Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.04

Mats Malm, The Soul of Poetry Redefined: Vacillations of Mimesis from Aristotle to Romanticism.   Copenhagen:  Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2012.  Pp. 238.  ISBN 9788763537421.  $43.00.  

Reviewed by Richard F. Hardin, University of Kansas (

Those who think seriously about mimesis in Aristotle’s Poetics should appreciate a good part of this well-informed and at times innovative study. Especially in his first five chapters, Mats Malm has an unusual focus on the history of this slippery idea. He traces the meaning of mimesis from, originally, the imitation of actions (“res”) to the quite different sense of imitation that uses language (“verba”) as its medium. These are labeled respectively as “mimesis-composition” and “mimesis-representation.” Both kinds of mimesis, Malm observes, have been seen as “the soul [i.e., essence] of poetry,” and their opposition has created a fruitful dynamic in literary history. To understand mimesis Malm turns from the Poetics to the Rhetoric, where “words are imitations,” so that the act of imitation means “working it out in diction,” though always “muthos is the kind of mimesis that comes first” (28). In also considering implications for the principle of verisimilitude – i.e., probability? credibility? – Malm notes that the impreciseness in terminology over the centuries “makes ample space for renegotiating not only the soul of poetry but also the question of verisimilitude in poetry” (37). Throughout the book he shows a good comparatist’s knowledge of languages and sensitivity to the fascinating slippages that can occur in moving from and among Greek, Latin, and the modern European languages most involved in the establishing of critical theory.

A major crisis in the history of mimesis occurs with the medieval Arab misreading of the Poetics as chiefly about non-dramatic poetry rather than drama. From Western translations of Averroes, authors like Chaucer understood tragedy to mean a narrative about one who falls from power. Hence also the emphasis of such authors on poetry as epideictic, aimed at praise or blame, partly through visualization and especially through metaphor. The subject of an interesting chapter in Malm’s study is the poetics of Mathias Lincopensis, confessor to St. Bridget of Sweden, demonstrating the widespread incorporation of Averroistic ideas in the West. Mathias’s characteristically late medieval advocacy of visualization and his grounding in poetry as rhetoric would persist long after his time.

An original claim in Malm’s history emerges in chapter 4, on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian critics. The argument is that even Francesco Robortello, the first great scholar of the Poetics, believed that for Aristotle “the predominant sense of imitation is mimesis-representation” (80); not until Lodovico Castelvetro, two decades later, in 1570, was mimesis-composition proposed as Aristotle’s intended meaning. Yet when Castelvetro connects fable, character, and thought – Aristotle’s first three parts of tragedy – with invention and disposition (arrangement), Malm describes him as “the one who most succinctly formulates the correspondence” between the Poetics and Aristotle’s Rhetoric (85). This correspondence actually argues for a continuity rather than a disjunction between mimesis-composition and mimesis-representation. Touching on J. C. Scaliger and Sforza Pallavicino, the chapter concludes with the “mannerist” poetics of Emmanuele Tesauro, who in 1654 still upholds the Averroistic ideas of mimesis, proposing “a very strict definition of imitatio, which makes the soul of poetry more or less exclusively the same as metaphor” (98). While the Italian comments on Aristotle abound in terminological confusion, Malm notes, Tesauro clearly does shift the entire discussion into (for him) the more fruitful ground of the Rhetoric.

Chapter 5, “French Classicism and the Necessity of Probability,” contains very brief discussions of Corneille’s and Racine’s views regarding probability as derived from the sense of necessity inherent in the plot. Here it would have been worthwhile to discuss something of Daniel Heinsius’s 1611 book on the construction of plot in Aristotle. The Dutch humanist is widely recognized as a better scholar of the Poetics than the Italians and a key intermediary in the development of French classicism. This chapter argues that, during this period, mimesis- composition once again resumes its priority over representation as determining the soul of poetry. While the seemingly important era of French classicism receives only eight pages, chapter 6, “The Principle and Polemics of the Fine Arts,” receives twenty, focusing on Charles Batteux’s 1746 Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe. (Malm appears most at home in the eighteenth century.) Batteux’s work appears at a time when attention is shifting “from the object to the mediating subject. The emphasis on the imagination and the evolving aesthetics implied that imitation could no longer be the essence of poetry” (111). A problem noted all along has been that some poetic genres, pre-eminently that of lyric, are entirely lacking in plot; accordingly, the soul of poetry must be not fable or plot, but representation, especially the technique of representation. All art is representation, says Batteux, and in poetry its means is language. Yet, as Malm writes at the start of the next chapter, that is a “rather unchallenging” idea, “so truistic that hardly anyone could object to it” (131). Chapter 7, a brief foray into Schlegel and the early nineteenth century, bids farewell entirely to Aristotelian theory, turning instead to three chapters on “the questions of mimesis-composition and especially mimesis-representation in the development of aesthetics” (136). It thereafter becomes clear why “vacillations” appears in the book’s subtitle.

