Aristotle on Poetry and Imitation

Essay by AmanBhatiaUniversity, Master's November 2014

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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

Socratic dialogues.

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 Düring, 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 Poétique 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...