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M.H. Abrams – The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953)

Theories of art and the literary situation

The literary work may be seen in its connection with its origin/source (author), with its recipient/addressee (the
audience), and with the context (the “universe”). Depending on which of these poles we focus on, we have
different theories of the literary work.




Classification of literary theories:

1. MIMETIC THEORIES (work–universe)

• Art is essentially an imitation of aspects of the universe

• Origin: in PLATO’S dialogues

• The categories with which Plato operates:

o The eternal and unchanging Ideas (reality)

o The world of sense, which reflects the world of Ideas – the world of appearances

o The world of reflected images (shadows, images in water and mirrors; the fine arts) –
copies of the world of sense
• Art: a third degree regression from the truth of eternal Ideas/Essences

• The Republic, Book X: by imitating not the Idea, but its reflection in the world of sense, poets do
not know what they are talking about about – art= the copy of a copy

• The inferior ontological status of the work of art

• ARISTOTLE: Poetics – the origin of all art is in the natural human instinct for imitation and in the
natural pleasure in seeing imitations;

• Imitation/mimesis: a term specific to art, distinguishing it from other human activities;

• Poetry: imitation of human action; successful mimesis was supposed to respect the bounds of
the verisimilar and the probable

• Aristotle distinguishes among kinds of poetry according to the objects, the medium and the
manner of imitation

• The concept of MIMESIS: prominent in criticism until the end of the 18th century; an important
place in Neoclassic aesthetics

2. PRAGMATIC THEORIES (artist–audience)

• Prominent during the Renaissance: e.g. Sir PHILIP SIDNEY, The Defence of Poesy / The Apologie
for Poetry (1595):

“Poetry is therefore an art of imitation, for so Aristotle terms it in the 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.”

• Art is a means to an end: it is supposed to determine a certain response from the reader
• Origin: in the classical theory of rhetoric (regarded as an instrument for achieving persuasion in
an audience)

• HORACE, Ars Poetica: the application of the rhetorical perspective to poetry.

• The principle invoked most by later critics: “the poet’s aim is either to profit or to please, or to
blend in one the delightful and the useful” (utile dulci)

• SAMUEL JOHNSON: “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing”

• The pragmatic view of art: the principal aesthetic attitude of the Western world from the time of
Horace to the eighteenth century

3. EXPRESSIVE THEORIES (author – work)

• Ancient roots: in the concern of rhetoric with the education / formation of the orator

• Attention to the powers and activities of the speaker, to the distinction between innate genius
and acquired “art” (in the sense of “skill”, technique)

• An important influence: the contributions of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke (17th century) to

• The new interest in the faculties of the genius, in the constitution of the poet’s mind and the
processes involved in creativity.

• Gradual shift of critical focus from audience to the creator: emphasis on the poet’s natural
genius, on emotional spontaneity and creative imagination
• William Wordsworth: the origin of poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”

• The dominant theoretical paradigm in the Romantic Age

• The central tenet of the expressive theory:

“Art is essentially the internal made external, resulting from a creative process operating under the impulse of
feeling, and embodying the combined product of the poet’s perceptions, thoughts and feelings. The primary source
and subject matter of a poem, therefore, are the attributes and actions of the poet’s own mind; or if aspects of the
external world, then these only as they are converted from fact to poetry by the feelings and operations of the
poet’s mind (…). The paramount cause of poetry is not, as in Aristotle, a formal cause, determined primarily by the
human actions and qualities imitated; nor, as in neo-classic criticism, a final cause, the effect intended upon the
audience; but instead an efficient cause – the impulse within the poet of feelings and desires seeking expression, or
the compulsion of the ‘creative’ imagination which, like God the creator, has its internal source of motion.” (Abrams,
p. 22)

[Note: Cause (philos.) =the requirements for a thing’s coming to be]

• The questions that are expected for critical appreciation are now: “Is it sincere? Is it genuine?
Does it match the intention, the feeling and the actual state of mind of the poet while composing?”

4. OBJECTIVE THEORIES – the work of art regarded in isolation from its “external” points of reference (author,
reader, universe);

• Its appreciation focuses on the internal relation of its parts (intrinsic criteria)

• The earliest example: Aristotle’s Poetics: his consideration of tragedy as an entity in itself, his
analysis of its formal constituents (plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle)

• The concept of the poem as heterocosm, a world of its own, independent of the external world;
its end: not to instruct or please, but simply to exist

• Related aesthetic theories:

 Immanuel Kant (Critique of Judgment, 1790) – the work of art: purposiveness without a
purpose; the contemplation of beauty: disinterested, without regard to utility;

 Edgar Allan Poe (The Poetic Principle, 1850) – the urge to consider a poem as “written
solely for the poem’s sake,” in isolation from external causes and ulterior ends (“the didactic heresy”)
– origin of the Art for Art’s Sake theories

• Objective theories: prominent in the first decades of the 20th century;

• Promoters:

 T.E Hulme, T. S. Eliot (“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from
emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” – Tradition and
the Individual Talent, 1921)

