Shelley's View of Poetry: A Lecture
A. C. Bradley
The ideas of Wordsworth and of Coleridge about poetry have often been discussed and are familiar. Those of Shelley are much less so, and in his eloquent exposition of them there is a radiance which almost conceals them from many readers. I wish, at the cost of all the radiance, to try to see them and show them rather more distinctly. Even if they had little value for the theory of poetry, they would still have much as material for that theory, since they allow us to see something of a poet's experience in conceiving and composing. And, in addition, they throw light on some of the chief characteristics of Shelley's own poetry.
His poems in their turn form one of the sources from which his ideas on poetry are to be gathered. We have also some remarks in his letters and in prose pieces not devoted to this subject. We have the prefaces to those of his works which he himself published. And lastly, we have the Defence of Poetry. This essay was written in reply to an attack on the poetry of the time by Shelley's friend Peacock,--not a favourable specimen of Peacock's writing. The Defence, we can
see, was hurriedly composed, and it remains a fragment, being only the first of three projected parts. It contains a good deal of historical matter, highly interesting but too extensive to be considered here. Being polemical, it no doubt exaggerates such of Shelley's views as collided with those of his antagonist. But, besides being the only full expression of these views, it is the most mature, for it was written little more than a year before his death. It appears to owe very little either to Wordsworth's Prefaces or to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, but there are a few
reminiscences of Sidney's Apology, which Shelley had read just before he wrote his own Defence;
and it shows, like much of his mature poetry, how deeply he was influenced by the more imaginative dialogues of Plato.
Any one familiar with the manner in which Shelley in his verse habitually represents the world could guess at his general view of poetry. The world to him is a melancholy place, a "dim vast vale of tears," illuminated in flashes by the light of a hidden but glorious power. Nor is this power, as that favourite metaphor would imply, wholly outside the world. It works within it as a soul contending with obstruction and striving to penetrate and transform the whole mass. And though the fullness of its glory is concealed, its nature is known in outline. It is the realised perfection of everything good and beautiful on earth; or, in other words, all such goodness and beauty is its partial manifestation. "All," I say: for the splendour of nature, the love of lovers, all affections and virtues, every good action and just law, the wisdom of philosophy, the creations of art, the truths deformed by superstitious religion, are equally operations or appearances of this hidden power. It is of the first importance for the understanding of Shelley to realise how strong in him is the sense and conviction of this unity in life: it is one of his Platonic traits. The Intellectual Beauty of his "Hymn" is absolutely the same thing as the Liberty of his "Ode," the Great Spirit of Love that he invokes to bring freedom to Naples, the One which in Adonaïs he contrasts with the
Many, the Spirit of Nature of Queen Mab, and the Vision of Alastor and Epipsychidion. The
skylark of the famous stanzas is free from our sorrows, not because it is below them, but because, as an embodiment of that perfection, it knows the rapture of love without its satiety, and understands death as we cannot. The voice of the mountain, if a whole nation could hear it with the poet's ear, would "repeal large codes of fraud and woe"; it is the same voice as the reformer's and the martyr's. And in the far-off day when the "plastic stress" of this power has overcome the last resistance and is all in all, outward nature, which now suffers with man, will be redeemed with him, and man, in becoming politically free, will become also the perfect lover. Evidently, then, poetry, as the world now is, must be one of the voices of this power, or one tone of its voice. To use the language so dear to Shelley, it is the revelation of those eternal ideas which lie behind the many-coloured, ever-shifting veil that we call reality or life. Or rather, it is one such revelation among many.
