The main aim of this paper is to decide whether we should banish poetry from the human world or not. In order to reach this decision we first have to get back to some of the legendary figures in literary criticism of all time such as Plato, Aristotle and Philip Sydney and see for our selves how they treated this issue and answered some important questions concerning literature. Literary Criticism is the branch of study concerned with defining, classifying and evaluating works of literature.
It began almost simultaneously with creation. However, it was only with Plato that criticism became a vital force in the ancient world. Plato was born probably in 427 B. C. He was the first conscious literary critic who has put his ideas in a systematic way in his dialogues. In his Ion and Republic (precisely book X), he expressed his condemnation of poetry. Ironically, admirers of Plato are usually lovers of literary art. It is so because Plato wrote dramatic dialogues rather than didactic volumes and did so with rare literary skill.
You would expect such a philosopher to place a high value on literary art, but Plato actually attacked it. He argued that it should be banned from the ideal society that he described in the Republic. Plato objected to poetry on three grounds: Educational, Philosophical and moral point of view. Plato’s objection to Poetry from the point of view of Education is emphasized when he condemns poetry as fostering evil habits and vices in children in “The Republic” Book II. Homer’s epics were part of studies.
Heroes of epics were not examples of sound or ideal morality. They were lusty, cunning, and hungry for war. Even Gods were no better. This is clear in Plato’s Ion: If we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarrelling among themselves as of all things the basest, no word should be said to them of the wars in heaven, or of the plots and fighting of the gods against one another, for they are not true (11). Thus he objected on the ground that poetry does not cultivate good habits among children.
Plato accuses poetry of telling lies to children. However, he has no objection to children being told untrue stories if they are edifying stories. He wanted to tell children that there never has been quarrelling between citizens. He says in The republic: If they would only believe us we would tell them that quarrelling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrelling between citizens: this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose or them in a similar spirit. (11) Plato’s objections against poetry from a Philosophical point of view become clear in his attack on what he called mimesis (imitation). He explains that poetry does not offer reality but unreal imitations.
However, Philosophy is concerned with truth. According to his theory of mimesis, arts deal with illusions far away from the truth. He said in book X of The Republic: “then the imitator, I said, is a long way off the truth”. 17) In his opinion, Philosophy is better than poetry because Philosophy deals with idea while poetry is twice removed from the original idea. He made his point clear when he compared the poet to the painter who imitated a bed that was designed by a carpenter and before that, was originally created by God. Plato was an idealist. He believed that Ideas alone are true and real and that the earthly things such as beauty and goodness are mere copies of the ideal beauty, goodness which exist in heaven or the world of Ideas.
He said: Well, then, here are three beds: one existing in nature, which is made by God, as I think that we may say-for no one else can be the maker?.. And what shall we say of the carpenter-is not he also the maker of the bed? Yes. But would you call the painter a creator and maker? Certainly not. Yet if he is not the maker, what is he in relation to the bed? I think, he said, that we may fairly designate him as the imitator of that which the others make. Good, I said; then you call him who is third in the descent from nature an imitator?
Certainly, he said. And the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth. (15, 16) Plato says that since the idea of the bed belongs to God; the maker and we can also consider the carpenter who built it a maker of a copy. However, the painter only imitated another copy which makes him thrice removed from reality. As a moralist, Plato disapproves of poetry because it is immoral, as a philosopher he disapproves of it because it is based in falsehood.
He is of the view that philosophy is better than poetry because philosopher deals with idea / truth, whereas poet deals with what appears to him / illusion. This is very clear in The Republic, Book X, when he says: And what is the faculty in man to which imitation is addressed? What do you mean? I will explain: The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance? True. And the same objects appear straight when looked at out of water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable.
Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by the light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic, True. (19, 20) Thus, in his opinion, true reality consists of the ideas of things and objects in our world are reflections or imitations. Therefore, poetry is inferior to philosophy as the artist imitates these objects existing in our actual world and as a result, his work is an imitation of an imitation and is built on illusion.
He believed that truth of philosophy was more important than the pleasure of poetry. He argued that most of it should be banned from the ideal society that he described in the Republic. One of Plato’s important theories is his theory of inspiration. In his Ion, he gives a psychological account of literary creation. He is interested in how men come to write poetry. He compares the state of the poet when he writes poetry to a state of madness or unconsciousness. He explains that the poet does not speak his words but is rather captured by inspiration or what he called ‘The power divine’.
He says: 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 state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles. (9) Thus, he believes that poetry is nothing rational, and that is why even the poets themselves do not often understand what they write in that moment. Therefore, poetry cannot be relied upon as it is not the result of conscious. His last objection on the moral effect of poetry is that it harms by nourishing the passions, which ought to be controlled and disciplined.
Plato thinks that it is the duty of the wise man to control passion by reason; poetry by exciting and strengthening the passions, makes this task more difficult. In Plato’s opinion, whatever encourages and strengthens the rational principle is good, and emotional is bad. In The Republic, Book X, Plato says: Then the imitative poet who aims at being popular is not by nature made, nor is his art intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will prefer the passionate and fitful temper, which is easily imitated ….
And therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered state, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthen the feelings and impairs the reason … Poetry feeds and waters the passion instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (22) Then he attacks tragedies and comedies explaining their effect on both actors and spectators who might imitate their act. He believes that imitation soon becomes a second nature and the actor who imitates tends to behave like the object of his imitation.
Tragedies give an uncontrolled expression to the emotions of pity and grief and thus play a woman’s part. In his The republic, Book X, he says: Hear and judge: The best of us as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast- the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most.
Yes, of course I know. But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality- we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other which delighted us in the recitation is now deemed to be the part of a woman. Very true, he said. Now can we be right in praising and admiring another who is doing that which anyone of us would abominate and be ashamed of in his own person?
No, he said, that is certainly not reasonable. (22, 23) Similarly, for example, one who imitates a female part in a comedy tends to grow effeminate. Imitation will make him cowardly or clownish, if such roles are imitated. In order to explain this in his The Republic, Book X, Plato said: And does not the same hold also of the ridiculous?
There are jests which you would be ashamed to make yourself, and yet on the comic stage, or indeed in private, when you hear them, you are greatly amused by them, and are not at all disgusted at their unseemliness; the case of pity is repeated; there is a principle in human nature which is disposed to raise a laugh, and this which you restrained by reason, because you were afraid of being thought a buffoon, is now let out again; and having stimulated the risible faculty at the theatre, you are betrayed unconsciously to yourself into playing the comic poet at home. 23, 24) For all of the above reasons, Plato insisted that all kinds of poetry should be banned from his ideal state that he created in his The Republic.
In this respect, Plato says: Therefore, Glaucon, I said, whenever you meet with any of the eulogists of Homer declaring that he has been the educator of Hellas, and that he is profitable for education and for ordering of human things, and that you should take him up again and again and get to know him and regulate your whole life according to him, we may love and honour those who say things-they are excellent people, as far as their light extend; and we are ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers; but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our state.
For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best,but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our state. (24) However, Plato decided to play fair with lovers of poetry. That’s why he granted a chance to all poets and defenders of poetry to be a part of his ideal state and to be allowed to return from exile, only if they made a fine literary work that proves that poetry does not just delight but is also useful to human life. Plato says: Shall I propose, then, that she be allowed to return from exile, but upon this condition only that she make a defence of herself in lyrical or some other metre? Certainly.
And we may further grant to those of her defenders who are lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to states and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight? Certainly, he said, we shall be the gainers. (25) Those are Plato’s principal charges on poetry and objection to it. Before we pass on any judgment, we should not forget to keep in view the contemporary social conditions in which he lived. It was a time of political decline. Education was in a sorry state. The epics of Homer were part of studies and Homer’s epics were misrepresented and misinterpreted.
However, they were venerated by the Greeks almost like The Bible. In them, there are many stories which represent the gods in an unfavorable light. So they were the common objects of criticism on the part of philosophers and educationists. The wonderful flowering time of Greek art and literature was over. Literature was immoral, corrupt and degenerate. Women were regarded inferior human beings and slavery was wide spread. Confusion prevailed in all spheres of life intellectual, moral, political and educational. There was a constant debate between the philosophers and poets. Thus, in Plato’s time, poets added fuel to the fire. He looked at poets as breeders of falsehood and poetry as mother of lies.
Ironically it was Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, who was the first theorist to defend literature and poetry in his writing Poetics against Plato’s objections and his theory of mimesis. Aristotle was born in 384. B. C. For centuries during Roman age in Europe and after renaissance, Aristotle was honored as a law-giver and legislator. Even today his critical theories remain largely relevant, and for this he certainly deserves our admiration and esteem. In Poetics, his main concern appears to be tragedy, which in his day was considered to be the most developed form of poetry. Another part of poetics deals with comedy, but it is unfortunately lost. In his observations on the nature and function of poetry, he has replied the charges of Plato against poetry.