Poetry, Art and Civilization Today: Reflections on Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry"
July 8, 2022, marked the 200th anniversary of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s tragic drowning in the Bay of Lerici, Italy, at the age of 31. However, before he died Shelley left the world with one of the most impassioned and timeless defences of poetry ever composed. At a time in which Western civilization appears almost rudderless—with virtually no vision or sagely wisdom animating its institutions—Shelley’s timeless reflections on the relationship between poetry and civilization remain as relevant as they have ever been.
In his essay, which he composed a year before he died, Shelley articulated the view that poetry plays a particularly important role in times of great civilizational crisis and critical change. He argued that poetry performs one of the most practical and essential functions in society: it informs the imagination—understood as the realm in which corruption, degeneracy (whether intellectual or moral), and false axiomatic thinking first take root. The cultivation of a genuinely mature poetic imagination, he believed, is crucial to transforming the moral, intellectual, and creative character of the human race. These considerations led him to the famous concluding paragraph of his defence, declaring poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
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While the bar set for artists and poets by Shelley is admittedly high, the broader history of Western civilization offers some striking and decisive examples which prove Shelley’s argument to be more than some mere rhetorical effusion or flight of poetic fancy. The degree to which our own age finds Shelley’s conceits remote and archaic serves as a strong indication of how far the West has drifted from its own classical roots and the classical wisdom that is the bedrock of its civilization.
After all, both democracy and the establishment of constitutional republics have their root in this classical tradition. And it was no less than Solon (640 to 560 BC)—one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece—who forged the Athenian constitution in the form of a poem. The model for Solon’s constitution was none other than Athena—the only truly wise and virtuous god portrayed by Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey.
Solon’s constitution opened with the following lines:
“Never will our city be destroyed by Zeus' decree,
Nor by the will of the bless'd immortal gods,
For, born of a potent father, great-hearted guardian
Pallas Athena spreads her hands o'er our city…”
The poem marked the end of a period in which the honest and productive economic sectors of Athenian society were crushed by a system of debt-slavery and predatory financial practices imposed by the oligarchy of that time. In our own age of political tumult and economic turmoil in which speculative financial bubbles reach into the hundreds of trillions in notional value—with trillions of dollars having been added to the national debts of sovereign nations through “bailouts” to prop up these values—remembering the bold visions of poet-sages who laid the basis for our modern civilization remains vital to the survival of Western culture and institutions.
However, Solon is not the only poet-legislator that comes to mind when reading Shelley’s defence. Dante Alighieri, whom Shelley referred to as “the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world,” wrote his Divine Comedy under similar conditions of societal collapse. Like Solon’s constitutional poem, Dante’s epic Comedy was spurred by the corruption he saw destroying his beloved Florentine Republic. The Comedy sprung from the poet’s desire to elaborate some higher approach and broader vision for rectifying the deep-seated civilizational decay that had consumed the religious and political institutions of Florence and Europe generally.
Of Dante, Shelley in his “Defence of Poetry” wrote:
“Dante was the first awakener of entranced Europe; he created a language, in itself music and persuasion, out of a chaos of inharmonious barbarians. He was the congregator of those great spirits who presided over the resurrection of learning.”
He then added:
“The age immediately succeeding to that of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio was characterized by a revival of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Chaucer caught the sacred inspiration, and the superstructure of English literature is based upon the materials of Italian invention.”
Shelley correctly recognized that Dante created a unified national language out of thousands of local and regional dialects. This new Italian language was capable of the highest order of metaphorical creation, philosophical depth, and spiritual truth. As a result, it became one of the primary vehicles for conveying the classical ideas that shaped the conceptions and worldviews of not only Italy’s Golden Renaissance thinkers, but also leading minds throughout Europe. And as Shelley also observed, the poetical structures and music of Italian actually provided the “superstructure” for English literature, which would go on to experience its own Renaissance with the likes of Shakespeare and his collaborators.
In this light, we can fairly state that the Comedy and works like it, such as Classical Greek tragedy or the plays of William Shakespeare, were hardly what we in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would consider the modern aesthete’s “art for art’s sake.” However, the subtle and elusive manner in which these works—or any timeless work of literature—exerted their influence over the hearts and minds of citizens was also articulated by Shelley:
“The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. 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 pleasure 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 forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”
So Shakespeare—the quintessential everyman—continuously presented his audiences with an interplay of complex and nuanced personae engaged in constant counterpoint and dialogue. These characters often enacted tragedies which audiences could watch unfold on the stage of the Globe Theater, rather than acting them out in real life. For this reason, Shakespeare was likely a man of the highest good, with a wildly powerful ability to empathize with others, to feel their pains and joys, and to think as they thought. As a result, the Bard was able to wear many masks and put himself in the place of many very different individuals, giving his audiences a quality of foresight into the nature and consequences of their own thoughts and actions. The same goes for the greatest tragedians and poets across the ages.
