Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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His acquaintance with Greek literature enabled Shelley to
assume toward Roman poetry the attitude of a stern but
upright judge ; this is shown as well in his appreciation of
Lucretius as in his estimate of the general literary inferiority
of the Romans, and in his censure of the Alexandrianism
upon which no small part of the Latin poetry was nourished.
The moral instruction which poetry should impart appears,
according to Sidney, to be, as it were, mechanipally suspended
in the liquid mass of poetry ; according to Stowey, the bub-
bling wellspring of poetry is highly charged with secret
medicinal virtue, which renders still more agreeable the
medium by which it is conveyed. The one seeks to disguise
a wholesome bitterness ; the other is conscious of nothing
but an exhilarating and healthful potency. Sidney, in his
utilitarian vein, can condescend to speak of the mnemonic
value of verse. He presents himself before us as an ad-
vocate holding a brief for a discredited client, and seeking
to convince by any fair means, even to the sacrifice of the
defendant's dignity. His eloquence is forensic and practical,
like the literary genius of Rome. It deals with the tangible,
the ponderable ; with it he descends into the arena in order
to conquer. Once there, if his adversary's armor resist the
keen thrust of his sword, he is willing, like a Homeric hero,
to cast about for some convenient boulder with which to
crush him. Shelley, on the other hand, disdains to leave the
empyrean. Thence if he hurl a missile, it shall be the bolt
of Jove, which dazzles while it smites. To his glance the
farthest horizons are simultaneously disclosed. Accordingly,
he recognizes the identity of poetry with invention ; with
every species of fine art ; with the prescience of great law-
givers ; with an intuitional philosophy ; with vision which,
in the poverty of language, we call prophetic, but which is
really timeless, affirmatory of an eternal Now.


Shelley's historical perspective is larger and juster than
Sidney's ; he sees the ages unroll the panoramic destinies of
the race, and marks the elements of renewal and decay. He
gazes critically at the past, and hopefully into the future.
Sidney could not see a decade in advance, could not even
discern the youthful Shakespeare ; Shelley virtually foresaw
the whole transcendental movement in England and America,
with the train of beneficial effects by which it was to be ac-
companied. In a word and a figure, if Sidney is mounted
on a strong and active steed, it is still of mortal strain, while
Shelley is aloft on Pegasus, and scarcely condescends to
touch the ground in his airy flight.


In one point of the highest importance Shelley has per-
haps expressed himself too strongly. Speaking of the im-
potence of the will in the production of poetry, he explains
(p. 39) : "I appeal to the greatest poets of the present day
whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages
of poetry are produced by labor and study. The toil and
the delay recommended by critics can be justly interpreted
to mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired
moments, and an artificial connection of the spaces between
their suggestions by the intertexture of conventional expres-

The decision in this matter is one that can be given by
none so well as by the poets themselves. What testimony
is borne by the ancients, and what by the moderns ? If it
were possible to compare the utterances of men so various
as Pindar, Horace, Dante, Milton, Goethe, Schiller, Burns,
and Shelley himself Shelley the artist rather than Shelley
the theorist it would seem that the question might be

Pindar is usually regarded as the type of the fiery and


impassioned poet. In certain of his odes he characterizes
his own processes. Do these exclude labor and study?
According to that most accomplished and poetic of his
editors, Professor Gildersleeve, it is quite otherwise (p.
xxxvi) : " Of the richness of his workmanship none is better
aware than he. The work of the poet is a Daedalian work,
and the sinuous folds are wrought with rare skill (O. i, 105),
the art of art is selection and adornment, the production of
a rich and compassed surface (P. 9, 83). The splendor of
the Goddesses of Triumphal Song irradiates him (P. 9, 97),
and he is a leader in the skill of poesy, which to him is by
eminence wisdom (o-o^ta), wisdom in the art of the theme,
and in the art of the treatment." And again (p. xliii) :
" Pindar is a jeweller, his material gold and ivory, and his
chryselephantine work challenges the scrutiny of the micro-
scope, invites the study that wearies not day or night in
exploring the recesses in which the artist has held his art
sequestered invites the study and rewards it."

