Percy Bysshe Shelley.

A defense of poetry; online

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state. All states that have harmonized into a common form

35 of society are interested in their respective founders. AH
men are interested in their ancestors. All men love to look
back into the days that are past. In these circumstances
traditional national poetry is reconstructed, and brought, like
chaos, into order and form. The interest is more universal ;


understanding is enlarged : passion still has scope and play ;
character is still various and strong; nature is still unsub-
dued and existing in all her beauty and magnificence, and
men are not yet excluded from her observation by the mag-
nitude of cities, or the daily confinement of civic life ; poetry s
is more an art ; it requires greater skill in numbers, greater
command of language, more extensive and various knowledge,
and greater comprehensiveness of mind. It still exists with-
out rivals in any other department of literature ; and even
the arts, painting and sculpture certainly, and music probably, '
are comparatively rude and imperfect. The whole field of
intellect is its own. It has no rivals in history, nor in phil-
osophy, nor in science. It is cultivated by the greatest intel-
lects of the age, and listened to by all the rest. This is the
age of Homer, the golden age of poetry. Poetry has now is
attained its perfection ; it has attained the point which it can-
not pass ; genius therefore seeks new forms for the treatment
of the same subjects ; hence the lyric poetry of Pindar and
Alcaeus, and the tragic poetry of .^schylus and Sophocles.
The favor of kings, the honor of the Olympic crown, the 20
applause of present multitudes, all that can feed vanity and
stimulate rivalry, await the successful cultivator of this art,
till its forms become exhausted, and new rivals arise around
it in new fields of literature, which gradually acquire more
influence as, with the progress of reason and civilization, 25
facts become more interesting than fiction ; indeed, the
maturity of poetry may be considered the infancy of history.
The transition from Homer to Herodotus is scarcely more
remarkable than that from Herodotus to Thucydides, in the
gradual dereliction of fabulous incident and ornamented Ian- 3
guage. Herodotus is as much a poet in relation to Thucy-
dides as Homer is in relation to Herodotus. The history of
Herodotus is half a poem ; it was written while the whole
field of literature yet belonged to the Muses, and the nine
books of which it was composed were therefore of right, as 35
well as of courtesy, superinscribed with their nine names.

Speculations, too, and disputes, on the nature of man and
of mind, on moral duties and on good and evil, on the ani-
mate and inanimate components of the visible world, begin to


share attention with the eggs of Leda and the horns of lo,
and to draw off from poetry a portion of its once undivided

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life.
s This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The
imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish
to, the poetry of the age of gold ; of this Virgil is the most
obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic,
didactic, or satiric, as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace,

1 and Juvenal. The poetry of this age is characterized by an
exquisite and fastidious selection of words, and a labor-d and
somewhat monotonous harmony of expression ; but its mo-
notony consists in this, that experience having exhausted all
the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the

J s most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging
through the variety of all. But the best expression being
that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost
labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized
language and the labored polish of versification with the idea

20 intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be
sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.
This state of poetry is, however, a step towards its extinc-
tion. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused
by, ornamental and figurative language ; but the reason and

2 5 the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and
most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate
truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge
by versifying one of Euclid's demonstrations. This will be
found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever, and of

3 all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged
combinations. It is only the more tangible points of moral-
ity, those which command assent at once, those which have
a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason
is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with

35 feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what
is called moral poetry; and as the sciences of morals and
of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more
enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains
the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry


can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops
into the background, and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as
the empire of facts had been before. In respect of the latter,
the poet of the age of iron celebrates the achievements of s
his contemporaries ; the poet of the age of gold celebrates
the heroes of the age of iron ; the poet of the age of silver
recasts the poems of the age of gold ; we may here see how
very slight a ray of historical truth is sufficient to dissipate
all the illusions of poetry. We know no more of the men i
than of the gods of the Iliad, no more of Achilles than v/e do
of Thetis, no more of Hector and Andromache than we do of
Vulcan and Venus ; these belong altogether to poetry ; history
has no share in them ; but Virgil knew better than to write
an epic about Caesar ; he left him to Livy, and traveled out s
of the confines of truth and history into the regions of poetry
and fiction.

