Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Poetry

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ross Woodman (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Shelley's 'Void Circumference': The Aesthetic of Nihilism, " English Studies in Canada, Vol. IX, No. 3, September, 1983, pp. 272-93.

[In the following essay, Woodman analyzes Percy Bysshe Shelley's views regarding the relationship between artistic creativity and "divine insanity." Woodman demonstrates how Shelley's career reveals the poet's frustration with the inability of art to truly represent divinely inspired vision.]


Since Plato banished the poets from his Republic many have rushed to their defence in an attempt to reinstate them. Among the English poets, Shelley remains the foremost apologist for the divine insanity of which Plato accused the poets and for which he sent them into exile as unfit for citizenship in a rational society governed by logos rather than mythos, philosophy rather than religion. Shelley in his apology, particularly his Defence of Poetry, meets Plato on his own ground. He too rejects the role of religion in society, substituting for it what he calls in his essay, On Life, the "intellectual philosophy" (p. 477).1 More than that, his objection is Plato's: the superstitious acceptance of the probable or mythical account of ultimate reality turns it into a true account supported by institutional and priestly sanction. Plato rejected the poets because as myth-makers they were the founders of religion. Shelley, following in Plato's footsteps, was determined that poets would no longer assume this role. Because "the deep truth is imageless" (Prometheus Unbound, II. IV. 116), all poetry as poetry is a fiction. Like Plato, Shelley argues that the poet works by spell and incantation. However, because the poet now knows this, he is no longer (as Shelley describes him in the preface to Alastor) "deluded" or "duped" by his "generous error," "doubtful knowledge," and "illustrious superstition" (p. 69). So long as he remains true to his own experience, he will dissolve or abjure his "rough magic" in bringing the creative process, "always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden" (Defence of Poetry, p. 504), to an end. He will in the name of poetic truth take every precaution to remind his auditors that what they have just suspended their disbelief in is a spell the true object of which remains unknowable, poetry for Shelley being the true voice of scepticism:2

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given—
Therefore the name of God and ghosts and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour,
Frail spells—whose uttered charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear, and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
("Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, " 25-31)

Though poetry has its limitations, it nevertheless assists man to become the master rather than the slave of "Doubt, chance and mutability" by rendering them answerable to that harmony among the various parts of the tripartite soul (imagination, intellect, and sense, for Shelley) which Plato argued it was the function of dialectic to achieve. And here again Shelley agrees with Plato. The function of dialectic, he suggests, is to bring into consciousness among the various parts of the soul that intuitive harmony "beyond and above consciousness" (Defence of Poetry, p. 486) which poetry mimetically represents. Plato in The Republic is, as Shelley reminds the reader, also a poet.3 The myths he constructs, however, are placed at the service of a dialectical process that cannot function without them. Shelley is equally concerned that his own mythopoeia be used in somewhat the same way, which is to say, copied by legislators and moral reformers into what in his Defence he calls "the book of common life" (p. 501).

What, however, most distinguishes Shelley from Plato is his attempt as a poet to explore "the mind in creation" (Defence of Poetry , pp. 503-04) by making the subject of the poem the creative process itself. In this way he hoped to render that process not something separate from, but an integral part of,...

(The entire section is 40,009 words.)