, / And no man was so full of glee; / To say the least, four countries round / Had heard of Simon Lee" (60-61). Nothing in this excerpt touches even slightly on the grandiose or extravagant; no word out of comprehension or inaccessible to the common man. In this manner, his poetry attempts to attain universality by communicating through the most common and basic of language.
Wordsworth readily admits that little of his volumes of poetry uses what is usually called poetic diction so that he may bring his language "near to the language of men" (251). Insofar as he accomplishes this, Wordsworth draws the reader into the poem: "I wish to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him" (250-251). This statement clearly combats the alienation of the reader embedded in Plato’s theory. The poet as imitator is not to be condemned or feared as Plato would have; rather, "the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion" (259). As in Aristotle’s Poetics, the poet finds that which connects and unifies humankind. Instead of actions, however, Wordsworth connects through basic language and the belief in a common, elementary and visible truth.
Aristotle and Wordsworth bring about the universal meaning and resonance with the reader through more than diction and plot, but through evoking pure and basic emotion as well. Aristotle’s concern with catharsis, in the form of pity and fear, illustrates this attribute. In particular, "Pity and fear can arise from spectacle, and also from the very structure of the plot, which is the superior way and shows the better poet" (51). So it is out of the very method and structure of the superior poem that the appropriate emotions are born in the reader. Similarly, Wordsworth structures his poetry in order that the reader experiences specific emotions at specific moments, and these emotions elementary and basic in their nature. As such, they may be felt more purely and deeply. Wordsworth demonstrates this in "Old Man Travelling" in which very structure of the poem dictates the reader’s emotional experience. It is not until the end of the poem that the awe and respect inspired in us toward the old man culminates in the lines "I am going many miles to take / A last leave of my son, . . . dying in an hospital" (17-20). It is at this precise moment that we elevate the old man’s subdued demeanor to such high esteem. In this way Wordsworth builds this emotional response into the very structure of the poem.
Fittingly, Wordsworth selects the rustic setting for his poetry toward this end of pure expression and experience of primary emotion. He contends that "in that situation our elementary feelings exist in a state of greater simplicity and consequently may be more accurately contemplated and more forcibly communicated" (245). Wordsworth employs this technique with great success again in "Simon Lee" in respect to the gratitude Simon expresses at the end of the poem: "The tears in his eyes were brought, / And thanks and praises seemed to run / So fast out of his heart, I thought / They never would have done" (97-100). As we read the previous lines, we witness the simple and pure outpouring of gratitude for a usually trivial act—a single blow to cut a tangled root. The rustic setting and particular simplicity of the poem, however, ascribe the seemingly meaningless act great significance and intensifies the power of Simon’s emotion, and consequently our response to his pure emotional display.
Wordsworth, as poet, seeks to achieve universal appeal and meaning by evoking the primary emotions of the common man. His purpose lies in tracing those elementary emotions universal to mankind: "it is to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature" (247). Furthermore, poetry originates in the recollection of and contemplation on these same basic emotions. It is in this manner that the old man "does not move with pain, but moves / With thought" ("Old Man" 6-7). Through this process of contemplation on the primary emotion in a state of tranquility, a similar emotion is gradually produced and occupies the mind with greater intensity than the original. It is this second emotion which Wordsworth’s poetry aims to inspire in the reader. This process reflects Aristotle’s description of how tragedy elicits emotion: it "arises from our being stimulated by something we see [in the action] to remember an event that has some emotional significance for us" (53), and therefore, resonates with even greater intensity than in the original experience. In both theories, emotions are inspired by the work, yet spring from within the reader. Thus, reader is actively involved and vital to the experience of the poem.
Whereas Plato condemns poetry as mere imitation and ruinous to the common man, both Aristotle and Wordsworth praise it as a creative endeavor and recognize in it universal meaning. The latter theorists make poetry accessible and resonant for the common man through a definite design and order, and an effort to connect. Plato’s theory has the opposite implication of alienating the public from poetry. Thus, the theory of Aristotle and Wordsworth offers readers a fuller experience of poetry—one which affords the discovery of truth and reveals a meaning universal to even the common man. This issue of the meaning of poetry and how one goes about finding it lies at the core of all literary criticism and theory. Aristotle and Wordsworth view the subject quite similarly, as we have discovered; yet, we must bear in mind theirs is but one view in the expansive field of literary theory. The lure of their particular view as we have found in this discussion is their appeal to the reader and the assurance that there exists a universal order and meaning to be discovered in poetry. The act of reading poetry, we can imagine, would be much less fulfilling if we set out with the Platonic conception that all poetry holds essentially falsity and deception. In the end, however, it lies with the individual reader of poetry to decide on his or her theory and method of interpretation as in all things literary or artistic.
Aristotle. Poetics. The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston:
Bedford, 1998. 38-64.
Plato. Republic, Book X. The Critical Tradition. 21-29.
Wordsworth, William. Preface. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones. 2nd ed.
London: Routledge, 1991.
Wordsworth. "Simon Lee" and "Old Man Travelling." Lyrical Ballads. 60-63, 106-107.