The problem with Shelley’s ‘argument’ is not so much how daft it seems, or how modern understandings of history and language might invalidate so much of it, but its implications. Succeeding generations were left with a tangle of contradictions, and while they would take issue with one or other, the basic ground, that the ability to arrange consonants and vowels into pleasing patterns was a guarantee of elite status, even if no one read them, would remain undisturbed as poetry’s share of culture and market place shrank inexorably over the next two centuries. The danger of taking him seriously can be seen in Pound's Career. Of which more later.
If poetry is the highest form of human achievement and poems, in the restricted sense, the highest form of poetry, and if Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure: all spirits on which it falls open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its delight.(53) then obviously if poetry doesn’t delight you and you don’t see any wisdom mingled in it, you are at fault. You are not a “spirit”. It’s not the fault of the poem or the poet. Popularity is unwelcome, and elitist obscurity a badge of merit. "Spirits" did/and still do, look down their noses at the rest of creation.
The reading of poetry, or at least the buying of poetry books, would become a mark of social and cultural distinction; proof of one’s education, sensitivity, and refinement. Proof you belonged to Mathew Arnold’s “Men of poetry and culture”. Literature entered the university curriculum at the start of the twentieth century piggy backing a ride on such assumptions and that shaped the way the subject was constructed. Of which more in the next post.
If poets are the most sensitive of souls, then poems are going to have to be about sensitivity, and that leads to several dead ends: the kind of vapid (sensitive) poetry that Pound and Eliot rebelled against, the late 19th century cult of the aesthete, the persistent popular idea that poetry is about 'expressing your deepest darkest feelings’ (As one student put it to me). By implication, and later by explicit statement, the idea that certain registers of language were unacceptable, certain subjects out of bounds, because they were beneath the sensitivity of the poet and the refinement of the readers. We are along way from the world of Chaucer’s poetry.
A long lasting practical part of the problem, if you take Shelley’s type of statements seriously, is how could anyone use his pronouncements as the basis of a craft. If 'A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth' how can anyone set out to write one. If Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists.(p54) what can that possibly mean in terms of individual poems. Sidney had argued for a moral purpose his own poems did not have. Shelley claimed qualities for poems which no anthology could support.
If A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.(53) then the poet is not a social being taking part in everyday life, but a self absorbed creature who is not understood by his peers but valued “they know not why”? A set of behaviors for “a poet” is being mapped out, no matter how unrealistic or unrelated to the production of poems, and there would be numerous people who would take them at face value (see quotes from Emerson’s essay above).
Shelley’s essay, from the perspective of someone interested in the craft of writing poetry, creates two other problems. They are I think, the most damaging in terms of their long term effect.
They are based on contradictions in Shelley’s thinking: he believed, somehow, the poetry of Homer and Dante does not carry contemporary ideas, or promote their versions of right and wrong (pardon?). He also seems to have believed that words like “truth” and “beauty” are not abstractions constantly being redefined, but are eternal absolutes that are understood by everyone, from Homer to Shelley, to mean the same thing. (At which point someone writes an essay on Shelley's debt to Plato but that doesn't exonerate him or make the argument any more solid.)
The same is true for literary value. Shelley was creating, or at least verbalizing, a vacuous critical vocabulary that would be ready made for the unthinking use of later reviewers and blurb writers. If “beauty” is an unchanging eternal value: “time” is an objective test of literary value.
The poet, in the restricted sense, is the greatest of human beings; the most refined, the most sensitive, his fame outlives even the great religious figures who are merely poets in the general sense. So in Shelley’s terms Dante is more famous than Jesus or the Buddha. However, the poet’s fame rests not on his standing with his contemporaries, but with posterity. And his fame relies, according to this, on his ability to escape the particular.
Writing for posterity is a fool’s game. The poet is not going to be around to find out if he or she were right but more importantly in the twenty first century, the idea that time is an impartial objective arbiter of value will not stand scrutiny. We know that literary value is a contingent, changing, culturally determined opinion. “The test of time” is not a test worth taking. The practical problem this raises is to make the particular and the contemporary seem out of the place in “Poetry”.
Related to this is an even more destructive paradox. The poet is the greatest of human beings, blessed with abilities to reveal eternal truths beyond that of any other mortal. But at the same time the poet, as we’ve seen, is solitary, sensitive, and his poetry is written not for his time but for later generations. How then can the poet write great poetry that is directly involved with the issues of his or her time? How can he use poetry to advance this truth that only he can see?
Shelley is adamant that he cannot and should not: A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time in his poetical creations, which participate in neither… There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal poets, should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose.(55)
So poets who wish to embody their perceptions of right and wrong or who affect a political or moral aim, must accept that what they produce will not be poetry of the highest sort. Indeed, a poetry rooted in the now of writing, as we have seen explicitly with Emerson and spread throughout Shelley’s essay, will condemn writer and poem to being dismissed because We hear through all the varied music, the ground tone of conventional life. Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators can legislate nothing, cannot even participate actively in the here and now, if they want to write poetry.
The poet, in the restricted sense, is therefore both greater than other men, but totally incapable of affecting or changing the course of his contemporary's lives through his poetry. Nor is the poet the kind of man who will go amongst the industrial slums of 19th century England looking for practical solutions to the problems facing the working poor. A role has been mapped, and despite its silliness, it would attract many willing takers. The poem as thing of beauty: A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. would carry into the language of the popular reviews throughout the 19th century, where, as Stead has shown, “beauty’ could be used as a critical standard to validate the most vapid of sentimental verse and castigate any poet who dared to try and include mundane specifics in his or her poem. Enter Eliot and his rats....