The last fifty pages of the book are devoted to the symbol, the sublime, and the place of emotions in the development of genre theory. Chapter 8 is entitled “The Technique of the Sublime,” a subject on which Malm has previously written effectively. It continues his prior argument for the importance of phantasia to the understanding of Peri hupsous, the critical text traditionally attributed to Longinus. “Every instance of phantasia” in this work, he argues (tracing Boileau’s misleading influence on its reception), “is to be understood in the sense of ‘image’ or ‘visualization.’” (146). Chapter 9, “The Symbol and the Categories of Rhetoric,” treats its subjects with appalling superficiality. There is a brief nod to Tzvetan Todorov’s Theories of the Symbol in the first end note, but no serious engagement with this or many of the other writings on this vast topic (e.g., Angus Fletcher’s monumental Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, which makes short work of the old symbol-allegory dichotomy). The last chapter, “Emotions and the System of Genres,” sees the eighteenth century as the time when a new validation of human emotion evolved concurrently with the elevation of lyric to a major genre: “This appraisal of lyric and emotion could hardly have taken place earlier in history, since it depends partly on scientific progress, not least within psychology, and partly on an apparent change of moral values connected with emotions” (171). A symposium of classicists on this point of view would be worth paying for.

So this is a book about the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics, the various meanings attached to mimesis, the sublime, the emergence of the symbol with romanticism, and the development of emotions as a criterion of literary theory. I think it should have stopped after chapter 6. One of Malm’s chief guides (rightly so) is Stephen Halliwell’s The Aesthetics of Mimesis; however, Halliwell’s dialectic is not composition versus representation, but the opposition between mimesis as world-creating and as world-reflecting.1 On the whole, critical interest in mimesis has been totally centered on “mimesis-composition,” so Malm’s book may hold only marginal interest for scholars of the Poetics. And his account of the Renaissance may not convince everyone that Robortello confused the Aristotelian with the Averroistic. In work that immediately followed his famous commentary, the Italian appears to be thinking only of “mimesis-composition,” as when he says of comedy: “Finem habet sibi propositum comoedia eum quem et alia omnium poematum genera: imitari mores et actiones hominum.”2 On the other hand, Minturno, who is not seriously discussed until chapter 10, inexplicably taking us back to roads already traveled, does seem to have been a victim of the composition-representation confusion. That poet, he says, “will invent correctly who will have chosen not only verisimilar things or those which might have happened, as demanded by the subject represented, but also things which will do honor to the whole poem, and make it varied, beautiful and pleasing; nor should they clash with each other, or be inappropriate to the matter undertaken.”3 This seems to support Malm’s view of Italian Aristotelianism. But not long after Italy and France, Malm summarily retires Aristotle to the shelf – even though the philosopher went on to vitalize a whole critical school in twentieth-century Chicago. In bringing the history of Aristotle’s Poetics to bear on certain early modern theories regarding representation (a word whose meaning is hard to pin down) and related topics , this book has attempted to weave together some widely disparate strands of literary aesthetics.


1.   Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 5.
2.   Francesco Robortello, Explicationes de satyra, de epigrammate, de comedia, de elegia, in Bernard Weinberg, ed., Trattati di poetica e retorica del cinquecento, vol. 1. Scrittori d’Italia, no. 247 (Bari, 1970), 493- 537 (517). This is an attempt to apply the Poetics to other genres than tragedy. Malm might have found Weinberg’s volumes in this collection useful for his project.
3.   Quoted in Bernard Weinberg, “The Poetic Theories of Minturno,” Studies in Honor of Frederick W. Shipley, n. ed., Washington University Studies, new series, Language and Literature, 14 (St. Louis, 1942), 101-29 (113).

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