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Richard L. W.

Clarke LITS2002 Notes 08


PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY “A DEFENCE OF POETRY” (1821) Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 516-529. “What Are Poets?” Read


from “According to one mode . . .” (p. 516) to “ . . . still more decisive.” (p.517); from “Poetry is indeed something divine . . .” (p.527) to “ . . . the most enlarged imagination” (p. 527); and from “A poet, as he is the author . . .” (p.528) to “ . . . unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (p.529).

In order to understand the nature of the poet, Shelley believes, like Wordsworth, that he must first address the nature of human beings and of the mind in particular. Some have argued that Shelley evinces an apparently Kantian view of consciousness, positing the existence of a transcendental self that is not subject to the shaping forces of the environment external to man. Indeed, some have even stressed the influence on Shelley of Kant’s heirs, the so-called German Idealists Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, whom Coleridge deeply admired. From this perspective, some doubt that Shelley actually wrote the “Defence” which was published posthumously by his wife and is in conflict with the nihilist bent of his poetry and other prose writings. Shelley begins by comparing man’s mind to an aeolian lyre (or harp), a musical instrument which, like chimes, makes sounds in response to the wind which blows over its strings. The mind, he says, is an “instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternation of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever changing melody” (my emphasis; 516). In other words, comparing humans to harps, Shelley argues that the mind (the lyre) produces conscious thought (the melody) partly in response to external impetuses (the wind; the external impressions) and partly in response to internal impetuses (the internal impressions derived from transcendental sources). Shelley calls the part of our mind which is shaped by external impressions and which is responsible for conscious thought our reason. However, Shelley argues that, unlike harps, there is a part of man’s mind which is responsible for adding ‘harmony’ on top of these ‘melodies’: there is also a principle within the human being, and perhaps all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. (516) Where conscious thought furnished by the reason consists of a sequence of ideas, it is the Imagination which allows idea to be layered harmoniously and simultaneously on idea, in other words, it allows for connections, links, associations and combinations between ideas but otherwise unnoticed to be intuited. (This is a very different use of the term ‘intuition’ [i.e. a spiritual insight of some kind] from Aristotle’s definition of it as merely the direct sensory apprehension of something.) Ultimately, these connections posited are of a very different kind from what Lockeans might term the ‘association of ideas’: the Imagination permits insights of a spiritual nature (of which the reason is incapable) into the true nature of reality. Shelley explores in greater detail the difference between the reason and the Imagination, which are both “classes of mental action” (516) or faculties or functions of the mind, found in each human being. He defines reason as the “mind contemplating the

Because the Imagination is the most important mental faculty. it accordingly “marries exultation and horror. (527-528) This is why he argues that the creative faculty is the “basis of all knowledge” (526). And whether it spreads its own figured curtain. like an . One cannot say that “I will compose poetry” (527). concerned with “synthesis” (516) or conceptualising the unification of phenomena where reason perceives only distinctions: where reason “respects the differences” (516). . the creative process is not one that can be consciously controlled. concerned with the logical processes of critical reasoning and argumentation to arrive at the truth of things. is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes” (526527). proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world. The reason is. he agues that the mind in creation is as a fading coal. as the shadow to the substance” (516). which some invisible influence. or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things. Shelley contends that poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. as such. As a result. in the Platonist scheme of things. in Shelley’s view. . making use of and building upon but also exceeding it: “[r]eason is to the imagination. the mind being able to “make a heaven of hell. it subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things” (527). . having enslaved the elements. at least in relation to the percipient” (527). The Imagination is.Richard L. and man. . That is. it equally creates for us a being within our being. we want the poetry of life” (526). in other words. He contends that the cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world. In other words. he stresses: it “creates new materials of knowledge and power and pleasure” (526) and it “engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange” (526) these materials “according to a certain rhythm and order which might be called the beautiful and the good” (526). By contrast. and composing from them. the Imagination is superior to reason. preoccupied with “analysis” (516) or understanding worldly phenomena by dissecting them. purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. the Imagination perceives the “similitudes of things” (516). All in all. after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. the Imagination is responsible for a higher level of thought than the reason and “has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself” (516). has. eternity and change. the Imagination is “mind acting upon those thoughts [produced by the reason] so as to colour them with its own light. as from elements. It creates anew the universe. splitting them into their constitutive elements. Arguing that we have more “moral. a hell of heaven” (527). . the generous impulse to act that which we imagine. a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will” (527). for want of the poetical faculty. are merely imperfect replicas. It . Shelley asserts that what we lack is the “creative faculty to imagine that which we know. other thoughts” (my emphasis. (526) The function of the poetic faculty is two-fold. remains himself a slave. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 08 2 relations borne by one thought to another. It is. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. as the body to the spirit. Creativity is “not like the reasoning. political and historical wisdom” (526) and more “scientific and economical knowledge” (526) than we know what to do with and that the “poetry in these systems of thought. responsible for composing a poem. . W. Arguing that knowledge is subjective. . as the instrument to the agent. that all things “exist as they are perceived. however produced” (516). grief and pleasure. to this end. the Imagination sees beyond the physical world to the essences or ideal forms of which physical phenomena. . 516).

