ARISTOTLE ON POETRY AND IMITATION
In the opening sentence of the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that he is going to deal with
poetry itself, its kinds and their powers, and so on. He then turns to a discussion of
imitation or representation (mi/mhsij). Thereafter the treatise is an examination of
imitation in general and in certain of its forms, namely tragedy and epic. We are thus
given to believe that, for Aristotle, poetry is imitation, or that this is his answer to the
question "what is poetry?", and is meant to serve as a definition. This is indeed what
scholars have thought.1 Of course one needs to add the qualifications Aristotle suggests
to distinguish poetry from painting, music and dancing which are also imitation. Poetry
imitates using language (lo/goj) and rhythm (r(uqmo/j), and (usually) also harmony or
song (a(rmoni/a, me/loj). Use of language will distinguish poetry from dancing and music,
and use of rhythm, or generally verse, will distinguish it from prose imitations like
That this definition of poetry as imitation is an acceptable one has been held by
many commentators. They have thought that 'imitation' can very easily be applied to all
kinds of poetry and to the fine arts as well. But that this is at best problematic can be seen
if one considers, on the one hand, attempts to do this, and, on the other, Aristotle's actual
use of the term 'imitation'.
1 Ingemar DÃ¼ring, Aristoteles: Darstellung und Interpretation seines Denkens (Winter, Heidelberg, 1966), p.164; D.W. Lucas, Aristotle's Poetics (Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 53, note ad 47a8.
P. SOMVILLE in his Essai sur la PoÃ©tique d'Aristote2 finds in 'imitation' a
meaning like "stylisation". Imitation does not merely mean the copying of a thing, but the
creating or refracting of it; it involves...