Romantic Literary Criticism

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T. S. Eliot (essay date 1933)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4632

SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Shelley and Keats.” In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England, pp. 87-102. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1933.

[In the following essay, Eliot discusses Shelley's views of poetry, which were expressed within the poetry itself, and Keats's critical views, which were expressed in his correspondence.]

It would appear that the revolution effected by Wordsworth was very far-reaching indeed. He was not the first poet to present himself as the inspired prophet, nor indeed is this quite Wordsworth's case. Blake may have pretended, and with some claim, to have penetrated mysteries of heaven and hell, but no claim that Blake might make seems to descend upon the ‘poet’ in general; Blake simply had the visions, and made use of poetry to set them forth. Scott, and Byron in his more popular works, were merely society entertainers. Wordsworth is really the first, in the unsettled state of affairs in his time, to annex new authority for the poet, to meddle with social affairs, and to offer a new kind of religious sentiment which it seemed the peculiar prerogative of the poet to interpret. Since Matthew Arnold made his Selections from Wordsworth's poetry, it has become a commonplace to observe that Wordsworth's true greatness as poet is independent of his opinions, of his theory of diction or of his nature-philosophy, and that it is found in poems in which he has no ulterior motive whatever. I am not sure that this critical eclecticism cannot go too far; that we can judge and enjoy a man's poetry while leaving wholly out of account all of the things for which he cared deeply, and on behalf of which he turned his poetry to account. If we dismiss Wordsworth's interests and beliefs, just how much, I wonder, remains? To retain them, or to keep them in mind instead of deliberately extruding them in preparation for enjoying his poetry, is that not necessary to appreciate how great a poet Wordsworth really is? Consider, for instance, one of the very finest poets of the first part of the nineteenth century: Landor. He is an undoubted master of verse and prose; he is the author of at least one long poem which deserves to be much more read than it is; but his reputation has never been such as to bring him into comparison with Wordsworth or with either of the younger poets with whom we have now to deal. It is not only by reason of a handful of poems or a number of isolated lines expressive of deeper emotion than that of which Landor was capable, that we give Wordsworth his place; there is something integral about such greatness, and something significant in his place in the pattern of history, with which we have to reckon. And in estimating for ourselves the greatness of a poet we have to take into account also the history of his greatness. Wordsworth is an essential part of history; Landor only a magnificent by-product.

Shelley both had views about poetry and made use of poetry for expressing views. With Shelley we are struck from the beginning by the number of things poetry is expected to do; from a poet who tells us, in a note on vegetarianism, that ‘the orang-outang perfectly resembles man both in the order and the number of his teeth’, we shall not know what not to expect. The notes to Queen Mab express, it is true, only the views of an intelligent and enthusiastic schoolboy, but a schoolboy who knows how to write; and throughout his work, which is of no small bulk for a short life, he does not, I think, let us forget that he took his ideas seriously. The ideas of Shelley seem to me always to be ideas of adolescence—as there is every reason why they should be. And an enthusiasm for Shelley seems to me also to be an affair of adolescence: for most of us, Shelley has marked an intense period before maturity, but for how many does Shelley remain the companion of age? I confess that I never open the volume of his poems simply because I want to read poetry, but only with some special reason for reference. I find his ideas repellent; and the difficulty of separating Shelley from his ideas and beliefs is still greater than with Wordsworth. And the biographical interest which Shelley has always excited makes it difficult to read the poetry without remembering the man: and the man was humourless, pedantic, self-centred, and sometimes almost a blackguard. Except for an occasional flash of shrewd sense, when he is speaking of someone else and not concerned with his own affairs or with fine writing, his letters are insufferably dull. He makes an astonishing contrast with the attractive Keats. On the other hand, I admit that Wordsworth does not present a very pleasing personality either; yet I not only enjoy his poetry as I cannot enjoy Shelley's, but I enjoy it more than when I first read it. I can only fumble (abating my prejudices as best I can) for reasons why Shelley's abuse of poetry does me more violence than Wordsworth's.

Shelley seems to have had to a high degree the unusual faculty of passionate apprehension of abstract ideas. Whether he was not sometimes confused about his own feelings, as we may be tempted to believe when confounded by the philosophy of Epipsychidion, is another matter. I do not mean that Shelley had a metaphysical or philosophical mind; his mind was in some ways a very confused one: he was able to be at once and with the same enthusiasm an eighteenth-century rationalist and a cloudy Platonist. But abstractions could excite in him strong emotion. His views remained pretty fixed, though his poetic gift matured. It is open to us to guess whether his mind would have matured too; certainly, in his last, and to my mind greatest though unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life, there is evidence not only of better writing than in any previous long poem, but of greater wisdom:

‘Then what I thought was an old root that grew
To strange distortion out of the hillside,
Was indeed one of those (sic) deluded crew
And that the grass, which methought hung so wide
And white, was but his thin discoloured hair
And that the holes he vainly sought to hide
Were or had been eyes …’

There is a precision of image and an economy here that is new to Shelley. But so far as we can judge, he never quite escaped from the tutelage of Godwin, even when he saw through the humbug as a man; and the weight of Mrs. Shelley must have been pretty heavy too. And, taking his work as it is, and without vain conjectures about the future, we may ask: is it possible to ignore the ‘ideas’ in Shelley's poems, so as to be able to enjoy the poetry?

Mr. I. A. Richards deserves the credit of having done the pioneer work in the problem of Belief in the enjoyment of poetry; and any methodical pursuit of the problem I must leave to him and to those who are qualified after him. But Shelley raises the question in another form than that in which it presented itself to me in a note on the subject which I appended to an essay on Dante. There, I was concerned with two hypothetical readers, one of whom accepts the philosophy of the poet, and the other of whom rejects it; and so long as the poets in question were such as Dante and Lucretius, this seemed to cover the matter. I am not a Buddhist, but some of the early Buddhist scriptures affect me as parts of the Old Testament do; I can still enjoy Fitzgerald's Omar, though I do not hold that rather smart and shallow view of life. But some of Shelley's views I positively dislike, and that hampers my enjoyment of the poems in which they occur; and others seem to me so puerile that I cannot enjoy the poems in which they occur. And I do not find it possible to skip these passages and satisfy myself with the poetry in which no proposition pushes itself forward to claim assent. What complicates the problem still further is that in poetry so fluent as Shelley's there is a good deal which is just bad jingling. The following, for instance:

‘On a battle-trumpet's blast
I fled hither, fast, fast, fast,
Mid the darkness upward cast.
From the dust of creeds outworn,
From the tyrant's banner torn,
Gathering round me, onward borne,
There was mingled many a cry—
Freedom! Hope! Death! Victory!’

Walter Scott seldom fell as low as this, though Byron more often. But in such lines, harsh and untunable, one is all the more affronted by the ideas, the ideas which Shelley bolted whole and never assimilated, visible in the catchwords of creeds outworn, tyrants and priests, which Shelley employed with such reiteration. And the bad parts of a poem can contaminate the whole, so that when Shelley rises to the heights, at the end of the poem:

‘To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …’

lines to the content of which belief is neither given nor denied, we are unable to enjoy them fully. One does not expect a poem to be equally sustained throughout; and in some of the most successful long poems there is a relation of the more tense to the more relaxed passages, which is itself part of the pattern of beauty. But good lines amongst bad can never give more than a regretful pleasure. In reading Epipsychidion I am thoroughly gravelled by lines like:

‘True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away …
I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd, a mistress or a friend
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion …’

so that when I come, a few lines later, upon a lovely image like:

‘A vision like incarnate April, warning
With smiles and tears, Frost the anatomy
Into his summer grave,’

I am as much shocked at finding it in such indifferent company as pleased by finding it at all. And we must admit that Shelley's finest long poems, as well as some of his worst, are those in which he took his ideas very seriously.1 It was these ideas that blew the ‘fading coal’ to life; no more than with Wordsworth, can we ignore them without getting something no more Shelley's poetry than a wax effigy would be Shelley.

Shelley said that he disliked didactic poetry; but his own poetry is chiefly didactic, though (in fairness) not exactly in the sense in which he was using that word. Shelley's professed view of poetry is not dissimilar to that of Wordsworth. The language in which he clothes it in the ‘Defence of Poetry’ is very magniloquent, and with the exception of the magnificent image which Joyce quotes somewhere in Ulysses (‘the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness’) it seems to me an inferior piece of writing to Wordsworth's great preface. He says other fine things too; but the following is more significant of the way in which he relates poetry to the social activity of the age:

‘The most unfailing herald, companion and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The persons in whom this power resides may often, so far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, the power which is seated on the throne of their own soul.’

I know not whether Shelley had in mind, in his reservations about ‘the persons in whom this power resides’, the defects of Byron or those of Wordsworth; he is hardly likely to have been contemplating his own. But this is a statement, and is either true or false. If he is suggesting that great poetry always tends to accompany a popular ‘change in opinion or institution’, that we know to be false. Whether at such periods the power of ‘communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature’ accumulates is doubtful; one would expect people to be too busy in other ways. Shelley does not appear, in this passage, to imply that poetry itself helps to operate these changes, and accumulate this power, nor does he assert that poetry is a usual by-product of change of these kinds; but he does affirm some relation between the two; and in consequence, a particular relation between his own poetry and the events of his own time; from which it would follow that the two throw light upon each other. This is perhaps the first appearance of the kinetic or revolutionary theory of poetry; for Wordsworth did not generalise to this point.

We may now return to the question how far it is possible to enjoy Shelley's poetry without approving the use to which he put it; that is, without sharing his views and sympathies. Dante, of course, was about as thoroughgoing a didacticist as one could find; and I have maintained elsewhere, and still maintain, that it is not essential to share Dante's beliefs in order to enjoy his poetry.2 If in this instance I may appear to be extending the tolerance of a biassed mind, the example of Lucretius will do as well: one may share the essential beliefs of Dante and yet enjoy Lucretius to the full. Why then should this general indemnity not extend to Wordsworth and to Shelley? Here Mr. Richards comes very patly to our help:3

‘Coleridge, when he remarked that a “willing suspension of disbelief” accompanied much poetry, was noting an important fact, but not quite in the happiest terms, for we are neither aware of a disbelief nor voluntarily suspending it in these cases. It is better to say that the question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well. If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet's fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.’

We may be permitted to infer, in so far as the distaste of a person like myself for Shelley's poetry is not attributable to irrelevant prejudices or to a simple blind spot, but is due to a peculiarity in the poetry and not in the reader, that it is not the presentation of beliefs which I do not hold, or—to put the case as extremely as possible—of beliefs that excite my abhorrence, that makes the difficulty. Still less is it that Shelley is deliberately making use of his poetic gifts to propagate a doctrine; for Dante and Lucretius did the same thing. I suggest that the position is somewhat as follows. When the doctrine, theory, belief, or ‘view of life’ presented in a poem is one which the mind of the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience, it interposes no obstacle to the reader's enjoyment, whether it be one that he accept or deny, approve or deprecate. When it is one which the reader rejects as childish or feeble, it may, for a reader of well-developed mind, set up an almost complete check. I observe in passing that we may distinguish, but without precision, between poets who employ their verbal, rhythmic and imaginative gift in the service of ideas which they hold passionately, and poets who employ the ideas which they hold with more or less settled conviction as material for a poem; poets may vary indefinitely between these two hypothetical extremes, and at what point we place any particular poet must remain incapable of exact calculation. And I am inclined to think that the reason why I was intoxicated by Shelley's poetry at the age of fifteen, and now find it almost unreadable, is not so much that at that age I accepted his ideas, and have since come to reject them, as that at that age ‘the question of belief or disbelief’, as Mr. Richards puts it, did not arise. It is not so much that thirty years ago I was able to read Shelley under an illusion which experience has dissipated, as that because the question of belief or disbelief did not arise I was in a much better position to enjoy the poetry. I can only regret that Shelley did not live to put his poetic gifts, which were certainly of the first order, at the service of more tenable beliefs—which need not have been, for my purposes, beliefs more acceptable to me.

There is, however, more to the problem than that. I was struck by a sentence in Mr. Aldous Huxley's Introduction to D. H. Lawrence's Letters. ‘How bitterly’, he says of Lawrence, ‘he loathed the Wilhelm-Meisterish view of love as an education, as a means to culture, a Sandow-exerciser for the soul!’ Precisely; Lawrence in my opinion was right; but that view runs through the work of Goethe, and if you dislike it, what are you going to do about Goethe? Does ‘culture’ require that we make (what Lawrence never did, and I respect him for it) a deliberate effort to put out of mind all our convictions and passionate beliefs about life when we sit down to read poetry? If so, so much the worse for culture. Nor, on the other hand, may we distinguish, as people sometimes do, between the occasions on which a particular poet is ‘being a poet’ and the occasions on which he is ‘being a preacher’. That is too facile. If you attempt to edit Shelley, or Wordsworth or Goethe in this way, there is no one point at which you must stop rather than another, and what you get in the end by this process is something which is not Shelley, or Wordsworth or Goethe at all, but a mere unrelated heap of charming stanzas, the debris of poetry rather than the poetry itself. And by using, or abusing, this principle of isolation you are in danger of seeking from poetry some illusory pure enjoyment, of separating poetry from everything else in the world, and cheating yourself out of a great deal that poetry has to give to your development.

Some years ago I tried to make the point, in a paper on Shakespeare, that Dante possessed a ‘philosophy’ in a sense in which Shakespeare held none, or none of any importance. I have reason to believe that I did not succeed in making the point clear at all. Surely, people say, Shakespeare held a ‘philosophy’, even though it cannot be formulated; surely our reading of Shakespeare gives us a deeper and wider understanding of life and death. And although I was anxious not to give such an impression, I seem to have given some readers to think that I was thereby estimating the poetry of Shakespeare as of less value than Dante's. People tend to believe that there is just some one essence of poetry, for which we can find the formula, and that poets can be ranged according to their possession of a greater or less quantity of this essence. Dante and Lucretius expounded explicit philosophies, as Shakespeare did not. This simple distinction is very clear, but not necessarily highly important. What is important is what distinguishes all of these poets from such poets as Wordsworth, Shelley and Goethe. And here again I think that Mr. Richards can throw some light on the matter.

I believe that for a poet to be also a philosopher he would have to be virtually two men; I cannot think of any example of this thorough schizophrenia, nor can I see anything to be gained by it: the work is better performed inside two skulls than one. Coleridge is the apparent example, but I believe that he was only able to exercise the one activity at the expense of the other. A poet may borrow a philosophy or he may do without one. It is when he philosophises upon his own poetic insight that he is apt to go wrong. A great deal of the weakness of modern poetry is accounted for in a few pages of Mr. Richards's short essay, Science and Poetry; and although he has there D. H. Lawrence under specific examination, a good deal of what he says applies to the Romantic generation as well. ‘To distinguish’, he says, ‘an intuition of an emotion from an intuition by it, is not always easy.’ I believe that Wordsworth was inclined to the same error of which Mr. Richards finds Lawrence guilty. The case of Shelley is rather different: he borrowed ideas—which, as I have said, is perfectly legitimate—but he borrowed shabby ones, and when he had got them he muddled them up with his own intuitions. Of Goethe perhaps it is truer to say that he dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either; his true role was that of the man of the world and sage—a La Rochefoucauld, a La Bruyère, a Vauvenargues.

On the other hand, I should consider it a false simplification to present any of these poets, or Lawrence of whom Mr. Richards was speaking, simply as a case of individual error, and leave it at that. It is not a wilful paradox to assert that the greatness of each of these writers is indissolubly attached to his practice of the error, of his own specific variation of the error. Their place in history, their importance for their own and subsequent generations, is involved in it; this is not a purely personal matter. They would not have been as great as they were but for the limitations which prevented them from being greater than they were. They belong with the numbers of the great heretics of all times. This gives them a significance quite other than that of Keats, a singular figure in a varied and remarkable period.

Keats seems to me also a great poet. I am not happy about Hyperion: it contains great lines, but I do not know whether it is a great poem. The Odes—especially perhaps the Ode to Psyche—are enough for his reputation. But I am not so much concerned with the degree of his greatness as with its kind; and its kind is manifested more clearly in his Letters than in his poems; and in contrast with the kinds we have been reviewing, it seems to me to be much more the kind of Shakespeare.4 The Letters are certainly the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet. Keats's egotism, such as it is, is that of youth which time would have redeemed. His letters are what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle. His observations suggested by Wordsworth's Gypsey, in a letter to Bailey of 1817, are of the finest quality of criticism, and the deepest penetration:

‘It seems to me that if Wordsworth had thought a little deeper at that moment, he would not have written the poem at all. I should judge it to have been written in one of the most comfortable moods of his life—it is a kind of sketchy intellectual landscape, not a search for truth.’

And in a letter to the same correspondent a few days later he says:

‘In passing, however, I must say one thing that has pressed upon me lately, and increased my Humility and capability of submission—and that is this truth—Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect—but they have not any individuality, any determined character—I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power.’5

This is the sort of remark, which, when made by a man so young as was Keats, can only be called the result of genius. There is hardly one statement of Keats about poetry, which, when considered carefully and with due allowance for the difficulties of communication, will not be found to be true; and what is more, true for greater and more mature poetry than anything that Keats ever wrote.

But I am being tempted into a descant upon the general brilliance and profundity of the observations scattered through Keats's letters, and should probably be tempted further into remarking upon their merit as models of correspondence (not that one should ever take a model in letter-writing) and their revelation of a charming personality. My design, in this very narrow frame, has been only to refer to them as evidence of a very different kind of poetic mind than any of those I have just been considering. Keats's sayings about poetry, thrown out in the course of private correspondence, keep pretty close to intuition; and they have no apparent bearing upon his own times, as he himself does not appear to have taken any absorbing interest in public affairs—though when he did turn to such matters, he brought to bear a shrewd and penetrating intellect. Wordsworth had a very delicate sensibility to social life and social changes. Wordsworth and Shelley both theorise. Keats has no theory, and to have formed one was irrelevant to his interests, and alien to his mind. If we take either Wordsworth or Shelley as representative of his age, as being a voice of the age, we cannot so take Keats. But we cannot accuse Keats of any withdrawal, or refusal; he was merely about his business. He had no theories, yet in the sense appropriate to the poet, in the same sense, though to a lesser degree than Shakespeare, he had a ‘philosophic’ mind. He was occupied only with the highest use of poetry; but that does not imply that poets of other types may not rightly and sometimes by obligation be concerned about the other uses.


  1. He did not, for instance, appear to take his ideas very seriously in The Witch of Atlas, which, with all its charm, I think we may dismiss as a trifle.

  2. Mr. A. E. Housman has affirmed (The Name and Nature of Poetry, p. 34) that ‘good religious poetry, whether in Keble or Dante or Job, is likely to be most justly appreciated and most discriminatingly relished by the undevout’. There is a hard atom of truth in this, but if taken literally it would end in nonsense.

  3. Practical Criticism, p. 277.

  4. I have not read Mr. Murry's Keats and Shakespeare: perhaps I say no more than Mr. Murry has said better and more exhaustively in that book. I am sure that he has meditated the matter much more deeply than I have.

  5. Mr. Herbert Read quotes this passage in his Form in Modern Poetry, but pursues his speculations to a point to which I would not willingly follow him.

M. H. Abrams (essay date 1953)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15588

SOURCE: Abrams, M. H. “Varieties of Romantic Theory: Shelley, Hazlitt, Keble, and Others.” In The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, pp. 125-55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

[In the following excerpt, Abrams explains the various critical perspectives of a number of Romantic poets and essayists including Shelley, Keats, Hazlitt, and Keble.]

Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than the poets did themselves.

Plato, Apology

The question should fairly be stated, how far a man can be an adequate … critic of poetry who is not a poet, at least in posse? … But there is yet another distinction. Supposing he is not only a poet, but is a bad poet? What then?

Coleridge, Anima Poetae

Thomas Love Peacock's ‘Four Ages of Poetry,’ published in 1820, may be read as a shrewd and caustic parody of Wordsworth's poetic tenets, especially of those he held in common with the primitivistic theorists of the preceding century. Peacock agrees that primitive language is naturally poetical—‘the savage indeed lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical’—but himself draws the conclusion that poetry is a useless anachronism in this era of reason, science, metaphysics, and political economy.1 In the present age of brass the poet, while actually reviving the barbarism and superstition of the age of iron, ‘professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold.’ By a sequence of enthymemes, Peacock parodies the logic by which this return to nature is usually justified: ‘Poetical impressions can be received only among natural scenes: for all that is artificial is anti-poetical. Society is artificial, therefore we will live out of society. The mountains are natural, therefore we will live in the mountains.’ Wordsworth's contention that ‘I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject’ has its mocking echo in Peacock's comment that the Lake Poets ‘contrived, though they had retreated from the world for the express purpose of seeing nature as she was, to see her only as she was not.’ Wordsworth himself, Peacock says, ‘cannot describe a scene under his own eyes without putting into it [some] phantastical parturition of the moods of his own mind.’ The doctrine of the overflow of powerful feeling has its derisory counterpart too. ‘The highest inspirations of poetry are resolvable into three ingredients: the rant of unregulated passion, the whine of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment …’2 It is idle to inquire about the exact boundaries between the serious and the playful in this witty essay. Peacock cannot be pinned down. He had the eye of the born parodist, before which everything pretentious writhes into caricature. If he was a poet who mocked at poets from a Utilitarian frame of satirical reference, he was a Utilitarian who turned into ridicule the belief in utility and the march of intellect, as well as a critic who derided the contemners of poetry, after having himself derided the poetry they contemned.


Peacock was also a loyal friend who did not scruple to pillory his friends in his inimitable novels. And it was the Scythrop of Nightmare Abbey who sprang to the defense of poetry against Peacock's essay; although, as Shelley good-humoredly wrote to Peacock, his was a championship by ‘the knight of the shield of shadow and the lance of gossamere.’3 But Shelley left his sense of humor behind when he launched into his ‘Defence of Poetry’ in 1821, and though he opposes the arguments of the ‘Four Ages’ more systematically and in detail than a cursory reading would indicate, he never quite escapes the disadvantage of one who responds to raillery with a solemn appeal to the eternal verities.

Shelley happened to be reading Plato's Ion when he received Peacock's article, and had only recently translated the Symposium, as well as portions of some others of the more mythic dialogues. There is more of Plato in the ‘Defence’ than in any earlier piece of English criticism, even though it is a Plato who has obviously been seen through a vista of Neoplatonic and Renaissance commentators and interpreters. But Shelley was also familiar with the poetic theory of Wordsworth and other contemporaries,4 had been a close student of the English sensational psychologists, and continued to support the benevolistic ethics that Godwin had adopted from his English predecessors.5 In the ‘Defence’ these various traditions remain imperfectly assimilated, so that one can discriminate two planes of thought in Shelley's aesthetics—one Platonistic and mimetic, the other psychological and expressive—applied alternately, as it were, to each of the major topics under discussion. The combination effected a loosely articulated critical theory, no doubt, but resulted also in a set of magnificent passages on the power and the glory of art unmatched by the other apologists for poetry who have succumbed to the allure of the Platonic world-picture, with its radiant Essences behind the fleeting shadows of this world of becoming.

On the level of Platonism, we find Shelley proposing a mimetic theory of the origin of art, in rebuttal to Peacock's unflattering speculation that it is a commodity invented by the bard who is ‘always ready to celebrate the strength of [the king's] arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor.’ ‘In the youth of the world,’ says Shelley, ‘men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.’ This order originates in man's ‘faculty of approximation to the beautiful,’ and may itself ‘be called the beautiful and the good.’6 The objects imitated by the great poet are the eternal Forms discerned through the veil of fact and particularity. Poetry ‘strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.’ And the analogue Shelley employs to clarify the relation of imitation to ideal is the standard one of the mirror, conceived, as by many Renaissance Platonists, to reflect the Ideas more accurately than do the particulars of the natural world.

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth … A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.7

Shelley's essay demonstrates, in its most uncompromising form, the tendency of a Platonic aesthetic to cancel differences, by reducing everything to a single class, and by subjecting this class to a single standard of judgment. Since the realm of Essences is the residence of all modes of value, ‘to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good’; in consequence, any aesthetic judgment inescapably involves a moral and ontological judgment as well. These several values, in turn, are ultimately the attributes of a single Form of Forms; and Shelley goes beyond Plato and approximates Plotinus, for whom all considerations had been drawn irresistibly into the vortex of the One. ‘A poet,’ as Shelley puts it, ‘participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.’8 Even in the most narrow sense of ‘poetry,’ defined as representation in the medium of figurative and harmonious language, Shelley employs the word so as to include the writings of Plato, Bacon, and all the ‘authors of revolutions in opinion,’ as well as Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton.9 When, on the other hand, poetry is defined in what Shelley calls ‘the most universal sense of the word,’ it includes all imitations of the realm of Essence, whether in the medium of ‘language, colour, form,’ or ‘religious and civil habits of action.’ In this usage, poetry collapses into a single category with all the important human activities and products.

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, or the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.10

Plato ironically had set up poets to be competitors of philosopher-statesmen in the art of imitation, ‘rivals and antagonists in the noblest of dramas,’ but always at an insuperable disadvantage, because the traditional poet operates at two removes from the Forms of things. In Shelley's theory, writers of drama and epic also penetrate to the eternal Forms, hence are no longer inferior rivals of lawmakers and statesmen, but their co-workers and compeers—even their superiors, because the plasticity of poetic language makes it an incomparable medium for reproducing without distortion the ‘indestructible order.’11

Shelley goes on to give a résumé of the history of poetry and its moral influences, by way of corrective to Peacock's serio-comic account of its progress through the four ages. But the theory of Ideas makes a very blunt instrument for dealing with history. If Platonic literary criticism is a criticism without real distinctions, Platonic literary history is a history essentially without change; for according to this outlook, the poetry of every age, so far as it is truly poetry and not its simulacrum, reapproximates the same unaltering pattern. In Shelley's essay, therefore, all the greatest single poems lose their particular locations in time and place, lose even their identity, and are viewed as though they were fundamentally simultaneous and inter-convertible. Since a poet participates in the eternal and the one,

as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante's Paradise, would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of sculpture, painting, and music, are illustrations still more decisive.12

In this general annulment of distinction between the characters in a single poem, between individual poems, between poems and the products of other arts, and between the arts and all other pursuits of men, it is entirely to be expected that the traditional genres of poetry should also fall together. Comedy, for example, no less than tragedy, must be ‘universal, ideal, and sublime.’ As for tragedy and epic, it is only by a regrettable necessity that they reproduce the vice, the evil, the struggle, and the suffering which are the all-but-gratuitous attributes of the fleeting many, instead of the unalloyed perfection of the One.

But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries as a temporary dress in which his creations may be arrayed, and which cover without concealing the eternal proportions of their beauty … It is doubtful whether the alloy of costume, habit, & c., be not necessary to temper this planetary music for mortal ears.13

We could not spare Shelley's essay from our literature, and as, specifically, a defense of poetry, it has no rhetorical equal. Its greatness, however, is not of a kind to make it in any important degree useful for the practical criticism of poems. For all its planetary music, has any critical essay of comparable scope and reputation ever contained less of specifically literary criticism?

We can also make our way through the ‘Defence of Poetry’ on another level of discussion; one on which Shelley comes closer to the characteristic ideas and idiom of the critics of his own time. Like the Neoplatonists, Shelley implies that the Ideas have a double subsistence, both behind the veil of the material world and in the minds of men;14 and this view, we remember, had, in earlier criticism, sometimes resulted in statements that poetry is an expression, as well as an imitation, of Ideas. But in Shelley's version of these opinions, the poet sometimes turns out to express not only Platonic Ideas, but also human passions, and other mental materials, which he describes in the alien psychology of English empiricism.

In the second paragraph of his essay, Shelley defines poetry, ‘in a general sense,’ as ‘the expression of the imagination,’ and he pictures the process on the analogy of a wind-harp, with the poetry the combined product of an external impression and an internal adjustment and contribution. In this mode, we get an account of the primitive origin of poetry which is no longer merely mimetic, but resembles that of Blair and Wordsworth by making poetry the product of an emotional response to sensible objects.

The savage … expresses the emotions produced in him by surrounding objects in a similar manner; and language and gesture … become the image of the combined effect of those objects, and of his apprehension of them. Man in society, with all his passions and his pleasures, next becomes the object of the passions and pleasures of man; an additional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of expressions; and language, gesture, and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium …

That art whose medium is language is of greater excellence than those whose media are color, form, and motion, in part because language, the product of imagination, ‘is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being.’ In this context, Shelley, like many of his contemporaries, reverses the aesthetic mirror in order to make it reflect the lamp of the mind: the language of poetry ‘is as a mirror which reflects,’ but the materials of the other arts ‘as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication.’15

A combination of Platonism and psychological empiricism, and of the mimetic and expressive point of view, runs all through the ‘Defence.’ For example, Shelley says that poetry strips the veil from the forms of the world, but a few sentences later, suggests an alternative possibility: ‘And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life's dark veil from the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being.’16 The greatest poems (including Dante's Paradiso), all mirroring the universal Forms, are interconvertible; yet each also mirrors its particular author, so that the writings of Dante and Milton ‘are merely the mask and the mantle in which these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised.’17 The ‘imagination,’ of which poetry is the product and expression, is the mental organ for intuiting ‘those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself.’ It is also said to be the ‘principle of synthesis,’ and in its genesis and activity, this faculty turns out to resemble closely the ‘sympathetic imagination’ developed by the empirical and associationistic moralists of eighteenth-century England to explain how an individual can conceive an identity with other individuals. Shelley describes the poet as envisioning his Ideas in isolation from an audience, like a nightingale who ‘sings to cheer its own solitude’; nevertheless, the effect of his poetry is centrally moral, because it enlarges and strengthens ‘the great instrument of moral good’—that sympathetic imagination by which man puts himself ‘in the place of another and of many others.’ In the process of creation, the poet is held to ascend to the ‘eternal regions’ for his materials; but his inspiration is also explained in psychological terms as the result of ‘evanescent visitations of thought and feeling,’ and as an emergence from the subliminal depths of the creative mind itself. Finally, Shelley describes beautifully the process by which subject matter is transformed into poetry, in a metaphor for expression we have not met with heretofore:

[Poetry] arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide—abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things.18

Distant and devious products of Platonic Ideas and the Platonic cosmos also make their appearance in other aesthetic commentaries of the period. ‘No Man of Sense,’ wrote William Blake, ‘can think that an Imitation of the Objects of Nature is the Art of Painting.’ Like poetry and music, painting must be elevated from ‘facsimile representations of merely mortal and perishing substances … into its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception.’ This ‘Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably,’ and constitutes ‘in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature.’19 In his ‘On Poesy or Art,’ modeled on an essay of Schelling's, Coleridge employed the Neoplatonic concept of the natura naturans, a dynamic principle which operates not only behind the particulars of the external world, but also in the mind of man. The artist must copy, not the natura naturata, but the essence ‘which is within the thing.’ The co-presence of the Ideas of art both in mind and nature, however, opened the way to Coleridge for a display of dialectical virtuosity. Since to copy the ‘Naturgeist, or spirit of nature’, is equivalent to externalizing one's own ‘living and life-producing ideas,’ Coleridge in the space of a few pages can describe poetry as an ‘imitatress of nature,’ as an art ‘to express’ elements ‘which have their origin in the human mind,’ and as ‘a reconcilement of the external with the internal.’20 By the fitful light of Carlyle's rhetoric, we can sometimes discern a remotely kindred cosmology; and here, as in Shelley, the Platonic scheme serves to cancel any essential distinction between poets and all the other great agents on the stage of the world. The hero-poet, together with the man-gods, prophets, priests, and kings, lives ‘in the True, Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to most, under the Temporary, Trivial.’ Carlyle follows approvingly Fichte's exposition of the true literary man as a priest teaching all men ‘that all “Appearance,” whatsoever we see in the world, is but as a vesture for the “Divine Idea of the World,” for “that which lies at the bottom of Appearance.”’21

We may, in conclusion, notice an article, ‘Real and Ideal Beauty,’ which appeared anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine for 1853. The author founds his theory on Plato's ‘system of beauty of which little is now known, and still less is understood.’ He discards the earlier theories that the ideal is ‘an average of humanity,’ or the eclectic choice of ‘the best points out of a multitude of fine forms,’ and he vigorously renounces the sensationism of Locke and the associationist aesthetics of his own time.22 Ideal beauty springs ‘not from any mere inspection of external particulars, but from … a discernment of the true ideas of form with which the human mind is itself endowed’—ideas which appear as ‘image after image in the mirror of the phantasy or imagination.’23 When he comes to describe the process of artistic composition, however, the author conceives of it on the analogue of the creation of the universe; and now his model is not the Demiurge of Plato's Timaeus, who copied the world from an unchanging pattern, but rather the Absolute of Plotinus, who generated the world by a process of endless self-emanation. The One, Plotinus had said, ‘being perfect … overflows, and thus its superabundance produces an Other.’ Similarly, now, with the poet:

Creation, with Genius, is an expansion, a flowing-forth, of the soul—when it takes heed of nothing but its own promptings, and bounds along without thinking how it goes … [The mind] is melting all her ideas into one golden stream, which she pours forth with a joy that takes note of nothing but itself.24

Hence, this intended Platonic theory of poetic creation, by adopting the root-metaphor of Plotinus' philosophy, ends in a close metaphoric parallelism with Wordsworth's naturalistic doctrine of the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.


To the extent that he placed preponderant emphasis on the great conceptions and vehement passion of the author, rather than on the other and more ‘artful’ sources of sublimity, Longinus adumbrated in classical times the conceptual pattern which underlies the typical romantic theory of poetry in general. Within this frame, an aspect of Longinian theory is worth singling out, because at the hands of certain critics of the early nineteenth century it was converted into one of the most familiar modern criteria of aesthetic value.

In Longinus' treatment, sublimity is said to be the product of an inspired moment of passion, rather than of cool and sustained calculation. It follows that: (1) This highest quality of style invests only a short passage of verse and prose, as against ‘skill in invention, and due order and arrangement’ which emerge ‘as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition.’ Accordingly, Longinus' instances of sublimity range only from a single phrase or sentence—‘Let there be light, and there was light’—to short passages from Sappho, Homer, and Demosthenes. (2) This fragment bursts suddenly upon the auditor, with an effect of intensity, shock, and illumination: ‘flashing forth at the right moment,’ sublimity ‘scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt.’ The sublimity of Demosthenes, for example, is characterized by ‘speed, power, and intensity,’ and ‘may be compared to a thunderbolt or flash of lightning.’ (3) We auditors recognize the sublime not by an act of analytic or comparative judgment, but by our transport (ekstasis), and by ‘the spell it throws over us.’25

The tendency to isolate a supremely poetic quality—‘pure poetry,’ the ‘poetry of a poem’—and to locate this quality in the electrifying and transporting image or passage, rather than in the larger aspects of plot or design, is visible in all eighteenth-century critics who felt strongly the impact of Longinus. To choose a relatively late example: in assessing the position of Pope as a poet, Joseph Warton discriminates ‘Pure Poetry,’ the result of ‘a creative and glowing imagination,’ from the lesser products of wit and sense. It is, among other things, because Pope, having stifled his imagination and ‘poetical enthusiasm,’ ‘does not frequently ravish and transport his reader’ that he is placed in a rank below Homer and Milton, of whom it can be said ‘that no man of a true poetical spirit, is master of himself while he reads them.’26

To such contemporary attempts to derogate Pope, Johnson countered with the question, ‘If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?’27 By 1825, however, the editor of the Oxford edition of Johnson's Works, though otherwise sympathetic to his author, felt constrained to use an expanded form of Warton's criteria in order to define the limits of Johnson's own critical sensibility:

With respect to Johnson's powers as a critic, we confess that he had but little natural taste for poetry, as such; for that poetry of emotion which produces in its cultivators … an intensity of excitement, to which language can scarcely afford an utterance, to which art can give no body, and which spreads a dream and a glory around us. All this Johnson felt not, and, therefore, understood not; for he wanted that deep feeling which is the only sure and unerring test of poetic excellence. He sought the didactic in poetry, and wished for reasoning in numbers.28

‘Intensity,’ which has since come to rival, and sometimes supersede, older terms like ‘nature,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘universality’ as a first order criterion for poetic value, would appear to be a romantic development from the tradition of Peri Hypsous. In this passage we find that norm clearly emerging, together with other tenets, easily evolved from Longinian elements, all of which have since become equally familiar: that by a stroke beyond the reach of art ‘poetry, as such’ expresses a mode of feeling which is all but ineffable; that its primary appeal is not to the judgment, but the sensibility; and that its effect is suggestive and hypnotic, leaving the reader in a state of mind resembling a dream.

Reference of poetry to supreme moments of unsustainable feeling and imaginative impetus made it common for romantic theorists to focus upon the short and incandescent passage as the manifestation of poetry at its highest. ‘When composition begins,’ Shelley declared, ‘inspiration is already on the decline,’ and poets must fill the gaps between the incandescent moments by an ‘intertexture of conventional expressions.’29 Aristotle had said that plot is the soul of tragedy, but Coleridge held that ‘Passion must be [the] Soul of Poetry’; or alternatively, that the imagination is ‘the soul that is everywhere’ in a work of poetic genius. Coleridge emphasizes the organic integration effected by the imagination, and specifically denies that the proportion of ‘striking passages’ is ‘a fair criterion of poetic excellence.’ His definition of poetry as the product of ‘the whole soul of man’ in action, however, leads to the claim that ‘a poem of any length neither can be, or ought to be, all poetry,’ but merely ‘in keeping’ with the transcendant passages;30 and his specific examples of imaginative poetry range only from a couplet in Venus and Adonis through the storm scene in King Lear. In a fashion going far beyond Coleridge, the poetic quotations and anthologies of De Quincey, Lamb, and Hunt give evidence of an almost total fragmentation of poetic works into supernal lines, excerpts, and scenes.

William Hazlitt's favorite criterion, ‘gusto,’ involves a flash of intensity in both the artist's conception and effect. Thus, ‘Milton had as much of what is meant by gusto as any poet. He forms the most intense conception of things, and them embodies them by a single stroke of his pen. Force of style is perhaps his first excellence.’31 Hazlitt's theory and practice, more than that of any of his fellow critics, also demonstrates another derivation from the Longinian emphasis on critical responsiveness and ‘enthrallment,’ rather than judgment. Hazlitt typically applies his criticism, not to the analysis of design, ordonnance, and the inter-relations of parts, but to the representation in words of the aesthetic qualities and feeling-tones of a work of art. ‘In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason; that is, from the impression of a number of things on the mind, which impression is true and well-founded, though you may not be able to analyze or account for it in the several particulars.’ In his essay ‘On Criticism,’ Hazlitt renounces both the ‘modern or metaphysical school of criticism,’ which ‘supposes the question, Why? to be repeated at the end of every decision,’ and ‘the dry and meagre mode of dissecting the skeletons of works’ of the older school.

A genuine criticism should, as I take it, reflect the colours, the light and shade, the soul and body of a work:—here we have nothing but its superficial plan and elevation … We know every thing about the work, and nothing of it. The critic takes good care not to baulk the reader's fancy by anticipating the effect which the author has aimed at producing.32

The critic, then, in place of analysis and an inquiry into causes, undertakes to formulate a verbal equivalent for the aesthetic effects of the work under consideration. Longinus had long ago indicated how this might be done, in passages such as that which defines the quality of the Odyssey by means of the extended similes of the setting sun and the ebbing tide. Gibbon, for one, had described the novelty in Longinus' way ‘of criticizing a beautiful passage’—‘He tells me his own feelings upon reading it; and tells them with such energy, that he communicates them.’33 Hazlitt gives frequent and striking examples of his more elaborate and subtle attempts to capture in words what he calls ‘the true and general impressions of things,’ by the use of comparisons to other sense-experiences, and even to other sense-modalities. As an example, here is a small part of his critique of two paintings by Titian. Either picture

is like a divine piece of music, or rises ‘like an exhalation of rich distilled perfumes.’ In the figures, in the landscape, in the water, in the sky, there are tones, colours … woven together into a woof like that of Iris … There is not a distinct line in the picture—but a gusto, a rich taste of colour is left upon the eye as if it were the palate, and the diapason of picturesque harmony is full to overflowing.34

We are well on the way to critical impressionism: to Pater's declaration that the first step in criticism ‘is to know one's impression as it really is,’ and to such examples of the method as the critical prose-poem by which he conveys his impression of the Mona Lisa.

Keats, who found Hazlitt's ‘depth of taste’ one of the three things to rejoice at in his age, and who unmistakably followed Hazlitt as his guide in literary speculation, emphasized more than any of his contemporaries the image-and-intensity aspect of the Longinian heritage. ‘I look upon fine Phrases like a Lover,’ he said, referring to Shakespeare's dramas and Milton's Paradise Lost. Charles Cowden Clarke has fixed forever the picture of Keats reading: how his ‘features and exclamations were ecstatic’ at ‘the more passionate passages’ of Spenser's Epithalamion, and how, as he went ‘ramping’ through the Faerie Queene, ‘he especially singled out epithets’ for their ‘felicity and power.’35 Keats maintained specifically that ‘the excellence of every art is its intensity’; and although Longinus was probably not known to him at first hand, the three poetic axioms he announced to the publisher of his Endymion read like a gloss upon some doctrines of Peri Hypsous: ‘1st. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.’ (Longinus had said that at contact with the true sublime our soul ‘is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.’) ‘2nd. Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless rather than content … and this leads me to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.’36

In answer to Hunt's question, ‘Why endeavour after a long Poem?’, Keats justified the sustained poetic effort, but in such a way as to exhibit still his proclivity for fragments that come on one with a fine suddenness. ‘Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading?’37 In 1838, however, John Stuart Mill asserted flatly that all genuine poems must be ‘short poems; it being impossible that a feeling so intense … should sustain itself at its highest elevation for long together … a long poem will always be felt … to be something unnatural and hollow …’38 In the extremity to which this view was pressed by Edgar Allan Poe a decade later, a long poem becomes ‘simply a flat contradiction in terms,’ and the ‘absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity …’ Poe's line of reasoning, based on intensity as the defining quality of poetry, is by now familiar to us. ‘It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief.’ Brevity, in fact, must, within limits, ‘be in direct ratio to the intensity of the intended effect’; and this effect is further defined as involving ‘suggestiveness,’ and as ‘thrilling us to the soul.’ According to Poe, ‘Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem’; his use of ‘beauty,’ even more plainly than that of Keats, is in the lineage of Longinus' ‘sublime’ in its literal meaning of ‘elevation.’

When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or heart—upon which I have commented …39

However widely they differ in other ways, Longinian critics, from John Dennis on, who appeal to elevation of soul and to quintessential passages as the chief test for poetry, seem to unite in an antipathy to the writings of Pope. Matthew Arnold, for example: In his Preface to the Poems of 1853, Arnold had appealed to Aristotle's discussion of poetry as an imitation of an action, in order to attack both modern subjectivism and the tendency to judge poetry by its parts, rather than by the whole—by its ‘separate thoughts and images,’ its ‘brilliant things,’ and the turns of expression ‘which thrill the reader with a sudden delight.’40 But in his later criticism, he himself emphasized ‘the grand style’—Longinus' sublimity, as interpreted with the help of Joshua Reynolds' Discourses—which ‘is the last matter in the world for verbal definition to deal with adequately’; ‘one must feel it in order to know what it is.’41 Arnold's basic essay, ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), employs a measuring stick for poetry which is calibrated primarily in characterological terms—‘high seriousness,’ ‘largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity,’ and so on—but-he supplemented this scale of value by a recourse to touchstones for detecting ‘high poetic quality’ in general. For such a purpose, ‘short passages, even single lines, will serve our turn quite sufficiently’; and the reason for Arnold's preference of concrete passages over abstract analyses is that the attributes of ‘a high quality of poetry’ are ‘far better recognized by being felt in the verse of the master, than by being perused in the prose of the critic.’ Joseph Warton had remained content to call Pope a poet, even though only a ‘Poet of Reason’; but by applying the touchstone of

Absent thee from felicity awhile …

Arnold concludes that Pope and Dryden are not properly poets at all, but ‘classics of our prose.’42 In the writings of immoderate critics, the intense poetic fragment becomes explosive. ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,’ said Emily Dickinson, ‘I know that it is poetry.’43 A. E. Housman, in corroborating Arnold's low estimate of eighteenth-century verse, demonstrated that he also belonged among the left-wingers in the Longinian tradition. We recognize the ancient hallmarks of the approach. The highest poetry is ‘lofty or magnificent or intense,’ it transports with rapture, and shakes the soul. ‘Poems very seldom consists of poetry and nothing else,’ for ‘that thrilling utterance’ is usually combined with other ingredients which give a non-poetic kind of pleasure. Housman concludes that he cannot define poetry except by its effect—or as he puts it, ‘by the symptoms which it provokes in us’—and these symptoms turn out to be a physical, or even a physiological, syndrome: a bristling of the skin, a precipitation of water to the eyes, and a sensation like a spear through the pit of the stomach.44


Latent in the term ‘expression’ is the notion of something that is forced out by a pressure from within. The alternative metaphor, ‘overflow,’ by suggesting the fluid nature of feeling, also involves a question in regard to the hydrodynamics of the poetic process. It was to be expected that some romantic critics should find the impulse to composition in the pressure of pent-up feeling, or in the urgency of unfulfilled desires. And naturally enough, Aristotle's description of the cathartic effect of tragedy upon the pity and fear of its auditors was generalized to include all emotions in all forms of poetry, and silently shifted to denote the healing expenditure of feeling in the poet himself.

That emotions exert a kind of psychic pressure, and that their suppression is morbid and their verbal expression a therapeutic measure, had long been a maxim in folk-psychology. ‘Give sorrow words,’ Malcolm counseled Macduff,

                    the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er fraught heart and bids it break.

The Elizabethan critic, George Puttenham, applied this concept to explain one kind of lyric, the ‘forme of poetical lamentations,’ as an homeopathic remedy by which the poet plays physician to his auditors, ‘making the very greef it selfe (in part) cure of the disease.’45 In the latter part of the eighteenth century, poets began to testify that, in their experience, diverse kinds of literary composition served them as a personal therapy. Burns wrote in 1787 that ‘my Passions … raged like so many devils, till they got vent in rhyme; and then conning over my verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet.’46 To reassure George and Georgiana Keats against taking fright at his wooing of easeful death in the sonnet, ‘Why did I laugh tonight?’ Keats wrote them that after composing the poem, ‘I went to bed, and enjoyed an uninterrupted Sleep. Sane I went to bed and sane I arose.’47 Byron declared that ‘it comes over me in a kind of rage every now and then … and then, if I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad.’ He did not hesitate to extend his private experience to poets in general. Poetry

is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake. They say poets never or rarely go mad … but are generally so near it that I cannot help thinking rhyme is so far useful in anticipating and preventing the disorder.48

Related to this view is the concept that the compulsion to poetry lies in the disproportion between man's desires, or man's ideals, and the world of reality. Aristotle, defining poetry as imitation, had attributed its origin merely to the human instinct for mimicry, and for taking delight in the imitations of others.49 Longinus, on the other hand, set current the suggestion that writers who achieve sublimity are activated by the fact that ‘not even the entire universe suffices for the thought and contemplation within the reach of the human mind …’50 The most important document in this development was Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning. The use of ‘fained historie,’ or narrative and dramatic fiction, ‘hath been to give some shadowe of satisfaction to the minde of Man in those points wherein the Nature of things doth denie it.’ That the poet has the power to reform nature, delivering a golden for a brazen world, had been a commonplace of Renaissance criticism. What Bacon added to this concept was a theory of the dynamics of the idealizing process, in the compelling desires of man for ‘a more ample Greatness, a more exact Goodnesse, and a more absolute varietie then can bee found in the Nature of things.’ These desires remould the shadows of things when reality proves recalcitrant:

And therefore [Poesie] was ever thought to have some participation of divinesse, because it doth raise and erect the Minde, by submitting the shewes of things to the desires of the Mind, whereas reason doth buckle and bowe the Minde unto the Nature of things.51

Some eighteenth-century critics tended to merge the statements of Longinus and Bacon into a single doctrine. As Richard Hurd said, ‘fiction,’ which is essential to poetry, is to be ascribed to ‘something in the mind of man, sublime and elevated, which prompts it to overlook all obvious and familiar appearances, and to feign to itself other and more extraordinary …’52 In this period, however, all theories of this kind were strictly qualified. The desires that may validly shape the matter of poetry are those common to all men, and are restricted to the noble modes of aggrandizing, beautifying, moralizing, and multiplying the variety of given nature. In one fashion, indeed, men of this age conceived the imagination to picture the fictional satisfactions for all kinds of desires, whether general or personal, noble or ignominious—in the activity they sometimes called castle-building, and we call wishful thinking. Dr. Johnson, for one, was acutely aware of the immense disproportion between what a man wants and what he is likely to get, and of the strength of the impulse to make up the difference in phantasy; this observation is the theme of many of his best writings in verse and prose. ‘The Dangerous Prevalence of Imagination,’ he says, exhibits itself in revery, when a man ‘must find pleasure in his own thoughts, and must conceive himself what he is not; for who is pleased with what he is?’

He then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable conditions that which for the present moment he should most desire, amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confers upon his pride unattainable dominion.53

Johnson, of course, had no intention of applying his analysis of the imagination in wish-fulfillment to the valid play of this faculty in poetry. In that province, its function is to exemplify truth in an imaginative instance, for ‘poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.’54 To find a conflation of the sources of art and the daydream we must look ahead to certain critics of the romantic generation.

William Hazlitt defined poetry in general as ‘the natural impression of any object or event … exiting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.’ It is ‘the language of the imagination and the passions,’ or alternatively, it is ‘natural imagery or feeling, combined with passion and fancy.’55 Tragedy, no less expressive than the lyric, is ‘the most impassioned species’ of poetry. And in the narrative form, Dante interests by exciting our sympathy with the emotion by which he is himself possessed’; his great power ‘is in combining internal feelings with external objects.’56

One of Hazlitt's contributions to the expressive theory of poetry stems from his persistent interest in the impulsions, the inner forces which compel human action, including the creation of poetry. A salient aspect of the romantic era in general was the sharpened ‘Inner Sense,’ as Coleridge called it, for the goings-on of the mind, and a new power, by those poets and critics who are ‘accustomed to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture at times into the twilight realms of consciousness.’57 Coleridge himself had no equal as a microscopic analyst of the interplay of sensation, thought, and feeling in the immediate cross-section, or ‘fact of mind.’ Hazlitt differed from Coleridge in that his psychological occupation was less with the nuances of a mental event than with its springs and motives, and particularly, with the secret motives, hidden from the world, and sometimes from the agent himself.

Hazlitt's chief complaint against the current psychology of rationalism and of hedonistic calculus was its failure to take into account the complex urgencies underlying behavior. Bentham, he said, ‘has not allowed for the wind.’ We are the creatures of imagination, passion, and self-will more than of reason or even of self-interest.’58 In his own theory, Hazlitt, who had set out in his youth to be a philosopher, amalgamated Hobbes's principle that the power-drive is the prime human motive with La Rochefoucauld's readiness to look for the Ego hidden behind the curtain. His paper ‘On Depth and Superficiality,’ published in The Plain Speaker, may be recommended as a demonstration. In it Hazlitt lays bare ‘the intricate folds and delicate involutions of our self-love’; points to the hunger for ‘power,’ or ‘down-right love of pain and mischief for the interest it excites,’ as ‘the root of all the evil, and the original sin of human nature’; and adumbrates the mental mechanisms of suppression and hidden conflict in describing the ‘obscure and intricate way’ in which ‘unconscious impressions necessarily give a colour to, and re-act upon our conscious ones.’59 In his essay ‘On Dreams,’ we find a neat epitome of the Freudian concepts of the repression of unwelcome desires, and the partial release of unconscious thought in sleep.

We may sometimes discover our tacit, and almost unconscious sentiments, with respect to persons and things in the same way. We are not hypocrites in our sleep. The curb is taken off from our passions, and our imagination wanders at will. When awake, we check these rising thoughts, and fancy we have them not. In dreams, when we are off our guard, they return securely and unbidden … Infants cannot disguise their thoughts from others; and in sleep we reveal the secret to ourselves.60

In numerous passages, Hazlitt surrenders the poetic imagination, like the imagination of the dreamer, to the motive power of unrealized desires. In the essay ‘On Poetry in General,’ into which he crammed all the odds and ends of his poetic speculation, he makes the point that

if poetry is a dream, the business of life is much the same. If it is a fiction, made up of what we wish things to be, and fancy that they are, because we wish them so, there is no other nor better reality.

Hazlitt then characteristically misquotes from memory Bacon's explanation of poetry as ‘conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul,’ and interprets this doctrine in a way that eliminates the earlier restriction of poetry to the desires for more grandeur, variety, and morality than the real world affords. ‘We shape things according to our wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the mind “which ecstasy is very cunning in.”’61 Elsewhere he writes that ‘poets live in an ideal world, where they make everything out according to their wishes and fancies.’ He even suggests that one impulse to art is the need to compensate for a physical defect. Thus Byron's ‘miss-shapen feet’ contributed to his genius; they ‘made him write verses in revenge.’

There is no knowing the effect of such sort of things, of defects we wish to balance. Do you suppose we owe nothing to Pope's deformity? He said to himself, ‘If my person be crooked, my verses shall be strait.’62

To this theory, that at least some literature is a form of Wunschbild, Hazlitt adds the doctrine that it provides an emotional catharsis for its author. Rousseau had already confessed that La Nouvelle Héloïse originated in the compulsive daydreams in which he compensated for his frustrations as a lover,63 and Goethe was soon to describe in Dichtung und Wahrheit how his youthful despairs and disappointments had transformed themselves into Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which he wrote in four weeks ‘almost unconsciously, like a somnambulist.’ ‘I felt, as if after a general confession, once more happy and free, and justified in beginning a new life.’64 Hazlitt himself, in his complex and tangled personality, was strongly subject to the impulse for public confession. In his Liber Amoris, he poured out the humiliating details of his unrequited passion for the coquettish daughter of his lodging-house keeper, not, as in Werther or The New Héloïse, transformed into fiction, but under the sole and readily penetrated disguise of anonymity.65 Why, Hazlitt asks in his essay ‘On Poetry in General,’ are we ‘as prone to make a torment of our fears, as to luxuriate in our hopes of good?’ The answer is, ‘Because we cannot help it. The sense of power is as strong a principle in the mind as the love of pleasure.’ Under the heading of ‘the sense of power,’ Hazlitt elaborates the concept, which has since become a familiar element in expressive theories, of the capacity of art to master, by objectifying, the chaotic press of emotion. ‘This is equally the origin of wit and fancy, of comedy and tragedy, of the sublime and pathetic.’ In all these forms, the motive is the relief that attends upon our identifying and making conscious, and, therefore, manageable, the importunity of unarticulated feelings and desires.

The imagination, by thus embodying and turning them to shape, gives an obvious relief to the indistinct and importunate cravings of the will.—We do not wish the thing to be so; but we wish it to appear such as it is. For knowledge is conscious power; and the mind is no longer, in this case, the dupe, though it may be the victim of vice or folly.66

Hazlitt's exposition of ‘the sense of power’ may have contributed to De Quincey's well-known distinction between ‘the literature of power’ and ‘the literature of knowledge’ which he substituted for Wordsworth's distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘matter of fact, or science.’ In the third of his Letters to a Young Man (1823), in which he first expanded upon his thesis, De Quincey gave credit to Wordsworth himself for this, ‘as for most of the sound criticism of poetry.’67 But De Quincey's description of the communication of power as the occasion on which one is ‘made to feel vividly, and with a vital consciousness, emotions which … had previously lain unawakened, and hardly within the dawn of consciousness’ suggests, rather, Hazlitt's ‘On Poetry in General,’ published only five years before. Under the influence of the traditional theory of rhetoric, in which De Quincey prided himself on being adept, he based the initial antithesis between the literature of knowledge and that of power on the relation of utterance to hearer: ‘The function of the first is—to teach; the function of the second is—to move; the first is a rudder; the second, an oar or a sail.’68 In his essay on ‘Style,’ however, De Quincey substituted for this distinction the German antithesis between subjective and objective writing, and described the discrimination and objectification of feeling as a process in the writer himself. In his characteristic eddyings and dallyings with the subject, De Quincey (whose reputation as a critical theorist is over-inflated) succeeds in muddying the already turbid distinction. Subjective writing turns out to include the extraordinary combination of theology, geometry, metaphysics, and ‘meditative poetry’; while the natural sciences are classed with Homeric poetry as forms of objective writing. But De Quincey's analysis of the nature of literary subjectivity is worth quoting:

In very many subjective exercises … the problem before the writer is to project his own inner mind; to bring out consciously what yet lurks by involution in many unanalysed feelings; in short, to pass through a prism and radiate into distinct elements what previously had been even to himself but dim and confused ideas inter-mixed with each other … Detention or conscious arrest is given to the evanescent, external projection to what is internal, outline to what is fluxionary, and body to what is vague …69

De Quincey allows for the existence of an objective kind of poetry; and Hazlitt, although he gives an important role to personal desires in shaping the poetic design, insists that the terminal product must be particularized and concrete, and holds that the intensity of the poet's emotional response is a condition for his grasping and realizing the essential qualities and sensuous particulars of the world without. He also joins this theory to a denunciation of contemporary poets (including Wordsworth and Byron) who depart from tradition in writing about themselves rather than about other men and things, and so express personal moods and feelings without finding for them, as we might now say, an objective correlative:

The great fault of a modern school of poetry is, that it is an experiment to reduce poetry to a mere effusion of natural sensibility; or what is worse, to divest it both of imaginary splendour and human passion, to surround the meanest objects with the morbid feelings and devouring egotism of the writers' own minds. Milton and Shakespeare did not so understand poetry.70

One writer of the romantic period, however, made no distinction between objective and subjective poetry, or between expression and self-expression. Everything, in fact, that earlier critics had conjectured about the emotional dynamics and therapeutic function of poetic composition was but a prelude to the amplification given this theme in the criticism of the Reverend John Keble.

Keble revised and published in 1844, under the title De poeticae vi medica, the lectures he had delivered from the Chair of Poetry at Oxford between the years 1832-41. The lectures were delivered in Latin, according to the tradition that persisted until the incumbency of Matthew Arnold, and their somewhat bravura quality is emphasized by the lecturer's device of setting off a lyric of Robert Burns from its Latin context by translating it into Theocritan Greek. Keble dedicated his book, in terms most laudatory, to William Wordsworth. In addition to his many echoes of Wordsworth's criticism in detail, his basic theory is in considerable part a single-minded exploitation of Wordsworth's principle of poetry as the spontaneous overflow of feeling; although this principle is joined by Keble to ideas from quite different sources, and interpreted in a way Wordsworth had never intended. The book has received remarkably scant attention, even after its translation into English by E. K. Francis in 1912. Yet, if we take into account the authoritative position from which they were voiced, Keble's Lectures must surely be regarded as, under their pious and diffident surface, the most sensationally radical criticism of their time. They broach views of the source, the function, and the effect of literature, and of the methods by which literature is appropriately read and criticized, which, when they occur in the writings of critics schooled by Freud, are still reckoned to be the most subversive to the established values and principles of literary criticism.

Keble's most compendious statement of his position is the definition of poetry he proposed in a review of Lockhart's Life of Scott, written while be was in the process of delivering his Oxford lectures.

Poetry is the indirect expression in words, most appropriately in metrical words, of some overpowering emotion, or ruling taste, or feeling, the direct indulgence whereof is somehow repressed.71

In his Lectures on Poetry, he supports this position by pointing to the origin of poetry in the passionate outcries of savages, and validates this speculation, in the cavalier fashion of eighteenth-century primitivists, by quoting instances of ‘primitive’ song indiscriminately from the Hebrew, Old Norse, Lappish, Polynesian, and North American Indian, all having their origin in ‘the desire to relieve thoughts that could not be controlled.’72 All the arts, including music, sculpture, and architecture, are linked by expressing feeling in diverse media; thus, ‘the poetry of painting simply consists in the apt expression of the artist's own feeling …’73

From the same point of departure, that poetry ‘gives healing relief to secret mental emotion,’ Keble goes on, in a way that ‘has occurred to no one, as far as I know,’ to reorder drastically the poetic kinds. First, he distinguishes between the class of primary poets ‘who, spontaneously moved by impulse, resort to composition for relief and solace of a burdened or over-wrought mind,’ and the worthy but lowly class of secondary poets who ‘imitate the ideas, the expression, and the measures of the former.’ Within the province of primary poetry, ‘it will follow that there will be as many and as many kinds of poems as there are emotions of the human mind.’74

By this stroke of logic, Keble hurls down the structure of the genres which, with relatively minor modifications and exceptions, had endured as a corner-stone of criticism from Aristotle through the neo-classic period. For the mimetic and pragmatic differentiations based on the subjects imitated, the means and manner of imitation, and the kind of effects to be achieved in the audience, he substitutes a simple classification based on the mental dispositions and emotions which a poem expresses. This classification, he tells us, is adapted from Quintilian's rhetorical distinction between pathos and ethos. Ethos, as Keble interprets it, is a matter of long-term character traits; pathos is a passing impulse of feeling, short, intense, and overpowering.75 Under the expression of pathos, Keble groups the traditional forms of lyric, elegy, and some modes of satire; under the rubric of ethos he includes the epic, dramatic, and narrative forms (produced by poets who by nature are ‘fond of action’), as well as georgics and eclogues (produced by those dominated by a love for ‘restful things, the country, or quiet pursuits’). And as the emotional lyric forms had most exercised eighteenth-century critics who attempted to demonstrate that all poetry is imitation, so now tragedy and epic, the extended presentations of men in action, prove least amenable, Keble admits, to his attempt to ground poetry in ‘the surging unrest of a passionate spirit.’ His solution depends mainly on showing that these expanded forms are projected equivalents of ethos, or the deep-rooted and persistent sentiments and needs that compose the poet's permanent character.

We see, therefore, that there is nothing irrational in the contention that even an Epic may serve the purpose of the most fervid poet and soothe deep-rooted and vital yearning.

… [Such poems] reflect the character of a lifetime, and tastes which have become familiar to the mind by long association.76

The thesis that poetry is the imagined fulfillment of ungratified personal desire—which had appeared as an erratic but recurrent suggestion in what De Quincey described as the ‘abrupt, insulated, capricious and … nonsequacious’ course of Hazlitt's criticism77—is at the heart of Keble's poetic theory. The play of poetic imagination, he says, ‘paints all things in the hues which the mind itself desires.’ Nothing, in fact, is felt to be ‘touched with poetic feeling’ which ‘does not by some refined consolation appease a yearning desire which for the present is denied satisfaction.’78 And for Keble, very much as for Byron, poetry, in the last analysis, is a release of the affects in words, affording relief from threatening inner pressures. In place of Byron's volcano, however, Keble introduces the less spectacular mechanical analogy (modeled, he says, on the ancient notion that poetic inspiration is a form of insanity) of ‘a safety-valve, preserving men from actual madness.’79

Keble's chief importance, historically considered, is in his thesis that there is a conflict of motives in poetic creation, and in his view that poetry is, therefore, not a direct, but a disguised form of self-expression. This concept, as Keble says, ‘is the very pivot on which our whole theory turns.’80 The impulse to express one's emotions is ‘repressed,’ in Keble's term, ‘by an instinctive delicacy which recoils from exposing them openly, as feeling that they never can meet with full sympathy.’81 There ensues a conflict in poets between the need for relief on the one side, and the ‘noble and natural’ requirements of reticence and shame on the other; a conflict which threatens ‘their mental balance.’ Poetry is a divinely bestowed medicine because, by means of ‘those indirect methods best known to poets,’ it is able to satisfy opposed motives by giving ‘healing relief to secret mental emotion, yet without detriment to modest reserve.’ It is, therefore, ‘the art which under certain veils and disguises … reveals the fervent emotions of the mind.’82

It may seem odd that this radical, proto-Freudian theory, which conceives literature as disguised wish-fulfillment, serving the artist as a way back from incipient neurosis, should come out of the doubly conservative environment of High-Anglicanism and the Oxford Chair of Poetry. But the very fact that Keble was more a theologian than a critic goes far to explain the nature of his poetics. Ideas, which in theology have become matter of course and inert, may become alive and drastically innovative when transferred—as Keble patently transferred them—into the alien soil of aesthetics. Keble himself gives us the clue to the source of his formulas, in his frequent allusions to poetry as something near allied to religion, almost a sacrament. He compares the motive for veiled self-expression in poetry to the instinct that made the Fathers of the Church take every care ‘lest opponents and mockers should attain knowledge of sacramental mysteries and the keywords of the faith’;83 and his basic concept of veiled self-revelation had its roots in a well-established theological opinion in regard to the nature of God. Various religious observances also suggest Keble's view of the poetic function. There is, for example, the parallel with the healing relief of prayer, and also with the disburdening of guilt in the privacy of the confessional—as a leader in the Oxford Movement, Keble frequently regretted that in the Anglican Church, auricular confession was voluntary rather than the rule.84 The parallelism between the poetic theories of Keble and Freud may be taken as one more evidence of the extent to which psychoanalysis is a secularized version of religious doctrine and ritual.85

Keble's consonance with Freud extends to his analysis of the psychology of the reader. Those who fasten upon certain poems with enthusiasm, he says, ‘believe themselves to have lighted, at last, upon a unique mental solace.’ And ‘the peculiar delight which some men feel in some poetry will be found, if analyzed, mainly to depend’—not ‘on the subject, or the skill of creating it’—but ‘on the sympathy they feel for the character of the author, indirectly made known to them through his verses.’86 Here is further evidence of how completely traditional poetics gets reversed by such an uncompromising commitment to the view that poetry is self-expression. To enjoy literature is to reachieve the catharsis of its creator; the question of taste reduces mainly to the congruence of one's emotional needs with those of a particular writer; when the reader looks at the work, what he finds is a veiled reflection of its author. It will not be a surprise when we find, later on, that according to Keble, the chief task of practical criticism is to reconstruct in detail, from the traces left in a poem, the sentiments and temperament of the poet who wrote it.


There are some marked similarities between the ideas expounded by Keble in his third and fourth lectures, and the these developed by John Stuart Mill in the exactly contemporary essays on poetry which he published in the Monthly Repository for 1833. Like Keble, Mill apparently derived many elements of his theory from Wordsworth; he wrote to John Sterling in 1831 that no one can converse with Wordsworth ‘without feeling that he has advanced that great subject [the theory of poetry] beyond any other man …’87 Mill's definition of poetry as ‘the expression or uttering forth of feeling’ resembles that of Keble. Both writers also separate poetry from oratory on the grounds that a poet pours out his feelings without reference to an audience; trace the presence of ‘poetry,’ or emotive expression, in each of the non-literary arts in turn; redefine the poetic genres on the basis of the kind of feelings they express; and propose a fundamental distinction, on related grounds, between what Keble calls primary and secondary poets, and Mill calls poets by nature and poets by culture. Mill diverges from Keble by omitting any but minor references to the cathartic function of poetry, and by emphasizing instead—as we should expect from a disciple, though a truant disciple, of Bentham—the distinction in logical function and criteria between the expressive language of poetry and the descriptive language of science.88

The semantics of poetry, however, was explored with greater explicitness, detail, and cogency by a contemporary writer who has been totally lost to sight in the history of criticism and linguistic theory. In Blackwood's Magazine for December 1835, appeared an article entitled ‘The Philosophy of Poetry,’ signed with the initial ‘S,’ which, the present editors of the magazine inform me, was contributed by an A. Smith of Banff, Scotland. Through the courtesy of the Town Clerk of Banff, I have a note from a local newspaper of some thirty years ago describing an Alexander Smith who in all probability was the author of the article—a man educated at King's College, Aberdeen, who, because of ill health, resigned a position as school-teacher to become Postmaster of Banff from 1827 until his death in 1851. Alexander Smith also published a treatise on The Philosophy of Morals in 1835, and an article demolishing the pretensions of ‘Phrenological Ethics’ in the Edinburgh Review for January 1842,89 but ‘The Philosophy of Poetry’ is his only literary essay I have been able to identify. It deserves to be republished in its entirety on its own account, and also because it anticipates the analysis of poetry by recent semantic theorists even more closely than Keble's criticism anticipates the literary doctrines of Freud.

Smith approaches the basic question, ‘Wherein does poetry differ from prose?’ with Scottish equanimity. Those who regard poetry ‘with enthusiasm,’ he complains, ‘have seemed to shrink from too narrow an examination … as if they felt that they might thereby dissipate a charming illusion’—a charge which perhaps exposes the change in the attitude to poetry since the days when Dr. Johnson had fixed it with his nearsighted but incisive gaze. Smith himself, he tells us, has enough sense of the charms of poetry to incline him to speculation, but within such bounds as to enable him to pursue his speculation ‘with the most philosophical composure.’90

Since ‘verse is not essential to poetry,’ the problem is one of discriminating ‘poetry as opposed to prose.’

The essential distinction between poetry and prose is this:—prose is the language of intelligence, poetry of emotion. In prose, we communicate our knowledge of the objects of sense or thought—in poetry, we express how those objects affect us.

Later Smith presents a definition of poetry resembling that of Mill:

Behold now the whole character of poetry. It is essentially the expression of emotion; but the expression of emotion takes place by measured language (it may be verse, or it may not)—harmonious tones—and figurative phraseology.91

He is careful to distinguish poetry from eloquence by a difference in ends. ‘While the sole object of poetry is to transmit the feelings of the speaker or writer, that of eloquence is to convey the persuasion of some truth …’ He also sets out to show that his definition has scope enough to include all the poetic genres; his recasting of the traditional classification, however, is less radical than that of Keble, because the base for his distinction is not the kinds of emotions expressed, but the kinds of subject matter evoking the emotions. ‘In an epic or narrative poem, some event, or connected chain of events, is narrated with the various feelings which arise from the view of such event or events,’ and the aim of expressing and evoking feeling in the most effective way is sufficient to account for the selection, arrangement, and unity of the parts. Similarly with the other kinds: poetry will be descriptive, or didactic, or satirical, in accordance as it ‘conveys an expression of the feelings’ excited by natural objects, or by ‘the contemplation of general truths,’ or by ‘the view of human vice, folly, and weakness.’92

Such doctrines differ from opinion current in the mid-1830's in detail rather than in essence. Smith's new departure consists in identifying and examining poetry as, basically, a linguistic activity—as an expressive, in opposition to a cognitive, use of language. ‘Acts or states of intelligence are those in which the mind perceives, believes, comprehends, infers, remembers. Acts or states of emotion are those in which it hopes, fears, rejoices, sorrows, loves, hates, admires, or dislikes.’ Prose is the language of the first of these states, poetry of the second.93

The recognition that language is capable of expressing emotion is as old as classical rhetoric, which had maintained that words will evoke emotions from the hearer, and so be persuasive, to the degree that they indicate a similar affective state in the speaker. Hobbes and other English empiricists had pointed to the importance of the fact that words, ‘besides the significantion of what we imagine of their nature, have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker …’94 Eighteenth-century Longinians, such as Lowth, tended to distinguish between ‘the language of reason’ and ‘the language of the passions.’ Edmund Burke, in the section on language of his essay on The Sublime and Beautiful, brought both the concepts of rhetoric and the philosophy of Locke to bear on the problem of how words in poetry are able to evoke emotions in the reader:

We do not sufficiently distinguish, in our observations upon language, between a clear expression and a strong expression … The former regards the understanding: the latter belongs to the passions. The one describes a thing as it is; the latter describes it as it is felt.95

In this tradition, Alexander Smith's important innovations consist in deliberately reversing the rhetorical point of view to make the evocation of feeling in the auditor incidental to the expression of feeling in the poet; in extending the discrimination between descriptive and expressive language to strike a basic dichotomy through all linguistic usage; in identifying poetry in general with the language of expression; and above all, in exploring the linguistic and logical problems raised by this division far more thoroughly than had any earlier theorist. Smith's discussion of poetry, therefore, is quite comparable to that in the writings of I. A. Richards; for Richards also grounded both his semantic and poetic theory on the opposition between the ‘symbolic’ (or ‘scientific’) use of words for ‘the support, the organization and the communication of references,’ and the ‘emotive’ use of words ‘to express or excite feelings and attitudes,’ and went on to identify poetry as ‘the supreme form of emotive language.’96 The same antithesis, under a variety of names, has been widely adopted in the last thirty years as a solvent for the perennial problems of philosophy, morals, propaganda, law, and all other forms of human discourse. Rudolph Carnap, for example, in his popular exposition of logical positivism in Philosophy and Logical Syntax, set out to demonstrate that not only poetry, but metaphysics and normative ethics as well, are forms of ‘expressive,’ as opposed to ‘representative’ language; and Carnap's account of the difference between these modes of language, though more cursory and omissive, in its essentials parallels that of Alexander Smith.97

Now, what are the distinctions with which Smith supplements his initial definition of poetry? First, he refines the crude assertion that any emotional exclamation constitutes poetry (Hazlitt, for one, had spoken of ‘oaths and nicknames’ as ‘only a more vulgar sort of poetry’).98 Smith differentiates three uses of the term. In the basic sense, ‘every expression of emotion is poetry’; in another sense, ‘we only call the expression of emotion poetry, when it expands itself to a certain extent, and assumes a peculiar defined form’; in a third use, ‘poetry’ is only apparently a descriptive, but actually a laudatory term—what Charles L. Stevenson has recently called a ‘persuasive definition.’ ‘We say,’ Smith writes, ‘that a composition, in its essential nature poetical, is not poetry—as meaning, that it is not good poetry …’99 He then introduces a further discrimination, simple enough, but a fertile source of confusion even in some recent discussions of the topic, between the description of emotion and the expression of emotion:

By the language of emotion, however, I mean the language in which that emotion vents itself—not the description of the emotion, or the affirmation that it is felt … Between such and the expression of emotion, there is much the same difference as that which exists between the information a person might give us of his feeling bodily pain, and the exclamations or groans which his suffering might extort from him.

This point requires amplification. Poetic expression is not ‘mere exclamation. Feeling can only be expressed so as to excite the sympathy of others … with reference to a cause or object moving that feeling.’ In this way, Smith safeguards his theory from the charge (which a few unwary passages in I. A. Richards' earlier writings have invited, despite many other passages of a contrary import) that ‘emotive language’ is opposed to ‘reference,’ or at least, that the emotive is relatively independent of the referential function.100 In Smith's analysis, poetry is not non-referential, but more than merely referential. It is, in fact, tightly dependent for communicating feeling upon allusion to the kind of objects which are the occasion for such feeling; and its essential difference from prose does not consist in the presence or absence of reference, but in the purpose for which it is uttered. Poetry, in other words, can be distinguished from prose because it employs reference for an expressive, instead of an assertional purpose:

The essential character, however, of a poetical narrative or description, and that which distinguishes it from a merely prosaic one, is this—that its direct object is not to convey information, but to intimate a subject of feeling, and transmit that feeling from one mind to another. In prose, the main purpose of the writer or speaker is to inform, or exhibit truth. The information may excite emotion, but this is only an accidental effect.101

The difficulty in discriminating between the two uses of language is the fact that there is often no verbal or grammatical clue to this difference in ends—‘words of precisely the same grammatical and verbal import, nay, the same words, may be either prose or poetry … according as they are uttered, merely to inform or to express and communicate emotion.’ This generalization Smith illustrates with a variety of passages, such as this one:

‘My son Absalom’ is an expression of precisely similar import to ‘my brother Dick,’ or ‘my uncle Toby’ … It would be difficult to say that ‘oh! Absalom, my son, my son,’ is not poetry; yet the grammatical and verbal import of the words is exactly the same in both cases. The interjection ‘oh,’ and the repetition of the words ‘my son,’ add nothing whatever to the meaning; but they have the effect of making words which are otherwise but the intimation of a fact, the expression of an emotion of exceeding depth and interest …102

The feelings expressed, Smith says, ‘may be called the soul of poetry. Let us next consider the peculiarities of its bodily form, and outward appearance.’ On this topic, he agrees with what by this time was the commonplace opinion that poetic meter and rhyme ‘are but more artificial dispositions of the natural expressions of feeling.’103 He maintains further that ‘the language of emotion is generally figurative or imaginative language,’ because ‘the mind, anxious to convey not the truth or fact with regard to the object of its contemplation, but its own feelings as excited by the object, pours forth the stream of its associations as they rise from their source.’ This too is in accord with the established opinion of the time, but the interest of Smith's treatment inheres in the detail of his discussion. For example, the connection between feeling and expressive figure, Smith holds, is not a one-way causal sequence, but an interaction. ‘It is often not very easy to say whether the feeling is the parent of the image by which it expresses itself, or whether, on the contrary, the image is the parent of the feeling. The truth seems to be, that they produce and reproduce one another.’ And Smith's generalizations are strengthened by his discerning analyses of particular poetic instances. Take, for example, a part of the explication de texte he applied to the opening line of Gray's ‘Elegy,’ ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.’

The vital character of this line, as constituting it poetry, is, that it is not the mere fact or truth—(namely, that the tolling of the bell is a sign of the ending of the day)—that the words of the poet aim at communicating, but his emotion in regard to the fact … The sound of the bell, intimating the close of day, he invests, for the moment, with the import of the death knell summoning a soul from life; and the epithet ‘parting,’ bespeaks the similitude of his present frame of mind to that excited by the interruption of a cherished intercourse with an animated being—with a companion, a friend, a lover.104

The inadequacies of Smith's essentially grammatical theory, as an approach to the problems of poetry in general, are clear enough. It represents an extreme instance of the tendency in expressive theories (already evident in Wordsworth's criticism) to put the emphasis on the diction, at the expense of other poetic components. The classification of poetry at one end of a simple bipolar distribution of all forms of discourse makes but a crude instrument for specifically literary analysis. Smith characteristically focuses upon the single line, isolated from the poem as a whole, and on its material and formal differences—rhythmic, syntactic, figurative, and logical—from an equivalent assertion of simple fact. He ignores non-linguistic elements such as character or plot, and hardly makes a start at explaining why poetry ‘expands itself,’ as he puts it, and ‘assumes a peculiar defined form.’ As a result, he provides no means for analyzing and clarifying the constitution and structure of a poem in its totality. But such limitations are representative of all the over-simple theories of poetry as an expression of feeling current in his decade. Within these limits, Smith demonstrates a clear discernment of some fundamental logical issues raised by such a theory, and an uncommon sense of the need for referring constantly from theory to poetic examples, as well as a notable acuteness in their semantic analysis.

The rigorous analytics of Alexander Smith serves as a counterweight for the easy effusiveness and loosely articulated impressionism of some writers in this period—a mode of procedure which has sometimes been unjustly attributed to romantic criticism in the large. On the premise that poetry expresses feeling, we find certain critics using the word ‘poetry’ in a diffusive sense, not only for the language which exhibits feeling, but also for feelings which are not expressed in words, and even for objects and events which are merely typical occasions for feeling. William Hazlitt, for one, was subject to whirling off in this way, at those times when he gave his journalistic pen free rein. ‘Poetry is the language of the imagination and the passions.’ But poetry is not to be found only in books; ‘wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power, or harmony, as in the motion of a wave of the sea, in the growth of a flower … there is poetry in its birth.’ The emotions themselves are poetry. ‘Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry,’ and, therefore, to be a poet, we need do no more than experience an emotion. The child is a poet ‘when he first plays at hide-and-seek,’ ‘the countryman, when he stops to look at the rainbow,’ and ‘the miser, when he hugs his gold.’105

I shall quote one other critic to show how readily extempore effervescence bubbled over into the new dialect of poetry as feeling. In his review of Tennyson's Poems of 1832, John Wilson (Christopher North) characteristically refused to define poetry ‘because the Cockneys have done so,’ and immediately went on to define it. ‘Everything is poetry which is not mere sensation. We are poets at all times when our minds are makers.’ The ‘inferior animals,’ since they ‘modify matter much in their imaginations,’ are also poets. The stock-dove, therefore, under stress of erotic feeling becomes a poet, and even a droning beetle is a mute, inglorious Wordsworth.

Thus all men, women, and children, birds, beasts, and fishes, are poets, except versifiers. Oysters are poets. Nobody will deny that, who ever in the neighbourhood of Prestonpans beheld them passionately gaping, on their native bed, for the flow of tide … Nor less so are snails … The beetle, against the traveller borne in heedless hum, if we knew all his feelings in that soliloquy, might safely be pronounced a Wordsworth.106

Although this is hardly intended to be more than glib foolery, it is not without its significance for the historian. The passage demonstrates the kind of critical jargon which had become the equivalent, in the 1830's, for the cant of imitation, nature, rules, beauties, and faults of the Dick Minims of Johnson's generation.


  1. The Works of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones (London, 1934), viii, 5, 11, 24-5.

  2. Ibid. viii, 13, 17, 18-21. For a defense against attacks by contemporary reviewers of some of the very writers at whom he gibes in the ‘Four Ages,’ see Peacock's unfinished ‘Essay on Fashionable Literature,’ ibid. viii, 263-91.

  3. Letter of 15 Feb. 1821, Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, ed. John Shawcross (London, 1909), p. 213. Shelley's ‘Defence’ was planned as the first of three articles, but the last two remained unaccomplished.

  4. See R. B. McElderry Jr., ‘Common Elements in Wordsworth's “Preface” and Shelley's “Defence of Poetry,”’ Modern Language Quarterly, v (1944), 175-81. Shelley may also have primed himself for the encounter with Peacock by rereading Sidney's Apology for Poetry: the parallels between the two essays are discussed by Lucas Verkoren, A Study of Shelley's ‘Defence of Poetry’ (Amsterdam, 1937). A less convincing case is made for Shelley's adaptation of Imlac's poetics, as expressed in Johnson's Rasselas, by K. N. Cameron, ‘A New Source for Shelley's “A Defence of Poetry,”’ Studies in Philology, xxxviii (1941), 629-44. For a summary of the Platonic echoes in Shelley's ‘Defence,’ see James A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley (Durham, N. C., 1949), pp. 346-56.

  5. See, e.g., Shelley's varied but fragmentary philosophical and ethical essays of 1815: ‘On Life,’ ‘Speculations on Metaphysics,’ and ‘Speculations on Morals.’ All are reproduced in Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism.

  6. Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, pp. 122-3, 152.

  7. Ibid. pp. 155, 128; cf. pp. 131, 135.

  8. Ibid. pp. 123-4.

  9. Ibid. pp. 126-8. The language of poets is necessarily metaphorical, because these figures of speech disclose the unity behind the apparent diversity of phenomena (‘unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth’); and it is necessarily ‘harmonious and rhythmical,’ because it is ‘the echo of the eternal music.’

  10. Ibid. pp. 124-5. On the difference between the ‘restricted sense’ and the ‘universal sense’ of the word ‘poetry’ see also p. 158. Cf. Peacock's mocking account of the sleights by which early poets acquire the reputation of being historians, theologians, moralists, and legislators, in ‘The Four Ages,’ Works, viii, 6.

  11. Plato, Laws vii. 817; Shelley, ‘Defence of Poetry,’ pp. 125-6.

  12. ‘Defence of Poetry,’ pp. 124-5. Single poems, Shelley says later, may be regarded as ‘episodes to that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world’ (p. 139).

  13. Ibid. pp. 134, 130. On this matter of the problem of the artist in his difficult poise between the ‘sad reality’ of ‘that which has been,’ and the direct depiction of ‘beautiful idealisms of moral excellence,’ see also Shelley's Dedication to The Cenci, and his Preface to Prometheus Unbound.

  14. The unchangeable forms, said Shelley, exist ‘in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds’ (ibid. p. 128; see also p. 140). Cf. Chap. ii, sect. iii.

  15. Ibid. pp. 121-2, 125.

  16. Ibid. pp. 155-6.

  17. Ibid. pp. 124-5, 145.

  18. Ibid. pp. 120, 129, 131, 153-5.

  19. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London and New York, 1939), pp. 626, 607, 637-9 (written 1809-10).

  20. Biographia Literaria, ed. Shawcross, ii, 255-9. Coleridge's basically psychological additions to Schelling's ‘On the Relation of the Formative Arts to Nature,’ by the way, are no less significant than his borrowings.

  21. Heroes and Hero-Worship, in Works, v, 155-7.

  22. Blackwood's Magazine, lxxiv (1853), pp. 738, 744, 748, 728.

  23. Ibid. pp. 745, 748.

  24. Ibid. p. 753. Cf. Timaeus 28-9.

  25. On the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, viii. 4; i. 4; xii. 4-5. ‘The design of the poetical image,’ Longinus also says, ‘is enthrallment, of the rhetorical—vivid description’ (xv. 2).

  26. An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, i, iv-v; ii, 477-8.

  27. ‘Life of Pope,’ Lives of the Poets (ed. Hill), iii, 251.

  28. The Works of Samuel Johnson (London, 1825), vii, x ‘Prefatory Notice to the Lives of the Poets.’

  29. ‘Defence of Poetry,’ Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, p. 153.

  30. Inquiring Spirit, ed. Kathleen Coburn (London, 1951), p. 207; Biographia, ii, 11-13, 84.

  31. ‘On Milton's Versification,’ Complete Works, iv, 38. In West's ‘Christ Rejected,’ Hazlitt says, there is ‘an absolute want of what is called gusto throughout,’ as against the paintings of Raphael, where ‘every muscle and nerve has intense feeling’ (Complete Works, xviii, 33).

  32. ‘On Genius and Common Sense,’ ibid. viii, 31; ‘On Criticism,’ viii, 217-18.

  33. Gibbon's Journal, ed. D. M. Low (New York, 1929), pp. 155-6. Addison had lamented the lack of authors who, like Longinus, could ‘enter into the very Spirit and Soul of fine Writing’ (Spectator, No. 409); the phrase anticipates Hazlitt.

  34. Complete Works, xx, 388; x, 32-3. Carlyle described Goethe's criticism of Hamlet as ‘the poetry of criticism: for it is in some sort also a creative art; aiming, at least, to reproduce under a different shape the existing product of the poet (‘State of German Literature,’ Works, i, 61).

  35. Letters of John Keats, p. 368; Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, Recollections of Writers (London, 1878), pp. 125-6. See also Letters, p. 65.

  36. Letters, pp. 71, 108 (my italics); Longinus, On the Sublime vii. 2.

  37. Letters, pp. 52-3. He adds, in an echo of a different tradition: ‘Besides a long Poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry … This same invention seems indeed of late Years to have been forgotten as a Poetical excellence.’

  38. ‘Writings of Alfred de Vigny,’ Dissertations and Discussions, i, 351-2.

  39. Edgar Allan Poe, Representative Selections, ed. Margaret Alterton and Hardin Craig (New York, 1935), ‘The Poetic Principle,’ pp. 378-9, 389; ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ pp. 367-8, 376.

  40. The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry (Oxford, 1950), pp. xvii, xxi, xxiii, xxvi.

  41. On the Study of Celtic Literature and on Translating Homer (New York, 1895), p. 264.

  42. ‘The Study of Poetry,’ Essays in Criticism, 2d Series, pp. 17-20, 33-4. One element Arnold has in common with Longinus, as well as with Poe and many others in this tradition, is the emphasis on ‘soul’ as the province from which true poetry derives and to which it appeals. The poetry of Dryden and Pope, he says, in a passage that T. S. Eliot derided, ‘is conceived and composed in their wits, genuine poetry is conceived in the soul.’

  43. As quoted in W. F. Thrall and Addison Hibbard, A Handbook to Literature (New York, 1936), p. 325.

  44. The Name and Nature of Poetry (Cambridge, 1933), pp. 12, 34-5, 46-7.

  45. Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. G. Smith (Oxford, 1904), ii, 49. Puttenham explains this effect on the auditor by analogy with homeopathy in medicine, ‘as the Paracelsians, who cure similia similibus, making one dolour to expell another …’ (ibid. p. 50). Cf. Milton's homeopathic analysis of tragic purgation in his preface to Samson Agonistes.

  46. Letter to Moore, 2 Aug. 1787, The Letters of Robert Burns, ed. J. De Lancey Ferguson (Oxford, 1931), i, 112.

  47. 19 Mar. 1819, The Letters of John Keats, p. 318.

  48. Letters and Journals, v, 215 (2 Jan. 1821); iii, 405 (10 Nov. 1813).

  49. Poetics 4. 1448b.

  50. On the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, xxxv. 2-3.

  51. Advancement of Learning, Bk. ii, in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Spingarn, i, 6; cf. De augmentis scientiarum, Bk. ii, Chap. xiii.

  52. ‘On the Idea of Universal Poetry,’ Works, ii, 8-9. Addison, in Spectator No. 418, explains that it is the part of a poet to mend and perfect nature ‘because the mind of man requires something more perfect in matter than what it finds there.’ See also Reynolds, Discourse xiii, Works, ii, 78; and John Aikin, Essay on Song-Writing, 1772 (new ed.; London, 1810), pp. 5-6.

  53. Rasselas, Chap. xliii, Works, iii, 419-21.

  54. ‘Life of Milton,’ Lives of the Poets (ed. Hill), i, 170. The special and lowly exception is the prose romance; see Idler No. 24.

  55. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 1, 4, 11.

  56. Ibid. pp. 5, 17-18.

  57. Biographia i, 172-3; ii, 120.

  58. Complete Works, xi, 8; xx, 47, 43. See also ibid. ii, 113, and xii, 250-51; and Elizabeth Schneider, The Aesthetics of William Hazlitt (Philadelphia, 1933), p. 93.

  59. Ibid. xii, 348-53.

  60. Ibid. xii, 23. De Quincey, a greater expert in dreams, gives this even more startling capsule version of the theory of conflict, waking amnesia, and the compulsive repetition by each individual of the guilty, archetypal dream-myth of the human race: ‘In dreams, perhaps under some secret conflict of the midnight sleeper, lighted up to the consciousness at the time, but darkened to the memory as soon as all is finished, each several child of our mysterious race completes for himself the treason of the aboriginal fall’ (‘The English Coach,’ Collected Writings, xiii, 304; the passage came to my attention by its quotation in Harry Levin's James Joyce, Norfolk, Conn., 1941, p. 158). German theorists, Novalis and J. P. Richter most notably, had earlier brooded over the mysterious and guilty self opened up to us in our dreams; see Chap. viii.

  61. Complete Works, v, 3.

  62. Ibid. iv, 151-2; xi, 308; cf. iv, 58.

  63. Confessions, Book ix.

  64. The Autobiography of Goethe, trans. John Oxenford (Bohn ed., 1903), i, 511.

  65. See P. P. Howe, The Life of William Hazlitt (London, 1922), pp. 349-50.

  66. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 7-8. Croce gives a terse summary of the more recent form of this doctrine (The Essence of Aesthetic, trans. Douglas Ainslie, London, 1921, p. 21): ‘By elaborating his impressions, man frees himself from them. By objectifying them, he removes them from him and makes himself their superior.’ For an expanded version, see Yrjö Hirn, Origins of Art (London, 1900), pp. 102ff.

  67. Collected Writings, x, 48n. Cf. Essay Supplementary to the Preface (1815), Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, p. 198: ‘Every great poet … has to call forth and to communicate power.’

  68. ‘The Poetry of Pope’ (1848), ibid. xi, 54-5.

  69. Ibid. x, 219-27. On romantic discussions of subjective and objective, see Chap. ix, sect. iii.

  70. ‘On Shakespeare and Milton,’ Complete Works, v, 53.

  71. Review of Life of Scott (1838), in Occasional Papers and Reviews (Oxford, 1877), p. 6.

  72. Lectures on Poetry, trans. E. K. Francis, i, 19-20; 59-66.

  73. Ibid. i, 42-7.

  74. Ibid. i, 22, 53-4, 87-8. Relevant to the effect of the expressive point of view on the theory of genres is Wordsworth's attempt, in his 1815 Preface, to rationalize the curious classification of his poems in that volume, on the basis of ‘the powers of mind predominant in the production of them.’ See also Markham L. Peacock, Jr., The Critical Opinions of William Wordsworth (Baltimore, 1950), pp. 111-12.

  75. Ibid. i, 88-9; see Quintilian, Institutes vi. ii.

  76. Ibid. i, 92, 86, 90.

  77. De Quincey, ‘Charles Lamb,’ Collected Writings, v, 231-2.

  78. Lectures on Poetry, i, 21-2, 25-6.

  79. Ibid. i, 22, 55-6. Cf. ‘Review of Lockhart,’ Occasional Papers, p. 24: ‘The epic, therefore, or any other form, may act, as was said, like a safety-valve to a full mind …’

  80. Ibid. i, 73.

  81. ‘Review of Lockhart,’ Occasional Papers, p. 11.

  82. Lectures on Poetry, i, 20-22, 47.

  83. Ibid. i, 13, 74.

  84. J. T. Coleridge, Memoir of the Reverend John Keble (4th ed.; Oxford, 1874), pp. 302, 313. Keble himself, as a religious poet, was almost morbidly sensitive to the self-exposure involved in publication. See Walter Lock, John Keble (3d ed.; London, 1893), p. 57.

  85. For a comment on the connection between Keble's theory of poetry and religion, see Cardinal Newman, ‘John Keble’ (1846), Essays Critical and Historical, ii, 442-3.

  86. Lectures on Poetry, i, 56 (cf. p. 66); Occasional Papers, pp. 24-5.

  87. 20-22 Oct. 1831, Letters of John Stuart Mill, ed. H. S. R. Elliot (London, 1910), i, 11.

  88. For a précis of the poetics of John Stuart Mill, see Chap. i, sect. iv.

  89. The article, a long review of George Combe's Moral Philosophy (1840), is identified as written by Alexander Smith, of Banff, in Selections from the Correspondence of the Late Macvey Napier, ed. by his son (Edinburgh, 1879), p. 371n.

  90. ‘The Philosophy of Poetry,’ Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, xxxviii (1835), 827.

  91. Ibid. pp. 828, 833.

  92. Ibid. pp. 835-7.

  93. Ibid. p. 828.

  94. Leviathan, ed. A. B. Waller (Cambridge, 1904), Pt. i, Chap. iv, p. 21.

  95. The Sublime and Beautiful, Pt. v, sect. vii; The Works of … Edmund Burke (London, 1854), i, 178-80.

  96. C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning (3d ed.; London, 1930), p. 149; I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (5th ed.; London, 1934), pp. 267, 273.

  97. Philosophy and Logical Syntax (London, 1935), pp. 26-31. For the most thorough exploration of the concept of emotive language as an approach to the problems of philosophy, see C. L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, 1944).

  98. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 7.

  99. ‘The Philosophy of Poetry,’ p. 828; see Stevenson, Ethics and Language, p. 213, for an analysis, as a ‘persuasive definition,’ of the assertion ‘Pope is not a poet.’

  100. For a recent instance of this objection to Richards' analysis—there are many earlier instances—see Max Black, Language and Philosophy (Ithaca, N. Y., 1949), pp. 206-9. In his ‘Emotive Language Still,’ Yale Review (xxxix, 1949), pp. 108ff., Richards clarifies his intention by pointing out that almost all uses of language have multiple functions, and are ‘descriptive and emotive together, at once referential and influential.’

  101. ‘Philosophy of Poetry,’ p. 829.

  102. Ibid. p. 830.

  103. Ibid. pp. 830-31. Smith also employs the interesting device of showing how poetry loses its essential quality when translated into a-rhythmic prose (p. 831), and points out that terms like ‘melodious,’ ‘harmonious,’ and ‘musical,’ when transferred from music to versification, are only very distant metaphors (p. 832n.).

  104. Ibid. pp. 832-5.

  105. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 1-2. For this inconsistency in the use of ‘poetry,’ Gifford taxed him harshly in a review in the Quarterly, and Hazlitt reacted violently in a scathing ‘Letter to William Gifford, Esq.’ justifying his equivocality by appeal to current usage of the term. (Complete Works, ix, 44-6.)

  106. The Works of Professor Wilson, ed. Ferrier (Edinburgh, 1856), vi, 109-11.

Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7596

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “The Romantic Critics.” In Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990, pp. 64-116. London: Macmillan, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in a different form in 1977, Parrinder compares areas of agreement and points of contention between the writings of Shelley, Hazlitt, and Keats, and the critical doctrines of Wordsworth and Coleridge.]


In his famous dictum about ‘negative capability’, Keats chooses Coleridge as his example of the non-poet irritably reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge had managed to convince himself that the poetic spirit, while deeply hostile to British empirical philosophy, could be subsumed under the higher reason of Kantian transcendentalism. Others did not agree. None the less, the theme of opposition to utilitarian doctrine is very widespread in the period, from Coleridge's Church and State to de Quincey, Hazlitt, and Shelley's ‘Defence of Poetry’. The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry took on an urgency quite unknown in Johnson's time, for the ideological upheavals of the ‘age of revolutions’ had shaken customary beliefs about the nature and demarcations of culture. The metaphysics of Coleridge and the literary witch-hunting of the quarterlies suggest the variety of possible conservative responses to this situation. The revolution in literary values instigated by Wordsworth was, however, carried on by Keats, Shelley and their circle. Like many of their predecessors, they show signs of a deep frustration and insecurity about the position of the poet, but for them the frustration is a source of energy and a guarantee that they can only benefit from living in a revolutionary age. They respond with militant assertions of the ideals of literary culture, and with poetry fervently embodying those ideals. Shelley, in particular, is a prophet of humanism denouncing the tyranny of aristocratic government and bourgeois materialism. We have to distinguish here between the broad humanism of the romantics and the effect of their beliefs within the narrower sphere of poetry and criticism. After his death Shelley came to personify the charisma and magic of poethood for generations of Victorians who had no time for his political views. Though he failed in his revolutionary aims, the attitude of poetic absolutism which he asserted against Peacock's rational and ‘enlightened’ view of history found a much wider echo. It was symptomatic of the romantic revolt that the language of criticism became unpredictable, and its relation to rational thought problematic.

One of the ways in which romantic militancy and the breakdown of the eighteenth-century cultural consensus are reflected in language is in the redefinition of the word ‘poetry’. ‘Literature’, as we have seen, was redefined concurrently as an existing tradition or heritage of imaginative works, and this sense was established as normal. The mutations undergone by the word ‘poetry’ were more exotic and temporary. Essentially what took place was a species of linguistic imperialism, which was able to claim the sanction of Plato since a passage in the Symposium describes poetry as originally a generic term for the processes of creation and invention. Wordsworth declared that the philosophical opposite of poetry was ‘Matter of Fact, or Science’, and Coleridge stipulated that ‘All the fine arts are different species of poetry.’1 Elsewhere he suggested ‘poesy’ as the generic term and ‘poetry’ for the metrical art alone, but this distinction failed to stick. Once poetry came to denote a common quality of all the arts, a new importance was given in literary criticism to the problems of the relationship between the arts, and of the place of the poetic faculty in human nature as a whole. Hazlitt memorably tackles the former question, and Shelley the latter. The poets, in the meantime, found that the words ‘poetry’ and ‘poesy’ could be used with an easy evocativeness that was unprecedented. Hence the title ‘Sleep and Poetry’; lines like ‘Perhaps on wing of Poesy upsoar’, and ‘Framed in the silent poesy of form’; the kiss in Keats's ‘Isabella’ where Lorenzo's lips ‘poesied with hers in dewy rhyme’; and, at rock-bottom, Coleridge's grisly lines to his future daughter-in-law:

My Derwent hath found realiz'd in thee, …
The fair fulfilment of his poesy,
When his young heart first yearn'd for sympathy!

(‘To Mary Pridham’, 1827)

‘Poesy’ seems to have been the more ‘poetical’ form and rapidly became trivialised to mean fantasy, yearning or love-play. Apart from its wilder excesses, however, the extended definition of poetry implied a heightened sense of the poet's responsibility and mission. This in turn led to the romantic instability; messianic conviction alternated with failure and despondency.

Keats, for example, can sound very down to earth when it is a question of what he is actually writing: ‘I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry’, he says of Endymion. Yet a sentence earlier he writes that ‘the high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering to [sic?] high above me.’2 The classic statements in his letters are meditations on what it is to be a poet (the ‘poetical Character’) rather than on poetic technique. Keats was both ambitious and fearful of becoming a poet; in his description of the poet as ‘the most unpoetical of any thing in existence’ and in the initiation scene of ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ he seems alarmed by the prospect of losing his identity and submitting to an alien power. He often had to tell himself to keep his head, even if that meant renouncing poetic aspirations. ‘There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet—… how comfortable a feel it is that such a Crime must bring its heavy Penalty?’ he wrote priggishly of Leigh Hunt.3 This is a reminder that the intensely literary pretensions to which Keats gives classic expression were almost commonplace among his fellow-writers. It was necessary to be a great poet; simply to be a poet was not enough. In an 1817 letter to Haydon, another artistic pretender, Keats announced his choice of Shakespeare as his presiding genius. Shakespeare came to seem his special good fairy in the struggle between his reverence for the literary past and his search for authentic self-expression. As a romantic literary poet, Keats felt his relation to his predecessors not as a public but as a peculiarly private relation. When he announced his rejection of the Miltonic mode of the first ‘Hyperion’ (‘Miltonic verse can not be written but in an artful or rather artist's humour’), he said bluntly that ‘I wish to give myself up to other sensations.’4

The contradiction between the poet's sense of high calling and public responsibility and the private and unique character of his struggle to develop, is surely what accounts for the difficulties the romantics experienced in handling the traditional literary genres. Wordsworth, despite the influence of Milton, created new models for the long poem in The Excursion and (far more radically) in The Prelude. But Keats and Shelley sought poetic fame in forms far closer to traditional tragedy and epic, though their real concerns lay elsewhere. Shelley's Preface to Prometheus Unbound expresses the literary alienation that is central to their work:

This Poem was chiefly written upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, among the flowery glades, and thickets of odoriferous blossoming trees, which are extended in ever winding labyrinths upon its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the air. The bright blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening spring in that divinest climate, and the new life with which it drenches the spirits even to intoxication, were the inspiration of this drama.

In traditional terms the inspiration should have produced an ode, not an epic verse drama. Prometheus Unbound strives after a consciously revolutionary, symbolic form to accommodate its author's visionary humanism. Keats's ‘Fall of Hyperion’ seems to me a more successful poem, though Keats was less aware of the problem of generic alienation and so left the poem unfinished and, surely, unfinishable. The personal inspiration which he brought to the classical fable seems exhausted by the scene with Moneta, and in telling the story of Apollo he would simply be covering the theme of poetic initiation twice over. Both poems are expressions of their authors' belief in the public and monumental status of great literature. Yet in the lyrics of Keats and Shelley, and in some of the criticism of their contemporaries, a new evaluation of the poetic art quite independent of the public, classical genres was emerging.


Shelley's ‘Defence of Poetry’ (1821) is the most outspoken of the romantic assertions of the public function of poetry. It was written, so he told Peacock, in a ‘sacred rage’ to vindicate the ‘insulted Muses’ against his friend's challenge in ‘The Four Ages of Poetry’ (1820).5 Peacock's essay is a satire on his contemporaries (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, Byron, Moore and Campbell are all named targets) written in the form of a pastiche of Enlightenment historiography. He sees poetry as a product of man's earliest civilisations and posits an iron age followed by a golden age (the classical flowering of tragedy and epic) followed by a silver age and, finally, an age of brass. There is little in his outline of cultural history that was not anticipated by the Scottish primitivists of the eighteenth century. But Peacock presents it with great verve and dash, and adds an extra turn of cynicism, as when he attributes the rise of poetry entirely to the savage's need to flatter his chieftain. His attack on the modern age is a reductio ad absurdum of arguments that had already been brought against Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth's return to nature, he asserts, is the second childhood of the art, a hopeless and puerile raking over of the past which serves as a prelude to poetry's final extinction. The backward-looking, semi-barbarous modern poet has been left stranded by the progress of the mechanical and social sciences, and has nothing to contribute to social utility: ‘The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.’ Even the pleasure that he gives is not enough to ensure his survival, since there are enough good poems already, and anything still to be produced must be worse than what already exists.

Peacock is in no doubt about who are the real revolutionaries of contemporary poetry, but he writes off their movement as a predestined failure. The shallow determinism of the position he adopts can only really be refuted by an unanswerable demonstration of the power and creativeness of the present generation. This explains Shelley's anxiety to destroy his friend's position, and the impotence of mere arguments to do so. Moreover, Peacock's espousal of utilitarian values—however much this has a merely debunking intention—challenges his antagonist to declare his own attitude to utilitarianism. Shelley, as poet and political revolutionary, mounts his defence from the left, and argues that poetry belongs in the van and not in the rearguard of social progress; hence his arguments do not ultimately conflict with a rational and enlightened utilitarian standpoint.6 What these arguments lack he tries to make up with the rapt and imperious utterance of a ‘sacred rage’.

The ‘Defence’ opens with the contrast of reason and imagination. Peacock had said that poetry, once the ‘all-in-all of intellectual progression’, had been left behind by the development of reason and science. Shelley replies that as the ‘expression of the imagination’, poetry is ‘connate with the origin of man’. Its origins are found in the pleasure we take in imitation, whether in dancing, singing or creating a language. Thus Shelley replaces Peacock's debunking historical account of poetry's genesis with an anthropological explanation grounded in the universal nature of man. If he is right, either poetry must retain its original centrality in modern society, or we have ceased to be fully men. For Peacock, such centrality belonged to ‘semi-civilized society’, whereas Shelley summons all his faith, ingenuity and power of persuasion to the task of asserting that it still persists and that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators’. He does so by adopting the extended neoplatonic definition of poetry and writing a panegyric on human creativity throughout history, giving all the credit to poets as they come highest in the hierarchy of creative spirits. The difficulties in the way of such an argument are airily disposed of. Shelley asserts, for example, that the superiority of poetry in the restricted sense over other modes of social activity is proved by the fame of the poets, which is only exceeded by that of ‘legislators and founders of religion, so long as their institutions last’. The latter, however, are artificially bolstered up by the flattery of the vulgar, and by the fame which is rightfully theirs ‘in their higher character of poets’! Very soon, in fact, the distinction between reason and imagination becomes of use only as a weapon against ‘mere reasoners’; Shelley describes Shakespeare, Dante and Milton as ‘philosophers of the very loftiest power’, and claims that poets excel all others in political, social, ethical and religious insight. Reason and imagination are certainly merged in the ‘Defence’ itself, which opens with a parade of distinctions and definitions, but ends in pages of impressionistic rant. Poets, we discover, may be not only the rulers of society but autocrats who justifiably present a watered-down version of the truth for popular consumption (‘Few poets of the highest class have chosen to exhibit the beauty of their conceptions in its naked truth and splendour’). And Shelley himself is a super-autocrat who can award or withhold the title of poet at will (Rousseau was a poet, but Locke, Hume, Gibbon and Voltaire were ‘mere reasoners’). If we read it, as we must, as special pleading, the ‘Defence’ is unconvincing and somewhat repellent.

There is more to be said than this, since the ‘Defence’ at best—as in the section on Milton—is an eloquent affirmation of human freedom. Peacock sees poets as slaves to history, and Shelley reacts by airlifting them into the permanent world of the human spirit. The historical narrative in the ‘Defence’ is devoted to showing that poetry is immanent in history without ever being fundamentally corrupted by it. The poets unveil the essential morality of their societies, rather than having to abide by that morality as the Augustans thought. They teach love and mutual sympathy to their fellow-men, with measurable effects: ‘the presence or absence of poetry in its most perfect or universal form, has been found to be connected with good and evil in conduct or habit.’ The spirit of poetry, as is evident here, can withdraw from a world unsympathetic to it, and Shelley's history of culture is a narrative of the fluctuating presence of the poetic spirit. He dismisses the usual historical and religious explanations of the Dark Ages, for example, since it was the ‘extinction of the poetical principle’ that really counted. After the eleventh century, things began to improve as the ‘poetry of the Christian and chivalric systems’ began to manifest itself. But the historical role of poetry, though something of which Shelley is proud, is not quite the essence of the art as he sees it. ‘Let us not be betrayed from a defence into a critical history of poetry and its influence on society’: ‘betrayed’, because the primary reality of poetry is its permanence and eternality; only secondarily is it manifested in history. Thus Shelley can speak of ‘that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world’. His outlook is fundamentally idealist and anti-historical, however useful as a corrective to Peacock's vulgar brand of historicism. And his veneration of poetry as something at once above history and decisively engaged in history is evidently of a religious kind; it is no accident that he describes poets as ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’. The ‘Defence’ is, in T. E. Hulme's term, ‘spilt religion’, but it is also a bold attempt to expropriate what is worth keeping in actual religions, especially Christianity, in the name of poetry. Shelley both discredits Christian transcendentalism and borrows metaphors from it freely for his eulogistic rhapsodies. Thus he can be misread as saying that poetry is spiritual and other-worldly, whereas these are never more than the metaphors of his evangelical humanism. For all this, the ‘Defence’ must be read more as a hymn to the ideal unity of humanist values, than as any kind of poetic analysis or programme. It might have served as a rallying-call to contemporary poets, but it remained unpublished until 1840, eighteen years after his death.


Shelley's criticism rests on the conviction that poetry and philosophy are essentially at one; the poet, in his view, is virtually omnipotent. Keats was more cautious and hesitant in assuming the prophetic stance. ‘An eagle’, he wrote, ‘is not so fine a thing as a truth.’ Keats's sense of the rival claims of poetical justice and social justice is paralleled by the frank acknowledgment of such a conflict in the criticism of William Hazlitt. Hazlitt's work is distinctly uneven, but he was an original critic, not merely an indefatigable literary politician and a populariser of stock romantic attitudes. The complexity of his response to poetry is evident from his contrast of poetic and political values in his essay on Coriolanus in The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817). It was a passage which achieved some notoriety: Gifford derided it in the Quarterly, Hazlitt hit back in his Letter to William Gifford (1819), and Keats was sufficiently moved by the reply to copy out a long extract in his journal-letter to his brother and sister-in-law (February-May 1819). Hazlitt had originally argued that in portraying the conflict of leaders and led in ancient Rome, Shakespeare ‘seems to have had a leaning to the arbitrary side of the question’, and ‘spared no occasion of baiting the rabble’:

What he says of them is very true: what he says of their betters is also very true, though he dwells less upon it. The cause of the people is indeed but little calculated as a subject for poetry: … The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion. The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty. The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle.

The antitheses are suspiciously neat but none the less effective. Hazlitt was a republican, proud of his political consistency and a merciless critic of the apostasy of Coleridge and Wordsworth. He was also an advocate of the romantic imagination in poetry. In writing of the interests of poetry as essentially opposed to democracy he was giving hostages to the enemy, but he was able to turn this weakness into a strength—partly by habitually separating literary from political criticism, and partly by the vigour of his polemics against the Lake school, who from his point of view had the worst of both worlds by adopting the ‘arbitrary side of the question’ in politics, and the levelling principle in poetry. Hazlitt's is a parliamentary mind, conscious of his allegiances and capable of switching between cross-bench negotiation and vitriolic abuse of the other side. He is prepared to concede the Tory affiliations of Coriolanus if that will aid a romantic interpretation of the play. While recognising and revering the imperiousness of the poetic imagination, he later made it clear that the imagination was not a party-political weapon, but belonged in a higher sphere: ‘When it lights upon the earth, it loses some of its dignity and its use.’7 This suggests the essential ambiguity of his position. Though he was habitually and often pungently aware of the ideological tendencies of art, his criticism played an influential part in the nineteenth-century retreat into an aesthetic kingdom separate from everyday life.

Hazlitt attacked poets like Coleridge who meddled in politics; they lived ‘in an ideal world of their own’, and could only bring confusion into public affairs.8 He attacked Shelley, a fellow republican, for his intellectual unreliability and extremism.9 But he also attacked the utilitarians, Shelley's ‘reasoners’, for the inhumanity and self-interestedness of their abstract rationalism. His dissection of the Lake school in the lecture ‘On the Living Poets’ is done with a brilliance and perversity which puts it in a class by itself. The true motive of ‘these sweeping reformers and dictators in the republic of letters’, he asserts, is the madness of egotism:

They took the same method in their new-fangled ‘metre ballad-mongering’ scheme, which Rousseau did in his prose paradoxes—of exciting attention by reversing the established standards of opinion and estimation in the world. They were for bringing poetry back to its primitive simplicity and state of nature, as he was for bringing society back to the savage state: so that the only thing remarkable left in the world by this change, would be the persons who had produced it. A thorough adept in this school of poetry and philanthropy is jealous of all excellence but his own … He tolerates only what he himself creates; he sympathizes only with what can enter into no competition with him, with ‘the bare trees and mountains bare, and grass in the green field.’ He sees nothing but himself and the universe.

This surely is the sort of line that Burke, whom Hazlitt much admired, might have taken. Analysis reveals an extraordinary mixture of motives in it. Though personal animus is undoubtedly present, the attack on Wordsworth's egotism is consistent with his analysis of the ‘intellectual egotism’ of The Excursion in The Examiner four years earlier—an analysis which stands behind Keats's phrase for Wordsworth's style, the ‘egotistical sublime’. But it may be argued that the imperiousness of Wordsworth's poetic attitude is precisely what is to be expected of that ‘exaggerating and exclusive faculty’, the imagination. Though a political radical, Hazlitt seems to prefer the status quo in literature to a new initiative such as Wordsworth's. There is a brooding pessimism in his outlook, which sometimes becomes the bitter pride of the last adherent of a lost cause.

Hazlitt as a cultural critic too often seems to be writing from a position of self-defence. He distinguished between the diffusion of taste, the object of the periodical press of his own time, and its improvement—there was no principle of universal suffrage in matters of taste. As an art critic, he attacked public patronage of artists and the institution of the academy—genius would make its own way in the world, and there was no point in encouraging the second-rate—but supported the setting up of a national gallery. Public taste might be improved by ‘a collection of standing works of established reputation, and which are capable by the sanctity of their name of overawing the petulance of public opinion’.10 Late in life he became still more outspoken against the philistinism of public taste:

I would rather endure the most blind and bigotted respect for great and illustrious names, than that pitiful, grovelling humour which has no pride in intellectual excellence, and no pleasure but in decrying those who have given proofs of it, and reducing them to its own level.

(‘On Reading New Books’, 1827)

In the matter of culture, then, Hazlitt himself leant towards the ‘arbitrary side of the question’. And he was essentially a man of letters: the choice is like a confession. Political passions infused his writing (his final work was the Life of Napoleon) but they do not seem to have moved him to political action. There is a certain realism about the literary democrat who turns against the mob in these circumstances. It costs him more than other people to do so, so that the result is a heartfelt and not a supercilious response. None the less, the alternatives painted by Hazlitt are so rigid that the passage seems little more than a cry of frustration. We must conclude that for all his intelligence and mastery of the telling phrase and the cutting polemic, Hazlitt lacked the pertinacity of a genuine social thinker.

As a strictly literary critic his claims are stronger, though he is at his best in discussing two areas of writing which do not involve the conflict of poetry and philosophy at its sharpest. The first of these is realistic fiction, and the second the meditative or musical lyric. Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Comic Writers contain a superb discussion of the eighteenth-century novel, which he warms to as a more human and democratic art form than poetry. Best of all is his appraisal of Hogarth (a curious inclusion, in some ways) whom he sees as the culmination of English realism. Hogarth, however, is a representative of the ‘familiar style’ in painting, falling short of the ‘grand style’ because he lacks an imaginative and ideal dimension. Hazlitt finds the same falling-short in a ‘painterly’ poet like Crabbe, and in the art of painting in general. Though an excellent art critic and a fine judge of the realistic mode, he looked upon realism as firmly subordinated to the mode of imagination.

His fullest statement of the imaginative nature of poetry comes in the essay ‘On Poetry in General’, the first of the Lectures on the English Poets (1818). Read superficially, this essay seems no more than a vague romantic rhapsody; it is an oration rather than a treatise, presenting an impassioned list of the attributes of poetry in an appropriately florid and extravagant prose. But though his method is metonymic rather than definitive, Hazlitt intended his statements to be rationally defensible (he defended them vigorously against the legalism of Gifford), and at times they are effective and precise. The ‘general notion’ of poetry with which he opens sounds Shelleyan in its expansiveness, though it actually says a good deal less than at first appears:

Many people suppose that poetry is something to be found only in books, contained in lines of ten syllables, with like endings: but wherever there is a sense of beauty, or power, or harmony, as in a motion of a wave of the sea, in the growth of a flower that ‘spreads its sweet leaves to the air, and dedicates its beauty to the sun,’—there is poetry, in its birth.

It is not that poetry subsists in the wave of the sea or the growth of the flower; rather, these can inspire us with a poetic ‘sense of beauty, or power, or harmony’. Hazlitt opposes poetic power to the mere representation or description of an object. Poetry is the result of internal processes of apprehension and contemplation:

It is strictly the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that faculty which represents objects, not as they are themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power.

The difference from Wordsworth's and Coleridge's accounts of imagination is that they tended to stress its cognitive and visionary nature, while Hazlitt presents it as a wholly aesthetic process, appealing to a particular (and, of course, particularly desirable) kind of sensibility. His distinction between imagination and description is strongly reminiscent of Schlegel's and Schiller's contrasts of the ancient and modern spirit; Hazlitt, in their terms, is claiming poetry as an essentially modern or romantic art-form.11 He goes on to discuss the differences in aesthetic potential among the fine arts. Poetry is more imaginative than painting: ‘Painting gives the object itself; poetry what it implies.’ Here again is the distinction between the expression of the reflective mind and the mere pictorial representation of objects. Poetry is further enriched, however, by its possession of the quality of harmony, which is associated with the third of the fine arts, that of music. Hazlitt calls poetry the ‘music of language’:

Wherever any object takes such a hold of the mind as to make us dwell upon it, and brood over it, melting the heart in tenderness, or kindling it to a sentiment of enthusiasm;—wherever a movement of imagination or passion is impressed on the mind, by which it seeks to prolong and repeat the emotion, to bring all other objects into accord with it, and to give the same movement of harmony, sustained and continuous, or gradually varied according to the occasion, to the sounds that express it—this is poetry. The musical in sound is the sustained and continuous; the musical in thought is the sustained and continuous also.

If this is peculiarly evocative, it is surely not because it is generally applicable to poetry, but because it is an uncanny prediction of the concentrated lyric poetry of the nineteenth century. The passage virtually provides the formula of Keats's Odes.

Modern scholars are agreed that most of Keats's theories were developed from Hazlitt, and that his poetry was in some respects a deeply theoretical endeavour, but I am not sure that all the connections have yet been made.12 In general, Hazlitt may have prompted Keats to discover how natural objects could be treated in a poetry of refined and synaesthetic, rather than directly moral or sensual, appeal; the ‘Odes’ avoid both the stolidness of Wordsworth and the cloying richness of Endymion.

There is a more precise point of connection between ‘On Poetry in General’ and Keats's ‘Odes’. It springs from a passage discussing the Elgin Marbles, which were of such consuming interest to Hazlitt, Keats and their circle:

It is for want of some such resting place for the imagination that the Greek statues are little else than specious forms. They are marble to the touch and to the heart … By their beauty they are raised above the frailties of passion or suffering. By their beauty they are deified. But they are not objects of religious faith to us, and their forms are a reproach to common humanity. They seem to have no sympathy with us, and not to want our admiration.

Ian Jack has written that ‘It would be curious to have the comment of Keats on this passage.’13 I would argue that in effect we have that comment: it is the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. The difficulty that Keats appears to have missed the first of Hazlitt's lectures, though he became a regular attender later on in the course, may be overcome by supposing either that he read it in manuscript or book form (the Lectures were published several months before the ‘Ode’ was written), or that he knew Hazlitt's earlier and more diffuse discussion of the Marbles in his Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the ‘Fine Arts’ (1817). As for the difference between a vase and a sculptured frieze, this is a complication, but no more. Ian Jack identifies the heifer led to sacrifice in Stanza IV as that in the South Frieze of the Elgin Marbles. Keats's ‘Attic shape’ surely stands for the whole of Greek plastic art, as does Hazlitt's account of the ‘Greek statues’, written in the tradition of German analyses of the Hellenistic spirit.

The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is a poem about the relations between the arts, which comes directly out of the aesthetic debate of its time. Keats calls the Urn a ‘Cold Pastoral’; that is his concession to Hazlitt's viewpoint, but it is belied by the very choice of the Urn as subject for a poem. The poem reveals the nature of the Urn's ‘sympathy with us’, and yet Keats is, so to speak, cheating by weaving around the Urn the expressive harmonies of another medium. Finally the ‘silent form’ speaks:

                                                            Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
          Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
          ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all
                    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Hazlitt had described the forms of the Elgin Marbles as a ‘reproach to common humanity’, but the Urn is a friend to man and does not reproach. Far from rejecting our admiration, it holds it spell-bound. None the less, the Urn's message reveals its own self-sufficiency and aloofness from human considerations, since no mundane ‘philosophical’ sense can be attached to the words ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”’. We should, of course, notice the wonderful contextual subtlety with which Keats has hedged around the Urn's flat statement, which could be seen as at once a rebuke to Hazlitt's brash impatience with the Greek statues, and as a tacit confirmation of his general principle that the values of the imagination are paramount only within the ‘aesthetic’ realm. What Keats conveys is not an objet d'art speaking to us directly, but a poetic statement put in the mouth of another art and then translated back into the art of language; the statement is not didactic but oracular, a direct ‘expression of the imagination’ reported to us by an admirer rather than authored by Keats himself.

Keats's poem expresses the full allure of aestheticism, without quite taking the leap into vulgar commitment. Similarly, Hazlitt's essay steeps itself in the literary emotions and in less sensitive hands than Keats's could be made into a thoroughgoing aesthete's charter. The essay can offer some general guidelines to the other Odes, directing us to their more symbolistic features. The idea of poetry as the ‘music of language’ is present in the third stanza of ‘To Autumn’, where the first two lines invite us to number the poem itself among the songs of autumn:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

The list of autumnal sounds that follows is introduced by two lines of landscape-painting describing the sunset; once again, the three art-forms are fused. In the ‘Ode to Psyche’, the poet offers himself as choir, priest and builder of a temple for the goddess of his choice. Psyche is forgotten and unworshipped, the ‘latest born and loveliest vision far / Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy’. The poet, and he alone, can commemorate her and restore the ‘faded hierarchy’; but the music, painting and architecture of the temple subsist in ‘some untrodden region of my mind’, so that this revival, so typical of the solipsistic use of classical motifs by the romantic poets, can be an imaginative achievement only. The ‘Nightingale’ Ode is, again, a poetic brooding and dwelling upon its subject, weaving together visual beauty, musical harmony and the ‘magic casements’ of literary tradition in its striving for the maximum intensity. These are all intensely literary poems, not in the simple name-dropping sense (though literary names are dropped throughout Keats's minor verse), but in their presentation of nearly all experience in terms evocative of literature and the other arts. This process of aesthetic mediation involves a new poetic diction which deliberately transmutes life into art, sensation into dream and message into oracle. Hazlitt's view of the opposition between imagination and social concern helps to illuminate the secular other-worldliness of Keats's poetry, his fascination with the Immortals and with a supremely sensual initiation into mysteries that transcend the world of the ordinary senses. In a few great poems, Keats was able to choose the ground on which to reconcile the warring poles of critical dialectic. In life, however, he, like Hazlitt, remained struggling irresolutely between poetry and philosophy.


Hazlitt's influence on Keats was the last and most fortuitous of the interactions between criticism and original creation which so profoundly mark the romantic period. The points of similarity between them initiate the line of development from romanticism to aestheticism, which emerged as a conscious movement in England in the second half of the nineteenth century. Keats was undoubtedly able to overlook the journalistic flaccidity and the amount of borrowed finery that creep into Hazlitt's writing. For Hazlitt's critical personality is evidently that of the bookman rather than of the more refined and fastidious aesthete. He may have been the first to describe critics as ‘middlemen’, and he plays at least four roles with varying success in his criticism—those of polemical reviewer, aesthetician, literary connoisseur and public educator. His literary surveys are probably most read today, although they were composed in a great hurry to meet a public demand. The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays and all three lecture-courses came out between 1817 and 1820. These lectures contain some splendid passages, but they also tend to lapse into the superficiality of literary history without tears.

In his comments on the task of criticism, Hazlitt invariably speaks for the impressionistic method of the connoisseurs and bookmen whose ethos was sketched at the beginning of this chapter. He believed that the appreciation of poetry was a matter of ‘instantaneous sympathy’, and that the literary imagination delighted in ‘power, in strong excitement’ at the expense of humanity and principle.14 The critic's task was to express the joys of poetic excitement and passion, when taken under licence and in moderate draughts. Hazlitt deplored Johnson's incapacity for ‘following the flights of a truly poetic imagination’,15 and attacked the analytic methods of Dryden and the French:

A genuine criticism should, as I take it, reflect the colours, the light and shade, the soul and body of a work: here we have nothing but its superficial plan and elevation, as if a poem were a piece of formal architecture … That is, we are left quite in the dark as to the feelings of pleasure or pain to be derived from the genius of the performance or the manner in which it appeals to the imagination.16

It is only one step further to the Pavlovian responses of Lamb, when confronted by a passage from The Revenger's Tragedy: ‘I never read it but my ears tingle, and I feel a hot flush spread my cheeks.’17 This is a translation of the ecstatic response of the romantic poet to literary experience into the domestic language of bookish sensibility. Hazlitt usually works on a more intellectual or comparative level than this; he praises writers for their ‘poeticality’, their ‘gusto’. He describes his aim in his lectures as being to ‘read over a set of authors with the audience, as I would do with a friend, to point out a favourite passage, to explain an objection; or if a remark or a theory occurs, to state it in illustration of the subject, but neither to tire him nor to puzzle myself with pedantic rules.’18 This combines Lamb's desire to make his private experience public (his remark on The Revenger's Tragedy is the kind of intimate confidence that carries no risk) with a lightly pedagogic concern. A great deal of nineteenth-century criticism exists somewhere between these two alternatives, and Hazlitt's own work is weaker and more patchy where—as in The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, which were not delivered as lectures—the pedagogic motive is lacking.

A different blend of cognitive and affective elements is found in his collection of ‘Contemporary Portraits’, The Spirit of the Age (1825). These essays combine vivid portraiture with an intellectual apparatus of concepts—such as mechanism and impulse, method and imagination, authority and democracy—which serve to relate the individual sitter to the Zeitgeist or ‘Spirit of the Age’. At his best, on Bentham, Malthus, Jeffrey or Sir James Mackintosh, Hazlitt clearly anticipates the cultural criticism of Carlyle and Mill. But he never gets down to a precise exposition of the ‘Spirit of the Age’, or straightforwardly declares his own attitude to it. He is very much the reporter, hedging his bets. Wordsworth's levelling genius is a ‘pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age’, but then so is the Edinburgh Review. Hazlitt may be dissociating himself from both, but just where he stands is uncertain—why, except as his patron, should Jeffrey be so much more favourably treated than Wordsworth? The volume was published anonymously, and it may be that Hazlitt took pleasure in intriguing his readers while exploiting the idea of the Zeitgeist for all it was worth. Where his own preferences do emerge, they suggest an impulse towards literary escapism. The carriers of the Zeitgeist such as Wordsworth and Jeffrey are portents to be wondered at, but they cannot exactly be liked; and old enemies such as Coleridge and Gifford are treated as harshly as ever. The tart edge to Hazlitt's commentary on his times is only forgotten in his final essay on Charles Lamb and Washington Irving (‘Elia, and Geoffrey Crayon’). He affectionately portrays Lamb as an antiquarian who prefers ‘byeways to highways’, a poetic soul who is untainted by the ‘Spirit of the Age’ and stands aloof from its animosities. Hazlitt, too, seems to be hinting that life is best when one can take flight on the wings of imagination. His gallery of ‘contemporary portraits’ ends with two sentences (they refer to the dramatist Sheridan Knowles, another friend of Hazlitt's) which conjure us out of the contemporary world altogether:

We have known him almost from a child, and we must say he appears to us the same boy-poet that he ever was. He has been cradled in song, and rocked in it as in a dream, forgetful of himself and of the world!

Long disappointed in his political hopes, and embittered by a series of desertions from the republican cause, Hazlitt in The Spirit of the Age seems emotionally incapable of feeling at home in the contemporary world. Intellectually he responds to it; but finally he can only gesture towards a resting-place in the cult of childhood and literary reverie. Once again he was putting his weight behind that withdrawal of the poetic sensibility from social concerns which constitutes romantic decadence.

As a contrast to Hazlitt's escapism, we may look finally at Thomas de Quincey—famous for his opium reveries, and yet a very practical and socially committed literary critic. De Quincey's most famous essay, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’ (1823), seems at first to be an ordinary product of bookish impressionism. ‘From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth’; this is how it opens. But what follows is not an exercise in buttonholing intimacy, but a meditation of Wordsworthian discipline and austerity. De Quincey goes on to outline the solution of a critical problem that has puzzled him for twenty years. He shows how the knocking at the gate intensifies our sympathy with the complex feelings of the murderers, and distracts us from simple horror at their crime. This is a superb empirical demonstration of the ‘manner in which it appeals to the imagination’—the kind of criticism which Hazlitt recommends, but can never achieve with such force. Nearly two decades later, when Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb were dead, de Quincey reemerged as a critic of far broader literary and cultural interests. His Reminiscences of the Lake Poets, his remarks on the poetic diction controversy and his distinction of knowledge and power show him as the critical heir of Wordsworth and Coleridge, reinterpreting in rational terms the prophetic insights of romantic poetry. In an essay on ‘Goldsmith’ (1848), de Quincey reasserted the international character of great literature and its embodiment of a kind of power which is a challenge and an alternative to the social power wielded by the state. Literature, he argued, was a force tending towards international brotherhood and cultural unity, and this was why poets were so often slighted in their own homeland. This idea owes much to Wordsworth, and clearly anticipates Arnold; it represents a critical approach in complete contrast to Hazlitt's disillusionment and solacing aestheticism. Thus de Quincey, unlike Hazlitt, proved able to respond to the new energy of social thought and the revival of liberal hopes in the 1820s and 1830s, so that his final incarnation was as a minor Victorian sage and not as a romantic critic. The mixture of public educator and private daydreamer in both Hazlitt and de Quincey sums up the essence of the nineteenth-century literary culture which their generation had done so much to create.


  1. Coleridge, Miscellanies, Aesthetic and Literary, ed. T. Ashe (London, 1892), p. 6.

  2. The Letters of John Keats, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman (Oxford, 1935), p. 52.

  3. Ibid., p. 31.

  4. Ibid., p. 384.

  5. Quoted in Peacock's Four Ages of Poetry, Shelley's Defence of Poetry, Browning's Essay on Shelley, ed. H. F. Brett-Smith (Oxford, 1921), p. xiii.

  6. See J. Bronowski, The Poet's Defence (Cambridge, 1939), p. 82, for an interesting examination of this point.

  7. Hazlitt, A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. in Complete Works, IX, p. 50.

  8. Hazlitt, Complete Works, XVI, p. 137.

  9. Ibid., p. 268.

  10. Ibid., XVIII, p. 101.

  11. For Hazlitt's derivation of this idea, see his essay ‘Schlegel on the Drama’, Complete Works, XVI, pp. 62-4.

  12. On Keats and Hazlitt, see Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford, 1967); Stephen A. Larrabee, English Poets and Grecian Marbles (New York, 1943), pp. 223ff.; and Kenneth Muir, ‘Keats and Hazlitt’, in John Keats: A Reassessment, ed. Muir (Liverpool, 1958), pp. 139ff.

  13. Jack, Keats, p. 72.

  14. Hazlitt, ‘On Poetry in General’, in Lectures on the English Poets.

  15. Hazlitt, Complete Works, VI, p. 49.

  16. Hazlitt, ‘On Criticism’ in Complete Works, VIII, p. 217.

  17. Charles Lamb, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (London, n.d.), p. 158n.

  18. Hazlitt, Complete Works, VI, p. 301.

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Criticism: Wordsworth And Coleridge


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