A Defence of Poetry

Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint

The British Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) wrote his celebrated essay, A Defence of Poetry, in 1821. It was published posthumously in 1840. It is not difficult to perceive in the tone and content of Shelley’s eloquent and passionate thesis, a reflection of the civic values of the French Revolution (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity) which so fired the imagination of the Romantic poets in England.

In the wake of the terrible atrocities perpetrated in Paris on 13 November, it is important to remain vigilant and to defend the core human, cultural values to which Shelley alludes in his defence of poetry. These universal, life-affirming values are enshrined in the liberties of the great French cultural tradition that has enriched the world’s heritage with timeless works across the whole range of the arts from poetry to painting to music to dance, liberties that should never be surrendered.

A Defence of Poetry (an adapted extract)

Poetry is indeed something divine
        it is the centre and circumference
of knowledge
        it comprehends all science
it is 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
        It is the perfect and consummate surface
and bloom of all things
        it is as the odour and the colour
of the rose to the texture
        of the elements which compose it
as the form and splendor
        of unfaded beauty to the secrets
of anatomy and corruption
        What were virtue
love     patriotism      friendship
        what were the scenery
of this beautiful universe
        which we inhabit
what were our consolations
        on this side of the grave
and what were our aspirations
        beyond it
if poetry did not ascend
        to bring light and fire
from those eternal regions
        where the owl-winged faculty
of calculation dare not ever soar ?
        Poetry is not like reasoning
a power to be exerted according
        to the determination of the will
A man cannot say
        « I will compose poetry »
the greatest poet even cannot say it
        for the mind in creation
is as a fading coal
        which some invisible influence
like an inconstant wind
        awakens to transitory brightness
this power arises from within
        like the colour of a flower
which fades and changes
        as it is developed
and the conscious portions
        of our natures are unprophetic
either of its approach or its departure

Percy Bysshe Shelley