Anticipating our own age of artistic “virtue signalling,” Shelley also cautioned artists and writers who sought to moralize through their works, committing one of the greatest sins in poetry, didacticism:
“A poet therefore 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. By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. 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.”
For Shelley, the poetic imagination first and foremost allowed humanity to wrestle with the greatest paradoxes concerning human nature and the universe, leading to a natural moral effect (rather than a didactic one). However, rather than strictly concerning itself with the mechanical arrangements of established facts and observations concerning man and nature, poetry had the effect of making knowledge of any one particular category or subject universal. Hence, Shelley wrote that while knowledge and the chronological arrangement of events were bound by time and place, the beauty and wisdom embodied in a poetical concept or metaphor was not subject to the same boundary conditions—it was eternal:
“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.”
He further added:
“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. 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.”
Shelley understood poetry as the pure fount from which creative visions and new hypotheses ultimately sprung. A suitable defence of Shelley’s position can be found in no less than Albert Einstein, who famously said:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Consequently, Shelley viewed poetry as the primary preserver of language, serving as the basis for communicating any and all new concepts, whether moral, spiritual, or intellectual. It also renewed and revitalized language, maintaining it as a medium capable of reflecting the changing quality of knowledge and invention. Without this nuanced quality of poetic language, which allowed individuals to think “between the lines” and make leaps from seemingly unrelated ideas, the mind would essentially remain trapped by the stultifying effects of unchanging “standard-models” and definitions.
At such points, definitions no longer serve as useful tools, they become entrenched and calcified notions that make new and necessary qualitative changes in our body of scientific knowledge significantly more difficult than in cases where individuals possess a considerably greater degree of imaginative freedom. Bold and innovative thought-experiments like Kepler’s “vicarious hypothesis” which placed him on the surface of Mars to observe Earth’s orbit, or Einstein’s imagining a view of the universe from the front of a light beam would be the norm, rather than the exception.
The importance of a strong poetic and imaginative faculty in science was obvious to Shelley:
“Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life.”
Today, we can see that with the loss of a poetic imagination, modern science—as opposed to technical innovation and engineering—has suffered greatly. While computers become increasingly more advanced in their mathematical calculating power, they remain incapable of generating genuine concepts. Meanwhile, the ability to generate fundamentally new conceptions in the scientific community has become increasingly sparse. Instead, it has in many ways been replaced by statistical modelling and mathematical formalism, with some notable exceptions.
On the other hand, Shelley defined the poetic imagination’s function as essentially that of generating new concepts and developing the vehicle of language by which all new conceptions would necessarily be elaborated. In a word: the ability to think in poetical terms consisted of the ability to think in new non-linear ways and generate new concepts not bound by preconceived notions or the supposed authority of “peer review.”
Whether in the domain of art, science, politics, or the moral and spiritual realm, Shelley observed that poets essentially performed a universal function. This was especially the case in moments of critical juncture and civilizational crisis. In such moments, Shelley believed that poets functioned as the lightning rods for new ideas. These conductors of ideas ultimately rose to the status of legislators in the highest sense of the word—as Dante, Solon, and others did—expressing an exceptional power for “communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.”
In this light, we can observe how poetry took a decidedly different path with the advent of Modernism and the flurry of other schools and “isms” that arose in the twentieth-century. From Modernism, New Criticism, Dadaism, to Cubism and Post-Modernism, some of these directions yielded useful insights and experiments, but also gave way to a fundamentally different view of art and aesthetics, one largely centered on the idea of “art for art’s sake.” This was perhaps typified by W.H. Auden’s famous “poetry makes nothing happen.”
As Shelley demonstrated, poetry makes a lot happen, though how it performs its “magic” escapes some of the keenest observers. Like a galactic process shaping the Earth’s surface by way of cosmic radiation, or the erosion of land by wind and water, such macro processes remain invisible to our immediate sensory perception, but in reality shape the world of culture and ideas in continuously new and non-linear ways, and at such depths that it can be difficult to notice.
Shelley recognized the qualitative effects of the poetic imagination on society and wrote about the impossibility of picturing what the world might have looked like without poetry:
“But 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; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief. 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.”
In the twenty-first century, as Western civilization encounters a whole flurry of seemingly impossible challenges, and much of our long-held assumptions and axioms about ourselves and civilization are unmoored and shattered at accelerating rates, we find ourselves in precisely the kind of moments described by Shelley in the concluding paragraph of his defence. These are the moments in which those with genuine poetic vision become like lightning rods—an individual who:
“Not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”
Concluding on the nature of those endowed with a prophetic and poetic quality, Shelley writes:
“The person in whom this power resides, may often, as 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, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
As new civilizational visions become direly needed, they can only come from those individuals who have cultivated their poetic imaginations with sufficient boldness and are endowed with enough foresight to steer the ship of our civilization through some very dark and uncharted seas besieged by many menacing storms.
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