Saturday, 18 August 2012

‘A Defense of Poetry’ - An Overview of Shelley's Essay

Shelley deals with two forms of mental action; Reason and Imagination. Reason is composed by the action of one or more thoughts upon each other whereas; imagination acts upon these thoughts and transforms them into something new through poetic inspiration. Reason deals with things or qualities that we already know but it is the imagination that gives them values both as separate entities and as a whole. While reason is based more on the differences that exist, imagination looks more into the similarities within all things. Thus, reason is like the body, it works on a set of principles. It is the spirit however, that animates man, and this is what imagination works as.

The action of Reason and Imagination
For Shelley, poetry generally tends to point to an expression of what is imagined. Man is dynamic and due to this, the internal and external forces of the environment are bound to affect him much like a lyre exposed to wind. Due to this interaction of forces we have a melody. However, reason exercises principles and so unlike the lyre we don’t merely have melody but also harmony. This means, man adjusts the vastness of his imagination to a rational and logical outcome. The wind striking a lyre and causing melody is a metaphor for the imagination of a poet while the harmony realized through accommodation of poetic inspiration within the limits of reason can be metaphorically realized by the illustration of a musician accommodating his voice to the sound of the instrument.

Like the motions of a child at play, that takes delight in movement and continues repeating it, Poetry in itself is an expression of delight and pleasure. The catharsis experienced through expression is what poetry gives to the poet.

Nature of Imitation and Imagination

At the beginning, it is imitation of surroundings and the natural world with its balance and rhythm that men focus on. This is Mimetic representation differs as it may be a song, dance or a blend of language; but the ability to estimate the sense of pleasure derived from these arts falls to the taste of the spectator or listener. People can roughly compare what is beautiful with the amount of pleasure it causes them to feel. People who possess this sensibility in excess are poets. They are able to convey what they sense, experience and feel in nature or the society in such a way that others too can share their experience.

The Language of a Poet

A poet uses metaphors extensively. These metaphors seek relationships between things that have never before been established. Over time, these metaphors may come to represent something other than merely a poetic mental worldview. Language would be dead if poets did not stir the brew of metaphors and create anew as “language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful”. He rather ambitiously assumes that language at its genesis is like a chaotic cyclic poem which is sophisticated lexicographically and grammatically by the creations of Poetry.

Why are Poets indestructible
Poets aren’t merely the creators of arts like language, music, dance or architecture and the like. For Shelley, a poet is a creator of society’s laws and teaches the art of living while civilizing and moralizing. A poet through fables, parables and the use of skillful metaphors can bring religion closer to interpretation which is why at the base level, religions are susceptible to allegory.

A poet has the dual role of legislator and prophet as he can see what needs to be rectified in the present as well as being able to see the future scenario in the face of the society of his day. Poetry has a bit of the prophetic for he sees the bigger picture and isn’t pulled down by mundane aspects of time and place. Art has a certain enduring eternity as can be seen in sculpture, music and painting.

Language and poetry

Shelley has a divine view of poetic inspiration “created by that imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man”. Language, colour, religion, society cannot be called poetry as they are mere tools. Poetry consists of a skillful arrangement of language; metrical language essentially that stems from a poet’s fancy. Language can be molded better and fashioned closer to our diverse needs of expression than colour, form or motion. Language relates directly to the thoughts and ideas stemming from one’s imagination. Other materials of art on the other hand, limit their expression as they have multiple relations. Thus, language is a mirror than reflects the society.

Poetry springs from language and so is the highest form of expression. When we look at language we are presented with sound-images. When a poet sets to work we not only have the language but the harmony of the sounds as well. The language would be insufficient if the thought pattern and harmony of the whole were absent. Due to this, to translate poetry from one language to another is impossible as one would have to start at the grassroots.

Set poetic patterns

Due to the recurrence of this harmonious flow in poetry, metre and poetic forms like the sonnet have been handed down. This doesn’t mean a poet must be limited to traditions for innovations upon previously handed models are a part of life.

Poets and Philosophers
According to Shelley, Plato who banned poetry was a poet at heart due to his splendid imagery and melodious language. For a poet to really hold a place, the poetry written should reflect the truth of things at its heart. Shakespeare, Dante and Milton are verily philosophers on this count.

