Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defence of Poetry

1) According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.

Shelley divides the mental faculty into two parts: reason and imagination. Reason implies a kind of logical process that enables one to connect ideas together and/or determine their relationships to one another. It is a passive thing. Imagination, meanwhile, acts upon those thoughts. It enables creation; it is the source of our artistic desires.

2) Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

The distinction between reason and imagination is akin to the distinction between quality and quantity. We acknowledge the significance of each, all the while holding one in higher regard compared to the other. Reason is a lesser faculty, but it is necessary and instrumental to imagination. Reason implies a mechanical knowledge of things. However, until the imagination allows us to recognize the importance of such facts, they hold no value. It is the soul to the mere vessel of the body. One is inextricably linked with the other.

3) Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be "the expression of the Imagination:" and Poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody.

Poetry is man's real and outward expression of his imagination, and Poetry is an innate characteristic of man. A human being is that body with the imaginative soul. Like Nature creating music on Coleridge's Eolian harp, our interactions with the world are themselves forms of poetry. We are constantly processing things, evaluating, and revising who we are.

4) For language is arbitrarily produced by the Imagination and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments and conditions of art, have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression... We have thus circumscribed the meaning of the word Poetry within the limits of that art which is the most familiar and the most perfect expression of the faculty itself.

Poetic language expresses the Imagination best because speech is directly related to our thoughts. It is the problem of mediation; words are our best mode of conveying our thoughts. The Imagination creates thoughts, and language is "a more direct representation of our the actions and passions of our internal being." Shelley holds poetry as the highest form of art, superior to music, painting, and sculpture.

5) A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food.

This is the social aspect of Shelley's poetry. Poetry is not just to induce delight and pleasure, which granted, it does well. It can and must inspire goodness in man, but at the same time, it must not be didactic. It should allow for a wealth of interpretation.

6) We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

Shelley also says, "a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth." This divine attribute of poetry is not unlike Coleridge's conception of the primary Imagination. He cautions us, however, that although we want always to be able to imagine and to create, there is also a danger in allowing our innovations to enslave us. He ascribes a dualistic nature of the divine to poetry; it is both as "God and the Mammon of the world."

7) A man cannot say, "I will compose poetry." The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness...when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

The composition of poetry is uncontrollable. Because Poetry is innately human, there is no translation from observation that occurs. The source of creation is internal, and we have no control over when or how inspiration strikes. Furthermore, the composition cannot hold up against what was imagined; it will always be inferior because there is no adequate way of capturing that always-elusive Truth. Though Poetry expresses an eternal truth of life, it is truth captured in imperfection.

8) Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interluminations 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. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.

As an "expression of the Imagination," Poetry does capture these things. The "vanishing apparitions" are the thoughts residing in the Imagination, and Poetry allows us to express them with language. However imperfect they are, Poetry ensures that they are never wholly lost.