Readers familiar with other great “defenses” of poetry may find Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry unusual, even confusing. There is little practical analysis of the elements of good literary work. There is no methodical history of poetry, as one reads in Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1595). There are no pronouncements about rules of composition. Instead, Shelley offers a philosophical analysis of the role of the poet as a special kind of person, one who can see the essential harmonies of the world beneath the discordant images people find in their everyday lives. Whereas Aristotle, Sidney, or John Dryden see the poet as a superb craftsman capable of delighting readers through the masterful blending of form and content, Shelley assigns the poet a higher calling: the revelation of truth about life and the promotion of universal betterment.
These high claims are justified by Shelley’s insistence that the production of poetry is not simply a craft. Rather, the true poet is a visionary who is inspired to create art as a means of revealing something about the nature of the world. The poem itself is merely an attempt to reproduce that vision. Such claims have been misinterpreted, and Shelley has been accused of promoting automatic writing or of devaluing the importance of craftsmanship. On the contrary: Shelley sees the imagination as a shaping power that gives form to the poet’s vision, and only those who master form can hope to convey their vision to readers. Similarly, claims that Shelley is a promoter of emotional poetry are wrongheaded; he is insistent that the practice of poetry involves the intellect as well as the heart. He believes that great poets have a special gift that allows them to use the materials of their own time (the forms and subjects that might appeal to their contemporary readers), but transcend the limits of time and place to speak to people of all ages.
In this essay Shelley is defending poetry—“my mistress, Urania”—against the attack by Thomas Love Peacock in “The Four Ages of Poetry,” published in the first and only issue of the Literary Miscellany in 1820. The polemical exchange came to nothing, for A Defence of Poetry remained unpublished until 1840. In his essay, Peacock had elaborated the familiar figure of the Golden and Silver Ages of classical poetry into four (Iron, Gold, Silver, and Brass), skipped over “the dark ages,” and repeated the succession in English poetry. Peacock’s point was that poetry never amounts to much in civilized society; Shelley’s defense is that poetry is essential. Their views were antithetical and neither made contact with the other: Peacock’s attack is a boisterous satire, Shelley’s defense is an elevated prose poem.
Nevertheless, Peacock’s article is still a necessary preface to Shelley’s arguments, not because one prompted the other or because Shelley adopted Peacock’s historical method in the middle section of his essay, but because, as a pair, they show the opposing preferences of the older public for eighteenth century wit and of the younger for enthusiasm. Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” has also the merit of being amusing; Shelley is never amusing. Peacock’s argument is that poetry belongs properly to primitive societies, that as they become civilized they become rational and nonpoetical; hence it was not until the late seventeenth century that England equaled, in the work of William Shakespeare and John Milton, the Golden Age of Homeric Greece. Early nineteenth century England seemed, to him, to have reached the Age of Brass in poetry but a kind of Golden Age in science; therefore, poetry should be left to the primitive societies where it belongs. Peacock is most amusing in his picture of the first Age of Iron, in which the bard of the tribal chief “is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor.” Apart from Homer, Peacock respects no poet, not even Shakespeare, who mixed his unities and thought nothing of “deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer.” Peacock’s jest turns sour as he tires of his figure, and his strictures on contemporary poetry become a diatribe of which the gist is that “a poet of our times is a semibarbarian in a civilized community.” Shelley, to whom Peacock sent a copy of his essay, was stirred to write his only prose statement on his craft. In it he came to the memorable conclusion...
(The entire section is 1870 words.)