Saturday, June 30, 2012

Plato's Views of Poetry

Poetic Inspiration

As regards his views on poetic inspiration, they have been expressed most poetically and at great length in the following passage in his Ion : “For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired, and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him : when he has not attained to this stale, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles. Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and, therefore, God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us.

This is the most elaborate presentation in the ancient world of the notion of poetry as pure inspiration, a notion which survives even to-day with modifications. The poet speaks divine truth; he is divinely inspired like prophets. Poetry is not a craft which can be learned and practised, at will; it is the result of inspiration, the divine speaking through the poet. Plato here says nothing about the poet’s lying, and it would seem that he is all praises for poetry as being divine truth. However, the implication even of this view is that poetry is nothing rational, and that is why even the poets, themselves do no often ‘understand, what they write in a moment of 'frenzy'. Therefore, poetry cannot be relied upon as it is not the result of conscious, considered judgment but the outcome of the irrational and the impulsive within us. Further, poets may express divine truths, but often, by their very nature, such truths remain beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.


Plato was an idealist. He believed that ideas alone are true and real and the earthly things—beauty, goodness, justice—are mere types or copies of the ideal beauty, goodness, etc., which exist in heaven. He regards imitation as mere mimesis or representation of these Ideal Forms and not expression, which is creative. Republic Book X gives us a reasoned and elaborate statement of his views on imitation. To put it briefly, if true reality consists of the ideas of things, of which individual objects are but reflections or imitations, then anyone, who imitates those individual objects is imitating an imitation, and so producing something which is still further removed from ultimate reality. "It is significant," says Daived Daiches, "that Plato develops this argument first with reference to the painter, and that he takes a simple, representational view of painting. Here the point is clear enough :  representational painting is an imitation of a specific object, or groups of objects, and if it is nothing but that, if reality lies not in individual objects but in general ideas or forms, then, from the point of view of the philosopher, whose main interest is in apprehending reality, the painter is not doing anything particularly valuable — though, on the other hand, what he is doing is not necessarily vicious. Just as the painter, furthermore, only imitates what he sees and does not know how to make or to use what he sees (he could paint a bed, but not make one), so the poet imitates reality without necessarily understanding it." Not only, therefore, are the arts imitations of imitations and are thus not once or twice but thrice removed from truth : they are also the product of a futile ignorance. The man, who imitates or describes or represents without really knowing what he is imitating, is demonstrating both his lack of useful purpose and his lack of knowledge.

Such is Plato’s theory of imitation; It did not occur to him that the painter, by painting the ideal object, could suggest the ideal form, and thus make direct contact with reality in a way denied to ordinary people. Further, he did not realise that what the painter paints is not the exact reproduction of reality. It is the artist’s impression of reality, and not a mechanical representation of it. Poetry is not servile imitation or copying ; it is creative. It is the poet's view of reality that we get from him, and not reality itself. Plato failed to understand the nature of poetic truth or truth of idea.


Plato’s literary criticism, specially his views on poetry, “marks the culmination of a critical phase in the history of criticism in antiquity; he also inaugurates a new phase in critical development.” He was a teacher, he had his own Academy to which pupils came from distant parts of the country, and his ideal was to turn out youngmen of well-formed personalities, fit to be the leaders and rulers of an ideal state. In order to assess correctly Plato’s theory of poetry and his attack on it, we must remember that the aim of his literary criticism is frankly utilitarian, that of educating the youth and forming them into good citizens of his ideal state. It is from this practical point of view that he judges poetry and finds it wanting. Hence his attack on Poetry.

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