How does Shelley define reason and imagination in "A Defence of Poetry"?

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In "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley defines the concept of reason as the logical thought processes that exist in the everyday, material world. Imagination, in contrast, is the faculty or "spirit" that brings reason to the higher level of creativity and moral goodness. Imagination is at the heart of poetry.

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In "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley defines reason as logical thought. Reason sees what is already around it and absorbs the facts of the real world. Imagination, on the other hand, is the faculty that takes what reason sees in the everyday world and, rather than just accept it, perceives the higher possibilities inherent in everyday things. As Shelley puts it,

Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Imagination is thus the realm of the intuitive leap, the inspiration that sees beyond the ordinary. Reason is the fodder or "instrument" that feeds the imagination, but imagination is the creative leap or "spirit" that sees the creative potential in the world.

Not surprisingly, Shelley puts imagination at the heart of poetry—poetry, he believes, transcends the ordinary, everyday world of reason and makes connections that help us see the world in new ways. Poetry is the most sublime of the art forms because it uses language, the medium most closely associated with pure thought.

For Shelley, the poetic imagination does more than create pleasure. The best and truest poetry also has a moral dimension: it excites human emotions and communicates insights that move people towards goodness. Because it relies on imagination, poetry is empathic: it allows to feel as others who are unlike us might feel.

Shelley invests poetry, because of imagination, with the highest of powers, seeing in it an expression of the divine force. Today we might consider that Shelley credits poetry with too much power, but his essay well expresses the Romantic belief in the potential of the imagination to build a better world.

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

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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