Study Guide

A Defence of Poetry

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

A Defence of Poetry Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 The polemical exchange came to nothing, for A Defence of Poetry remained unpublished until 1840.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.)

A Defence of Poetry Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Shelley wrote A Defence of Poetry as a reply to Thomas Love Peacock’s The Four Ages of Poetry (1820). Peacock thought that poetry grows less relevant as society advances and that Romantic poetry is barbaric and childish. Shelley admitted that some people and ages are less poetical than others, but he argued vehemently that poetry is humanity’s highest mental faculty, relevant to every age. Shelley sees poetry as the power of understanding and imagining new combinations of thought. Thus, it is the source of all knowledge and progress. He rejects small-minded definitions of poetry as word games played with rhymes and meters. Even prose can be poetry inasmuch as it expresses the imagination.

A poet sees a world not yet seen by most people. He grasps order hidden beneath chaos, truth scrambled by superstition, beauty smeared by corruption. Poets create new forms of opinions and action that enable society to progress. Thus, they wield more power in society than politicians and business executives. “Poets,” Shelley declares, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For example, Dante gave medieval Europe a new Christian myth that made it less violent and more free. Ultimately, poetry enlarges the mental and moral capacities of humankind.

Shelley contrasts poetry with reason. Reason is calculating selfhood; poetry, the impulse toward pleasure and love. “Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

A Defence of Poetry Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Clark, David Lee, ed. Shelley’s Prose: Or, The Trumpet of a Prophecy. 3d ed. London: Fourth Estate, 1988. The introduction examines Shelley’s theory of poetry within the broader context of his ideas about religion and other aspects of his philosophy. Contains an annotated text of A Defence of Poetry and an annotated bibliography.

Clark, Timothy. The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic Writing. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Examines theories of inspiration in Western poetics since the Enlightenment. Analyzes A Defence of Poetry to describe how Shelley depicted the process of composition as a state of subjective crisis and transformation.

Daiches, David. Critical Approaches to Literature. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1987. Discusses the Platonic idealism of A Defence of Poetry in terms of poetry and social morality, language and imagination. Relates the essay’s ideas to those of Sir Philip Sidney, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Duffy, Cian. Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Focuses on Shelley’s fascination with sublime natural phenomena and how this interest influenced his writing and ideas about political and social reform.

Fry, Paul H. The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. A chapter discusses the relation of A Defence of Poetry to the tenets of Longinus, John Dryden, and others. Closely analyzes the language, ideas, and theoretical basis of the essay; considers the essay one of the best works on the debate between poetry and science.

Jordan, John E., ed. A Defence of Poetry, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and The Four Ages of Poetry, by Thomas Love Peacock. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. Introduction interprets the significance of Shelley’s essay. Copious notes explain the text and connect it to the works of previous writers.

Morton, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shelley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Ten essays on various aspects of Shelley’s life and work, including Shelley as a lyricist, dramatist, storyteller, political poet, and translator, and the literary reception of his writings. The references to A Defence of Poetry are listed in the index.