When we turn to the Defence of Poetry we meet substantially the same view. There is indeed
a certain change; for Shelley is now philosophising and writing prose. Thus we hear nothing at first of that perfect power at the heart of things, and Shelley begins by considering poetry as a creation rather than a revelation. But we soon find that this creation is no mere fancy; it represents "those forms which are common to universal nature and existence," and "a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth." We notice, further, that the more voluntary and conscious work of invention and execution is regarded as quite subordinate in the creative process. It is a process in which the mind, obedient to an influence which it does not understand and cannot control, is driven to produce images of perfection which rather form themselves in it than are formed by it. The greatest stress is laid on this influence or inspiration; and in the end we learn that the origin of the whole process lies in certain exceptional moments when visitations of thought and feeling, elevating and delightful beyond all expression, but always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden, reach the soul; that these are, as it were, the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; and that the province of the poet is to arrest these apparitions, to veil them in language, to colour every other form he touches with their evanescent hues, and so to "redeem from decay the visitations of the divinity in man."
Even more decided is the emphasis laid on the unity of all the forms in which the ideal appears. Indeed, throughout a large part of the essay, that "Poetry" which Shelley is defending is something very much wider than poetry in the usual sense. He is attacking the notion that poetry and its influence steadily decline as civilisation advances, and that they are giving place, and ought to give place, to reasoning and the pursuit of utility. And he maintains, on the contrary, that imagination was, is, and always will be, the prime source of everything that has intrinsic value in life. Reasoning, he declares, cannot create, it can only operate upon the products of imagination; and, further, the predominance of mere reasoning and mere utility has become in great part an evil; for while it has deluged us with material goods and moral truths, we distribute the goods iniquitously and fail to apply the truths, because, for want of imagination, we have not sympathy in our hearts and do not feel what we know. In defending poetry, therefore, he means to defend not merely literature in verse, but whatever prose writing is allied to it in substance and form; all the
other fine arts; and, in addition, all actions, inventions, institutions, and even ideas and moral dispositions, which imagination brings into being in its effort to satisfy the longing for perfection. Painters and musicians are poets. Plato and Bacon, even Herodotus and Livy, were poets, however large may be the part of their works which is not poetry. So were the men who invented the arts of life, constructed laws for tribes or cities, disclosed, as sages or founders of religion, the excellence of justice and love. And every one, Shelley would say, who, perceiving the beauty of an imagined virtue or deed, translates the image into a fact, is so far a poet. For all these things come from imagination.
Shelley's exposition of this, which is probably the most original part of his theory, is not very clear; but, if I understand his meaning, that which he takes to happen in all these cases might be thus described. The imagination-- that is to say, the soul imagining--has before it, or feels within it, something which, answering perfectly to the soul's nature, fills it with delight and a desire to realise what delights it. This something, for want of a better name, we may call an idea, though it is not a fully conscious idea. The reason why these ideas thus delight the imagining soul is that they are, in fact, images or forebodings of its own perfection--of itself become perfect, in one aspect or another. These aspects are as various as the elements and forms of its own inner life and outward existence; and so the idea may be that of the perfect harmony of will and feeling (a virtue), or of the perfect union of soul with soul (love), or of the perfect order of certain social relations or forces (a law or institution), or of the perfect adjustment of intellectual elements (a truth); and so on. The formation and expression of any such idea is thus the work of Poetry in the widest sense; while at the same time (as we must add, to complete Shelley's thought) any such idea is a gleam or apparition of the perfect Intellectual Beauty.
I choose this particular title of the hidden power in order to point out (what the reader is left to observe for himself) that the imaginative idea is always regarded by Shelley as beautiful. It is an end in itself, not a mere means; it is immediately attractive; and it has the formal characters of beauty. For, as will have been noticed in the instances given, it is always the image of an order, or harmony, or unity in variety, of the elements concerned. Shelley sometimes even speaks of their "rhythm." For example, he uses this word in reference to an action; and I quote the passage because, though it occurs at some distance from the exposition of his main view, it illustrates it well. He is saying that the true poetry of Rome, unlike that of Greece, did not fully express itself in poems. "The true poetry of Rome lived in its institutions: for whatever of beautiful, true and majestic they contained, could have sprung only from the faculty which creates the order in which they consist. The life of Camillus; the death of Regulus; the expectation of the senators, in their god-like state, of the victorious Gauls; the refusal of the Republic to make peace with Hannibal after the battle of Canna"--these he describes as "a rhythm and order in the shows of life," an order not arranged with a view to utility or outward result, but due to the imagination, which, "beholding the beauty of this order, created it out of itself according to its own idea."
If this, then, is the nature of Poetry in the widest sense, how does the poet, in the special sense, differ from other unusually creative souls? Not essentially in the inspiration and general substance of his poetry, but in the kind of expression he gives to them. In so far as he is a poet, his medium of expression, of course, is not virtue, or action, or law; poetry is one of the arts. And again, it differs from the rest, because its particular vehicle is language. We have now to see, therefore, what Shelley has to say of the form of poetry, and especially of poetic language.
First, he claims for language the highest place among the vehicles of artistic expression, on the ground that it is the most direct and also the most plastic. It is itself produced by imagination instead of being simply encountered by it, and it has no relation except to imagination; whereas any more material medium has a nature of its own, and relations to other things in the material world, and this nature and these relations intervene between the artist's conception and his expression of it in the medium. It is to the superiority of its vehicle that Shelley attributes the greater fame which poetry has always enjoyed as compared with other arts. He forgets (if I may interpose a word of criticism) that the media of the other arts have, on their side, certain advantages over language, and that these perhaps counterbalance the inferiority which he notices. He would also have found it difficult to show that language, on its physical side, is any more a product of imagination than stone or pigments. And his idea that the medium in the other arts is an obstacle intervening between conception and expression is, to say the least, one-sided. A sculptor, painter, or musician, would probably reply that it is only the qualities of his medium that enable him to express at all; that what he expresses is inseparable from the vehicle of expression; and that he has no conceptions which are not from the beginning sculpturesque, pictorial, or musical. It is true, no doubt, that the medium is an obstacle as well as a medium; but this is also true of language.
But to resume. Language, Shelley goes on to say, receives in poetry a peculiar form. As it represents in its meaning a perfection which is always an order, harmony, or rhythm, so it itself, as so much sound, is an order, harmony, or rhythm. It is measured language, which is not the proper vehicle for the mere recital of facts or for mere reasoning. For Shelley, however, this measured language is not of necessity metrical. The order or measure may remain at the stage which it reaches in beautiful prose, like that of Plato, the melody of whose language, Shelley declares, is the most intense it is possible to conceive. It may again advance to metre; and metrical form, according to Shelley, is convenient, popular, and preferable, especially in poetry containing much action. But he will not have any new great poet tied down to it. It is not essential, while measure is absolutely so. For it is no mere accident of poetry that its language is measured, nor does a delight in this measure mean little. As sensitiveness to the order of the relations of sounds is always connected with sensitiveness to the order of the relations of thoughts, so also the harmony of the words is scarcely less indispensable than their meaning to the communication of the influence of poetry. "Hence," says Shelley, "the vanity of translation: it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet." Strong words to come from the translator of the Hymn to Mercury and of Agathon's speech in the Symposium ! And is not all that Shelley
says of the difference between measured and unrhythmical language applicable, at least in some degree, to the difference between metrical and merely measured language? Could he really have supposed that metre is no more than a "convenience," which contributes nothing of any account to the influence of poetry? But I will not criticise. Let me rather point out how surprising, at first sight, and how significant, is Shelley's insistence on the importance of measure or rhythm. No one could assert more absolutely than he the identity of the general substance of poetry with that of moral life and action, of the other arts, and of the higher kinds of philosophy. And yet it would be difficult to go beyond the emphasis of his statement that the formal element (as he understood it) is indispensable to the effect of poetry.
Shelley, however, nowhere considers this element more at length. He has no discussions, like those of Wordsworth and Coleridge, on diction. He never says, with Keats, that he looks on fine phrases like a lover. We hear of his deep drawn sigh of satisfaction as he finished reading a passage of Homer, but not of his shouting his delight as he ramped through the meadows of Spenser, at some marvellous flower. When in his letters he refers to any poem he is reading he scarcely ever mentions particular lines or expressions, and we have no evidence that, like Coleridge and Keats, he was a curious student of metrical effects or the relations of vowel-sounds. I doubt if all this is wholly accidental. Poetry was to him so essentially an effusion of aspiration, love and worship, that we can imagine his feeling it almost an impiety to break up its unity even for purposes of study, and to give a separate attention to its means of utterance. And what he does say on the subject confirms this impression. In the first place, as I have mentioned, he lays great stress on inspiration; and his statements, if exaggerated and misleading, must reflect in some measure his own experience. No poem, however inspired, is, he declares, more than a feeble shadow of the original conception; for when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline. And so in a letter he speaks of the detail of execution destroying all wild and beautiful visions. Still, inspiration, if it declines, does not depart; and he appeals to the greatest poets of his day whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study. These have their place only in the parts which form a connection between the inspired passages, and he speaks with contempt of the fifty-six various readings of the first line of the Orlando Furioso . He seems to exaggerate on this matter because in the Defence his foe is cold
reason and calculation. In other places he writes more truly of the original conception as being obscure as well as intense; from which it would seem to follow that the feeble shadow, if darker, is at least more distinct than the original. He forgets, too, what is certainly the fact, that the poet in reshaping and revising is able to reawaken in some degree the inspiration of the first impulse. And we know from himself that his greatest works cost him a severe labour not confined to the execution, while his manuscripts show plenty of various readings, if never so many as fifty-six in one line.
Still, what he says is highly characteristic of his own practice in composition. He allowed the rush of his ideas to have its way, without pausing to complete a troublesome line or find a word that did not come; and the next day (if ever) he filled up the gaps and smoothed the ragged edges. And the result answers to his theory. Keats was right in telling him that he might be more of an
artist. His language, indeed, unlike Wordsworth's or Byron's, is always that of a poet; we never hear his mere speaking voice; but he is frequently diffuse and obscure, and even in fine passages his constructions are sometimes trailing and amorphous. The glowing metal rushes into the mould so vehemently that it overleaps the bounds and fails to find its way into all the little crevices. But no poetry is more manifestly inspired, and even when it is plainly imperfect it is sometimes so inspired that it is impossible to wish it changed. It has the rapture of the mystic, and that is too rare to lose. Tennyson quaintly said of the hymn "Life of Life": "He seems to go up into the air and burst." It is true: and, if we are to speak of poems as fireworks, I would not compare "Life of Life" with a great set piece of Homer or Shakespeare which illumines the whole sky; but, all the same, there is no more thrilling sight than the heavenward rush of a rocket, and it bursts at a height no other fire can reach.
In addition to his praise of inspiration Shelley has some scattered remarks on another point which show the same spirit. He could not bear in poetic style any approach to artifice, or any sign that the writer had a theory or system of style. He thought Keats's earlier poems faulty in this respect, and there is probably a reference to Wordsworth in the following sentence from the Preface to the Revolt of Islam: "Nor have I permitted any system relating to mere words to divert
the attention of the reader, from whatever interest I may have succeeded in creating, to my own ingenuity in contriving,--to disgust him according to the rules of criticism. I have simply clothed my thoughts in what appeared to me the most obvious and appropriate language. A person familiar with nature, and with the most celebrated productions of the human mind, can scarcely err in following the instinct, with respect to selection of language, produced by that familiarity." His own poetic style certainly corresponds with his intention. It cannot give the kind of pleasure afforded by what may be called without disparagement a learned and artful style, such as Virgil's or Milton's; but, like the best writing of Shakespeare and Goethe, it is, with all its individuality, almost entirely free from mannerism and the other vices of self consciousness, and appears to flow so directly from the thought that one is ashamed to admire it for itself. This is equally so whether the appropriate style is impassioned and highly figurative or simple and even plain. It is indeed in the latter case that Shelley wins his greatest, because most difficult, triumph. In the dialogue part of "Julian and Maddalo" he has succeeded remarkably in keeping the style quite close to that of familiar though serious conversation, while making it nevertheless unmistakably poetic. And the Cenci is an example of a success less complete only because the problem was even harder. The ideal of the style of tragic drama in the nineteenth or twentieth century should surely be, not to reproduce with modifications the style of Shakespeare, but to do what Shakespeare did--to idealise, without transforming, the language of contemporary speech. Shelley in the Cenci seems to me to
have come nearest to this ideal.
