Percy Bysshe Shelley.

A defense of poetry; online

. (page 5 of 9)
Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 5 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

There is no want of knowledge respecting what is
wisest and best in morals, government, and political
economy, or at least what is wiser and better than 10
what men now practise and endure. But we let
" / dare not wait upon / would, like the poor cat in
the adage." We want the creative faculty to imagine
that which we know ; we want the generous im-
pulse to act that which we imagine ; we want the 15
poetry of life : our calculations have outrun con-
ception ; we have eaten more than we can digest.
The cultivation of those sciences which have
enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the
external world, has, for want of the poetical fac- 20
ulty, proportionally circumscribed those of the
internal world ; and man, having enslaved the ele-
ments, remains himself a slave. To what but a
cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree dis-
proportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, 25
which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be
attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging
and combining labor, to the exasperation of the
inequality of mankind ? From what other cause
has it arisen that the discoveries which should have 30
lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed
on Adam ? Poetry, and the principle of Self of


which money is the visible incarnation, are the
God and Mammon of the world.

The functions of the poetical faculty are two-
fold : by one it creates new materials of knowledge,

5 and power, and pleasure ; by the other it engenders
in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them
according to a certain rhythm and order which may
be called the beautiful and the good. The cultiva-
tion of poetry is never more to be desired than at

10 periods when, from an excess of the selfish and
calculating principle, the accumulation of the
materials of external life exceed the quantity of
the power of assimilating them to the internal laws
of human nature. The body has then become too

15 unwieldy for that which animates it.

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once
the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is
that which comprehends all science, and that to
which all science must be referred. It is at the

20 same time the root and blossom of all other sys-
tems of thought ; it is that from which all spring,
and that which adorns all ; and that which, if

\ blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and with-
holds from the barren world the nourishment and

2 5 the succession of the scions of the tree of life.
It is the perfect and consummate surface and
bloom of all things ; it is as the odor and the color
of the rose to the texture of the elements which
compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded

3 beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption.
What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship ;
what were the scenery of this beautiful universe
which we inhabit ; what were our consolations on


this side of the grave, and what were our aspira-
tions beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring
light and fire from those eternal regions where the j
owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever '
soar ? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be 5
exerted according to the determination of the
will. A man cannot say, "I will compose poetry."
The greatest poet even cannot say it ; for the mind
in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible
influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to tran- 10
sitory brightness ; this power arises from within,
like the color of a flower which fades and changes
as it is developed, and the conscious portions of
our natures are unprophetic either of its approach
or its departure. Could this influence be durable 15
in its original purity and force, it is impossible to
predict the greatness of the results ; but when
composition begins, inspiration is already on the
decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever
been communicated to the world is probably a
feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the
poet. 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 25
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 conven-
tional expressions a necessity only imposed by 30
the limitedness of the poetical faculty itself ; for
Milton conceived the Paradise Lost as a whole
before he executed it in portions. We have his


own authority also for the muse having " dictated "
to him the "unpremeditated song." And let this
be an answer to those who would allege the fifty-six
various readings of the first line of the Orlando
5 Furioso. Compositions so produced are to poetry
what mosaic is to painting. The instinct and in-
tuition of the poetical faculty is still more observ-
able in the plastic and pictorial arts : a great statue
or picture grows under the power of the artist as a

10 child in the mother's womb ; and the very mind
which directs the hands in formation, is incapable
of accounting to itself for the origin, the grada-
tions, or the media of the process.

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest

15 moments of the happiest and best minds. We are
aware of evanescent visitations of thought and
feeling, sometimes associated with place or person,
sometimes regarding our own mind alone, and
always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden,

20 but elevating and delightful beyond all expression ;
so that even in the desire and the regret they leave,
there cannot but be pleasure, participating as it
does in the nature of its object. It is as it were
the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our

25 own ; but its footsteps are like, those of a wind
over the sea, which the morning calm erases, and
whose traces remain only, as on the wrinkled sand
which paves it. These and corresponding conditions
of being are experienced principally by those of

30 the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged
imagination ; and the state of mind produced by
them is at war with every base desire. The en-
thusiasm of virtue, love, patriotism, and friendship


is essentially linked with such emotions ; and
whilst they last, self appears as what it is, an atom
to a universe. Poets are not only subject to these
experiences as spirits of the most refined organiza-
tion, but they can color all that they combine with 5
the evanescent hues of this ethereal world ; a
word, a trait in the representation of a scene or a
passion will touch the enchanted chord, and rean-
imate, in those who have ever experienced these
emotions, the sleeping, the cold, the buried image 10
of the past. Poetry thus makes immortal all that
is best and most beautiful in the world ; it arrests
the vanishing apparitions which haunt the inter-
lunations of life, and veiling them or in language
or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bear- 15
ing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom
their sisters abide abide, because there is no por-
tal of expression from the caverns of the spirit
which they inhabit into the universe of things.
Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the 20
divinity in man.

