John W. Draper (essay date 1921)
SOURCE: "Aristotelian 'Mimesis' in England," in PMLA, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, September, 1921, pp. 372-400.
[In the following essay, Draper studies the way in which the understanding of "mimesis," or imitation (as discussed by Aristotle in Poetics), changed over the course of the eighteenth century in England. Draper notes that, in general, the concept was largely misinterpreted.]
Of the many disputed terms in the Poetics, [mimēsis] "imitation," has always been one of the most fruitful of discussion and of misconception; and these misconceptions are particularly significant because, for whole periods, they were potent in moulding creative activity not only in literature,1 but also in painting and in music. When "imitation" is considered in the light of its technical use in Plato and in Aristotle, its real meaning emerges with some distinctness.2 Far from the naturalistic theory of a direct and slavish copy of objects and actions, Aristotle's [mimēsis] is a distinctly idealistic conception, and signifies "creating according to a true idea."3 Thus, when we are told that Art imitates Nature, "Nature" is not a particular thing or act, but is the creative force of the universe.4 With this conception, we can justify Aristotle's declaration that music is the most imitative of all the arts: it is the most fluid; and its flux is governed most completely by the universal laws of unity, proportion, and symmetry. The conception is almost Platonic; and it makes Aristotelian [mimēsis] appear in a sense almost diametrically opposed to the common meaning of the Latin imitatio and the English "imitation."
English critics of the Seventeenth Century, however, following the Italian and French Aristotelians, translated [mimēsis] as "imitation"; and, moreover, they argued, since Homer and Virgil give us a perfect view of "Nature methodized," let us copy them instead of Nature. Thus [mimēsis] was burdened with two false meanings, one making it a copy of actions and things, the other a copy of accepted masterpieces.5 Until the latter part of the century, both these false meanings passed current in England as vulgate Aristotelianism, and indeed did some injury to the fame of their supposed author among critics of a semi-Romantic stamp. The editors of the Greek text6 who, one might suppose, would have corrected the error, give it at least tacit support7; and the translators regularly render [mimēsis] as "copy" or "imitation." An anonymous English version through the French of Dacier,8 which held this field alone until 1775, excepted only Bacchic songs from the general idea of copying; and the fact that music had to be made an exception, whereas Aristotle found it the most imitative of all the arts, shows how far "imitation" had wandered from its original meaning. A first-hand knowledge of Aristotle, even in translation, seems to have been exceptional: Walpole mentions him five times in his letters—usually coupled with Bossu and the "Rules"9; and Cowper, at the age of fifty-three, had "never in his life perused a page of Aristotle."10 The Poetics were much reverenced, but little read; and the interpretation of [mimēsis] depended almost altogether upon secondary sources. Some writers in fact seem to have used it without any thought of an Aristotelian origin.
The dictionaries shed very little light upon the subject: even Dr. Johnson gave no meaning that approximates the Aristotelian sense.11 Writers on rhetoric and the severer critics of poetic theory, when they had occasion to treat of "imitation" at all,12 regularly interpreted it as copying. Bysshe urged the "superior Mind" to "generous Emulation" of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden, and, by way of auxiliary, appended "A Collection of the Most Natural and Sublime Thoughts," codified in convenient form.13 Constable advised imitation of the ancients;14 and the anonymous author of the Prolusiones, writing with Aristotle directly in his eye, unquestionably takes "imitatio" to mean "copy."15 As late as 1785, moreover, Owen translated Juvenal
(The entire section is 102,243 words.)