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...
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