The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 8. The Defence of Poetry

It was in the spirit of these magnificent vindications of poet and lover, and during the interval between them, that Shelley wrote (February-March, 1821) his memorable Defence of Poetry. Peacock’s essay, The Four Ages of Poetry, in Ollier’s Literary Miscellany, 1820, had stirred him to a “sacred rage” by representing the revival of imagination, in his day, as a futile reversion to the infantine culture of primitive man. Not poetry alone, as ordinarily understood, but ethics, the very meaning of conduct, of history, nay, of life itself, was, for Shelley, at stake; and his Defence ranges far beyond the scope of literature. Poetry reveals the order and beauty of the universe; it is impossible without imagination and without love, and these are the secret, also, of all goodness, of all discovery, of all creation. “A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively … the great secret of morals is love.” The Defence is a noble statement not only of Shelley’s own poetic ideals, but (despite some ambiguity of expression) of what is most poetic in poetry at large.

In the flights of lovely song which came from Shelley during the later Pisan time, and the three months by the Spezian bay which followed, the note of magnificent confidence which sounds in the close of Adonais, and in the Defence, is more rarely heard. Most of them are inspired by his tender intimacy with Jane Williams; a “desire of the moth for the star,” which touched even the happiest of them with the sense of futility. Frailty and evanescence are now the lot of all lovely things. The flower that smiles to-day, to-morrow dies; the light of the shattered lamp lies dead in the dust; the spirit of delight is a rare visitor. And these thoughts are enshrined in verse of a like impalpable tenuity, unsubstantial as a rose-petal, and floating on a subtler, more tremulous and evasive music. For the splendid rhythmical sweep of The Cloud, we have the plaintive suspensions and resumptions of the music of When the lamp is shattered. Here and there, as in Lines to Edward Williams (“The serpent is shut out from Paradise”), the plaintiveness becomes a bitter cry, or, again, it gives way to playful charm, as in Aziola; only the Lines on Napoleon’s death (“What! alive and so bold, O Earth?”) have a resonant and ringing music. With this requiem, blended of anger and admiration, for the fallen conqueror, was published the lyrical drama Hellas, inspired by the Greek war of liberation. Hellas is, indeed, a prolonged lyric, conveyed partly through dialogue as impassioned as the choric songs. The famous last chorus is the noblest example of Shelley’s command, when he chose, of a classic simplicity and close-knit strength of speech. The unfinished drama Charles I, which occupied much of the later months at Pisa, shows, further, at moments, his advance in genuine dramatic power. Charles and Henrietta are more alive than other characters with whom Shelley was in closer sympathy, and whom he could make the mouthpiece of his own political animus and ideas.