Nothing is more remarkable in the history of literary criticism than the way in which theories launched in the classical age have kept a grip on people’s minds. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, writers were still hotly debating how far the authority of the ancients ought to determine literary practice. When in 1789 Thomas Twining (1735–1804) published what was to become for long the standard translation of Aristotle’s Poetics (Aristotle’s Treatise on Poetry), he accompanied it with Two Dissertations on Poetic and Numerical Imitation in the effort to rescue the Aristotelian concept ‘imitation’ from connotative confusions he detected as it was tossed about in argument between contemporary writers. In our own century, in 1955, when the Hungarian critic Georg Lukácz (1885–1971) made a celebrated critique of recent literary tendencies in a lecture, ‘The Ideology of Modernism’, he expounded his case on the basis of ‘the traditional Aristotelian dictum’ that man is a social animal. The dictum is ‘applicable to all great realist literature’, ‘to Achilles and Werther, Oedipus and Tom Jones, Antigone and Anna Karenina’.
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