A Defense of Poetry.

Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments. [Mary Shelley, ed.]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Written in 1821 and posthumously published in 1840. While Spenser is one of those poets who "frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose," he is one of the writers who "have celebrated the dominion of love, planting as it were trophies in the human mind of that sublimest victory over sensuality and force." Shelley also expresses doubt that The Faerie Queene can be considered an epic, at least "in its highest sense" Prose, ed. Clark (1954) 291.

The objections to didactic poetry Joseph Warton earlier addressed to Pope are here turned against Spenser. Compare John Keats's letter to John Hamilton Reynolds (3 February 1818): "We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us."

George Saintsbury: "This very interesting piece is more in the spirit of the Italian-Elizabethan apologies than anything else written so late (1821). It is, in fact, a protest in that spirit, not so much against the Puritan as against the 18th-century 'good sense' view of the matter. It contains, however, as is natural, no few traces of the 18th century itself, in its generalizing assumptions about 'men dancing and singing in the youth of the world,' etc. And part of it is beyond all doubt directed rather against Wordsworth's doctrines, though written in a spirit almost wholly akin to Wordsworth's own" Loci Critici (1903) 398.

W. J. Courthope: "as in Shelley, so in Spenser, there was a spirit always seeking for some external object conformable to its own ideal, and always failing to discover it. Shelley would have sympathised deeply with the mood in which Spenser wrote the following stanza: 'So oft as I with state of present time | The image of the antique world compare | When as man's age was in his freshest prime | And the first bloosome of faire virtue bare [...].' But here again Spenser's ideal, unattainable in the actual condition of things, was at least readily intelligible from the point of view of life, action, and authority. To form the 'noble courtier'; or, as he says himself, 'to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline,' seemed no idle dream in an age which could still produce such a specimen of knighthood as Sir Philip Sidney: however remotely withdrawn into the heart of Fairyland, the figure of Gloriana was not not an irrational object of worship to men still familiar with the principles of Feudal Monarchy. On the other hand, the idealism of Shelly had no basis beyond his own chivalrous and enthusiastic temper, which, Ixion-like, was always forming clouds into momentary shapes of human perfectibility round commonplace figures, — Elizabeth Hitchener, for example, or Emilia Vivani, — or into aerial visions of impossible societies, like the revolutionised Golden City, founded on the speculations of an intelligence sordidly worldly, like that of William Godwin. The enduring poetry of Shelley consists not in these evanescent fabrics, but in the lyric cries of pain, so typical of idealism in all ages, drawn from a generous and sensitive soul awaking from its illusions to the harsh realities of life" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 6:318-19.

Oliver Elton: "His conception of art and poetry, and of their business, is not a simple or consistent one. His Defence of Poetry (written 1821) is a series of eloquent sentences and often deep intuitions, not a reasoned argument. He holds, with Plato in the Ion, that the poet has a share of a divine inspiration which is above reason; and by a 'poet' he means, like all the Platonist critics, a creator of anything fair, or great, or virtuous, in words, or tones, or marble, or deeds, or legislation. He tolerates even institutions, when they have been built by the Romans; for then they are full of 'poetry.' But he soon drops this idea and says that poetry, in the stricter sense, is an art working through language. The language need not be metrical, though metre introduces a beauty of its own. But what, then, does poetry convey in language? What has it, what have Homer and Milton, to say? He answers, that poetry proper puts into beautiful verbal shape some aspect or other of that ideal, which poetry, in its big, comprehensive sense, is an effort to convey. Man is its highest subject; and ideal man is its supreme object of portraiture. It is clear, in passing, that such a theory makes little provision for much of the verse that Shelley wrote himself, which is pure, subjective lyric, or fantasy, or natural description. But apart from this his theory, when he comes to explain his notion of the ideal man, varies like his practice" Survey of English Literature 1780-1930 (1912) 2:218-19.

The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. Ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created, and propounds the scheme and proposes examples of civil and domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another. But poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. 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 for ever 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. A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither. By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal poets, should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Those in whom the poetical faculty, though good, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose. . . .

At successive intervals, Ariosto, Tasso, Shakspeare, Spenser, Calderon, Rousseau, and the great writers of our own age, have celebrated the dominion of love, planting as it were trophies in the human mind of that sublimest victory over sensuality and force. The true relation borne to each other by the sexes into which human kind is distributed, has become less misunderstood; and if the error which confounded diversity with inequality of the powers of the two sexes has been partially recognized in the opinions and institutions of modern Europe, we owe this great benefit to the worship of which chivalry was the law, and poets the prophets.

The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world. The distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton have idealized, are merely the mask and the mantle in which those great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised. It is a difficult question to determine how far they were conscious of the distinction which must have subsisted in their minds between their own creeds and that of the people. Dante at least appears to wish to mark the full extent of it by placing Riphaeus, whom Virgil calls "justissime unus," in Paradise, and observing a most heretical caprice in his distribution of rewards and punishments. And Milton's poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system, of which, by a strange and natural antithesis, it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil. Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave, are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonours his conquest in the victor. Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments. Milton has so far violated the popular creed (if this shall be judged to be a violation) as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton's genius. He mingled as it were the elements of human nature as colours upon a single pallet, and arranged them in the composition of his great picture according to the laws of epic truth; that is, according to the laws of that principle by which a series of actions of the eternal universe and of intelligent and ethical beings is calculated to excite the sympathy of succeeding generations of mankind. The Divina Commedia and Paradise Lost have conferred upon modern mythology a systematic form; and when change and time shall have added one more superstition to the mass of those which have arise and decayed upon the earth, commentators will be learnedly employed in elucidating the religion of ancestral Europe, only not utterly forgotten because it will have been stamped with the eternity of genius.

Homer was the first and Dante the second epic poet: that is, the second poet, the series of whose creations bore a defined and intelligible relation to the knowledge and sentiment and religion of the age in which he lived, and of the ages which followed it: developing itself in correspondence with their development. For Lucretius had limed the wings of his swift spirit in the dregs of the sensible world; and Virgil, with a modesty that ill became his genius, had affected the fame of an imitator, even whilst he created anew all that he copied; and one among the flock of mock-birds, though their notes were sweet, Apollonius Rhodius, Quintus Calaber, Nonnus, Lucan, Statius, or Claudian, have sought even to fulfil a single condition of epic truth. Milton was the third epic poet. For if the title of epic in the highest sense be refused to the Aeneid, still less can it be conceded to the Orlando Furioso, the Gerusalemme Libertata, the Lusiad, or the Fairy Queen. . . .

[(1852) 1:15-17, 31-34]