Percy Bysshe Shelley.

A defense of poetry; online

. (page 4 of 9)
Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 4 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

would have been achieved. For the end of social
corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure ;
and therefore it is corruption. It begins at the
20 imagination and the intellect as at the core, and
distributes itself thence as a paralyzing venom
through the affections into the very appetites,
until all become a torpid mass in which hardly
sense survives. At the approach of such a period,
25 poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which
are the last to be destroyed, and its voice is heard,
like the footsteps of Astraea, departing from the
world. Poetry ever communicates all the pleasure
which men are capable of receiving ; it is ever still
30 the light of life, the source of whatever of beau-
tiful or generous or true can have place in an evil
time. It will readily be confessed that those
among the luxurious citizens of Syracuse and


Alexandria who were delighted with the poems of
Theocritus were less cold, cruel, and sensual than
the remnant of their tribe. But corruption must
utterly have destroyed the fabric of human society
before poetry can ever cease. The sacred links of 5
that chain have never been entirely disjoined,
which descending through the minds of many men
is attached to those great minds, whence as from
a magnet the invisible effluence is sent forth, which
at once connects, animates, and sustains the life of 10
all. It is the faculty which contains within itself
the seeds at once of its own and of social renova-
tion. And let us not circumscribe the effects of
the bucolic and erotic poetry within the limits of
the sensibility of those to whom it was addressed. 15
They may have perceived the beauty of those
immortal compositions, simply as fragments and
isolated portions ; those who are more finely organ-
ized, or born in a happier age, may recognize them
as episodes to that great poem, which all poets, 20
like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind,
have built up since the beginning of the world.

The same revolution within a narrower sphere
had place in ancient Rome ; but the actions and
forms of its social life never seem to have been 25
perfectly saturated with the poetical element. The
Romans appear to have considered the Greeks as
the selectest treasuries of the selectest forms of
manners and of nature, and to have abstained from
creating in measured language, sculpture, music, 30
or architecture, any thing which might bear a par-
ticular relation to their own condition, whilst it
should bear a general one to the universal consti-


tution of the world. But we judge from partial
evidence, and we judge perhaps partially. Ennius,
Varro, Pacuvius, and Accius, all great poets, have
been lost. Lucretius is in the highest, and Virgil

5 in a very high sense, a creator. The chosen deli-
cacy of expressions of the latter are as a mist of
light which conceal from us the intense and exceed-
ing truth of his conceptions of nature. Livy is
instinct with poetry. Yet Horace, Catullus, Ovid,

10 and generally the other great writers of the Vir-
gilian age, saw man and nature in the mirror of
Greece. The institutions also, and the religion of
Rome, were less poetical than those of Greece, as
the shadow is less vivid than the substance. Hence

15 poetry in Rome seemed to follow, rather than
accompany, the perfection of political and domestic
society. The true poetry of Rome lived in its
institutions ; for whatever of beautiful, of true and
majestic, they contained, could have sprung only

20 from the faculty which creates the order in which
they consist. The life of Camillus, the death of
Regulus ; the expectation of the senators, in their
godlike state, of the victorious Gauls ; the refusal
of the republic to make peace with Hannibal after

25 the battle of Cannae, were not the consequences of
a refined calculation of the probable personal
advantage to result from such a rhythm and order
in the shows of life, to those who were at once the
poets and the actors of these immortal dramas.

3 The imagination beholding the beauty of this
order, created it out of itself according to its own
idea ; the consequence was empire, and the reward
everlasting fame. These things are not the less


poetry qnia carent vate sacro. They are the epi-
sodes of that cyclic poem written by Time upon
the memories of men. The Past, like an inspired
rhapsodist, fills the theatre of everlasting genera-
tions with their harmony. 5

At length the ancient system of religion and
manners had fulfilled the circle of its evolutions.
And the world would have fallen into utter anarchy
and darkness, but that there were found poets
among the authors of the Christian and chivalric xo
systems of manners and religion, who created
forms of opinion and action never before conceived ;
which, copied into the imaginations of men, be-
came as generals to the bewildered armies of their
thoughts. It is foreign to the present purpose to 15
touch upon the evil produced by these systems ;
except that we protest, on the ground of the prin-
ciples already established, that no portion of it can
be attributed to the poetry they contain.