Good sense and elegant learning, conveyed in polished and
somewhat monotonous verse, are the perfection of the original
and imitative poetry of civilized life. Its range is limited, 20
and when exhausted, nothing remains but the cranibe repetita
[stale repetition] of commonplace, which at length becomes
thoroughly wearisome, even to the most indefatigable readers
of the newest new nothings.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be culti- 25
vated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of
gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation
will attract notice ; the limited range of ethical and didactic
poetry is exhausted ; the associations of daily life in an ad-
vanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical 3
matters-of-fact ; but there is always a multitude of listless
idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty ; and
the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish 35
and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde
stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of
iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold.
This is the second childhood of poetry. To the comprehen-


sive energy of the Homeric Muse, which, by giving at once
the grand outline of things, presented to the mind a vivid
picture in one or two verses, inimitable alike in simplicity and
magnificence, is substituted a verbose and minutely-detailed
s description of thoughts, passions, actions, persons, and
things, in that loose, rambling style of verse, which any one
may write stans pede in uno [standing on one foot], at the
rate of two hundred lines in an hour. To this age may be
referred all the poets who flourished in the decline of the

10 Roman Empire. The best specimen of it, though not the
most generally known, is the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, which
contains many passages of exceeding beauty in the midst of
masses of amplification and repetition.

The iron age of classical poetry may be called the bardic ;

15 the golden, the Homeric : the silver, the Virgilian ; and the
brass, the Nonnic.

Modern poetry has also its four ages; but "it wears its
rue with a difference."

To the age of brass in the ancient world succeeded the

2j Dark Ages, in which the light of the Gospel began to spread
over Europe, and in which, by a mysterious and inscrutable
dispensation, the darkness thickened with the progress of the
light. The tribes that overran the Roman Empire brought
back the days ef barbarism, but with this difference, that

2 s there were many books in the world, many places in whiten
they were preserved, and occasionally some one by whom
they were read, who indeed (if he escaped being burned, pour
V amour de Dieu [for the love of God]) generally lived an
object of mysterious fear, with the reputation of magician,

3 alchemist, and astrologer. The emerging of the nations of
Europe from this superinduced barbarism, and their settling
into new forms of polity, was accompanied, as the first ages
of Greece had been, with a wild spirit of adventure, which,
co-operating with new manners and new superstitions, raised

35 up a fresh crop of chimeras, not less fruitful, though far less
beautiful, than those of Greece. The semi-deification of
women by the maxims of the age of chivalry, combining with
these new fables, produced the romance of the Middle Ages.
The founders of the new line of heroes took the place of the


demigods of Grecian poetry. Charlemagne and his Paladins,
Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the heroes of the
iron age of chivalrous poetry, were seen through the same
magnifying mist of distance, and their exploits were celebrated
with even more extravagant hyperbole. These legends, com- s
bined with the exaggerated love that pervades the songs of
the troubadours, the reputation of magic that attached to
learned men, the infant wonders of natural philosophy, the
crazy fanaticism of the Crusades, the power and privileges of
the great feudal chiefs, and the holy mysteries of monks and I0
nuns, formed a state of society in which no two laymen could
meet without fighting, and in which the three staple ingredi-
ents of lover, prize-fighter, and fanatic, that composed the
basis of the character of every true man, were mixed up and
diversified, in different individuals and classes, with so many 15
distinctive excellences, and under such an infinite motley
variety of costume, as gave the range of a most extensive and
picturesque field to the two great constituents of poetry, love
and battle.

From these ingredients of the iron age of modern poetry, 20
dispersed in the rimes of minstrels and the songs of the trou-
badours, arose the golden age, in which the scattered materials
were harmonized and blended about the time of the revival of
learning ; but with this peculiar difference, that Greek and
Roman literature pervaded all the poetry of the golden age of 25
modern poetry, and hence resulted a heterogeneous compound
of all ages and nations in one picture ; an infinite license,
which gave to the poet the free range of the whole field of
imagination and memory. This was carried very far by Ariosto,
but farthest of all by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, 30
who used time and locality merely because they could not do
without them, because every action must have its when and
where ; but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Em-
peror by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise
of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an 35
English archer. This makes the old English drama very pic-
turesque, at any rate, in the variety of costume, and very diver-
sified in action and character, though it is a picture of nothing
that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival.


The greatest of English poets, Milton, may be said to stand
alone between the ages of gold and silver, combining the ex-
cellences of both ; for with all the energy, and power, and
freshness of the first, he united all the studied and elaborate
P magnificence of the second.

The silver age succeeded, beginning with Dryden, coming
to perfection with Pope, and ending with Goldsmith, Collins,
and Gray.

Cowper divested verse of its exquisite polish ; he thought in

10 metre, but paid more attention to his thoughts than his verse.
It would be difficult to draw the boundary of prose and blank
verse between his letters and his poetry.