So much for general exposition. If now we consider more closely what Shelley says of the substance of poetry, a question at once arises. He may seem to think of poetry solely as the direct expression of perfection in some form, and accordingly to think of its effect as simply joy or
delighted aspiration. Much of his own poetry, too, is such an expression; and we understand when we find him saying that Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character, and unveiled in Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses "the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object." But poetry, it is obvious, is not wholly, perhaps not even mainly, of this kind. What is to be said, on Shelley's theory, of his own melancholy lyrics, those "sweetest songs" that "tell of saddest thought"? What of satire, or the epic of conflict and war, or of tragic exhibitions of violent and destructive passion? Does not his theory reflect the weakness of his own practice, his tendency to portray a thin and abstract ideal instead of interpreting the concrete detail of nature and life; and ought we not to oppose to it a theory which would consider poetry simply as a representation of fact?
To this last question I should answer No. Shelley's theory, rightly understood, will take in, I think, everything really poetic. And to a considerable extent he himself shows the way to meet these doubts. He did not mean that the immediate subject of poetry must be perfection in some
form. The poet, he says, can colour with the hues of the ideal everything he touches. If so, he may write of absolutely anything so long as he can so colour it, and nothing would be excluded from
his province except such things, if such exist, in which no positive relation to the ideal, however, indirect, can be shown or intimated. Thus, to take the instance of Shelley's melancholy lyrics, clearly the lament which arises from loss of the ideal, and mourns the evanescence of its visitations or the desolation of its absence, is indirectly an expression of the ideal; and so on.
Shelley's theory is the simplest song of unhappy love or the simplest dirge. Further, he himself observes that, though the joy of poetry is often unalloyed, yet the pleasure of the "highest portions of our being is frequently connected with the pain of the inferior," that "the pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself," and that not sorrow only, but "terror, anguish, despair itself, are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good." That, then, which appeals poetically to such painful emotions will again be an indirect portrayal of the ideal; and it is clear, I think, that this was how Shelley in the Defence regarded heroic and
tragic poetry, whether narrative or dramatic, with its manifestly imperfect characters and its exhibition of conflict and wild passion. He had, it is true, another and an unsatisfactory way of explaining the presence of these things in poetry; and I will refer to this in a moment. But he tells us that the Athenian tragedies represent the highest idealisms (his name for ideals) of passion and of power (not merely of virtue); and that in them we behold ourselves, "under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become." He writes of Milton's Satan in somewhat the same strain. The Shakespearean tragedy from which he most often quotes is one in which evil holds the stage, Macbeth; and he was inclined to think King Lear, which certainly is no
direct portrait of perfection, the greatest drama in the world. Lastly, in the Preface to his own Cenci he truly says that the story is fearful and monstrous, but that "the poetry which exists in these tempestuous sufferings and crimes," if duly brought out, "mitigates the pain of the contemplation of moral deformity": so that he regards Count Cenci himself as a poetic character,
and therefore as in some sense an expression of the ideal. He does not further explain his meaning.
Perhaps it was that the perfection which poetry is to exhibit includes, together with those qualities which win our immediate and entire approval, others which are capable of becoming the instruments of evil. For these, the energy, power and passion of the soul, though they may be perverted, are in themselves elements of perfection; and so, even in their perversion or their combination with moral deformity, they retain their value, they are not simply ugly or horrible, but appeal through emotions predominantly painful to the same love of the ideal which is directly satisfied by pictures of goodness and beauty. Now to these various considerations we shall wish to add others; but if we bear these in mind, I believe we shall find Shelley's theory wide enough, and must hold that the substance of poetry is never mere fact, but is always ideal, though its method of
representation is sometimes more direct, sometimes more indirect.
