Shelley's Defences of Poetry
O'Neill, Michael, Wordsworth Circle
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1821) was a poet who possessed. in his own words, "the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting; man and nature. (2) Yet the greatness of his poetry. this essay will argue. does his capacity to articulate his strong libertarian beliefs. These beliefs may he the ground of his conscious intellectual being. They show the influence of many thinkers, including that enshrined in the Enquiry. Concerning Political Justiee (1793), written by his father-in-law. William Godwin. But the supposition that Shelley uses poetry as the vehicle for the endorsement of a system of ideas is fundamentally erroneous. as he himself argues in two important places for understanding his poetics: the Preface to important places for understanding his poeties: the Preface to Promethens Unbound, where he asserts that "Didactic poetry is my abhorrence" (232) and A Defence of Poetry, where he develops a sophisticated theory of poetry's primary appeal to the appeal to the imagination arid argues that "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" (682).
Shelley's importance and achievement as a poet derive from the way in which he test, dramatises, anatomizes and enacts the processes involved in belief or. indeed. doubt. He turns out. surprisingly given the terms of his reputation as a poet hurrying always to exalt principles of liberty. love, and equality. to he one of the major exemplars of Keats's ideal of "Negative Capability" (Keats Letters 1. 193). Shelley is often prepared to open poetry to differing interpretations, to allow the reader's mind to be the final courtroom of the poetry's appeal. The Poet of Alastor (1816), Shelley's enigmatic poem of driven and disappointed quest might illustrate the dangers of what in the Preface is described as "sell-centred seclusion" (92). But the narrative form prevents any simply moralistic reading front enjoying un-interrogated sway. Told by a Narrator. who expresses deep admiration for the Poet as a "surpassing Spirit" (714). and whose unsatisfied longing for communion with nature tallies with the Poet's failed attempt to find an embodied form the "veiled maid" (151) of a particularly vivid dream. Alastor ricochets between unconvinced acceptance of "Nature's vast Frame" (719) and despairing longing for something beyond "Art and eloquence. / And all the shows'o the world" (701-11). It comes t) It comes to a close without closing oh' an openness to all that resists final closure.
As in many of Shelley's poems, die ambiguities of Alastor owe much to Shelley's complex response to a precursor poet, in this case Wordsworth. whose solemnly melodious blank verse and themes of solitude and relationship with nature in The Excursion and Tintern Abbey provide the Frame within and against which the younger poet works. Shelley's dealings with Wordsworth are not merely antagonistic. He may question aspects of the older poet's creed and perceived ideology. Vet Shelley's poetic remodelling implies the importance of Wordsworth's mode of vision. Wordsworth is probing central questions, even if his answers do not Compel Shelley's assent. Wordsworth is the precursor brought to mind vel redefined in two major shorter poems written the year. Alastor was published: "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc. In the former, Shelley is at once the radical atheist of The Necessity of Atheism (1811) and the Notes to the early Queen Mab (1813) who contends that "Evers; reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no wood. of the existence of a Deity" (81) and the visionary individualist who redefines "God" in his unfinished On Christianity. There, Shelley reprises a central conviction of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" when he writes: "There is a power by which we are surrounded. like die atmosphere in which some motionless lyre is suspended, which visits with its breath our silent chords, at will" (Shelley Prose 251). …