Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Defences of Poetry Part Five: Shelley Part one

To Peacock’s Four Ages, Shelly, then In Italy, decided to reply.  Peacock was a friend, and his satirical portrait of Shelley in Nightmare Abbey had not spoilt the friendship.  In fact Shelley had written to compliment him on it.

The Defence was written in 1821, but Shelley (who died in 1822) like Sidney, did not live to see his piece published.  

It’s worth pointing out several things:
  1.  Unlike Sidney, Shelley was consciously writing polemic for publication.  The existing Defence, which has a tangled publication history, was conceived as part one of three. The other two parts were not written.   
  2. The Defence is not a refereed essay in a modern journal: it is a relatively young man’s enthusiastic effusion.   Many of the high school students I teach are capable of writing more coherently. Submitted as the draft of an essay, it would be returned with numerous suggestions for tightening up the argument,  getting the facts rights and avoiding embarrassment. 
  3.  It has numerous passages where the beauty of the prose is incontestable. (Unlike many refereed essays in modern journals?).  It is seductive, and it’s difficult to read it and not want to believe it. Critics have cherry picked it for phrases ignoring the arguments, sometimes oblivious to the vacuous beauty they were quoting. And that final sentence taken out of context, gets repeated with nauseating regularity. 
  4.   In Defending Poetry, Shelley helped dig a hole for writers of poems which has proven almost impossible for succeeding generations to escape.


While Peacock had discussed what a modern audience would recognise as poetry, Shelley’s definition of ‘poetry’ and therefore ‘poet’ is even broader than Sidney’s.

According to Percy B there are two types of mental action: reason and imagination. For Shelley; Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance (p.49). Having made his first claim and effectively dismissed every other way of thinking, Shelley can then extends Sidney’s definition by stating that, Poetry, in a general sense may be defined to be “the expression of the imagination” (p.49) and therefore poetry in the general sense can be found in painting, sculpture, music, law, religion, anywhere there is evidence of the work of imagination. 

Having rendered Poetry as a category so general as to be practically useless, he does the same for Poets  who “in the most universal sense of the word” (p.51) are those who in whom the faculty of approximation to the beautiful exists in excess.  

  But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of 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. 49

These poets are almost supernatural beings: A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not.(p50) but of them all the poet, in the restricted sense of the user of language, is the most superior. Shelley claims this springs from the nature of language itself. The sculptor or the musician must use materials that limit and interpose between conception and expression. Language on the other hand “has relation to thoughts alone”ref?.  Poets in the limited sense of users of language are justifiably more famous than any other type of poet in the general sense (p50).  The definitions reach a crescendo:

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds. (p52)

Have established his definitions Shelley then turns to estimate the effects of poetry on society. Without poetry there would be no civilization. Poetry is not just an indicator of the values of civilisation,  but a cause of it. 

This loopy statement will be repeated by succeeding writers, from Pound, to Eliot to Dana Gioia. 

It's not always clear whether Shelley means poetry in the general or the restricted sense, but he claims: 

it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed... The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself. 68

It’s in passages like this that one begins to wonder if Shelley were enjoying an in joke with Peacock. A skeptical reader might well ask exactly how Chaucer’s fart jokes or Lord Bacon’s essays altered the moral condition of the world or how the wheel or agriculture had been discovered and developed without Dante?

His history of the world is one man’s peculiar version, conscripted to support a highly idiosyncratic argument. He reminds me of Foucault, except Shelley writes better.  

Some of his history naturally reflects the state of knowledge when he was writing.  But even in his own day, labeling Dante as the first religious reformer, may have come as a surprise to those who knew about Saint Francis, St Dominic, Gregory the Great and St Augustine. His mother in law, had she been alive, would certainly have been surprised to discover women were free after the 11th Century.

When he claims that: As to his [the poet’s] glory, let time be challenged to declare whether the fame of any other institutor of human life be comparable to that of a poet. That he is the wisest, the happiest, and the best, inasmuch as he is a poet, is equally incontrovertible: the greatest poets have been men of the most spotless virtue, of the most consummate prudence, and, if we would look into the interior of their lives, the most fortunate of men(71) … and thus cruelty, envy, revenge, avarice, and the passions purely evil have never formed any portion of the popular imputations on the lives of poets.(73) It’s almost impossible to believe he’s not writing tongue in cheek. Even in his own small circle the first Mrs. Shelley would have challenged that statement, as would Peacock who was “pro Harriet”.  As would Lady Caroline Lamb,  Annabelle Milbank and Claire Claremont in terms of Byron’s treatment of them.

Why such claims about the poet and poetry became accepted and repeated, became in some ways articles of cultural faith during the 19th century and still underwrite a great many discussions of poetry in the twenty first,  is an intriguing question which deserves a study on its own. 

You can see their residue in the recent scandal (2013) surrounding cheating in a high profile Australian poetry competition. Underwriting the shock horror response was the bizarre idea that although the news is full of cheating by sports people, by clubs, by politicians and business men; despite the fact that schools and Universities invest time and money and effort into preventing Plagiarism, the very idea that a "Poet" might cheat for a large pile of money was somehow shocking if not actually unimaginable. 

However, what is more to the point here is the paradox, or sets of paradox, which are given expression in Shelley’s essay and which create a trap for the writer and reader of poetry. I’m not suggesting that Shelley invented them, but his defence does give a clear view of them.
Which will be discussed in the next installment. 

CE: As with the other posts in this sequence,  proper referencing has been removed. You are welcome to use any of these posts as long as you acknowledge the source. The absence of proper references should make plagiarism difficult. Leave a request in the comments and I'll happily supply them. 

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