Nevertheless, he does not seem to have made his view quite clear to himself, or to hold to it consistently. We are left with the impression, not merely that he personally preferred the direct method (as he was, of course, entitled to do), but that his use of it shows a certain weakness, and also that even in theory he unconsciously tends to regard it as the primary and proper method, and to admit only by a reluctant after-thought the representation of imperfection. Let me point out some signs of this. He considered his own Cenci as a poem inferior in kind to his other main
works, even as a sort of accommodation to the public. With all his modesty he knew what to think of the neglected Prometheus and Adonaïs, but there is no sign that he, any more than the world,
was aware that the character of Cenci was a creation without a parallel in our poetry since the seventeenth century. His enthusiasm for some second rate and third-rate Italian paintings, and his failure to understand Michael Angelo, seem to show the same tendency. He could not enjoy comedy: it seemed to him simply cruel: he did not perceive that to show the absurdity of the imperfect is to glorify the perfect. And, as I mentioned just now, he wavers in his view of the representation of heroic and tragic imperfection. We find in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound
the strange notion that Prometheus is a more poetic character than Milton's Satan, because he is free from Satan's imperfections, which are said to interfere with the interest. And in the Defence a
similar error appears. Achilles, Hector, Ulysses, though they exhibit ideal virtues, are, he admits, imperfect. Why, then, did Homer make them so? Because, he seems to reply, Homer's contemporaries regarded their vices (e.g. revengefulness and deceitfulness) as virtues. Homer accordingly had to conceal in the costume of these vices the unspotted beauty that he himself imagined; and, like Homer, "few poets of the highest class have chosen to exhibit the beauty of their conceptions in its naked truth and splendour." Now, this idea, to say nothing of its grotesque improbability in reference to Homer, and its probable baselessness in reference to most other poets, is quite inconsistent with that truer view of heroic and tragic character which was explained just now. It is an example of Shelley's tendency to abstract idealism or spurious Platonism. He is haunted by the fancy that if he could only get at the One, the eternal Idea, in complete aloofness from the Many, from life with all its change, decay, struggle, sorrow and evil, he would have reached the true object of poetry: as if the whole finite world were a mere mistake or illusion, the sheer opposite of the infinite One, and in no way or degree its manifestation. Life, he says--
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity;
but the other side, the fact that the many colours are the white light broken, he tends to forget, by no means always, but in one, and that not the least inspired, of his moods. This is the source of that thinness and shallowness of which his view of the world and of history is justly accused, a view in which all imperfect being is apt to figure as absolutely gratuitous, and everything and everybody as pure white or pitch black. Hence also his ideals of good, whether as a character or as a mode of life, resting as they do on abstraction from the mass of real existence, tend to lack body and individuality; and indeed, if the existence of the many is a mere calamity, clearly the next best thing to their disappearance is that they should all be exactly alike, and have as little character as possible. But we must remember that Shelley's strength and weakness are closely allied, and it may be that the very abstractness of his ideal was a condition of that quivering intensity of aspiration towards it in which Shelley's poetry is unequalled. We must not go for this to Homer and Shakespeare and Goethe; and if we go for it to Dante, we shall find, indeed, a mind far vaster than Shelley's, but that very dualism of which we complain in him, and the description of a heaven which, equally with Shelley's regenerated earth, is no place for mere mortality. In any case, as we have seen, although the weakness in his poetical practice occasionally appears also as a defect in his poetical theory, it is no necessary part of that theory.
