Sir William Jones, "On the Arts Commonly Called Imitative" (1772)

A friend of Burke and a member of Dr. Johnson's Literary Club, Jones argues in this essay in favor of an expressive, rather than a mimetic, theory of art. Instead of imitating manners or passions, he argues that art works most effectively by evoking them.

The passions are the most proper subjects of poetry. Indeed,

[L]et us conceive that some vehement passion is expressed in strong words exactly measured, and pronounced in a common voice, in just cadence, and with proper accents--such an expression of the passion will be genuine poetry....

If passion is presented with perfect artfulness (and Jones suggests that musical accompaniment may be essential to such perfection), then the utterance will be

pure and original music, not merely soothing to the ear, but affecting to the heart, not an imitation of nature, but the voice of nature herself.

Jones explains that at the pinnacle of expression, art works through a principle of sympathy:

[T]he finest parts of poetry, music, and painting are expressive of the passions, and operate on our minds by sympathy; ...the inferior parts of them are descriptive of natural objects, and affect us chiefly by substitution....

At the end of the essay, Jones speaks of the way that art produces the beautiful and the sublime in his theory:

[T]he expressions of love, pity, desire, and the tender passions, as well as the descriptions of objects that delight the senses, produce in the arts what we call the beautiful; but...hate, anger, fear, and the terrible passions, as well as objects which are unpleasing to the senses, are productive of the sublime when they are aptly expressed or described.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography