Analysis of Defense of Poetry

Steve Budd

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

            Percy Shelley was born in 1792 in Sussex England, Shelley would become one of the finest poets of the Romantic period.  He was brought up under very privileged circumstance and attending Syon House Academy at the age of ten, Eton at the age of twelve and would later attend Oxford University (Penn par 1).  It was at this time he would received extensive knowledge of the classics and become interested in science and radical politics (Wu 1043).  Before he even turned twenty he published two gothic novels the Zastrozzi and St Irvyne in 1810 and the very next year he published The Rosicrucian (Penn par 1).  Some of his most famous pieces were Ozymandias, which is another name for Rameses II and was inspired by a shattered colossus in the Ramesseum, his funeral temple (Rice par 3).  Another famous piece, Ode to a West Wind, was written near Florence and examines one man’s struggle to communicate with the divine presence he senses in the physical world.  By the end of the poem it is apparent that the man is Shelley himself (Bowdoin).  While attending Oxford Shelley was subsequently expelled for publishing the Necessity of Atheism, which argued that God’s existence could be proved only by reference to the senses, reason, and testimony of others.  Having denied their validity, it concluded: ‘Truth has always been found to promote that best interests of mankind.  Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Diety’ (Wu 1043).  Shelley would publish countless other pieces, one which included his Defense of Poetry, that was not officially published until 1940, which we will examine shortly.  After publishing The Cloud in 1822, Shelley would unfortunately drown while traveling across the Mediterranean Sea on the 8th of July in 1822 (Penn par. 11).  Shelley’s literary reputation would not reach its peak until after his death for many reasons but it is a testament to his career that we still examine his works today.

 

The Defense of Poetry

 

Written in 1820 and not published until 1940, it was Shelley’s attempt to understand the place of poetry in a world that is rapidly changing (Vanderbilt par 1).  It was written in a response to his friend Thomas Love Peacock who wrote a satirical piece entitled The Four Ages of Poetry.  Peacock urged intelligent men to stop wasting their time writing poetry and apply themselves to the new sciences, including economics and political theory, which would improve the world (Vanderbilt par 1).  Of course Shelley had to respond and this is where his defense of poetry took affect.  In The Defense of Poetry Shelley argues for poetry’s utilitarian function.  He contends that the invention of language reveals a human impulse to reproduce the rhythmic and ordered, so that harmony and unity are delighted in wherever they are found and incorporated, instinctively, into creative activities (Sandy par 2).  He breaks the piece down into several different parts, beginning with the defense of poetry as a whole then measured and unmeasured language, the creative faculty in Greece, the poetry of Dante and Milton, and then his concluding argument.  

Defense of Poetry

In the first section Shelley defends poetry with the use of two classes of mental action, one being reason and the other imagination.  He states that “reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance” (Wu 1185).  Shelley argues that every man experiences happiness and delight in certain experiences but “Those in whom it exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community (Fordham).  He believes a poets role is to be all encompassing in society he states that “Poets are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of law, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world with is called religion.  It seems Shelley, in his attempt to defend poetry, takes his idea of what a poet is too far.  He encompasses historians and musicians into a single category of poetry which does not sit very well with me. 

Measured and Unmeasured Language

            In this section Shelley shows the relationship between sound and poetry.  He states “Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both between each other and towards that which they 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 thought” (Fordham).  He also shows the distinction of poets and prose writers.  He considered Plato and Cicero as poets, which again strikes a bad cord, to use a sound analogy, with me.  He also references Plutarch, and Titus Livy, two Roman historians, as being poets.  For Shelley to consider these men as simply poets is denying the immense impact these men had on political and historical analysis.  Again he takes his ideas too far and should stick to defending poetry and not making obscure references to men far greater in knowledge than he.   After faltering on his defense of poetry Shelley makes a very intriguing statement saying that “poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food” (Fordham).  He connects poetry to a more divine presence in the mind than we can imagine.  That poetry invokes in us a sense of happiness that is innate and unique in us all.

The Creative faculty in Greece

In this section Shelley examines the many symbols that represented the extinction or suspension of the creative faculty of Greece.  He states of Homer and Sophocles that “Their superiority over the succedding writers consists in the presence of those thoughts which belong to the inner faculties of our nature, not in the absence of those which are connected with the external; their incomparable perfection consists in a harmony of the union of all” (Fordham).  It seems that he believes that these men were products of their society.  If they were not products of their culture they would not have had the creative faculty which they possessed.  Writers and poets that would precede the Greeks would attempt to copy and duplicate their writing style.  The Romans considered the Greeks as the standard  to be measured and although they would attempt to stray away from Greek influence it would forever remain in Roman art and architecture.  Shelley states “The true poetry of Rome lived in its institutions; for whatever of beautiful, true, and majestic, they contained, could have sprung only from the faculty which creates the order in which they consist” (Fordham).  Now this statement could be debated but it signifies Shelley’s deep conviction in the necessity of poetry. 

The Poetry of Dante and Milton

            Shelley begins this section stating “The familiar appearance and proceedings 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 instrument of their art” (Fordham).  Shelley is again drawing the distinction between poetry and the divine.  In the works of Dante and Milton there consists a bridge between the past and the present.  In this section Shelley diverges from making his defense of poetry to an analysis of poetry on society.  He details the effects of Dante and Milton on Europe stating “They 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 unreformed worship of modern Europe” (Fordham).  Shelley places poets on a pedestal higher than any other being.  Poetry to him is something divine that records the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds (Fordham).  “A poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue, and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men” (Fordham).  Again he believes poets to be the best and the brightest in society above all others morally, intellectually, and of a higher divine nature.

Closing Arguments

            He concludes his article by acknowledging poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world.  In his defense he considered poetry to be everywhere.  That music, documenting of history, painting, and architecture are all apart of poetry.  Where he does go a little too far in arguing the totality of poetry he does make a very convincing argument for poetries essential influence in society.  “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why” (Fordham).                            

 

 

For information on my sources for this posting and to inquire about more information, here are a few sites that offer an analysis of The Defense of Poetry and of Percy Shelly himself.  Happy reading!

 

“A Close Reading of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.”  Romantic Audience Project.  2002.  Bowdoin College.  4 Nov. 2008. <http://ssad.bowdoin.edu:8668/space/A+Close+Reading+of+Shelley’s+Ode+to+the+West+Wind&gt;.

Baker, Ross.  “Poetry and Language in Shelley’s Defense of Poetry.”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 39, No. 4 (Summer, 1981): 437-449.

Halsall, Paul.  “Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822): Defense of Poetry, 1819.”  Modern History Sourcebook.  1998.  Fordham University.  3 Nov. 2008. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/shelley-poetry.html&gt;.

“Ozymandias.”  Rice University. 1999.  The Wondering Minstrels.  4 Nov. 2008.  <http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/22.html&gt;.

“Percey Shelley’s Ode to a West Wind.”  University of Maryland.  Accessed 4 Nov. 2008.  Again no information on date posted.  Any quote cited was taken directly from this page and are not my own.  <http://www.rc.umd.edu/rchs/reader/westwind.html&gt;.

Sandy, Mark. “Defence of Poetry”. The Literary Encyclopedia.  2004.  3, Nov. 2008.
<http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=5662 2008>.

“Shelley’s Defense of Poetry.”  Vanderbilt University.  Accessed 4 Nov. 2008.  No information provided on date posted.  Any quote cited was taken directly from this page and are not my own.  http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/site/liumxq/shelley.

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