In the past generation a major revaluation of Percy Shelley has been taking place. There have traditionally been two public images of Shelley: one was of a selfish rouge, an atheist with little or no regard for others; and the other image was of an ethereal, fairy like, asexual, sprite. Slowly there has been emerging a more life-like picture of a genuine flesh and blood creature with all the emotions and feelings of a man of his age. One important part of the revaluation of Shelley has been that of his ideas of poetry. Newer readings of Shelley great essay A Defence of Poetry have concentrated on the ambiguous and ambivalent attitude toward poetry that Shelley displays there.
John Hodgson, in his book, Coleridge, Shelley and Transcendental Inquiry, contends that far from having a positive, transcendental view of poetry, Shelley harboured deep-seated negative view of poetry’s potential. Without going into the details of Hodgson’s long and turgid arguments, I say that what is wrong with Hodgson’s view, and most academic notions about poetry and art, is that he is unable to view Shelley’s work with the eyes of a poet. Hodgson makes far too many demands concerning logical consistency and fails to understand that Shelley possesses ambivalent views of poetry because, as a great artist, he could not do otherwise. Shelley’s essay, for all of its remarkable insight, must express an underlying ambivalence because the project of art is one that constantly moves from doubt to transcendence. In his brighter moments Shelley, like most artists, is certain of the transcendence of poetry and insists that a poet is someone who “must put himself in the place of another and of many other; 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 thoughts of every new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilation to their own nature all other thoughts and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens that faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”
But this is the optimistic side of the great artist speaking: the youthful sprite who is able to see the universe in a grain of sand. But the pendulum of an artist like Shelley must swing in both extremes if he is to be the creative force that he is. Thus in the same essay Shelley can express this much darker and pessimistic view of the poet’s life: “a poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”
The ground on which great artists must stand is never secure, it shakes and moves; at one moment it crumbles into an abyss of blackness and then in the next moment it rises up to God. Look for this ambivalence in the great artists you admire and it will enrich their work while it enriches you.