Shelley, Percy Bysshe

Assigned: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry” (601-619). Also read the editors’ introduction (598-600).

“A Defence of Poetry” (1821/1840)

1. On 601-02 (“Poetry is ever accompanied with…”), Percy Bysshe Shelley says that poetry “is ever accompanied with pleasure” (601). At the same time, he suggests that even the most excellent poets and their works of genius are seldom recognized in their own time. Why is that so? What relation between poet and audience does Shelley evoke with his renowned “nightingale” metaphor, which runs, “A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds…” (601)? In the surrounding commentary, how does he more fully explain the relationship between poet and audience, poet and literary history?

2. On 602 (“The whole objection however of…”), Shelley addresses the moral dimension of poetry, and suggests that poets “act in another and diviner manner” than those who merely promote “admirable doctrines.” What “diviner manner” does he go on to describe, then? what does Shelley identify as “the great secret of morals,” and how is this secret connected to the faculty of imagination? Why, in turn, is poetry’s operation upon the imaginative faculty so beneficial to the improvement of humanity’s moral nature? Finally, why do the best poets, according to Shelley, resolutely avoid incorporating the determinate moral systems of their own time into their poetry?

3. On 603-04 (“Homer and the cyclic poets were…”), how does Shelley address the place of lyric poetry and, most particularly, of drama among the Athenians during the Golden Age that spanned most of the 5th century B.C.E.? Why does he apparently consider Greek drama superior, on the whole, to the drama of any other period? All the same, what rationale does Shelley offer for claiming that Shakespeare’s King Lear is the “most perfect specimen of the dramatic art…” (604)? What does he argue, in particular, about the quality of the comic dimension in that play?

4. On 604-06 (“But we digress…”), in his satirical takedown of poetry titled “The Four Ages of Poetry,” Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock joked that modern poets were guilty of spurning scientific utility in favor of pandering to “the grown babies of the age.” Against this charge of immaturity and irrelevance, what observation does Shelley offer about “poetry in its most perfect and universal form” (604) as an indicator of a society’s moral health or decline? Under what condition, according to him, does drama resemble “a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature […] and touches them with majesty and beauty…” (605)? By contrast, what happens to drama in periods when “the decay of social life” (605) sets in?

5. On 606-07 (“Civil war, the spoils of Asia…”), how does Shelley illustrate by way of the “bucolic writers” (606) or pastoral poets of late antiquity the regenerative power remaining to poetry even in a corrupt age? How does he characterize the work of these Greek poets of the fourth to third centuries B.C.E.? What is the last mark of “social corruption” (606), and what vital service can such authors as the bucolic poets still perform for their readers, in spite of adverse conditions?

6. On 607-09 (“The same revolutions within a…”), in examining the Romans’ appropriation of Greek art, how does Shelley broaden his definition of poetry to embrace what he considers the particular genius of the Roman people? In what did that genius consist, if not in poetry in the conventional sense? After the collapse of the Roman Empire, what kept the world from “utter anarchy and darkness” (608)? In the eleventh century, how, according to Shelley, did the Christian and Chivalric systems lead to improvements in the lives of Europeans? (608-09)

7. On 609-10 (“The abolition of personal slavery is…”), Shelley mentions another outgrowth of the Christian and chivalric order and the social changes it sparked: the development of “the poetry of sexual love” (609 bottom). What praise does he offer of Petrarch, the French Trouveurs or Troubadors, and Dante as well as certain later poets and dramatists, Shakespeare among them? What degree of agency does Shelley grant this love poetry in the improvement of gender relations in modern Europe?

8. On 610-11 (“The poetry of Dante may be…”), how did Dante and Milton, according to Shelley, unintentionally help to lead their respective cultures beyond then-current forms of life and thought? How did they set down in permanent form what was most worthy in their eras to be preserved? In praising Milton, what critique of Paradise Lost’s theology does Shelley nonetheless offer? Why does he consider Milton’s Satan “superior” to his God? If you have read Paradise Lost, do you agree with Shelley’s claims, or do you think they amount to what Harold Bloom (Leitch 1572-81) would call “strong misreading”—i.e., to a motivated misreading that opens the way to new art?

9. On 611-12 (“Homer was the first, and Dante…”), Shelley establishes what he considers the hierarchy of epic poets: Homer, Dante, and Milton. What criteria must be met, in his view, to have one’s name placed on this list of epic poets? What relationship must genuinely “epic” poets have to the age in which they lived and created their poetry? Why do even Virgil, author of The Aeneid, and Edmund Spenser, author of the Elizabethan classic The Faerie Queene, not appear in the list? What great transformative power does Shelley accord particularly to Dante and his poetry, with regard to the state of religion and learning in late medieval Europe?

