A Defence of Poetry Additional Summary

Percy Bysshe Shelley


(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.)


(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.