It is probable that the poetry of Moses, Job, 20
David, Solomon, and Isaiah had produced a great
effect upon the mind of Jesus and his disciples.
The scattered fragments preserved to us by the
biographers of this extraordinary person are all
instinct with the most vivid poetry. But his doc- 2 S
trines seem to have been quickly distorted. At a
certain period after the prevalence of a system of
opinions founded upon those promulgated by him,
the three forms into which Plato had distributed
the faculties of mind underwent a sort of apothe- 3
osis, and became the object of the worship of the
civilized world. Here it is to be confessed that
"Light" seems to "thicken,"


And the crow makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

But mark how beautiful an order has sprung from
s the dust and blood of this fierce chaos ! how the
world, as from a resurrection, balancing itself on
the golden wings of knowledge and of hope, has
reassumed its yet unwearied flight into the heaven
of time. Listen to the music, unheard by outward

10 ears, which is as a ceaseless and invisible wind,
nourishing its everlasting course with strength and

The poetry in the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and
the mythology and institutions of the Celtic con-

15 querors of the Roman empire, outlived the dark-
ness and the convulsions connected with their
growth and victory, and blended themselves in a
new fabric of manners and opinion. It is an error
to impute the ignorance of the Dark Ages to the

20 Christian doctrines or the predominance of the
Celtic nations. Whatever of evil their agencies
may have contained sprang from the 'extinction of
the poetical principle, connected with the progress
of despotism and superstition. Men, from causes
too intricate to be here discussed, had become
insensible and selfish ; their own will had become
feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the
slaves of the will of others ; lust, fear, avarice,
cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst

30 whom no one was to be found capable of creating
in form, language, or institution. The moral anom-
alies of such a state of society are not justly to be
charged upon any class of events immediately con-


nected with them, and those events are most
entitled to our approbation which could dissolve it
most expeditiously. It is unfortunate for those
who cannot distinguish words from thoughts, that
many of these anomalies have been incorporated 5
into our popular religion.

It was not until the eleventh century that the
effects of the poetry of the Christian and chivalric
systems began to manifest themselves. The prin-
ciple of equality had been discovered and applied by 10
Plato in his Republic, as the theoretical rule of the
mode in which the materials of pleasure and of
power produced by the common skill and labor of
human beings ought to be distributed among them.
The limitations of this rule were asserted by him 15
to be determined only by the sensibility of each,
or the utility to result to all. Plato, following the
doctrines of Timaeus and Pythagoras, taught also a
moral and intellectual system of doctrine, compre-
hending at once the past, the present, and the 2
future condition of man. Jesus Christ divulged
the sacred and eternal truths contained in these
views to mankind, and Christianity, in its abstract
purity, became the exoteric expression of the
esoteric doctrines of the poetry and wisdom of 25
antiquity. The incorporation of the Celtic nations
with the exhausted population of the south im-
pressed upon it the figure of the poetry existing in
their mythology and institutions. The result was
a sum of the action and reaction of all the causes 30
included in it ; for it may be assumed as a maxim
that no nation or religion can supersede any other
without incorporating into itself a portion of that


which it supersedes. The abolition of personal
and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of
women from a great part of the degrading re-
straints of antiquity, were among the consequences
5 of these events.

The abolition of personal slavery is the basis of
the highest political hope that it can enter into the
mind of man to conceive. The freedom of women
produced the poetry of sexual love. Love became

to a religion, the idols of whose worship were ever
present. It was as if the statues of Apollo and
the Muses had been endowed with life and motion,
and had walked forth among their worshippers ; so
that earth became peopled by the inhabitants of a

15 diviner world. The familiar appearances and pro-
ceedings of life became wonderful and heavenly,
and a paradise was created as out of the wrecks of
Eden. And as this creation itself is poetry, so its
creators were poets, and language was the instru-

20 ment of their art : " Galeotto fu il libro, e chi lo
scrisse." The Provencal Trouveurs, or inventors,
preceded Petrarch, whose verses are as spells
which unseal the inmost enchanted fountains of
the delight which is in the grief of love. It is

25 impossible to feel them without becoming a portion
of that beauty which we contemplate ; it were
superfluous to explain how the gentleness and
elevation of mind connected with these sacred
emotions can render men more amiable, more gen-

30 erous and wise, and lift them out of the dull vapors
of the little world of self. Dante understood the
secret things of love even more than Petrarch.
His Vita. Nuova is an inexhaustible fountain of


purity of sentiment and language ; it is the ideal-
ized history of that period and those intervals of
his life which were dedicated to love. His apoth-
eosis of Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of
his own love and her loveliness, by which as by s
steps he feigns himself to have ascended to the
throne of the Supreme Cause, is the most glorious
imagination of modern poetry. The acutest critics
have justly reversed the judgment of the vulgar
and the order of the great acts of the Divina 10
Commedia, in the measure of the admiration which
they accord to the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
The latter is a perpetual hymn of everlasting love.
Love, which found a worthy poet in Plato alone of
all the ancients, has been celebrated by a chorus of 15
the greatest writers of the renovated world ; and
the music has penetrated the caverns of society,
and its echoes still drown the dissonance of arms
and superstition. At successive intervals, Ariosto,
Tasso, Shakespeare, Spenser, Calderon, Rousseau, 20
and the great writers of our own age, have cele-
brated the dominion of love, planting as it were tro-
phies in the human mind of that sublimest victory
over sensuality and force. The true relation borne
to each other by the sexes into which human kind 25
is distributed has become less misunderstood ; and
if the error which confounded diversity with ine-
quality of the powers of the two sexes has been
partially recognized in the opinions and institutions
of modern Europe, we owe this great benefit to 30
the worship of which chivalry was the law, and
poets the prophets.