10. On 612-13 (“The age immediately succeeding to…”), how does Shelley refute those (like his friend Thomas Love Peacock) who say that poetry should give way before the demands of modern “Utility” and reason? How does Shelley define this term “Utility” (612 bottom) in relation to the superior or inferior species of pleasure that it leads to? How does he define these two kinds of pleasure to begin with? Why, then, according to him, is poetry in fact the most “useful” of all human activities, rather than the irrational and inconsequential thing promoters of vulgar utility claim it is? What complexity in defining “pleasure in the highest sense” (613) does Shelley introduce at the end of this reflection on utility—why is the highest pleasure, which “Poets or poetical philosophers” (613) produce, so often (but not always) bound together with pain and sorrow?

11. On 614-15 (“The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon…”), while explaining why he thinks poetry is necessary to human well-being and progress, Shelley writes, “we want [i.e., lack, or are in need of] the creative faculty to imagine that which we know” (614). In what sense do his remarks here and on 615 criticize the tendencies of modern scientific practice, and deflate the claims of rational philosophy to ultimate wisdom? In addition, what does he imply is responsible in modern times for denigrating both individual imagination and the sense of community that makes true advancement possible? In Shelley’s view, what does a world that progresses only through reason and science look like? What kind of life does it lead to, and how can “the poetical faculty” help modern people calibrate their material success and power to the requirements of “the internal laws of human nature” (615)?

12. On 615-16 (“Poetry is indeed something divine…”), Shelley addresses the issue of inspiration. In Plato’s Ion (Leitch 46-58), Socrates argues that inspiration is a direct transmission of emotion from the gods to the poet to the rhapsode (reciter) and thence to the audience: a magnetic chain of inspiration. According to Shelley, how does inspiration work with regard to the poet at the moment of creation? How, too, does the inspired poem affect listeners or readers, once they get hold of it? In responding, consider Shelley’s famous “fading coal” metaphor (615) and indeed the entire passage beginning with “Poetry is not like reasoning…” (615 lower middle) through the sentence ending with “a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.” From whence does poetic inspiration “arise” (615), and why can’t the poet command it by conscious effort or willpower, or even express it to the fullest extent?

13. On 616-17 (“Poetry is the record of the best and…”), Shelley transitions to what we may take as a consideration of the power of poetic language, even though he is still in part addressing the issue of the poet’s capacity for inspiration. In The Statesman’s Manual, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggests that symbolic utterances bridge the gap between mind and matter, subject and object, and that a symbol, far from being a mere literary device, “participates in the Reality which it renders intelligible.” What is Shelley’s implied view of poetic language here, and how does that view compare to the strong claims that his fellow theorist and poet Coleridge makes? How, and to what extent, do the poets’ words participate in the power of their original inspiration? (In responding, consider Shelley’s metaphor of poetry as a kind of being or entity whose “footsteps are like those of a wind over a sea, which the coming calm erases…” (616). This metaphor might refer not only to the inspired status of poetic composition but also to the poem’s actual language.)

14. On 617-19 (“A Poet, as he is the author…”), Shelley first discusses the matter of some artists’ supposed imperfections of character. What defense does he offer in this regard? How, too, does he appraise the current state of literary England in 1820 (the end of the Regency Period), and what hope does he place in the power of poetry to help create a better human community? Soon, Shelley arrives at his stirring conclusion: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Explain the paradox involved in this claim, and try to unpack its complexity as a statement about the value of poets and poetry even in an age that seems not to have much appreciation for them.

15. General question: Are Shelley’s definitions of poets and poetry in “A Defence of Poetry” based more on the Romantic doctrine of expression than on the ancient theory of inspiration as we find it in Plato’s dialogue Ion (Leitch 46-58)? Is there a conflict between those two theories of how poetry is created, or do you see them as more or less complementary? Explain.

16. General question: Shelley, as a poet and theorist, is often considered to be among the boldest and most passionate of the Romantics (perhaps excepting William Blake). Some would even say that he is the most programmatic or doctrinaire member of that informal school. How do you relate Shelley’s stance in “A Defence of Poetry” to the critical precepts and poetics of at least one other English Romantic? (Our anthology offers selections by William Wordsworth, Leitch 563-86, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Leitch 587-97.) Whom do you prefer, Shelley or the other Romantic theorist, and why?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake