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Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Defense of Poetry

Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Defense of Poetry

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Published by: Odette Cortés London on Nov 04, 2010
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ACCORDING to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action which are called Reason and Imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne byone thought to another, however produced; and the latter as mind,acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light,and composing from them as from elements, other thoughts, eachcontaining within itself the principle of its own integrity. The oneis the
to poiein
, or the principle of synthesis and has for its objectsthose forms which are common to universal nature and existenceitself; the other is the
to logizein
or principle of analysis and itsaction regards the relations of things, simply as relations; consid-ering thoughts, not in their integral unity but as the algebraicalrepresentations which conduct to certain general results. Reasonis the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both seperately and as awhole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the simili-tudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to theagent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expres-sion of the Imagination:” and Poetry is connate with the originof man. Man is an instrument over which a series of externaland internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of anever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle withinthe human being and perhaps within all sentient beings, whichacts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, butharmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thusexcited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyrecould accomodate its chords to the motions of that which strikesthem, in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musiciancan accomodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; andevery inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relationto a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions whichawakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; andas the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, sothe child seeks by prolonging in its voice and motions the dura-tion of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. Inrelation to the objects which delight a child, these expressions are,what Poetry is to higher objects. The savage (for the savage is toages what the child is to years) expresses the emotions produced inhim by surrounding objects in a similar manner; and language andgesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation, become the im-age of the combined effect of those objects and of his apprehensionof them. Man in society, with all his passions and his pleasures,next becomes the object of the passions and pleasures of man; anadditional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of expressions, and language, gesture and the imitative arts become atonce the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture,the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony. The socialsympathies, or those laws from which as from its elements societyresults, begin to develope themselves from the moment that twohuman beings co-exist; the future is contained within the presentas the plant within the seed; and equality, diversity, unity, con-trast, mutual dependance become the principles alone capable of affording the motives according to which the will of a social beingis determined to action, inasmuch as he is social; and constitute pleasure in sensation, virtue in sentiment, beauty in art, truth inreasoning, and love in the intercourse of kind. Hence men, evenin the infancy of society, observe a certain order in their wordsand actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressionsrepresented by them, all expression being subject to the lawsof that from which it proceeds. But let us dismiss those moregeneral considerations which might involve an enquiry into the principles of society itself, and restrict our view to the manner inwhich the imagination is expressed upon its forms.In the youth of the world men dance and sing and imitatenatural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, acertain rhythm or order. And, although all men observe a similar,they observe not the same order in the motions of the dance, inthe melody of the song, in the combinations of language, in theseries of their imitations of natural objects. For there is a certainorder or rhythm belonging to each of these classes of mimeticrepresentation, from which the hearer and the spectator receivean intenser and a purer pleasure than from any other: the senseof an approximation to this order has been called taste, by mod-ern writers. Every man, in the infancy of art, observes an order which approximates more or less closely to that from whichthis highest delight results: but the diversity is not sufficientlymarked, as that its gradations should be sensible, except in thoseinstances where the predominance of this faculty of approxima-tion to the beautiful (for so we may be permitted to name therelation between this highest pleasure and its cause) is verygreat. Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the mostuniversal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from themanner in which they express the influence of society or natureupon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gath-ers a sort of reduplication from that community. Their languageis vitally metaphorical; that is it marks the before unapprehendedrelations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until thewords which re present them become through time signs for  portions and classes of thoughts, instead of pictures of integralthoughts; and then, if no new poets should arise to create afreshthe associations which have been thus disorganized, languagewill be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.These similitudes or relations are finely said by Lord Bacon to be “the same footsteps of nature impressed upon the various sub- jects of the world” and he considers the faculty which receivesthem as the storehouse of axioms common to all knowledge. Inthe infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, becauselanguage itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend thetrue and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in therelation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, andsecondly between perception and expression. Every originallanguage near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem:the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and theform of the creations of Poetry.But Poets, or those who imagine and express this inde-structible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance and architecture and statuary and painting;they are the institutors of laws |&| the founders of civil societyand the inventors of the arts of life and the teachers, who drawinto a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that par-
