The value of imitation: a vision of Aristotle's Poetics
Aristotle wrote his Poetics thousands of years before Matthew Arnold's birth. His reasons for composing it were different from Arnold's reasons for using it as an element of his own poetic criticism. We can safely say that Arnold was inclined to use the Poetics as an inspiration for his own poetry, and as a cultural weapon in the fight for artistic and social renewal. Aristotle, by contrast, was more concerned with discovering general truths, and with formalising truths already known intuitively within his own society.
I wish, in this article, to make some observations about the way in which some of the seminal ideas in the Poetics affected one key writer within the English literary tradition. Curiously enough the first thing to be said about Arnold's view of Aristotle is that it is more a Platonic than an Aristotelian view. In short Arnold was primarily, though not merely, an idealist. If, for the sake of clarity we could for the purpose of this analysis call Aristotle a realist, we might be better able to see the proper scope of this account. What we have then is the case of a man who was primarily a scientist and philosopher -- a realist in the best sense of the word, influencing a poet and visionary -- an idealist in the best sense of the word.
I have decided, despite many references in Arnold's work to Aristotelian ideas generally, to concentrate on one piece of work by Arnold; a piece of work where he more specifically refers to Aristotelian ideas of imitation. This is the 1853 Preface to The Poems of Matthew Arnold 1840-1866. I will therefore, where appropriate, compare and contrast this Preface to the Poetics. Such an approach gives us a chance to look at Aristotle in his own right, and also to gauge his influence, or otherwise, on Arnold.
I have also chosen the Arnold Preface because it is manageable in length, and because, as Stefan Collini says in his book Arnold "The 1853 Preface has a particular biographical interest ... as Arnold's first public engagement in those critical controversies that were to be the stimulus to his best work" (p. 48). Two points follow from this statement. Firstly it suggests that Arnold saw literature, philosophy and criticism, as of vital public importance, and secondly it says that the his engagement in public debate tended to have a positive effect on his creative work. This makes his approach similar to that of Aristotle who also saw theory as intimately linked to public practice. Aristotle's Poetics, and his writing in general, have a profoundly social and moral dimension. I would argue then that Arnold attempts to import a moral ideal into England from Greece, and argue even further that his greatest ambition was not just the restoration of national literature to England, but finally a great society. In the realm of ideas Arnold does manage to show the desireability, for England, of Aristotelian ideas and Greek ideas in general....