The silver age was the reign of authority ; but authority
now began to be shaken, not only in poetry but in the whole

15 sphere of its dominion. The contemporaries of Gray and
Cowper were deep and elaborate thinkers. The subtle scep-
ticism of Hume, the solemn irony of Gibbon, the daring para-
doxes of Rousseau, and the biting ridicule of Voltaire, directed
the energies of four extraordinary minds to shake every por-

20 tion of the reign of authority. Inquiry was roused, the activity
of intellect was excited, and poetry came in for its share of
the general result. The changes had been rung on lovely
maid and sylvan shade, summer heat and green retreat, wav-
ing trees and sighing breeze, gentle swains and amorous

25 pains, by versifiers who took them on trust as meaning some-
thing very soft and tender, without much caring what ; but
with this general activity of intellect came a necessity for even
poets to appear to know something of what they professed
to talk of. Thomson and Cowper looked at the trees and hills

30 which so many ingenious gentlemen had rimed about so long
without looking at them at all, and the effect of the operation
on poetry was like the discovery of a new world. Painting
shared the influence, and the principles of picturesque beauty
were explored by adventurous essayists with indefatigable per-

35 tinacity. The success which attended these experiments, and
the pleasure which resulted from them, had the usual effect of
all new enthusiasms, that of turning the heads of a few unfor-
tunate persons, the patriarchs of the age of brass, who, mis-
taking the prominent novelty for the all-important totality,


seem to have ratiocinated much in the following manner :
" Poetical genius is the finest of all things, and we feel that
we have more of it than any one ever had. The way to bring
it to perfection is to cultivate poetical impressions exclusively.
Poetical impressions can be received only among natural 5
scenes, for all that is artificial is anti-poetical. Society is arti-
ficial, therefore we will live out of society. The mountains are
natural, therefore we will live in the mountains. There we
shall be shining models of purity and virtue, passing the whole
day in the innocent and amiable occupation of going up and 10
down hill, receiving poetical impressions, and communica-
ting them in immortal verse to admiring generations." To
some such perversion of intellect we owe that egregious
confraternity of rimesters, known by the name of the Lake
Poets ; who certainly did receive and communicate to the '5
world some of the most extraordinary poetical impressions
that ever were heard of, and ripened into models of public
virtue, too splendid to need illustration. They wrote verses
on a new principle ; saw rocks and rivers in a new light ; and
remaining studiously ignorant of history, society, and human 2
nature, cultivated the fantasy only at the expense of the
memory and the reason ; and contrived, though they had
retreated from the world for the express purpose of seeing
nature as she was, to see her only as she was not, converting
the land they lived in into a sort of fairyland, which they 2 S
peopled with mysticisms and chimeras. This gave what is
called a new tone to poetry, and conjured up a herd of desper-
ate imitators, who have brought the age of brass prematurely
to its dotage.

The descriptive poetry of the present day has been called 3
by its cultivators a return to nature. Nothing is more im-
pertinent than this pretension. Poetry cannot travel out of
the regions of its birth, the uncultivated lands of semi-civilized
men. Mr. Wordsworth, the great leader of the returners to
nature, cannot describe a scene under his own eyes without 35
putting into it the shadow of a Danish boy or the living
ghost of Lucy Gray, or some similar fantastical parturition of
the moods of his own mind.

In the origin and perfection of poetry, all the associations


of life were composed of poetical materials. With us it is
decidedly the reverse. We know, too, that there are no
Dryads in Hyde Park, nor Naiads in the Regent's Canal. But
barbaric manners and supernatural interventions are essential
5 to poetry. Either in the scene, or in the time, or in both, it
must be remote from our ordinary perceptions. While the
historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and acceler-
ating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the
rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of

10 dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown
babies of the age. Mr. Scott digs up the poachers and cattle-
stealers of the ancient border. Lord Byron cruises for thieves
and pirates on the shores of the Morea and among the Greek
islands. Mr. Southey wades through ponderous volumes of

15 travels and old chronicles, from which he carefully selects all
that is false, useless, and absurd, as being essentially poetical ;
and when he has a commonplace book full of monstrosities,
strings them into an epic. Mr. Wordsworth picks up village
legends from old women and sextons ; and Mr. Coleridge, to

20 the valuable information acquired from similar sources, super-
adds the dreams of crazy theologians and the mysticisms of
German metaphysics, and favors the world with visions in
verse, in which the quadruple elements of sexton, old woman,
Jeremy Taylor, and Immanuel Kant are harmonized into a

2 5 delicious poetical compound. Mr. Moore presents us with
a Persian, and Mr. Campbell with a Pennsylvanian tale, both
formed on the same principle as Mr. Southey's epics, by
extracting from a perfunctory and desultory perusal of a
collection of voyages and travels, all that useful investigation

3 would not seek for and that common sense would reject.

These disjointed relics of tradition and fragments of second-
hand observation, being woven into a tissue of verse, con-
structed on what Mr. Coleridge calls a new principle (that is,
no principle at all), compose a modern-antique compound of

35 frippery and barbarism, in which the puling sentimentality
of the present time is grafted on the misrepresented rugged-
ness of the past into a heterogeneous congeries of unamalga-
mating manners, sufficient to impose on the common readers
of poetry, over whose understandings the poet of this class


possesses that commanding advantage which, in all circum-
stances and conditions of life, a man who knows something,
however little, always possesses over one who knows nothing.
A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized com-
munity. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, 5
thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous man-
ners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The
march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The
brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of
reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism '
in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren
hillocks of his Cimmerian labors. The philosophic mental
tranquillity which looks round with an equal eye on all external
things, collects a store of ideas, discriminates their relative
value, assigns to all their proper place, and from the materials 15
of useful knowledge thus collected, appreciated, and arranged,
forms new combinations that impress the stamp of their
power and utility on the real business of life, is diametrically
the reverse of that frame of mind which poetry inspires, or
from which poetry can emanate. The highest inspirations 2
of poetry are resolvable into three ingredients : the rant of
unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and
the cant of factitious sentiment ; and can therefore serve only
to ripen a splendid lunatic like Alexander, a puling driveler
like Werter, or a morbid dreamer like Wordsworth. It can 2 s
never make a philosopher, nor a statesman, nor in any class
of life a useful or rational man. It cannot claim the slightest
share in any one of the comforts and utilities of life, of
which we have witnessed so many and so rapid advances.
But though not useful, it may be said it is highly ornamental, 3
and deserves to be cultivated for the pleasure it yields.
Even if this be granted, it does not follow that a writer of
poetry in the present state of society is not a waster of his
own time, and a robber of that of others. Poetry is not one
of those arts which, like painting, require repetition and 35
multiplication, in order to be diffused among society. There
are more good poems already existing than are sufficient to
employ that portion of life which any mere reader and recipi-
ent of poetical impressions should devote to them, and these,


having been produced in poetical times, are far superior in all
the characteristics of poetry to the artificial reconstructions of
a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times. To read the pro-
miscuous rubbish of the present time, to the exclusion of the

5 select treasures of the past, is to substitute the worse for the
better variety of the same mode of enjoyment.

But in whatever degree poetry is cultivated, it must neces-
sarily be to the neglect of some branch of useful study ; and it
is a lamentable spectacle to see minds capable of better things

10 running to seed in the specious indolence of these empty,
aimless mockeries of intellectual exertion. Poetry was the
mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect in the
infancy of civil society ; but for the maturity of mind to make
a serious business of the playthings of its childhood, is as

15 absurd as for a full-grown man to rub his gums with coral,

and cry to be charmed to sleep by the jingle of silver bells.

As to that small portion of our contemporary poetry which

is neither descriptive, nor narrative, nor dramatic, and which,

for want of a better name, may be called ethical, the most

20 distinguished portion of it, consisting merely of querulous,
egotistical rhapsodies, to express the writer's high dissatisfac-
tion with the world and everything in it, serves only to con-
firm what has been said of the semi-barbarous character of
poets, who from singing dithyrambics and " lo Triumphe,"

25 while society was savage, grow rabid, and out of their ele-
ment, as it becomes polished and enlightened.

Now when we consider that it is not to the thinking and
studious, and scientific and philosophical part of the com-
munity, not to those whose minds are bent on the pursuit

3 and promotion of permanently useful ends and aims, that
poets must address their minstrelsy, but to that much larger
portion of the reading public whose minds are not awakened
to the desire of valuable knowledge, and who are indifferent
to anything beyond being charmed, moved, excited, affected,

35 and exalted, charmed by harmony, moved by sentiment,
excited by passion, affected by pathos, and exalted by sublim-
ity, harmony, which is language on the rack of Procrustes ;

. sentiment, which is canting egotism in the mask of refined
feeling ; passion, which is the commotion of a weak and selfish


mind; pathos, which is the whining of an unmanly spirit;
and sublimity, which is the inflation of an empty head ; when
we consider that the great and permanent interests of human
society become more and more the mainspring of intellectual
pursuit ; that, in proportion as they become so, the subordi- 5
nacy of the ornamental to the useful will be more and more
seen and acknowledged, and that therefore the progress of use-
ful art and science, and of moral and political knowledge, will
continue more and more to withdraw attention from frivolous
and unconducive to solid and conducive studies ; that there- 10
fore the poetical audience will not only continually diminish
in the proportion of its number to that of the rest of the read-

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Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 6 of 9)