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In the essay, "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley argues that poetry brings about moral good. Poetry, Shelley argues, exercises and expands the imagination, and the imagination is the source of sympathy, compassion, and love, which rest on the ability to project oneself into the position of another person. He writes,
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. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. 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. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
No other English poet of the early nineteenth century so emphasized the connection between beauty and goodness, or believed so avidly in the power of art’s sensual pleasures to improve society. Byron’s pose was one of amoral sensuousness, or of controversial rebelliousness; Keats believed in beauty and aesthetics for their own sake. But Shelley was able to believe that poetry makes people and society better; his poetry is suffused with this kind of inspired moral optimism, which he hoped would affect his readers sensuously, spiritually, and morally, all at the same time.
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.
A Close Reading of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.” Romantic Audience Project. 2002. Bowdoin College. 4 Nov. 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.
P. B. Shelley, a great Romantic poet and critic, defends poetry by claiming that the poet creates human values and imagines the forms that shape the social and cultural order Unlike to Peacock, for Shelley, each poetic mind, recreates its own private universe and poets, thus are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. For Shelley, Poetry is the vehicle to reach to the ideal world or platonic world. He argues that all forms of arts and science depend up on nature but poetry improves the nature and creates better than it. Here, his views share similarities with Aristotle, who said that a poet is not only an imitator but also a creator.
Reason and imagination are the two faculties of mind. Reason breaks the things in to parts and analyses it. Thus the reason is the principle of analysis. On the other hand, imagination synthesizes the components. Since imagination is the principle of synthesis that can false contradictory forces.
Imagination has soothing power that pacifies the mind and the people become moral. It creates the best mind and the happiest moment so, peaceful mind is required to produce the poetry. For Shelley the best mind and the happiest moment, produced by imagination are the ways to get the essence but Coleridge’s imagination does not soothe the mind, instead it is just a creative force.
Shelley believes that poetry strengthens the moral faculty and gives pleasure so he treats imagination both as creative and pragmatic aspects. The poet is a moral teacher who gives idea and pleasure to the society by teaching indirectly. Poet is a prophet and legislator who create social norms rules and moral lessons with the help of poetry. A poet to him is not only the author of language of music of the dance, and of architecture but is also the legislator of laws the founder of civil society. Thus, poetry, unlike to Peacock has its social and moral functions along with its aesthetic pleasure.
In this way, Shelley defends poetry from the charges made by Peacock, for whom poets are no more than semi- barbarians do. Shelley opposes peacocks idea that romantic use of language brings cultural decadence and reinforces that poetry creates novelty where we can see the seed of revolution.