Imitation and invention theory by Sir Philip Sidney
Question: Compare Sidney's theory of imitation and invention with Aristotle's concept of imitation
Aristotle, in his Poetics, writes that poetry is an imitation of human actions. He uses the term imitation to insinuate something like representation in its root meaning, i.e.
The poem imitates by taking a type of human action and re-presenting it in a new medium or material-that of words.
That means imitation is an imaginative reconstruction of life. Now, the question automatically arises-
What is the real character of the TRUTH retained and upheld by Poetry?
The preceptor of Aristotle, Plato advocated the banishment of the poets for telling lies. But, Aristotle thinks that the Poetic Truth remains unhurt when Poetry functions in accordance with the law of probability or necessity. Even fiction seems to us inevitable and natural due to the internal functioning of poetry maintaining the law of probability. The prime function of a poet is to create a better effect, for the anticipated purgation.
In Aristotle's opinion, Poetic Truth can be reached through the process of Poetic Unity. A tragic or epic poet, need not keep himself confined to stern reality only; he can exaggerate, omit or suppress, bring change in the course of incidents, can modify and can even invent. His sole object for the purpose of Catharsis should be-
To opt for probable impossibilities excluding the improbable possibilities.
To quote R.A. Scott-James, it can be said that:
Mere realism, when it is just the presentation of the accidents of life-the things that happen to have happened-does not meet Aristotle's demand. The poet is concerned with truth-but not the truth of the annalist, the historian, or the photographically realistic novelist...the distinction between didactic literature literature-which which informs or instructs-and depends upon aesthetic perception. The one expounds; the other reveals. For Aristotle, this distinction is implicit in all that he writes about the art of poetry.
So, in Aristotle's view, “Art is no slavish imitation of reality”; it is rather twice removed from the Truth. The significance of Action and Character lies in the fact of expressing poetic truth through their dialogues which they employ to unravel their inner-selves entangled in various predicaments of life. The poetic truth is the universal truth that is exercised by the poet for unravelling-
What is true for all human nature.
Aristotle is also of the opinion that the direct, whole and photographic presentation of mere human documents cannot evolve the proper effect of Poetic Truth. An entire LIFE cannot be the theme of poetry. But, selection should be made following the principles of POETIC UNITY and POETIC TRUTH. The poet must find out the materials or incidents which are relevant and representative. Then it should be presented by the poet in such a harmonious manner, that the plucked tiny portion can function as a composite whole. Thus, the writer of a tragedy deals with the TRUTH-
Which a poet divines and translates.
So, the chief function of a POET is not only to "see truth poetically", but also "to communicate it to an audience." At this juncture, a worthwhile warning is uttered by Aristotle. He asks the writer of the tragedy not to efface the world of illusion in which he works: but to present the incidents in such a manner so that thou do not seem to his audience just incredible.
In conclusion, we can summarize the Aristotelian view of Poetic Truth as follows:
A thing will be true for the poet only when it is true for the MILIEU in which his various characters are shown. And the actions of his characters must carry consistency. Thus, the poet (or, the writer) of tragedy can pick up probable impossibilities in lieu of improbable possibilities.
The ideas treasured in Sidney's critical treatise An Apology for Poetry (or, The Defence of Poesy) are undoubtedly Sidney's original views; but most of the basic ideas are taken from Plato, Aristotle and Horace. At the onset of this discussion, it must be mentioned that Sidney considers all kinds of imaginative literature within the circumference of POETRY. The main three categories of poetry in his version are-
(a) Sacred or, Religious
(b) Philosophical, and
(c) A commixture of mimesis (imitation) and invention (imagination) which-"most properly do imitate to teach and delight."
The minor divisions of poetry according to him are-heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, iambic, elegiac, pastoral, or poems categorised according to the matter dealt with, or poems classified in accordance with the verse employed in composing them. A poet to him is gifted with “some divine force” who is actually a prophet, a “maker” or a “creator”. And a POET is different from or superior to physicians, historians, astronomers and philosophers due to this very special feature.
A poet, in Sidney's view, is nobler than the Geometrician, Arithmetician, Grammarian, Logician, Rhetorician and Lawyer also. In Para 10 he elaborates this view. The true nature of POETRY and the real functions of a POET are recorded in Para 11:
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, nature, chimaeras, furies, and such like; so as he goes hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the Zodiac of his own wit.
A critical analysis of this very quotation makes holds the position of POETRY in his esteem. The greatest acumen of a Poet, in his version, is "the vigour of his own invention", i.e., his imaginative prowess. A poet, with the help of his own wit, can create "freely" a thing better than Nature creates or, an entirely new object. The function of a poet or in other words POETRY is to- know how high he
Makes the too much-loved earth more lovely. [Para 12]
In the very next line, he claims that the pleasure supplied by Nature is just sugar-coated, apparently shiny, but the pleasure hidden in poetry is not all ephemeral and is truly GOLDEN instead of being only Brazen and shiny. Again, the divinity of Mankind is- ATTAINED-UNRAVELLED-and APPREHENDED through poetry only. Above all, a poet can do nothing through his creations but can-
Give right honour to the Heavenly Maker of that maker, who, having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond. [Para 13]
Notwithstanding the fact that the circumference specified by Sidney Is a gigantic one, yet he has also given a well-knit, succinct definition of POETRIE (POESY/POETRY). It is a grim fact that-
One cannot defy the stamps of one's predecessors; and Sidney also owes to Plato, Aristotle and Horace for his concept of POETRY.
In Para 14 he defines poetry as follows:
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle terms it in his word MIMESIS, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to Speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight.
Evidently, his definition of poetry bears the stamps of Plato, Aristotle and Horace. His theory can be termed as "the theory of ideal imitation" in which the imaginative world created by the poet is superior to the real world, as it executes the tasks of teaching as well as delighting.
The idea of imitation reminds us of Aristotle, and the concept of teaching and delighting is taken from Horace, This conception of poetry is also smacking of Platonic theory, as a poet is the creator of an ideal world to teach and delight. At this point, a brief history behind the composition of this book should be mentioned.
Sidney wrote this long essay in reply to a book, which had been written attacking poetry and drama by Stephen Gosson (1554-1624) and had been dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586). Sidney perhaps had been misunderstood by Gosson to be Puritan in his outlook on poetry. The former's Protestant and Anti-Catholic associations made him think so. In this regard, to sum up, Sidney's view on the functions of POET and POETRY it can be said that-
Poetry or Poetic Creations are not utterly figments of the poet's imagination in the sense of building castles in the air. A poet certainly imitates from his seen REALITY; but, his creation is synthetic assimilation of that image and ‘the image of the ideal’ within his mind.
Sidney claims that Poetry has an important role in the Life of Man and Society itself, to teach and delight. Sidney proclaims that the poet embodies directly his own vision of the ideal, He stands on the same platform with Plato in this context, as the latter is of the opinion that the poet represents the idea inherent in his mind, David Daiches's commentary would be worthwhile in this regard that-
In Sidney's opinion “the imagination does not give us insight into reality, but an alternative to reality the alternative being in every way superior”; and the poet is found to be “carried away by his enthusiasm for CREATION”, and also by an anxiety to vindicate the charges of the Puritans.