What does Shelley say about the imagination in A Defence of Poetry?

In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley says that the imagination is one of the necessary conditions for recognizing what is beautiful, the other being reason. It is through beauty that civilization comes. Furthermore, the imagination sees the similarities in different things, an especially important function when it comes to writing poetry.

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As an arch-Romantic, Shelley places a very high value on the imagination. It is the imaginative faculty of the human mind that is primarily responsible for man's creativity. It takes the raw material of everyday life and transforms it into works of art that bear eloquent testimony of the power of the imagination.

In addition, as Shelley makes clear in A Defence of Poetry, the imagination, in conjunction with human reason, allows us to recognize beauty. Each faculty has a different yet complementary function to perform in this regard. Whereas reason respects the differences between things, the imagination respects their similarities. From both faculties of the mind, man can recognize beauty, and it is only because of this that civilization in any meaningful sense of the word is possible.

One can see from this discussion that the common stereotype of the Romantics as being carried away by unbridled emotion is actually nothing more than a gross caricature. Shelley is fairly typical of the Romantics in according reason a role in recognizing beauty. As well as feeling beauty on the pulse, as it were, experiencing it in emotional terms, we also need to understand it, and for that we need the faculty of reason.

At the same time, Shelley argues that it is the heightened imaginations of poets such as himself that give them an exalted role in society. They are not mere writers or versifiers but semidivine perceivers of reality, supremely gifted individuals who are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

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