Poetry and Eternal truth

When we look at a story, we find it to be contained of relations of time, place, action and cause-effect. Poetry is based more on the creation of actions based on the unchangeable aspects of human nature with a certain shared experience within it. A story is based more on a certain time period or events that may not be repeated again. Poetry is universal and deals with whatever complexities are within the scope of human nature. Poetry has an eternal theme not restricted to a particular period and so, “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”.

Effects of Poetry upon Society

Poetry causes delight while at the same time, bestowing nuggets of wisdom on receptive listeners. Cause and effect are brought to such a perfection of union that no one can truly fathom poetry’s excellence while the feelings aroused are done in a subtle and divine manner. Like a prophet, a poet never gets his due while he lives for it takes the wisest to appreciate him. Using the metaphor of a nightingale, Shelley pictures a poet singing softly in the night to cheer his solitude while the enraptured listeners are moved though they know not where the music issues from. He continues with praise of Homer who with his fellow poets formed a column on which succeeding civilizations rested thanks to their elevating heroic poetry.

Immorality of Poetry
Achilles, Hector and Ulysses provided food for though and were the source of the admiration of the masses. Shelley defends them from being characters removed from moral perfection due to their barbarianisms. Vices for a poet are a temporary dress for his characters which in no way mars their nobler attributes. Though they may have flaws, these flaws do not show themselves before their finer traits.

Shelley develops his argument further by stating that immorality of poetry is a misconception based on a mistaken notion of how poetry is supposed to induce man’s moral improvement. Poetry broadens the mind to stumble upon newer and unthought-of series of thoughts. “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world; and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar”.

To have love or move beyond our baser natures and identify ourselves with what is beautiful beyond our own self is the first step to morality. To be truly sensitive to right and wrong one should posses compassion and a sensitivity to others happiness and despair. “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination: and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” It enlarges the imagination and due to the constant flow of new thoughts there is no stagnation. “Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”

There is no need for a poet to interpret right or wrong or colour his works with his views for this will set a shelf life to it. The more moralistically aimed and didactic a poem the more its effect is diminished.


Drama can corrupt as well as educate. Athenian dramas hold up a mirror to the society. Imagination is evoked by the need to sympathise with the wronged. Pity, indignation and sorrow strengthen the good affections while crime is shown to be less grotesque or gruesome due to the Fatalism which was predominant. Drama of the most exalted order caters to self knowledge and respect and while it expresses poetry it is a prism to human nature reflecting its varied shades.
When society decays so does drama and tragedy follows the masters of old with a few moral truths wedged in. Thus, Shelley denounces classical and domestic drama. He further mentions the degradation of poetry during the period of Charles ll where liberty and virtue were sidelined by hymns in praise of the king.

“A great Poem is a fountain for ever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share; another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and unconceived delight.”
Functions of Poetry

From Shelley’s viewpoint, poetry has two functions: (1) it creates new materials of knowledge, power and pleasure; (2) it makes the mind want to reproduce the same and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order that is both beautiful and good. Poetry rests not on will power like reasoning as the mind when inspired, “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.”Poetry glorifies to the beauty of what is already beautiful while finding beauty in what is deformed. It like the Philosophers stone transmutes all that it touches.

“Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which furturity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”


Imagination and language through the medium of poetry can be used to elevate the minds of the readers and to present an image of beauty by making familiar objects unfamiliar.
Poetry delights the mind while it teaches an indirect moral lesson. A poet shouldn’t concerned with being overtly didactic for poetry is meant to be eternal and not confined to one set world view.

Poetic writings possess both a rhythm and harmony without which poetry wouldn’t exist. Through poetry one tries to reproduce the divinely felt beauty of the world.

Poetry does not require logic for poets themselves do not know how far reaching an impact their own works may have in the future. Poetry stems from a divine source that fades even as the poets struggle to capture and retain fragments of the revelation.

Lastly, poetry is eternal for it can set down human nature in all its manifold manifestations.


  1. Thank you so much for putting this up. I have to prepare Shelly and Arnold today as my exam is due tomorrow. And this stuff is so lucid and comprehensive! You're a life saver! :D Keep up the great work!

  2. Oh you are a life saver...thanks a looooooot... :)

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