I pass to his views on a last point. If the business of poetry is somehow to express ideal perfection, it may seem to follow that the poet should embody in his poems his beliefs about this perfection and the way to approach it, and should thus have a moral purpose and aim to be a teacher. And in regard to Shelley this conclusion seems the more natural because his own poetry allows us to see clearly some of his beliefs about morality and moral progress. Yet alike in his Prefaces and in the Defence he takes up most decidedly the position that the poet ought neither to affect a moral aim nor to express his own conceptions of right and wrong. "Didactic poetry," he declares, "is my abhorrence: nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse." "There was little danger," he tells us, "that Homer or any of the eternal poets" should make a mistake in this matter; but "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." These statements may appeal to us, but are they consistent with Shelley's main views of poetry? To answer this question we must observe what exactly it is that he means to condemn.
Shelley was one of the few persons who can literally be said to love their kind. He held most
strongly, too, that poetry does benefit men, and benefits them morally. The moral purpose, then, to which he objects cannot well be a poet's general purpose of doing moral as well as other good through his poetry--such a purpose, I mean, as he may cherish when he contemplates his life and
his life's work. And, indeed, it seems obvious that nobody with any humanity or any sense can object to that, except through some intellectual confusion. Nor does Shelley mean, I think, to condemn even the writing of a particular poem with a view to a particular moral or practical effect; certainly, at least, if this was his meaning he was condemning some of his own poetry. Again, he cannot be referring to the portrayal of moral ideals, for that he regarded as one of the main functions of poetry; and in the very place where he says that didactic poetry is his abhorrence he also says, by way of contrast, that he has tried to familiarise the minds of his readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence. It appears, therefore, that what he is really attacking is the attempt to give, in the strict sense, moral instruction, to communicate doctrines, to offer argumentative
statements of opinion on right and wrong, and more especially, I think, on controversial questions of the day. An example would be Wordsworth's discourse on education at the end of the Excursion,
a discourse of which Shelley, we know, had a very low opinion. In short, his enemy is not the purpose of producing a moral effect, it is the appeal made for this purpose to the reasoning intellect. In effect he says to the poet: By all means aim at bettering men; you are a man, and are bound to do so; but you are also a poet, and therefore your proper way of doing so is not by reasoning and preaching. His idea is of a piece with his general championship of imagination, and it is quite consistent with his main view of poetry.
What, then, are the grounds of this position? They are not clearly set out, but we can trace
several, and they are all solid. Reasoning on moral subjects, moral philosophy, was by no means "tedious" to Shelley; it seldom is to real poets. He loved it, and (outside his Defence ) he rated its
value very high. But he thought it tedious and out of place in poetry, because it can be equally well expressed in "unmeasured" language--much better expressed, one may venture to add. You invent an art in order to effect by it a particular purpose which nothing else can effect as well. How foolish, then, to use this art for a purpose better served by something else! I know no answer to this argument, and its application is far wider than that given to it by Shelley. Secondly, Shelley remarks that a poet's own conceptions on moral subjects are usually those of his place and time, while the matter of his poem ought to be eternal, or, as we say, of permanent and universal interest. This, again, seems true, and has a wide application; and it holds good even when the poet, like Shelley himself, is in rebellion against orthodox moral opinion; for his heterodox opinions will equally show the marks of his place and time, and constitute a perishable element in his work. Doubtless no poetry can be without a perishable element; but that poetry has least of it which interprets life least through the medium of systematic and doctrinal ideas. The veil which time and place have hung between Homer and Shakespeare and the general reader of to-day is almost transparent, while even a poetry so intense as that of Dante and Milton is impeded in its passage to him by systems which may be unfamiliar, and, if familiar, may be distasteful.
Lastly--and this is Shelley's central argument--as poetry itself is due to imaginative inspiration and not to reasoning, so its true moral effect is produced through imagination and not through doctrine. Imagination is, for Shelley, "the great instrument of moral good." The "secret of morals is love." It is not "for want of admirable doctrines that men hate and despise and censure and deceive and subjugate one another": it is for want of love. And love is "a going out of our own