The poetry of Dante may be considered as the


bridge thrown over the stream of time, which
unites the modern and ancient world. The dis-
torted notions of invisible things which Dante and
his rival Milton have idealized, are merely the
5 mask and the mantle in which these great poets
walk through eternity enveloped and disguised. It
is a difficult question to determine how far they
were conscious of the distinction which must have
subsisted in their minds between their own creeds

10 and that of the people. Dante at least appears to
wish to mark the full extent of it by placing
Riphaeus, whom Virgil calls justissimns unns, in
Paradise, and observing a most heretical caprice in
his distribution of rewards and punishments. And

15 Milton's poem contains within itself a philosophical
refutation of that system, of which, by a strange
and natural antithesis, it has been a chief popular
support. Nothing can exceed the energy and mag-
nificence of the character of Satan as expressed in

20 Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that
he could ever have been intended for the popular
personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient
cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to
inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these

25 things are evil ; and, although venial in a slave, are
not to be forgiven in a tyrant ; although redeemed
by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued,
are marked by all that dishonors his conquest in
the victor. Milton's Devil as a moral being is as

30 far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in
some purpose which he has conceived to be excel-
lent, in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who
in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts


the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not
from any mistaken notion of inducing him to
repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the
alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new
torments. Milton has so far violated the popular 5
creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as
to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to
his God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of
a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof
of the supremacy of Milton's genius. He mingled 10
as it were the elements of human nature as colors
upon a single pallet, and arranged them in the
composition of his great picture according to the
laws of epic truth, that is, according to the laws
of that principle by which a series of actions of 15
the external universe and of intelligent and ethical
beings is calculated to excite the sympathy of
succeeding generations of mankind. The Divina .
Commedia and Paradise Lost have conferred upon 1
modern mythology a systematic form ; and when 20'
change and time shall have added one more super-
stition to the mass of those which have arisen and
decayed upon the earth, commentators will be
learnedly employed in elucidating the religion of
ancestral Europe, only not utterly forgotten be- 25
cause it will have been stamped with the eternity
of genius.

Homer was the first and Dante the second epic
poet : that is, the second poet, the series of whose
creations bore a defined and intelligible relation to 30
the knowledge and sentiment and religion of the
age in which he lived, and of the ages which fol-
lowed it, developing itself in correspondence with


their development. For Lucretius had limed the
wings of his swift spirit in the dregs of the sen-
sible world ; and Virgil, with a modesty that ill
became his genius, had affected the fame of an
5 imitator, even whilst he created anew all that he
copied ; and none among the flock of mock-birds,
though their notes are sweet, Apollonius Rhodius,
Quintus (Calaber) Smyrnaeus, Nonnus, Lucan, Sta-
tius, or Claudian, have sought even to fulfil a single

10 condition of epic truth. Milton was the third epic
poet. For if the title of epic in its highest sense
be refused to the yEneid, still less can it be con-
ceded to the Orlando Furioso, the Gerusalemme
Liberata, the Lusiad, or the Fairy Queen.

15 Dante and Milton were both deeply penetrated
with the ancient religion of the civilized world,
and its spirit exists in their poetry probably in the
same proportion as its forms survived in the unre-
formed worship of modern Europe. The one pre-

20 ceded and the other followed the Reformation at
almost equal intervals. Dante was the first relig-
ious reformer, and Luther surpassed him rather in
the rudeness and acrimony, than in the boldness
of his censures of papal usurpation. Dante was

25 the first awakener of entranced Europe ; he
created a language, in itself music and persuasion,
out of a chaos of inharmonious barbarisms. He
was the congregator of those great spirits who pre-
sided over the resurrection of learning, the Lucifer

30 of that starry flock which in the thirteenth cen-
tury shone forth from republican Italy, as from a
heaven, into the darkness of the benighted world.
His very words are instinct with spirit ; each is


as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable
thought ; and many yet lie covered in the ashes
of their birth, and pregnant with a lightning which
has yet found no conductor. All high poetry is
infinite ; it is as the first acorn, which contained all 5
oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be undrawn,
and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never
exposed. A great poem is a fountain for ever over-
flowing with the waters of wisdom and delight ;
and after one person and one age has exhausted all 10
its divine effluence which their peculiar relations
enable them to share, another and yet another suc-
ceeds, and new relations are ever developed, the
source of an unforeseen and an unconceived de-
light. 15

The age immediately succeeding to that of
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, was characterized
by a revival of painting, sculpture, and architec-
ture. Chaucer caught the sacred inspiration, and
the superstructure of English literature is based 2 o
upon the materials of Italian invention.

