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To begin, Shelley turns to reason and imagination, defining reason as logical thought and imagination as perception, adding, “reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things.” From reason and imagination, man may recognize beauty, and it is through beauty that civilization comes.Language, Shelley contends, shows humanity’s impulse toward order and harmony, which leads to an appreciation of unity and beauty.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born to a wealthy family in Sussex, England.
He attended Eton and Oxford, where he was expelled for writing a pamphlet championing atheism.
Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.
But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.
Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” is unusual compared with similarly titled “defenses” of poetry.
Shelley’s essay contains no rules for poetry, or aesthetic judgments of his contemporaries.
Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the imagination”: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.
But let us dismiss those more general considerations which might involve an inquiry into the principles of society itself, and restrict our view to the manner in which the imagination is expressed upon its forms.
In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.