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									Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 09 supplement

                             SUMMARY OF SHELLEY’S “DEFENCE OF POETRY”

1.A wonderful explication of many of the philosophical assumptions informing the poetry of
the first wave Romantics, not least Wordsworth. Precisely because it is at odds with his
views elsewhere, some believe that Shelley may not have written the “Defence.”

2.Thesis: Shelley’s ultimate goal is to stress the beneficial impact of poetry. To this end,
he feels it is necessary to define the nature of poetry. To do this, he feels he must first
address the nature of the poet, to which end, he must first address the nature of man.

                                                    “What are Poets?”

3.The Mind: the minds of humans are comparable to an aeolian harp. There are two main
“classes of mental action” (516) or faculties:
       conscious thoughts, produced by the ‘reason’ (what Locke terms the
       ‘understanding’?), are comparable to a melody or sequence or combination of
       notes: man is an “instrument over which a series of external and internal
       impressions are driven, like the alternation of an ever-changing wind over an
       Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever changing melody” (516). The
       reason is the “mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another,
       however produced” (516) and is expressed in logical discourse (e.g. scientific
       treatises). The reason “respects . . . differences” (516) and is thus particularly
       given to “analysis” (516).

       Another part of the mind, the ‘Imagination,’ has the capacity to add harmony to
       these thought-‘melodies’: there is a “principle within the human being, and perhaps
       all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody
       alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus
       excited to the impressions which excite them” (516). The Imagination is “mind
       acting upon those thoughts [produced by the reason] so as to colour them with its
       own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts” (516) and
       is expressed in poetic discourse (especially through the use of figurative language).
       The Imagination notes the “similitudes of things” (516), marrying “exultation and
       horror, grief and pleasure; eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light
       yoke all irreconcilable things” (527), and is thus particularly good at “synthesis”
The Imagination is the superior mental faculty: “Reason is to the imagination, as the
instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance” (516).

The Imagination is “not like the reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the
determination of the will” (527): the “mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some
invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power
arises from within, like the colour 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” (527). This inner “power . . . is seated on the throne of their own soul” (529)
and represents the “interpenetration of a diviner nature through our 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” (527). The poet “participates in the
eternal, the infinite, and the one” (517). Those who possess this faculty are “legislators”
(517) because they draw things “into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true”
Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 09 supplement

(517): the poet “beholds “intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according
to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present and
his thoughts are the germ of the flower and the fruit of the latest time” (517).

4.Knowledge is subjective: all things “exist as they are perceived; at least in relation to
the percipient” (527), the mind being able to “make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
(527). The creative or poetic faculty, which stems from the Imagination, is the “basis of
all knowledge” (526): it “engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange” (526)
the sense impressions absorbed from the surrounding world “according to a certain rhythm
and order which might be called the beautiful and the good” (526). Poetry is the most
important form of knowledge: we have more “moral, political and historical wisdom” (526)
and more “scientific and economical knowledge” (526) than we know what to do with, the
“poetry in these systems of thought” (526) being “concealed by the accumulation of facts
and calculating processes” (526-527). 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 faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having
enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. (526)

                                                    “What is Poetry?”

5.Poetry is the “expression of the imagination” (516) of the poet. Poets, using their
Imagination, “imagine and express” (my emphasis; 517) the “indestructible order” (517).
Poetry is the main “portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit . . . into the universe
of things” (527) and, as such, the “echo of the eternal music” (518). For this reason,
poetry is the “very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” (518): “strips the veil of
familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit
of its forms” (527); “makes beautiful that which is distorted” (519); the “record of the best
and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” (527); “makes immortal all that is
best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the
interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among
mankind” (527); “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man” (527) because
         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 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
         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. (527)

6.Poetry’s superiority to the sciences and to other artforms:
       to non-linguistic forms of art because it “expresses those arrangements of
       language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial
       faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man” (517) (the
       Imagination) (words are a “more direct representation of the actions and passions
       of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations”
       [517] and is “more plastic and obedient of the faculty of which it is the creation”
Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 09 supplement

           [517] than other media of representation found in other artforms such as “color,
           form, or motion” [517]);

           to prose fiction: where a “story” (518) is merely a “catalogue of detached facts,
           which have no other connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect”
           (518), poetry creates” actions according to the unchangeable forms of human
           nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other
           minds” (518). Where prose fiction is “partial, and applies only to a definite period
           of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur” (518),
           poetry is “universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever
           motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature” (518).

7.Poetry’s complexity: “all high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained
all 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 overflowing with the waters
of wisdom and delight” (525).

                                            Poetry’s “Effects Upon Society”

Shelley responds here to Plato’s invitation to defend poetry and rescue it from exile.

8.Poetry and pleasure: The “whole objection . . . of the immorality of poetry rests upon a
misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of
man” (519) and an assumption that while the “exercise of the imagination is most
delightful” (525), “that of reason is more useful” (525). Equating “utility” (525) with both
“good” (525) and “pleasure” (525) and defining pleasure as “that which the consciousness
of a sensitive and intelligent being seeks” (525), he argues that there are two kinds of
pleasure: “one durable, universal and permanent; the other transitory and particular”
(525). The former “strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and
adds spirit to sense” (525). The latter performs a much “narrower” (525) function in
caters our wants and needs. Poetry caters to the former: “all spirits upon which it falls
open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its delight” (519). It “acts in
a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness” (519).

9.Poetry and love: the “great secret of morals is love” (519), a “going out of our nature,
and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or
person, not our own” (519). A man “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and
comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the
pains and pleasures of his species must become his own” (519). This is why the “great
instrument of moral good is the imagination” (520): poetry “administers to the effect [i.e.
the propagation of good] by acting upon the cause [i.e. by moulding the reader’s
imagination]” (520), enlarging 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” (520). The “state of mind produced” (527) by poetry,
Shelley argues, is one “at war with every base desire. The enthusiasm of virtue, love,
patriotism, and friendship is essentially linked with such emotions” (527).

10.Social Change: the blossoming of literature “has ever preceded or accompanied a
great and free development of the national will” (529): the present period is the latest to
engage in a “national struggle for civil and religious liberty” (529); poetry is the “unfailing
Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2002 Notes 09 supplement

herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial
change in opinion, or institution” (529).

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