 Archibald MacLeish (“A poem should not mean / But be”),

 John Crowe Ransom and his concept of “ontological criticism” (“the autonomy of the
work itself as existing for its own sake”)


 The MIMETIC FUNCTION – the representation of reality and its transfiguration

 Imitation: not mechanical – a process of selection, which also reflects the inner nature of
the artist

 The mimetic function of literature: related to its capacity for procuring pleasure

 Pleasure: a superior kind of activity – “non-acquisitive contemplation” (Wellek and

Warren) – its source: successful imitation
 The COGNITIVE FUNCTION – Literature as a form of knowledge

 Linked with the concept of mimesis – the nature of this knowledge: a matter of debate
in the context of mimetic theories of art

 Difference between Aristotle and Plato:

 For ARISTOTLE, poetic imitation: capable of extracting the universal and the permanent
from the forms of nature, which are subject to becoming, change and decay

 For him, poetry is superior to history – “more philosophical and more serious” – history
“relates things that have happened, poetry such as might happen”

 For PLATO, the artist only creates the impression that he is conveying important truths –
the ignorance of the artist

 The PRAGMATIC FUNCTION of literature – its capacity of persuading

 The artist: “not the discoverer but the persuasive purveyor of the truth” (Wellek and

 The “effort, whether conscious or not, to influence readers to share one’s attitude
towards life” (Wellek and Warren) – “seducing” readers into a certain belief or view of life

 The extreme form of the pragmatic function: literature as propaganda – literature in the
service of an ideology

 The CATHARTIC FUNCTION – literature as a means of lifting the pressure of intense emotions

ARISTOTLE – catharsis: cleansing, purging (a term borrowed from the medical field)
 The spectacle of tragedy: the intense feeling of fear evoked by the fortunes of the hero
help us, paradoxically, of freeing ourselves from harmful anxieties

 We experience the sense of relief from accumulated tension and emotion as


PLATO: the opposite view – poetry actually incites emotion – tragedy and comedy “nourish and water our
emotions when we ought to dry them up”

• Poets are banned from his ideal, utopian city (The Republic), because they awaken an inferior
faculty of the human soul – feeling –, cultivating the irrational side and thus damaging the capacity of
reason, of critical discernment

• By stirring emotions, poetry causes an imbalance in the soul

• The poet’s “pictures” address themselves to the “childish” part of the soul, which takes an
irrational pleasure in the imitation

• The listener fails thus to distinguish truth from reality;

• The poet is thus granted an undeserved authority

Wellek and Warren:

“Literature does not and should not incite the emotions.[…] Emotions represented in literature are, neither for
writer nor for reader, the same as emotions in ‘real life’; they are ‘recollected in tranquillity’; they are ‘expressed’ –
that is, released – by analysis; they are the feelings of emotions, the perceptions of emotions” (Theory of Literature,
p. 28)

 The AESTHETC FUNCTION – linked to the question whether literature is meant to

entertain/delight or to instruct

 The Ancients pleaded for a balance between the useful and the sweet – poetry should
balance the utile and the dulce

 The Renaissance and the Neoclassic Age emphasized this double nature of literature

 With the Romantic Age, the emphasis on the didactic dimension begins to fade

 The pre-Romantics reject the definition of literature in terms of imitation and utility –
the category of the BEAUTIFUL is now proposed as a self-standing value

• The aesthetic function of literature: manifest exclusively through language – the reality of the
literary work transcends extra-aesthetic criteria (e.g. moral truth, historical accuracy, immediate
usefulness, etc.)

• The self-sufficiency of the literary work as an aesthetic object – Kant: beautiful objects appear to
be “purposive without purpose”

• The intransitive, non-instrumental nature of the literary work – it signifies itself

• Its value does not depend on its truthfulness to an external object or on the validity of its ideas,
but on its expressive powers

• From the perspective of its aesthetic function, the usefulness of literature/art: not necessarily
linked to a moral lesson or to a cognitive gain

Wellek and Warren: “Useful is equivalent to not a waste of time […], something deserving serious attention.
Sweet is equivalent to not a bore, not a duty, its own reward” (ToL, p. 20)

• The ancient emphasis on the instructive purpose of the work of art is underlain by the
understanding of the art as craf and technique (techne), not as the result of inspiration

• On the other hand, the emphasis on pleasure as the ultimate purpose of the work of art is
underlain by the idea of literature/poetry/art as play, as spontaneous and disinterested amusement

Wellek and Warren: The history of aesthetics, of the conceptions about the functions of literature can be seen, in
brief, as “a dialectic in which the thesis and counterthesis are Horace’s dulce and utile: poetry is sweet and useful.
Either adjective separately represents a polar heresy with regard to the function of poetry” (ToL, p.20)
• The aesthetic function presupposes doing justice both to the dulce and the utile

• The understanding of the literary work as, at once, serious play and gratuitous craf/work, done
for its own sake (“aesthetic seriousness”, “a seriousness of perception” – Wellek and Warren, p.21)