But let us not be betrayed from a defense into a
critical history of poetry and its influence on soci-
ety. Be it enough to have pointed out the effects
of poets, in the large and true sense of the word, 25
upon their own and all succeeding times.

But poets have been challenged to resign the
civic crown to reasoners and mechanists, on an-
other plea. It is admitted that the exercise of the
imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged 30
that that of reason is more useful. Let us exam-
ine, as the grounds of this distinction, what is here
meant by utility. Pleasure or good, in a general


sense, is that which the consciousness of a sensi-
tive and intelligent being seeks, and in which, when
found, it acquiesces. There are two kinds of pleas-
ure, one durable, universal, and permanent ; the
5 other transitory and particular. Utility may either
express the means of producing the former or the
latter. In the former sense, whatever strengthens
and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination,
and adds spirit to sense, is useful. But a narrower

10 meaning may be assigned to the word utility, con-
fining it to express that which banishes the im-
portunity of the wants of our animal nature, the
surrounding men with security of life, the dispers-
ing the grosser delusions of superstition, and the

15 conciliating such a degree of mutual forbearance
among men as may consist with the motives of
personal advantage.

Undoubtedly the promoters of utility, in this
limited sense, have their appointed office in society.

20 They follow the footsteps of poets, and copy the
sketches of their creations into the book of com-
mon life. They make space and give time. Their
exertions are of the highest value, so long as they
confine their administration of the concerns of the

25 inferior powers of our nature within the limits due
to the superior ones. But whilst the sceptic
destroys gross superstitions, let him spare to de-
face, as some of the French writers have defaced,
the eternal truths charactered upon the imagina-

30 tions of men. Whilst the mechanist abridges, and
the political economist combines labor, let them
beware that their speculations, for want of corre-
spondence with those first principles which belong


to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in
modern England, to exasperate at once the ex- /
tremes of luxury and of want. They have exempli-
fied the saying, " To him that hath, more shall be
given ; and from him that hath not, the little that s
he hath shall be taken away." The rich have
become richer, and the poor have become poorer ;
and the vessel of the state is driven between the
Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism.
Such are the effects which must ever flow from an 10
unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.

It is difficult to define pleasure in its highest
sense, the definition involving a number of appar-
ent paradoxes. For, from an inexplicable defect of
harmony in the constitution of human nature, the 1.5
pain of the inferior is frequently connected with \
the pleasures of the superior' portions of our
being. Sorrow, terror, anguish, despair itself, are
often the chosen expressions of an approximation
to the highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fie- 2 c
tion depends on this principle ; tragedy delights by
affording a shadow of that pleasure which exists in
pain. This is the source also of the melancholy
which is inseparable from the sweetest melody.
The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the 25
pleasure of pleasure itself. And hence the saying,
"It is better to go to the house of mourning than
to the house of mirth." Not that this highest
species of pleasure is necessarily linked with pain.
The delight of love and friendship, the ecstasy of 30
the admiration of nature, the joy of the percep-
tion and still more of the creation of poetry, is
often wholly unalloyed.


The production and assurance of pleasure in
this highest sense is true utility. Those who pro-
duce and preserve this pleasure are poets or poetical

' Y The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire,
/ Rousseau, and their disciples, in favor of oppressed
/ and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude
/ of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree
/ of moral and intellectual improvement which the
/ 10 world would have exhibited, had they never lived.
A little more nonsense would have been talked for
a century or two ; and perhaps a few more men,
women, and children burnt as heretics. We might
not at this moment have been congratulating each
15 other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain.
But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what
would have been the moral condition of the world
if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton,
20 had ever existed ; if Raphael and Michael Angelo
had never been born ; if the Hebrew poetry had
\ never been translated ; if a revival of the study of
' Greek literature had never taken place ; if no
monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed
25 down to us ; and if the poetry of the religion of
the ancient world had been extinguished together
with its belief. The human mind could never,
except by the intervention of these excitements,
have been awakened to the invention of the grosser
30 sciences, and that application of analytical reason-
ing to the aberrations of society which it is now
attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the
inventive and creative faculty itself.


We have more moral, political, and historical
wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice ;
we have more scientific and economical knowledge
than can be accommodated to the just distribution
of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry 5
in these systems of thought is concealed by the
accumulation of facts and calculating processes.

1 2 4 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 4 of 9)