Poetry turns all things to loveliness ; it exalts the
beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds
beauty to that which is most deformed ; it marries
exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity 25
and change ; it subdues to union under its light
yoke all irreconcilable things. It transmutes all
that it touches, and every form moving within the
radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous
sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it 30
breathes ; its secret alchemy turns to potable gold
the poisonous waters which flow from death
through life ; it strips the veil of familiarity from


the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping
beauty which is the spirit of its forms.

All things exist as they are perceived : at least
in relation to the percipient.

5 The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be
subjected to the accident of surrounding impres-
sions. And whether it spreads its own figured

10 curtain, or withdraws life's dark veil from before
the scene of things, it equally creates for us a
being within our being. It makes us the inhab-
itant of a world to which the familiar world is a
chaos. It reproduces the common universe of

15 which we are portions and percipients, and it
purges from our inward sight the film of famil-
iarity which obscures from us the wonder of our
being. It compels us to feel that which we per-
ceive, and to imagine that which we know. It

20 creates anew the universe, after it has been anni-
hilated in our minds by the recurrence of impres-
sions blunted by reiteration. It justifies the bold
and true word of Tasso : Non merita nome di
creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta.

25 A poet, as he is the author to others of the high-
est wisdom, pleasure, virtue, and glory, so he ought
personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest,
and the most illustrious of men. As to his glory,
let time be challenged to declare whether the fame

30 of any other institutor of human life be comparable
to that of a poet. That he is the wisest, the hap-
piest, and the best, inasmuch as he is a poet,
is equally incontrovertible : the greatest poets


have been men of the most spotless virtue, of the
most consummate prudence, and, if we would look
into the interior of their lives, the most fortunate
of men ; and the exceptions, as they regard those
who possessed the poetic faculty in a high yet 5
inferior degree, will be found on consideration to
confirm rather than destroy the rule. Let us for a
moment stoop to the arbitration of popular breath,
and usurping and uniting in our own persons the
incompatible characters of accuser, witness, judge, 10
and executioner, let us decide without trial, testi-
mony, or form, that certain motives of those who
are "there sitting where we dare not soar," are
reprehensible. Let us assume that Homer was a
drunkard, that Virgil was a flatterer, that Horace 15
was a coward, that Tasso was a madman, that Lord
Bacon was a peculator, that Raphael was a liber-
tine, that Spenser was a poet laureate. It is incon-
sistent with this division of our subject to cite
living poets, but posterity has done ample justice 2 o
to the great names now referred to. Their errors
have been weighed and found to have been dust
in the balance ; if their sins were as scarlet,
they are now white as snow; they have been
washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, 25
Time. Observe in what a ludicrous chaos the im-
putations of real or fictitious crime have been con-
fused in the contemporary calumnies against poetry
and poets ; consider how little is as it appears
or appears as it is ; look to your own motives, and 30
judge not, lest ye be judged.

Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect
from logic, that it is not subject to the control of the


active powers of the mind, and that its birth and
recurrence have no necessary connection with the
consciousness or will. It is presumptuous to deter-
mine that these are the necessary conditions of all

5 mental causation, when mental effects are expe-
rienced insusceptible of being referred to them.
The frequent recurrence of the poetical power, it
is obvious to suppose, may produce in the mind a
habit of order and harmony correlative with its

10 own nature and with its effects upon other minds.
But in the intervals of inspiration and they may
be frequent without being durable a poet becomes
a man, and is abandoned to the sudden reflux of
the influences under which others habitually live.

15 But as he is more delicately organized than other
men, and sensible to pain and pleasure, both his
own and that of others, in a degree unknown to
them, he will avoid the one and pursue the other
with an ardor proportioned to this difference. And

20 he renders himself obnoxious to calumny when he

neglects to observe the circumstances under which

these objects of universal pursuit and flight have

disguised themselves in one another's garments.