To the same effect is the judgment of Croiset, the author
of a fascinating book entitled La Poesie de Pindare (pp.
153-5): "From what precedes it will be sufficiently clear
that we should be forming a totally false notion of Greek
lyric poetry, if, in conformity with certain modem prepos-
sessions, we supposed it to be the product of unreasoning
impulse and blind inspiration. Nothing is less artless, in
one way, than the fine frenzy of the Greek lyric. In these
show-pieces of his art, the poet has but a general and remote
interest in the things of which he is discoursing. It is solely
by means of the imagination, and in a manner wholly artifi-
cial, that he succeeds in arousing his own emotional activity.
Friendship, gratitude for open-handed hospitality, even piety
in its stated and formal manifestations, are not sentiments
which can ravish the poet out of his self-possession ; and
we can attribute still less influence to the stipulated fee,
often the immediate cause of his strains. There are a thou-


sand proprieties for him to observe. He must possess tact
and pliancy of spirit which shall be equal to every occasion.
Nothing is more difficult than to eulogize gracefully, and
precisely in this the whole art of the lyric poet consists.
Whether gods or men form his subject, praise is his exclu-
sive concern. Hence it is deep and continuous reflection,
not ecstasy of any sort, which will conduct him to his goal.
If ecstasy has any share in the production, it is chiefly in
the final working up of his materials, after art and learning
have foreseen everything, calculated and disposed every-
thing, with reference to the effect intended.

" To all this the lyric poets paid full heed. In the preced-
ing pages we have already passed in review a considerable
number of Pindar's verses which contain allusions to laws
by which he felt himself bound. At other times he pretends
to lose his way, then checks and corrects himself, and
leads his chariot back again into the right road, and by so
doing furnishes the proof that even his poetic rapture
never ceases to keep watch over itself. The lyric poets
often allude to reefs on which they must beware of shatter-
ing their harks. Now the danger is one of excessive length,
now of a superfluity of praise, again of triteness or monotony.
Consummate skill is necessary in order to avoid these perils.
Nothing is less like a wild and headlong career than this
circumspect advance, so mindful of all its steps in the midst
of its superb dignity and magnificent speed. The lyric poet
calls himself a cunning workman, a craft-master, for so we
may translate the Greek words <ro</>ds and <ro<<.o-T??s which
Pindar employs. He speaks of his talent as readily as of
his Muse. He is fully conscious of his art and prides him-
self upon it. It is not through some chance inspiration that
he brings to light such marvels : it is through a science
which is perfectly master of itself, through an art which adds
to the gifts of the Graces and the Muses that which is no
less necessary, experience and craftsmanship. The poet's


inspiration is subject to laws, to fixed rules. These he must
know and to these he must submit."

Of Horace, generally esteemed the calmer and saner
mind, the dictum is well-known (Art of Poetry, 408-411) :
" Whether by genius or by art an excellent poem is produced,
has often been the question ; but I do not see what can be
done by study without a rich vein of intellect, nor by
genius when uncultivated ; so true is it that either requires
the help of either, and that the two combine in friendly

Dante has been quoted in the note to the passage.
Milton, though in a quite different form of words, virtually
echoes the Horatian sentiment (Reason of Church Govern-
ment} : " I began thus far to assent both to them and divers
of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward
prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labor and
intense study, which I take to be my portion in this life,
joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps
leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not
willingly let it die. ... I applied myself to that resolution
which Ariosto followed against the persuasions of Bembo, to
fix all the industry and art I could unite to the adorning of
my native tongue. . . . Nor to be obtained by the invoca-
tion of Dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout
prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utter-
ance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the
hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of
whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and
select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and
generous arts and affairs."

Goethe might be quoted in favor of the extreme view, and
might even be thought to go further than Shelley himself
(Eckermann, March n, 1828) : " No productiveness of the
highest kind, no remarkable discovery, no great thought
which bears fruit and has results, is in the power of any one ;


such things are elevated above all earthly control. Man
must consider them as an unexpected gift from above, as
the pure efflux of divine grace which he must receive and
venerate with joyful thanks. They are akin to the 8at/xov, or
genius of life, which does with him what it pleases, and to
which he unconsciously resigns himself, whilst he believes he
is acting from his own impulse. In such cases, man may
best be considered as an instrument in the higher govern-
ment of the world, as a vessel found worthy for the recep-
tion of a divine influence. I say this while I consider how
often a single thought has given a different form to whole
centuries ; and how individual men have, by their expres-
sions, imprinted a stamp upon their age, which has remained
uneffaced, and has operated beneficially upon many succeed-
ing generations." But against this must be alleged evidence
tending to correct such an impression (Letter to Schiller,
April 19, 1797) : "Some verses in Homer, which are pro-
nounced to be certainly not genuine and quite new, are of
the same kind as some which I myself interpolated into my
poem, after it was finished, in order to make the whole
clearer and more intelligible, and to prepare "betimes future
events. I am very curious to see what I shall be inclined
to add to or take from my poem, when I shall have got
through with my present studies."