However. which is the spirit of its forms” (527). . and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered. These are all functions within the province of the reason. Poetry is." (p. For Shelley. Having defined the poet. and always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden but elevating and delightful beyond all expression” (526). (527) Such “conditions of being” (527). . color. poetry does more than this: poets. . and whose traces remain only. are experienced mostly by “those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination” (527). . Its “words unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth” (518). This is because the poet “participates in the eternal. and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 08 3 inconstant wind. we are conscious only of “evanescent visitations of thought and feeling. an error to assert that the “finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study” (527). like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed. This is why Shelley speaks of poets as “communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature” (529) and functioning thereby to “measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all- . . For this reason. poetry is the “very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” (518): it “strips the veil of familiarity from the world. therefore. Poets are “compelled to serve” (529) that regal “power which is seated on the throne of their own soul” (529). 517) an “indestructible order” (517). but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea. . form. as such. 519). because of their power to envision an alternative world. at least at one level. “imagine and express” (my emphasis. He concludes that it is. . the infinite. emanating from within and over which the conscious portion of our mind (or reason) has little control. but he beholds the future in the present and his thoughts are the germ of the flower and the fruit of the latest time” (517). the “echo of the eternal music” (518). a mirror held up to the physical world. teachers. . the main “portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit . founders of civil society. inventors of the arts of life. which the morning calm erases. Shelley turns his attention to comprehending the nature of poetry. sometimes associated with place or person. . and the one” (517). as Wordsworth argues. . In a famous definition which signals a definitive shift towards the author-oriented or expressive model of literature which comes to predominate from about 1900. 517) to ". living images" (p. poetry makes use of media like words and is an imitation of human actions and behaviour. into the universe of things” (527) and. and religious and civil habits of action. poets are more than mere writers: they are “institutors of laws. from this point of view. . “What Is Poetry?” C Read from "Language. sometimes regarding our own mind alone. using their Imagination. . . are all the instruments and materials of poetry” (517). awakens to transitory brightness. (527) Poetry is the product of inspiration. Shelley argues that poetry is the “expression of the imagination” (516) of the poet. Rather. who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true. W. that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world” (517) which we normally call religion. It is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own. as on the wrinkled sand which paves it. . this power arises from within. he writes. form. Poetry is in short. to some degree at least . .Richard L. In other words. he avers. colour. Shelley terms them “legislators” (517) and “prophets” (517) because the poet “not only beholds intensely the present as it is. . He admits that reason evidently plays a part too: “[l]anguage. and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty.

poetry is a mirror which “makes beautiful that which is distorted” (519). which contained all oaks potentially. or motion” (517).519) to " . or as he puts it. . It “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man” (527) because it “turns all things to loveliness” (527). sends them forth among mankind” (527). poetry is by contrast the “creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature. which have no other connection than time. form. They are. whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man” (517) which he calls the Imagination. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 08 4 penetrating spirit” (529). Shelley. infinitely suggestive and evocative in a way that makes it very difficult to pinpoint meaning precisely: All high poetry is infinite. which is itself the image of all other minds” (518). and from "But let us not be betrayed . A great poem is a fountain for ever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight. it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life. because of their subject matter. and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations” (517) and is “more plastic and obedient of the faculty of which it is the creation” (517) than other media of representation found in other artforms such as “color. in fact. 528). and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature” (518). and especially metrical language. and veiling them. like so many before him. expresses itself. Shelley famously asserts. W. and applies only to a definite period of time. . The difference lies not merely in the fact that one is written in verse while the other is not. poetry is “universal. Where prose fiction is nothing more than a “story of particular facts” (519) and. This fact “springs from the nature itself of language” (517) which is a “more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being. advert to this purpose" (p. . 520). . Shelley anticipates the point of view on poetry of the neo-romantic Modernist Yeats upon whom he was very influential. Shelley also elevates poetry above prose fiction. and a certain combination of events which can never again recur” (518). ." (p. as existing in the mind of the creator. that sovereign faculty within man which links him to beyond the physical world. . Poetry’s Beneficial “Effects Upon Society” Read C C from "Having determined what is poetry . This is because poetry “expresses those arrangements of language. Veil after veil may be undrawn. Shelley also stresses that. Poetry. is the medium by which the Imagination. (525) In so saying. in other words. or in language or in form. the plastic arts (sculpture). is the “record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” (527). “measured and unmeasured language” (518). . Where a “story” (518) (prose fiction) is merely a “catalogue of detached facts. even though the latter also utilises words. He spends some time distinguishing between prose fiction and poetry. place. which are created by that imperial faculty. and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed." (p. 525) to " . circumstance. also responds to Plato’s invitation to rescue poetry from . the highest forms of poetry are not easily fathomable. Shelley accordingly ranks literature in general and poetry in particular above all other art forms such as the visual arts. cause and effect” (518). as such. . a “mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful” (519). Where prose fiction is “partial. or dance. It “makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world.Richard L. impressions blunted by reiteration" (p. Poetry. it is as the first acorn.

. he argues. and censure. . and deceive. by moulding the reader’s imagination]” (520). Pointing out that it is not “for want of admirable doctrines that men hate. despair . Shelley writes. he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. a “going out of our nature. but they merely “follow in the footsteps of poets” (525) who are concerned with the “production and assurance of pleasure in this highest sense” (526) which is poetry’s “true utility” (526). The latter performs a much “narrower” (525) function in that it merely “banishes the importunity of the wants of our animal nature. action. and adds spirit to sense” (525). and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought. He argues that there are two kinds of pleasure: “one durable. must imagine intensely and comprehensively. Rather. . This is why he contends that the “great instrument of moral good is the imagination” (520). Poetry produces “pleasure” (519) but not of the sort produced by tragedy (“[s]orrow. of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man” (519). “that of reason is more useful” (525). . the surrounding men with security of life. . . the dispersing the grosser delusions of superstition. the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own” (519). enlarging the “circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight. “Those who produce and preserve this pleasure are poets or poetical philosophers” (526). much more “limited” (525) form of pleasure. This is why Shelley counsels against openly moralising in poetry (the “effect of .e. Shelley contends that poetry “acts in another and diviner manner” (519): It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts” (520). Clarke LITS2002 Notes 08 5 exile by arguing that it performs a beneficial moral function. and subjugate one another” (519). There is room in society for persons who are concerned with propagating the latter. . . “administers to the effect [i. he asserts. W. in order “to be greatly good. universal and permanent.e. anguish. the propagation of good] by acting upon the cause [i. and despise. Shelley responds to the claim that while the “exercise of the imagination is most delightful” (525).Richard L. . that is. and the conciliating such a degree of mutual forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of personal advantage” (525). . are usually those of his place and time” (520). Poetry “acts in a divine and unapprehended manner. Poetry. A man. beyond and above consciousness” (519). Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world. the other transitory and particular” (525). terror. [T]he impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them. as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. “all spirits upon which it falls open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its delight” (519). not our own” (519). . . poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose” [520]) and against making particular ethical claims: the poet’s “conceptions of right and wrong . rather than universals. Shelley argues that the “whole objection . He does so by equating “utility” (525) with both “pleasure” (525) and “good” (525) and defining pleasure as “that which the consciousness of a sensitive and intelligent being seeks” (525). (519) The “great secret of morals is love” (519). or person. Having discussed “who are poets” (519) and “what is poetry” (519). Poetry “strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man” (520) in the same manner as “exercise strengthens a limb” (520). enlarges the imagination. are often the chosen expression of an approximation to the highest good” [526]) or the “melancholy which is inseparable from the sweetest melody” (526). Shelley proceeds to focus on “its effects upon society” (519). The former “strengthens and purifies the affections.

and veiling them. bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide – abide. which is the spirit of its forms. grief and pleasure. Poets “colour all that they combine with the evanescent hues of this ethereal world” (527) as a result of which a “word. he contends that the present period is the latest to engage in a “national struggle for civil and religious liberty” (529) and that poetry is the “unfailing herald. the cold. to calculate the “moral condition of the world” (526) had poets like Shakespeare not lived: the human mind could never. turns all things to loveliness. it strips the veil of familiarity from the world. Shelley argues. and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion. which it is now tempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself. This is why Shelley argues that philosophers like Locke and Voltaire perform important functions but “it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited. eternity and change. because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. or institution” (529). It is impossible. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man. it marries exultation and horror. had they never lived” (526). (527) Poetry. it arrests the vanishing interlunations of life. and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed. all irreconcilable things. (526) . W. a trait in the representation of a scene or a passion will touch the enchanted chord and reanimate in those who have ever experienced these emotions.Richard L. or in language or in form. have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 08 6 The “state of mind produced” (527) by poetry. Shelley continues. except by the intervention of these excitements [on the part of poets]. and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society. sends them forth among mankind. is one “at war with every base desire. it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful. companion. the sleeping. love. Poetry makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world. and friendship is essentially linked with such emotions” (527). It transmutes all that it touches. the buried image of the past” (527). and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty. The enthusiasm of virtue. (527) Arguing that the blossoming of literature “has ever preceded or accompanied a great and free development of the national will” (529). and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life. it subdues to union under its light yoke. patriotism. however.

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