WHY THE NEED for another study of artistic imitation? There is, to be sure, no dearth of books and articles dealing with the recurring critical concept of poetry—indeed, of art—as mimetic, as imitative of men and women in action.Such studies follow the idea from its origins in Plato and Aristotle to its codification in Roman critics like Horace, to its medieval phase where it takes on sharply religious and didactic overtones, to its neoclassical restatement, sharply conservative in Renaissance theorists like Sir Philip Sidney, and more flexible and open-minded in Restoration and eighteenth-century critics like Dryden, Pope, and Johnson.
Erich Auerbach's massive study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, with its citation and discussion of a variety of literary masterpieces and its description of two major modes of imitation—one more realistic, the other more inward; one more direct, the other more suggestive—is a truly pioneering study. 1 M. H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition—a sweeping survey of the major statements about literature in the history of criticism—sees an evolution in the posture of critics and theorists from the mimetic emphasis of Plato and Aristotle to the pragmatic or audience-oriented approach of Sidney. 2 With the coming of the early romantic theorists and their emphasis on what he calls the expressive, Abrams views the concern of criticism as moving from external reality to the artist and his expression of personal feeling.A fourth phase, which Abrams calls the objective, emphasizes the work of art as independent object, to be taken up in its own terms and without any special consideration of its connections with the world beyond it, with its audience, or with its author.For Abrams the tradition of imitation has, for all practical purposes, ended by the late-eighteenth century.His book is indispensable for anyone studying shifting concepts of imitation in the period from 1660 to 1830.