But there is nothing necessarily evil in this

25 error, and thus cruelty, envy, revenge, avarice, and
the passions purely evil, have never formed any por-
tion of the popular imputations on the lives of poets.
I have thought it most favorable to the cause of
truth to set down these remarks according to the

30 order in which they were suggested to my mind,
by a consideration of the subject itself, instead of
observing the formality of a polemical reply ; but if
the view which they contain be just, they will be


found to involve a refutation of the arguers against
poetry, so far at least as regards the first division
of the subject. I can readily conjecture what
should have moved the gall of some learned and
intelligent writers who quarrel with certain versi- s
fiers ; I, like them, confess myself unwilling to be
stunned by the Theseids of the hoarse Codri of
the day. Bavius and Maevius undoubtedly are, as
they ever were, insufferable persons. But it be-
longs to a philosophical critic to distinguish rather 10
than confound.

The first part of these remarks has related to
poetry in its elements and principles ; and it has
been shown, as well as the narrow limits assigned
them would permit, that what is called poetry in 15
a restricted sense, has a common source with all
other forms of order and of beauty according to
which the materials of human life are susceptible
of being arranged, and which is poetry in a uni- /
versal sense. 2 o

The second part will have for its object an appli-
cation of these principles to the present state of
the cultivation of poetry, and a defense of the
attempt to idealize the modern forms of manners
and opinions, and compel them into a subordination 25
to the imaginative and creative faculty. For the
literature of England, an energetic development of
which has ever preceded or accompanied a great
and free development of the national will, has
arisen as it were from a new birth. In spite of the 30
low-thoughted envy which would undervalue con-
temporary merit, our own will be a memorable age
in intellectual achievements, and we live among


such philosophers and poets as surpass beyond
comparison any who have appeared since the last
national struggle for civil and religious liberty.
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower
5 of the awakening of a great people to work a ben-
eficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry.
At such periods there is an accumulation of the
power of communicating and receiving intense and
impassioned conceptions respecting man and na-

10 ture. The persons in whom this power resides
may often, as far as regards many portions of their
nature, have little apparent correspondence with
that spirit of good of which they are the ministers.
But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet

15 compelled to serve the power which is seated on

the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to

r read the compositions of the most celebrated

writers of the present day without being startled

with the electric life which burns within their

20 words. They measure the circumference and sound
the depths of human nature with a comprehensive
and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves
perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its mani-
festations ; for it is less their spirit than the spirit

25 of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unap-
prehended inspiration ; the mirrors of the gigantic
shadows which futurity casts upon the present;
the words which express what they understand
not ; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel

30 not what they inspire ; the influence which is
moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowl-
edged legislators of the world.



Qui inter haec nutriuntur non magis sapere possunt, quam bene olere qui in
culina habitant. PETRONIUS.

POETRY, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but
in a different order : the first age of poetry being the age of
iron ; the second of gold ; the third of silver ; and the fourth
of brass.

The first, or iron age of poetry, is that in which rude bards s
celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in
days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practi-
cal maxim of every form of society, "to keep what we have
and to catch what we can," is not yet disguised under names
of justice and forms of law, but is the naked motto of the 10
naked sword, which is the only judge and jury in every ques-
tion of meum and tuum [mine and thine]. In these days,
the only three trades flourishing (besides that of priest, which
flourishes always) are those of king, thief, and beggar ; the
beggar being, for the most part, a king deject, and the thief 15
a king expectant. The first question asked of a stranger is,
whether he is a beggar or a thief; 1 the stranger, in reply,
usually assumes the first, and awaits a convenient opportunity
to prove his claim to the second appellation.

The natural desire of every man to engross to himself as 20
much power and property as he can acquire by any of the
means which might makes right, is accompanied by the no
less natural desire of making known to as many people as
possible the extent to which he has been a winner in this
universal game. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the 25

1 See the Odyssey, passim, and Thucydides.I. 5. [Peacock's Note.]


successful chief becomes a king ; his next want is an organ
to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent
of his possessions, and this organ he finds in a bard, who is
always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first

5 duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of
poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the de-
mand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the
extent of the market.

Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. The first rude

10 songs of all nations appear to be a sort of brief historical
notices, in a strain of tumid hyperbole, of the exploits and
possessions of a few pre-eminent individuals. They tell us
how many battles such an one has fought, how many helmets
he has cleft, how many breastplates he has pierced, how many

15 widows he has made, how much land he has appropriated,
how many houses he has demolished for other people, what
a large one he has built for himself, how much gold he has
stowed away in it, and how liberally and plentifully he pays,
feeds, and intoxicates the divine and immortal bards, the

20 sons of Jupiter, but for whose everlasting songs the names of
heroes would perish.