A Defence of Poetry
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Page 2A Defence of Poetry - Percy Bysshe Shelley
tial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which iscalled religion. Hence all original religions are allegorical or sus-ceptible of allegory, and like Janus have a double face of falseand true. Poets, according to the circumstances of the age andnation in which they appeared were called in the earlier epochsof the world legislators or prophets: a poet essentially com- prises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholdsintensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws accordingto which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds thefuture in the present, and his thoughts are the forms of the flower and the fruit of latest time. Not that I assert poets to be proph-ets in the gross sense of the word, or that they can fortell theform as surely as they foreknow the spirit of events: such is the pretence of superstition which would make poetry an attributeof prophecy, rather than prophecy an attribute of poetry. A Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite and the one; as far as re-lates to his conceptions time and place and number are not. Thegrammatical forms which express the moods of time, and thedifference of persons and the distinction of place are convertiblewith respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry,and the choruses of Æschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s
would afford more than any other writings examplesof this fact, if the limits of this paper did not forbid citation. Thecreations of sculpture, painting and music are illustrations stillmore decisive.Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habitsof action are all the instruments and materials of poetry; theymay be called poetry by that figure of speech which considersthe effects as a synonime of the cause. But poetry in a morerestricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, andespecially metrical language which are created by that imperialfaculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of language whichis a more direct representation of the actions and the passionsof our internal being, and is susceptible of more various anddelicate combinations than colour, form or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the controul of that faculty of which it isthe creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the Imagi-nation and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materi-als, instruments and conditions of art have relations amongeach other, which limit and interpose between conception andexpression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediumsof communication. Hence the fame of sculptors, painters andmusicians, although the intrinsic powers of the great mastersof these arts, may yield in no degree to that of those who haveemployed language as the hieroglyphic of their thoughts, hasnever equalled that of poets in the restricted sense of the term;as two performers of equal skill will produce unequal effectsfrom a guitar and a harp. The fame of legislators and founders of religions, so long as their institutions last, alone seems to exceedthat of poets in the restricted sense: but it can scarcely be a ques-tion whether if we deduct the celebrity which their flattery of thegross opinions of the vulgar usually conciliates, together withthat which belonged to them in their higher character of poetsany excess will remain.We have thus circumscribed the word Poetry within thelimits of that art which is the most familiar and the most perfectexpression of the faculty itself. It is necessary however to makethe circle still narrower, and to determine the distinction betweenmeasured and unmeasured language; for the popular division into prose and verse, is inadmissible in accurate philosophy.Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both betweeneach other and towards that which they represent, and a percep-tion of the order of those relations, has always been found con-nected with a perception of the order of the relations of thoughts.Hence the language of poets has ever affected a certain uniformand harmonious recurrence of sound without which it were not poetry, and which is scarcely less indispensible to the com-munication of its influence, than the words themselves withoutreference to that peculiar order. Hence the vanity of translation;it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you mightdiscover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed or it will bear noflower—and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.An observation of the regular mode of the occurrenceof this harmony, in the language of poetical minds, together with its relation to music, produced metre, or a certain systemof traditional forms of harmony and language. Yet it is by nomeans essential that a poet should accomodate his language tothis traditional form, so that the harmony which is its spirit, beobserved. The practise is indeed convenient and popular and to be preferred, especially in such composition as includes muchaction: but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon theexample of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose-writers isa vulgar error. The distinction between philosophers and poetshas been anticipated. Plato was essentially a poet—the truth andsplendour of his imagery and the melody of his language is themost intense that it is possible to conceive. He rejected the mea-sure of the epic, dramatic and lyrical forms, because he sought tokindle a harmony in thoughts divested of shape and action, andhe forebore to invent any regular plan of rhythm which wouldinclude under determinate forms, the varied pauses of his style.Cicero sought to imitate the cadence of his periods but with littlesuccess. Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet andmajestic rhythm which satisfies the sense no less than the almostsuperhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; itis a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the readers’ mind and pours itself forth together with it into theuniversal element with which it has perpetual sympathy. All theAuthors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poetsas they are inventors, nor even as their words unveil the perma-nent analogy of things by images which participate in the lifeof truth; but as their periods are harmonious and rhythmical andcontain in themselves the elements of verse; being the echo of theeternal music. Nor are those supreme poets, who have employedtraditional forms of rhythm on account of the form and action of their subjects, less incapable of perceiving and teaching the truthof things, than those who have omitted that form. Shakespeare,Dante and Milton (to confine ourselves to modern writers.) are philosophers of the very loftiest powers.A Poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternaltruth. There is this difference between a story and a poem, that astory is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other bond
Page 3A Defence of Poetry - Percy Bysshe Shelley
of connexion than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect;the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeableforms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator,which is itself the image of all other minds. The one is partial,and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combi-nation of events which can never again recur; the other is univer-sal and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of humannature. Time, which destroys the beauty and the use of the storyof particular facts, stript of the poetry which should invest them,augments that of Poetry and forever developes new and won-derful applications of the eternal truth which it contains. Henceepitomes have been called the moths of just history; they eat outthe poetry of it. A story of particular facts is as a mirror whichobscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: Poetry is amirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.The parts of a composition may be poetical, without thecomposition as a whole being a poem. A single sentence may beconsidered as a whole though it may be found in the midst of aseries of unassimilated portions; a single word even may be aspark of inextinguishable thought. And thus all the great histori-ans, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy, were poets; and although the planof these writers, especially that of Livy, constrained them fromdeveloping this faculty in its highest degree they make copiousand ample amends for their subjection, by filling all the inter-stices of their subjects with living images.Having determined what is poetry, and who are poets, letus proceed to estimate its effects upon society.Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure: all spirits onwhich it falls, open themselves to receive the wisdom whichis mingled with its delight. In the infancy of the world, nei-ther poets themselves nor their auditors are fully aware of theexcellency of poetry: for it acts in a divine and unapprehendedmanner, beyond and above consciousness: and it is reserved for future generations to contemplate and measure the mighty causeand effect in all the strength and splendour of their union. Evenin modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fulness of hisfame; the jury which sits in judgement upon a poet, belongingas he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be empannelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of manygenerations.A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, andsings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditorsare as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, whofeel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whenceor why. The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were thedelight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that socialsystem which is the column upon which all succeeding civiliza-tion has reposed. Homer embodied the ideal perfection of hisage in human character; nor can we doubt that those who readhis verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like toAchilles, Hector and Ulysses: the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism and persevering devotion to an object, were unveiledto the depths in these immortal creations: the sentiments of theauditors must have been refined and enlarged by a sympathywith such great and lovely impersonations until from admiringthey imitated, and from imitation they identified themselves withthe objects of their admiration. Nor let it be objected, that thesecharacters are remote from moral perfection, and that they can by no means be considered as edyfying paterns for general imita-tion. Every epoch under names more or less specious has deifiedits peculiar errors; Revenge is the naked Idol of the worshipof a semi barbarous age; and self-deceit is the veiled Image of unknown evil before which luxury and satiety lie prostrate. But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries as the temporarydress in which his creations must be arrayed, and which cover without concealing the eternal proportions of their beauty. Anepic or dramatic personage is understood to wear them aroundhis soul, as he may the antient armour or the modern uniformaround his body; whilst it is easy to conceive a dress more grace-ful than either. The beauty of the internal nature cannot be so far concealed by its accidental vesture, but that the spirit of its formshall communicate itself to the very disguise; and indicate theshape it hides from the manner in which it is worn. A majesticform, and graceful motions will express themselves through themost barbarous and tasteless costume. Few poets of the highestclass have chosen to exhibit the beauty of their conceptions in itsnaked truth and splendour; and it is doubtful whether the alloyof costume, habit etc. be not necessary to temper this planetarymusic for mortal ears.The whole objection however of the immorality of poetryrests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry actsto produce the moral improvement of man. Ethical science ar-ranges the elements which poetry has created, and propoundsschemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise,and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another.But poetryacts in another and a diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges themind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unap- prehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from thehidden beauty of the world; and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it re-produces all that it represents, andthe impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thencefor-ward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them,as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extendsitself over all thoughts and actions with which it co-exists. Thegreat secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature,and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which existsin thought, action or person, not our own. A man to be greatlygood, must imagine in tensely and comprehensively; he must puthimself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instru-ment of moral good is the imagination: and poetry administers tothe effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circum-ference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and as-similating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which formnew intervals and interstices whose void forever craves freshfood. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of themoral nature of man in the same manner as exercise strengthensa limb. A Poet therefore would do ill to embody his own concep-tions of right and wrong which are usually those of his place andtime in his poetical creations, which participate in neither. Bythis assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, inwhich perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly,he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. There waslittle danger that Homer or any of the eternal poets, should have

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