Of Schiller, Goethe says {Eckermann, Nov. 14, 1823) :
" Schiller produced nothing instinctively or unconsciously ;
he must reflect upon every step ; therefore he always wished
to talk over his literary plans, and has conversed with me
about all his later works, piece by piece, as he was writing
them." And Schiller describes his own procedure when
engaged upon the Song of the Bell (Letter to Goethe, July
7> : 79?) : "I nave now gone to work at my bell- founder's
song, and since yesterday I have been studying in Kruenitz's
Encyclopaedia, out of which I get a great deal of profit.
This poem I have much at heart, but it will cost me several


weeks, because I need for it so many varieties of moods,
and there is a great bulk to be worked up."

In a bookseller's catalogue of manuscripts I find a quota-
tion in point from an alleged autograph letter of Burns, said
to bear date of Jan. 22, 1788, which, however, does not
appear in any of the published collections in that place.
The quotation is : "I have no great faith in the boasted
pretensions to intuitive propriety and unlabored elegance.
The rough material of fine writing is certainly the gift of
genius. But I as firmly believe that the workmanship is the
united effort of pains, attention, and repeated trial."

The principle of composition, as distinguished from direct
inspiration, was certainly recognized by Shelley, for he avows
that he acted upon it in the writing of Adonais (Letter to
Mr. and Mrs. Gisborne, June 5, 1821) : "I have been en-
gaged these last days in composing a poem on the death of
Keats, which will shortly be finished. ... It is a highly
wrought /&? of art, and perhaps better, in point of compo-
sition, than anything I have written."

Perhaps as good a summary as is required may be found
in Saintsbury's note on the passage which has called forth
this comment (Specimens of English Prose, p. 346) : " There
is an obvious fallacy here. The finest passages are not origi-
nally inspired by labor and study, but in their finest shape
they are the result of labor and study spent on the imme-
diate result of inspiration."


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 by one
thought to another, however produced, and the 5
latter as mind acting upon those thoughts so as
to color them with its own light, and composing
from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each
containing within itself the principle of its own
integrity. The one is the TO jroieiv, or the princi- 10
pie of synthesis, and has for its object those forms
which are common to universal nature and exist-
ence itself ; the other is the TO \oyietv, or principle
of analysis, and its action regards the relations of
things simply as relations ; considering thoughts 15
not in their integral unity, but as the algebraical
representations which conduct to certain general
results. Reason is the enumeration of quantities
already known ; imagination is the perception of
the value of those quantities, both separately and 20
as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and
imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is
to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as
the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the sub-
stance. 25


Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be
'the expression of the imagination'; and poetry
is connate with the origin of man. Man is an in-
strument over which a series of external and inter-

s nal impressions are driven, like the alternations of
an ever-changing wind over an yEolian lyre, which
move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.
But there is a principle within the human being,
and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts

10 otherwise than in a lyre, and produces not mel-
ody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment
of the sounds and motions thus excited to the im-
pressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre
could accommodate its chords to the motions of

15 that which strikes them, in a determined proportion
of sound ; even as the musician can accommodate
his voice to the sound of the lyre. A child at play
by itself will express its delight by its voice and
motions ; and every inflection of tone and every

20 gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding
antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awak-
ened it ; it will be the reflected image of that im-
pression ; and as the lyre trembles and sounds
after the wind has died away, so the child seeks,

25 by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration
of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of
the cause. In relation to the objects which delight
a child, these expressions are what poetry is to
higher objects. The savage (for the savage is to

30 ages what the child is to years) expresses the emo-
tions produced in him by surrounding objects in
a similar manner ; and language and gesture, to-
gether with plastic or pictorial imitation, become


the image of the combined effect of those objects
and his apprehension of them. Man in society,
with all his passions and his pleasures, next be-
comes the object of the passions and pleasures of
man ; an additional class of emotions produces an 5
augmented treasure of expression ; and language,
gesture, and the imitative arts, become at once the
representation and the medium, the pencil and the
picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and
the harmony. The social sympathies, or those 10
laws from which, as from its elements, society
results, begin to develop themselves from the
moment that two human beings co-exist ; the
future is contained within the present as the plant
within the seed ; and equality, diversity, unity, 15
contrast, mutual dependence, become the prin-
ciples alone capable of affording the motives
according to which the will of a social being is
determined to action, inasmuch as he is social ;
and constitute pleasure in sensation, virtue in sen- 20
timent, beauty in art, truth in reasoning, and love
in the intercourse of kind. Hence men, even in
the infancy of society, observe a certain order in
their words and actions, distinct from that of the
objects and the impressions represented by them,
all expression being subject to the laws of that
from which it proceeds. But let us dismiss those
more general considerations which might involve
an inquiry into the principles of society itself, and
restrict our view to the manner in which the imag- 30
ination is expressed upon its forms.

