Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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exceed that of poets in the restricted sense ; but
it can scarcely be a question, whether, if we deduct
the celebrity which their flattery of the gross
opinions of the vulgar usually conciliates, together 3
with that which belonged to them in their higher
character of poets, any excess will remain.

We have thus circumscribed the word poetry


within the limits of that art which is the most
familiar and the most perfect expression of the
faculty itself. It is necessary, however, to make
the circle still narrower, and to determine the dis-
5 tinction between measured and unmeasured lan-
guage ; for the popular division into prose and
verse is inadmissible in accurate philosophy.

Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both
between each other and towards that which they

10 represent, and a perception of the order of those
relations has always been found connected with a
perception of the order of the relations of thoughts.
Hence the language of poets has ever affected a
sort of uniform and harmonious recurrence of

15 sound, without which it were not poetry, and
which is scarcely less indispensable to the com-
munication of its influence than the words them-
selves without reference to that peculiar order.
Hence the vanity of translation ; it were as wise

20 to cast a violet into a crucible that you might dis-
cover the formal principles of its color and odor, 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 no flower and

*5 this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.

An observation of the regular mode of the
recurrence of harmony in the language of poetical
minds, together with its relation to music, produced
metre, or a certain system of traditional forms of

50 harmony and language. Yet it is by no means
essential that a poet should accommodate his lan-
guage to this traditional form, so that the harmony,
which is its spirit, be observed. The practice is


indeed convenient and popular, and to be preferred
especially in such composition as includes much
action ; but every great poet must inevitably inno-
vate upon the example of his predecessors in the
exact structure of his peculiar versification. The s
distinction between poets and prose writers is a
vulgar error. The distinction between philos-
ophers and poets has been anticipated. Plato was
essentially a poet the truth and splendor of his
imagery, and the melody of his language, are the 10
most intense that it is possible to conceive. He
rejected the harmony of the epic, dramatic, and
lyrical forms, because he sought to kindle a har-
mony in thoughts divested of shape and action,
and he forbore to invent any regular plan of rhythm 15
which would include, under determinate forms, the
varied pauses of his style. Cicero sought to imi-
tate the cadence of his periods, but with little suc-
cess. Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has
a sweet and majestic rhythm which satisfies the 20
sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom
of his philosophy satisfies the intellect ; it is a
strain which distends and then bursts the circum-
ference of the reader's mind, and pours itself forth
together with it into the universal element with 25
which it has perpetual sympathy. All the authors
of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily
poets as they are inventors, nor even as their words
unveil the permanent analogy of things by images
which participate in the life of truth ; but as their 30
periods are harmonious and rhythmical, and contain
in themselves the elements of verse; being the
echo of the eternal music. Nor are those supreme


poets, who have employed traditional forms of
rhythm on account of the form and action of their
subjects, less capable of perceiving and teaching
the truth of things, than those who have omitted
5 that form. Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton (to
confine ourselves to modern writers) are philos-
ophers of the very loftiest power.

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its
eternal truth. There is this difference between a
I 10 story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of
detached facts, which have no other connection
than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect ;
the other is the creation of actions according to
the unchangeable forms of human nature, as exist-

15 ing 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 cer-
tain combination of events which can never again
recur ; the other is universal, and contains within

20 itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives
or actions have place in the possible varieties of
human nature. Time, which destroys the beauty
and the use of the story of particular facts,
stripped of the poetry which should invest them,

25 augments that of poetry, and for ever develops new
and wonderful applications of the eternal truth
which it contains. Hence epitomes have been
called the moths of just history; they eat out the
poetry of it. A story of particular facts is as a

30 mirror which obscures and distorts that which
should be beautiful ; poetry is a mirror which
makes beautiful that which is distorted.

The parts of a composition may be poetical,


without the composition as a whole being a poem.
A single sentence may be considered as a whole,
though it may be found in the midst of a series of
unassimilated portions ; a single word even may
be a spark of inextinguishable thought. And thus
all the great historians, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy,
were poets ; and although the plan of these writers,
especially that of Livy, restrained them from
developing this faculty in its highest degree, they
made copious and ample amends for their subjec- 10
tion, by filling all the interstices of their subjects
with living images.

