June 19, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Quotes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (written in 1821) compose the bulk of today’s post. This work eloquently explains the connection between imagination and reality. It also alludes to the idea that poetry is an innate human trait. While I need to better understand his meanings and his ideas about poetry, I found the following quotes inspirational in light of today’s present climate. I find it most thrilling, moving, and impactful to think of poetry as a conduit for goodness. Shelley explains that beauty is discovered in others through our own poetic thought. In other words, our imaginative efforts allow us to comprehend things outside of ourselves. He says, “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 great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” I wonder, what does it mean to be “greatly good” and is poetry a conduit toward this sort of goodness? Is the imagination something that we teach or train, or is it more of an instinct? How do we find this great goodness within ourselves? I suggest reading Shelley’s Defence in its entirety, but until then, here are a few citations that struck me as vital.
“Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”
“[T]here is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excites them.”
“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.”
“[E]very great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. The distinction between philosophers and poets has been anticipated. Plato was essentially a poet – the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.”
“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.”
“[P]oetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. 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. The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. 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.”
“[I]t 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.”
“The functions of the poetical faculty are twofold: by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure; by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good. The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.”
“[T]he most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.”
“Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things.”
“Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect from logic, that it is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connection with the consciousness or will.”
Pair this with one of Shelley’s poems such as “Ode to the West Wind”
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