This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of
written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful
as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured

25 men, who are easily caught by sound ; and, from the exceeding
flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no
violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of
number. The savage, indeed, lisps in numbers, and all rude
and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner

3 which we call poetical.

The scenery by which he is surrounded, and the supersti-
tions which are the creed of his age, form the poet's mind.
Rocks, mountains, seas, unsubdued forests, unnavigable
rivers, surround him with forms of power and mystery, which

35 ignorance and fear have peopled with spirits, under multifari-
ous names of gods, goddesses, nymphs, genii, and daemons.
Of all these personages marvelous tales are in existence : the
nymphs are not indifferent to handsome young men, and the
gentlemen-genii are much troubled and very troublesome


with a propensity to be rude to pretty maidens ; the bard,
therefore, finds no difficulty in tracing the genealogy of his
chief to any of the deities in his neighborhood with whom the
said chief may be desirous of claiming relationship.

In this pursuit, as in all others, some, of course, will attain s
a very marked pre-eminence ; and these will be held in high
honor, like Demodocus in the Odyssey, and will be conse-
quently inflated with boundless vanity, like Thamyris in the
Iliad. Poets are as yet the only historians and chroniclers
of their time, and the sole depositories of all the knowledge i
of their age ; and though this knowledge is rather a crude
congeries of traditional fantasies than a collection of use-
ful truths, yet, such as it is, they have it to themselves. They
are observing and thinking, while others are robbing and
fighting ; and though their object be nothing more than to 15
secure a share of the spoil, yet they accomplish this end by
intellectual, not by physical power ; their success excites
emulation to the attainment of intellectual eminence ; thus
they sharpen their own wits and awaken those of others, at
the same time that they gratify vanity and amuse curiosity. 2
A skilful display of the little knowledge they have gains them
credit for the possession of much more which they have not.
Their familiarity with the secret history of gods and genii
obtains for them, without much difficulty, the reputation of
inspiration ; thus they are not only historians, but theolo- 25
gians, moralists, and legislators ; delivering their oracles ex
cathedra [from the chair of authority], and being indeed often
themselves (as Orpheus and Amphion) regarded as portions
and emanations of divinity ; building cities with a song, and
leading brutes with a symphony which are only metaphors 3
for the faculty of leading multitudes by the nose.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of
iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospec-
tive ; when something like a more extended system of civil
polity is [established ; when personal strength and courage 35
avail less to the aggrandizing of their possessor, and to the
making and marring of kings and kingdoms, and are checked
by organized bodies, social institutions, and hereditary suc-
cessions. Men also live more in the light of truth and within


the interchange of observation, and thus perceive that the
agency of gods and genii is not so frequent among them-
selves as, to judge from the songs and legends of the past
time, it was among their ancestors. From these two circum-

5 stances really diminished personal power, and apparently
diminished familiarity with gods and genii they very easily
and naturally deduce two conclusions: 1st, That men are
degenerated, and 2nd, That they are less in favor with the
gods. The people of the petty states and colonies, which

10 have now acquired stability and form, which owed their origin
and first prosperity to the talents and courage of a single
chief, magnify their founder through the mists of distance
and tradition, and perceive him achieving wonders with a
god or goddess always at his elbow. They find his name

is and his exploits thus magnified and accompanied in their
traditionary songs, which are their only memorials. All that
is said of him is in this character. There is nothing to con-
tradict it. The man and his exploits and his tutelary deities
are mixed and blended in one invariable association. The

20 marvelous, too, is very much like a snowball : it grows as it

rolls downward, till the little nucleus of truth, which began

its descent from the summit, is hidden in the accumulation

of superinduced hyperbole.

When tradition, thus adorned and exaggerated, has sur-

25 rounded the founders of families and states with so much
adventitious power and magnificence, there is no praise
which a living poet can, without fear of being kicked for
clumsy flattery, address to a living chief, that will not still
leave the impression that the latter is not so great a man as

3 his ancestors. The man must, in this case, be praised
through his ancestors. Their greatness must be established,
and he must be shown to be their worthy descendant. All
the people of a state are interested in the founder of their

1 2 3 5 7 8 9

Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 5 of 9)