Percy Bysshe Shelley One of the Foundational Term Paper

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Percy Bysshe Shelley

One of the foundational defenses within Percy Bysshe Shelley's A Defense of Poetry is that poetry cannot be judged as if it were a moral statement by its author. Shelley demands that poetry of the past and present not be judged and discounted on the basis of its proper moral message, as didacticism poisons its expression as a form of art and can potentially hurt its message by allowing contemporary readers to divert the message into his or her own contemporary meanings. Through this message Shelley argues that morality, should be left to the philosophers to discuss and in a sense contends that poetry cannot serve as philosophy as its main purpose is not to dissect the intricacies of universal or contextual morality, which can be said of philosophy, but to exercise the mind through messages of love, the expression of morality. Poetry is to Shelley an exercise that broadens the mind so that the reader and the author can better understand the need to go against one's self serving nature and express love.

He contends that within each work, there are likely persons or situations that the reader can aspire to and yet it is also clear that poetry is an artistic expression of one author's perceptions of a character or situation, including within the faults of that particular character as well as the human characteristics for which aspiration is built. Shelley, contends that the value of poetry is not in its moral message, and in so saying that didacticism is a faulty lens for which to judge poetry.

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The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. Ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another. But poetry 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. (51)

TOPIC: Term Paper on Percy Bysshe Shelley One of the Foundational Assignment

Shelley goes on to say that poetry can drive morality, but not as a direct guide to such but as a way that enlarges the capacity of the human mind to imagine itself, acting in a manner that befits the love that guides morality. Poetry is therefore not the didactic but the exercise put forth for the mind to strengthen its ability to conceive of the right and wrong in the world, and among men. Love, guides morality and morality is an expression of the individual who has gained enough knowledge to conceive of how to express morality through moral love, including the love of one's country, the love of one's lover, the love of one's siblings, the love of the land and the environment and so forth. Poetry guides the mind through the exercise of the expression of value and fault so the mind can then place those ideals into a concept of the love that must guide morality, in his or her own social, political and moral context, rather than in the context of the poet, who could have lived hundreds or even thousands of years before the reader has sat down in his or her chair or on the grass under an idyllic tree to read the work. In the next passage, Shelley expresses the idea that the nature of man is not moral (or loving) but selfish and vain, therefore one must exercise the mind through poetry to be able to express a set of values that are contrary to his or her nature but moral and right in the world.

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own 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 pleasures 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. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thought of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food. (51-52)

According to Shelly the poet who aspires to place his own ideas of the right and wrong of his particular place and time is in error, as these situations and contexts may change the whole of the perception, as they will surely be different at a later time, and possibly even unknown to the reader. The context of language is the best example of such an expression of how meanings can change at any given time to alter the overall meaning of a work. Translation, from one language to another or even into contemporary expressions of the same language as something that was written many years before can entirely alter the message of the work and create a complete or partial misunderstanding of the "moral" message of the work. This might bring to mind the example of the bible, as a complete work, the controversy over its expression as mutable through millions of possible variations over just short of 2,000 years leaves it open, more so in the past than presently yet, translations and interpretations are still being made that could change the message of the "message, to interpretation and didactic reasoning.

Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore 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 By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause. (52)

Shelley's conception of poetry was one that expanded the mind through imagery, making the usual seem fantastic and the fantastic seem usual, rather than the expression of an idea of morality. Defending poetry from those who would attack it on the grounds that it does not meet some sort of contextual message of morality. In so doing the author removes him or herself from the challenges of censorship and the potential censor.

In history there have been many cases of literature being lost, as it was stricken from the library of human knowledge on the grounds that it was amoral in the present state of the world. In the next passage it is just such a message Shelley is expressing. Giving vague reference to a movement of poetry that does not follow the guide of anti-didacticism and ends by altering the fiber of moral reasoning.

Homer and the cyclic poets were followed at a certain interval by the dramatic and lyrical poets of Athens, who flourished contemporaneously with all that is most perfect in the kindred expressions of the poetical faculty; architecture, painting, music the dance, sculpture, philosophy, and, we may add, the forms of civil life. For although the scheme of Athenian society was deformed by many imperfections which the poetry existing in chivalry and Christianity has erased from the habits and institutions of modern Europe; yet never at any other period has so much energy, beauty, and virtue, been developed; never was blind strength and stubborn form so disciplined and rendered subject to the will of man, or that will less repugnant to the dictates of the beautiful and the true, as during the century which preceded the death of Socrates. (52)

Shelley finds fault in an entire poetic lineage based on the fact that it has been altered by convention in many different contexts and also had its meaning falsified by didacticism and moralistic reasoning. The challenge is then to those who consider poetry, written as a form of art to fall into the category of philosophy, a form of logic with a completely different purpose.

We know no more of cause and effect than a constant conjunction of events: poetry is ever found to coexist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man. I appeal to what has already been established to distinguish between the cause and the effect. (53)

The next logical line of reasoning, for Shelley is that the reflection of a cause and effect are relationship, when poetry is translated to theatrics is a result of the poetry being taken out of its true form, one that is only accessible to the individual mind conceiving it or reading it, to one where it is the guidance for action.

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