In the youth of the world, men dance and sing
and imitate natural objects, observing in these


actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.
And, although all men observe a similar, they
observe not the same order in the motions of the
dance, in the melody of the song, in the combina-
5 tions of language, in the series of their imitations
of natural objects. For there is a certain order
or rhythm belonging to each of these classes of
mimetic representation, from which the hearer and
the spectator receive an intenser and purer pleas-
ure than from any other ; the sense of an approxi-
mation to this order has been called taste by
modern writers. Every man, in the infancy of art,
observes an order which approximates more or less
closely to that from which this highest delight

15 results ; but the diversity is not sufficiently marked
as that its gradations should be sensible, except in
those instances where the predominance of this
faculty of approximation to the beautiful (for so
we may be permitted to name the relation between

20 this highest pleasure and its cause) is very great.
Those in whom it exists to excess are poets, in the
most universal sense of the word ; and the pleasure
resulting from the manner in which they express
the influence of society or nature upon their own

z$ minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers

a sort of reduplication from the community.

/ Their language is vitally metaphorical ; that is, it

marks the before unapprehended relations of things

' and perpetuates their apprehension, until words,

30 which represent them, become, through time, signs
for portions or classes of thought instead of pic-
tures of integral thoughts ; and then, if no new
poe-ts should arise to create afresh the associations


which have been thus disorganized, language will
be dead to all the nobler purposes of human inter-
course. These similitudes or relations are finely
said by Lord Bacon to be " the same footsteps of
nature impressed upon the various subjects of the 5
world" and he considers the faculty which per-
ceives them as the storehouse of axioms common
to all knowledge. In the infancy of society every
author is necessarily a poet, because language
itself is poetry ; and to be a poet is to apprehend 10
the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good
which exists in the relation subsisting, first be-
tween existence and perception, and secondly be-
tween perception and expression. Every original
language near to its source is in itself the chaos of 15
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 the
forms of the creations of poetry.

But poets, or those who imagine and express 20
this indestructible order, are not only the authors
of language and of music, of the dance, and archi-
tecture, and statuary, and painting : they are the
institutors of laws, and the founders of civil soci-
ety, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the 25
teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with
the beautiful and the true that partial apprehen-
sion of the agencies of the invisible world which /
is called religion. Hence all original religions are
allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and, like 30
Janus, have a double face of false and true. Poets,
according to the circumstances of the age and
nation in which they appeared, were called, in the


earlier epochs of the world, legislators or prophets ;
a poet essentially comprises and unites both these
characters. For he not only beholds intensely
the present as it is, and discovers those laws accord-
5 ing to which present things ought to be ordered,
but he beholds the future in the present, and his
thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit
of latest time. Not that I assert poets to be
prophets in the gross sense of the word, or that

10 they can foretell the form as surely as they fore-
know the spirit of events ; such is the pretence of
superstition, which would make poetry an attribute
of prophecy, rather than prophecy an attribute of
poetry. A poet participates in the eternal, the

15 infinite, and the one ; as far as relates to his con-
ceptions, time and place and number are not. The
grammatical forms which express the moods of
time, and the difference of persons, and the dis-
tinction of place, are convertible with respect to

20 the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry ;
and the choruses of yEschylus, and the Book of
Job, and Dante's Paradise, would afford, more than
any other writings, examples of this fact, if the
limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The

25 creations of music, sculpture, and painting are
illustrations still more decisive.

Language, color, form, and religious and civil
habits of action, are all the instruments and mate-
rials of poetry ; they may be called poetry by that

30 figure of speech which considers the effect as a
synonym of the cause. But poetry in a more
restricted sense expresses those arrangements of
language, and especially metrical language, which


are created by that imperial faculty whose throne
is curtained within the invisible nature of man.
And this springs from the nature itself of lan-
guage, which is a more direct representation of the
actions and passions of our internal being, and is 5
susceptible of more various and delicate combina-
tions, than color, form, or motion, and is more plas-
tic and obedient to the control of that faculty of
which it is the creation. For language is arbitra-
rily produced by the imagination, and has relation
to thoughts alone ; but all other materials, instru-
ments, and conditions of art have relations among
each other, which limit and interpose between con-
ception and expression. The former is as a mirror
which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, 15
the light of which both are mediums of communi-
cation. Hence the fame of sculptors, painters,
and musicians, although the intrinsic powers of the
great masters of these arts may yield in no degree
to that of those who have employed language as 20
the hieroglyphic of their thoughts, has never
equalled that of poets in the restricted sense of
the term ; as two performers of equal skill will
produce unequal effects from a guitar and a harp.
The fame of legislators and founders of religions, 25
so long as their institutions last, alone seems to

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Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 2 of 9)