Having determined what is poetry, and who are
poets, let us proceed to estimate its effects upon
society. 15

Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure : all
spirits on which it falls open themselves to receive
the wisdom which is mingled with its delight. In
the infancy of the world, neither poets themselves
nor their auditors are fully aware of the excellency 2
of poetry, for it acts in a divine and unappre-
hended manner, beyond and above consciousness ;
and it is reserved for future generations to contem-
plate and measure the mighty cause and effect in
all the strength and splendor of their union. Even 25
in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the
fulness of his fame ; the jury which sits in judg-
ment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time,
must be composed of his peers ; it must be impan-
elled by Time from the selectest of the wise of 30
many generations. A poet is a nightingale, who
sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude
with sweet sounds ; his auditors are as men en-


tranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who
feel that they are moved and softened, yet know
not whence or why. The poems of Homer and
his contemporaries were the delight of infant
5 Greece ; they were the elements of that social sys-
tem which is the column upon which all succeeding
civilization has reposed. Homer embodied the
ideal perfection of his age in human character ;
nor can we doubt that those who read his verses

10 were awakened to an ambition of becoming like
to Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses ; the truth and
beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering
devotion to an object, were unveiled to their depths
in these immortal creations ; the sentiments of the

15 auditors must have been refined and enlarged by a
sympathy with such great and lovely impersona-
tions, until from admiring they imitated, and from
imitation they identified themselves with the objects
of their admiration. Nor let it be objected that

20 these characters are remote from moral perfection,
and that they are by no means to be considered as
edifying patterns for general imitation. Every
epoch, under names more or less specious, has
deified its peculiar errors ; Revenge is the naked

25 idol of the worship of 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 temporary dress in which his creations must be

30 arrayed, and which cover without concealing the
eternal proportions of their beauty. An epic or
dramatic personage is understood to wear them
around his soul, as he may the ancient armor or


modern uniform around his body ; whilst it is easy
to conceive a dress more graceful than either. The
beauty of the internal nature can not be so far con-
cealed by its accidental vesture, but that the spirit
of its form shall communicate itself to the very 5
disguise, and indicate the shape it hides from the
manner in which it is worn. A majestic form and
graceful motions will express themselves through
the most barbarous and tasteless costume. Few
poets of the highest class have chosen to exhibit 10
the beauty of their conceptions in its naked truth
and splendor ; and it is doubtful whether the alloy
of costume, habit, etc., be not necessary to tem-
per this planetary music for mortal ears.

The whole objection, however, of the immorality 15
of poetry rests upon a misconception of the man-
ner in which poetry acts to produce the moral
improvement of man. Ethical science arranges
the elements which poetry has created, and pro-
pounds schemes and proposes examples of civil 20
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 poe-
try acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens


and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the 25
receptacle of a thousand unapprehcnded combina-
tions of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the
hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar
objects be as if they were not familiar ; it repro-
duces all that it represents, and the impersonations 30
clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in
the minds of those who have once contemplated
them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted con-


tent which extends itself over all thoughts and
actions with which it co-exists. The great secret
of morals is love ; or a going out of our own nature,
and an identification of ourselves with the beauti-

5 ful which exists in thought, action, or person, not
our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imag-
ine intensely and comprehensively ; he must put
himself in the place of another and of many
others ; the pains and pleasures of his species must

10 become his own. The great instrument of moral
good is the imagination ; and poetry administers to
the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry en-
larges the circumference of the imagination by
replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight,

15 which have the power of attracting and assimi-
lating to their own nature all other thoughts, and
which form new intervals and interstices whose
/oid for eve,r craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens
the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature

20 of man, in the same manner as exercise strength-
ens a limb. A poet therefore would do ill to
embody his own conceptions of right and wrong,
which are usually those of his place and time, in
his poetical creations, which participate in neither.

25 By this assumption of the inferior office of inter-
preting the effect, in which perhaps after all he
might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would
resign a glory in the participation of the cause.
There was little danger that Homer, or any of the

30 eternal poets, should have so far misunderstood
themselves as to have abdicated this throne of
their widest dominion. Those in whom the poet-
ical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euri-


pides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently
affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry
is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in
which they compel us to advert to this purpose.

Homer and the cyclic poets were followed at a 5
certain interval by the dramatic and lyrical poets of
Athens, who flourished contemporaneously with
all that is most perfect in the kindred expressions
of the poetical faculty : architecture, painting, music,
the dance, sculpture, philosophy, and we may add, 10
the forms of civil life. For although the scheme
of Athenian society was deformed by many imper-
fections which the poetry existing in chivalry and
Christianity has erased from the habits and insti-
tutions of modern Europe ; yet never at any other 15
period has so much energy, beauty, and virtue
been developed ; never was blind strength and
stubborn form so disciplined and rendered subject
to the will of man, or that will less repugnant to
the dictates of the beautiful and the true, as during 20
the century which preceded the death of Socrates.
Of no other epoch in the history of our species
have we records and fragments stamped so visibly
with the image of the divinity in man. But it is
poetry alone, in form, in action, and in language, 25
which has rendered this epoch memorable above all
others, and the storehouse of examples to everlast-
ing time. For written poetry existed at that epoch
simultaneously with the other arts, and it is an idle
inquiry to demand which gave and which received 30
the light, which all, as from a common focus, have
scattered over the darkest periods of succeeding
time. We know no more of cause and effect than


a constant conjunction of events ; poetry is ever
found to co-exist with whatever other arts contrib-
ute to the happiness and perfection of man. I
appeal to what has already been established to dis-

s tinguish between the cause and the effect.

It was at the period here adverted to that the
drama had its birth ; and however a succeeding
writer may have equalled or surpassed those few
great specimens of the Athenian drama which have

10 been preserved to us, it is indisputable that the art
itself never was understood or practised according
to the true philosophy of it, as at Athens. For
the Athenians employed language, action, music,
painting, the dance, and religious institution, to

15 produce a common effect in the representation of
the highest idealisms of passion and of power ;
each division in the art was made perfect in its
kind by artists of the most consummate skill, and
was disciplined into a beautiful proportion and

20 unity one towards the other. On the modern stage
a few only of the elements capable of expressing
the image of the poet's conception are employed at
once. We have tragedy without music and danc-
ing, and music and dancing without the highest

25 impersonations of which they are the fit accom-
paniment, and both without religion and solemnity.
Religious institution has indeed been usually ban-
ished from the stage. Our system of divesting
the actor's face of a mask, on which the many

30 expressions appropriated to his dramatic character
might be moulded into one permanent and unchang-
ing expression, is favorable only to a partial and
inharmonious effect ; it is fit for nothing but a


monologue, where all the attention may be directed
to^ome great master of ideal mimicry. The mod-
ern practice of blending comedy with tragedy,
though liable to great abuse in point of practice, is
undoubtedly an extension of the dramatic circle ; 5
but the comedy should be as in King Lear, univer-
sal, ideal, and sublime. It is perhaps the interven-
tion of this principle which determines the balance
in favor of King Lear against the QEdipus Tyran-
nus or the Agamemnon, or, if you will, the trilogies 10
with which they are connected ; unless the intense
power of the choral poetry, especially that of the
latter, should be considered as restoring the equilib-
rium. King Lear, if it can sustain this comparison,
may be judged to be the most perfect specimen of 15
the dramatic art existing in the world, in spite of
the narrow conditions to which the poet was sub-
jected by the ignorance of the philosophy of the
drama which has prevailed in modern Europe.
Calderon, in his religious Autos, has attempted to 20
fulfil some of the high conditions of dramatic rep-
resentation neglected by Shakespeare ; such as the
establishing a relation between the drama and
religion, and the accommodating them to music
and dancing ; but he omits the observation of con- 25
ditions still more important, and more is lost than
gained by the substitution of the rigidly-defined
and ever-repeated idealisms of a distorted supersti-
tion for the living impersonations of the truth of
human passion. 30

But I digress. The connection of scenic exhi-
bitions with the improvement or corruption of the
manners of men has been universally recognized ;


in other words, the presence or absence of poetry
in its most perfect and universal form has been
found to be connected with good and evil in con-
duct or habit. The corruption which has been
5 imputed to the drama as an effect begins when
the poetry employed in its constitution ends ; I
appeal to the history of manners whether the
periods of the growth of the one and the decline
of the other have not corresponded with an exact-
10 ness equal to any example of moral cause and

The drama at Athens, or wheresoever else it
may have approached to its perfection, ever co-
existed with the moral and intellectual greatness of
15 the age. The tragedies of the Athenian poets are
as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself,
under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all
but that ideal perfection and energy which every
one feels to be the internal type of all that he
20 loves, admires, and would become. The imagina-
tion is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and
passions so mighty, that they distend in their
conception the capacity of that by which they are
conceived ; the good affections are strengthened by
25 pity, indignation, terror and sorrow, and an exalted
calm is prolonged from the satiety of this high
exercise of them into the tumult of familiar life ;
even crime is disarmed of half its horror and all
its contagion by being represented as the fatal con-
so sequence of the unfathomable agencies of nature ;
error is thus divested of its wilfulness ; men can
no longer cherish it as the creation of their choice.
In the drama of the highest order there is little food


for censure or hatred ; it teaches rather self-knowl-
edge and self-respect. Neither the eye nor the
mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that
which it resembles. The drama, so long as it
continues to express poetry, is a prismatic and 5
many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest
rays of human nature and divides and reproduces
them from the simplicity of their elementary
forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty,
and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it 10
with the power of propagating its like wherever it
may fall.

But in periods of the decay of social life, the
drama sympathizes with that decay. Tragedy be-
comes a cold imitation of the forms of the great
masterpieces of antiquity, divested of all harmo-
nious accompaniment of the kindred arts ; and often
the very form misunderstood, or a weak attempt to
teach certain doctrines which the writer considers
as moral truths, and which are usually no more 2
than specious flatteries of some gross vice or weak-
ness with which the author, in common with his
auditors, are infected. Hence what has been called I
the classical and domestic drama. Addison's
' Cato ' is a specimen of the one ; and would it 25
were not superfluous to cite examples of the other !
To such purposes poetry cannot be made subser-
vient. Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever un-
sheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would
contain it. And hence we observe that all dramatic 30
writings of this nature are unimaginative in a sin-
gular degree ; they affect sentiment and passion,
which, divested of imagination, are other names


for caprice and appetite. The period in our own
history of the grossest degradation of the drama
is the reign of Charles II., when all forms in which
poetry had been accustomed to be expressed be-
s came hymns to the triumph of kingly power over
liberty and virtue. Milton stood alone, illuminat-
ing an age unworthy of him. At such periods
the calculating principle pervades all the forms of
dramatic exhibition, and poetry ceases to be

10 expressed upon them. Comedy loses its ideal uni-
versality ; wit succeeds to humor ; we laugh from
self-complacency and triumph, instead of pleasure ;
malignity, sarcasm, and contempt succeed to sym-
pathetic merriment ; we hardly laugh, but we smile.

15 Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the
divine beauty in life, becomes, from the very veil
which it assumes, more active if less disgusting ;
it is a monster for which the corruption of society
for ever brings forth new food, which it devours in

20 secret.

The drama being that form under which a greater
number of modes of expression of poetry are sus-
ceptible of being combined than any other, the
connection of poetry and social good is more

25 observable in the drama than in whatever other
form. And it is indisputable that the highest per-
fection of human society has ever corresponded
with the highest dramatic excellence ; and that the
corruption or the extinction of the drama in a

30 nation where it has once flourished, is a mark of a
corruption of manners, and an extinction of the
energies which sustain the soul of social life. But,
as Machiavelli says of political institutions, that


life may be preserved and renewed, if men should
arise capable of bringing back the drama to its
principles. And this is true with respect to poetry
in its most extended sense ; all language, institution
and form, require not only to be produced but to be 5
sustained ; the office and character of a poet par-
ticipates in the divine nature as regards providence,
no less than as regards creation.

Civil war, the spoils of Asia, and the fatal pre-
dominance first of the Macedonian, and then of 10
the Roman arms, were so many symbols of the
extinction or suspension of the creative faculty in
Greece. The bucolic writers, who found patronage I
under the lettered tyrants of Sicily and Egypt, 1
were the latest representatives of its most glorious 15
reign. Their poetry is intensely melodious ; like
the odor of the tuberose, it overcomes and sickens
the spirit with excess of sweetness ; whilst the
poetry of the preceding age was as a meadow-gale
of June, which mingles the fragrance of all the 20
flowers of the field, and adds a quickening and
harmonizing spirit of its own which endows the
sense with a power of sustaining its extreme
delight. The bucolic and erotic delicacy in written
poetry is correlative with that softness in statuary, 25
music, and the kindred arts, and even in manners
and institutions, which distinguished the epoch to
which I now refer. Nor is it the poetical faculty
itself, or any misapplication of it, to which this
want of harmony is to be imputed. An equal sen- 30
sibility to the influence of the senses and the affec-
tions is to be found in the writings of Homer and
Sophocles ; the former, especially, has clothed sen-


sual and pathetic images with irresistible attrac-
tions. Their superiority over these succeeding
writers consists in the presence of those thoughts
which belong to the inner faculties of our nature,
5 not in the absence of those which are connected
with the external ; their incomparable perfection
consists in a harmony of the union of all. It is
not what the erotic poets have, but what they have
not, in which their imperfection consists. It is not
10 inasmuch as they were poets, but inasmuch as they
were not poets, that they can be considered with
any plausibility as connected with the corruption
of their age. Had that corruption availed so as to
extinguish in them the sensibility to pleasure, pas-
is sion, and natural scenery which is imputed to
them as an imperfection, the last triumph of evil

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Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 3 of 9)