Imitation: As a literary term, (1) a synonym for mimesis, a Greek term used by literary critics to refer to the representation of reality in literature; (2) the practice of modeling one’s writing after the established forms and styles of a particular genre.
The mimetic sense of imitation derives from the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.), in which Greek philosopher Aristotle discussed the representation of human action through the vehicle of poetry, which he subdivided into categories such as comedy, tragedy, and epic. Aristotle also discussed what types of actions ought to be “imitated,” as well as how and in what form, noting especially that the poet should present actions that show the relationship between life and art. Briefly put, Aristotle argued that art imitates nature but that it should do so selectively, with the poet carefully choosing and arranging the events and elements to be narrated. This view of poetry as a special imitation of human actions prevailed from classical times through the Neoclassical Period, although critics disagreed about matters such as which actions were worthy of being represented. With the advent of romanticism, however, a new view of poetry emerged not as a translation or record of human actions but rather as the personal, private expression of a poet’s feelings and imaginings.
Imitation in the sense of modeling was a common and acceptable practice that likewise persisted until the Romantic Period, which championed originality and individual expression. Writers were encouraged to imitate Graeco-Roman classics and the conventional forms and styles of a given genre in order to learn the art of composition. Our romantic heritage and attendant definitions of plagiarism incline us to disparage this practice today, but it was regarded throughout most of literary history as proper and useful in cultivating talent.