The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry

By Joseph Warren Beach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
SHELLEY'S "PLATONISM"

IN THE main body of Shelley's poems, naturalism lives on most uneasy terms with a manner of thought which, for want of a more exact word, we may call "platonism." In making use of this word, I do not mean to determine how far the cast of thought involved derives directly from Plato, how far from the neoplatonists, and how far from the platonic tradition in English poetry. Still less would I dream of distinguishing in Plato between what he taught as his own doctrine and what he passed on as the doctrine of his master Socrates. Nor again do I pretend to determine, in general, how far the ideas expressed by Shelley represent a correct understanding of the meaning of Plato or the neoplatonists. Poets are often deeply influenced by philosophers whose tenets and methods of reasoning they but imperfectly comprehend. It is well known that there are certain notions and imaginative constructions current in English poetry which have their ultimate origin in the rigorous speculations of the Greek Academy, however much they may have been transformed by the literary mind. They are to be found, for example, in the four Hymns of Spenser. And while a scholar like W. L. Renwick1 may point out many elements in Spenser which are derived rather from Ficino or Castiglione or other Renaissance writers than from Plato directly, and may indicate how far Spenser falls short of the logic and metaphysic of Plato, it is none the less acknowledged on all hands that Spenser's Hymns are in a tradition that goes back to Plato and is in some significant sense platonic.

Something of the same kind is true for Shelley. And, in tracing the fortunes of "nature" in his poetic art, it is necessary to make some reference to his "platonism" as an element that came in to modify his naturalism. The subject of Shelley's platonism is one

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