Writing

Poetry 101: What Is Mimesis? Mimesis Definition with Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 1, 2019 • 3 min read

Copying is something writers usually strive to avoid. And yet, the literary theory of mimesis says that artists copy constantly, as a matter of necessity. Does this make their art bad? Centuries of thinkers from Plato and Aristotle onwards have attempted to answer this question by debating the nature of mimesis.

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What Is Mimesis?

Mimesis is a term used in philosophy and literary criticism. It describes the process of imitation or mimicry through which artists portray and interpret the world. Mimesis is not a literary device or technique, but rather a way of thinking about a work of art.

The word “mimesis” is derived from the Ancient Greek word meaning “imitation” or “representation” in common parlance, but the continued use and definition of mimesis today is due to the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. They adopted the term in their aesthetic theories and evolved the definition into the one we use today.

2 Ways to Use Mimesis in Poetry

The evolution of thinking on mimesis suggests that copying and imitation play a powerful role in poetry and literature. They enable readers and listeners to suspend their disbelief, identify with characters, and get deeply immersed in a text. There are two types of mimesis within poetry:

  1. Vocal mimesis, or writing in a particular accent or speech pattern that is appropriate for the character.
  2. Behavioral mimesis, in which where characters respond to scenarios in understandable ways.

Plato’s View on Mimesis

Plato wrote about poetry and mimesis in multiple texts and was generally disparaging towards the art form. He saw poetry, along with other mimetic forms such as theatre, as a representation of nature that was inherently inferior to the original.

In The Republic, he presented a dialogue between Socrates and his pupils where the philosopher argued that an artist’s copy of an object can only ever capture a small part of the thing as it really is. He used the example of a bed, saying that although a poet might describe a bed in detail, they don’t have the knowledge of carpentry that the craftsperson used to make the actual bed. Therefore, they can’t hope to capture the truth of the bed.

In the Platonic view, the carpenter is also imitating—in this case, copying the ultimate ideal of the bed. So the writer’s bed is actually a third-hand copy, far removed from the true reality.

Aristotle’s View on Mimesis

Aristotle’s Poetics partly salvaged the reputation of mimetic art. In the book, the philosopher argues that it is a natural human impulse to make art that imitates the people, places, and events around them. The Aristotelian concept of mimesis involved not just imitation but addition—the poet adds symbolism and structure that lets their audience draw meaning from the work.

In this reading, mimesis still creates a work of art removed from reality, but that gap is a good thing because the audience responds best to a combination of recognition and distance. It is because of this gap that we might feel empathy and catharsis when watching a drama that we are unlikely to feel when reading history.

What’s the Difference Between Mimesis and Diegesis?

Both Plato and Aristotle distinguished between different styles of art when it came to mimesis.

They contrasted mimesis with another term: “diegesis.” Diegesis refers to a narrator that explains the action indirectly and describes the characters’ mindsets from the outside. Mimesis, on the other hand, shows rather than explains the action. When a poet spoke in their own voice, therefore, it usually wouldn’t be mimetic—it would be simple diegesis. But when a poet assumed a character and spoke in a voice that was not theirs, it would be mimesis.

Reflecting on the poetic forms of the time, Plato classified tragedy and comedy as mimetic, a style of a hymn called the dithyramb as diegetic, and epic poetry as a mixture of both.

Learn more about reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.