Big Name Poets

I promised some extracts from Shelley’s Defense of Poetry, so before I start on today’s storifying I’ll cut and paste them here.

First, that any of this might apply to us lowly, non-rhyming storytellers:

§50 The distinction between poets and prose-writers is a vulgar error.

The bit where he implies poets are bigger than Christ:

§40 The fame of legislators and founders of religions, so long as their institutions last, alone seems to exceed that of poets in the restricted sense: but it can scarcely be a question whether if we deduct the celebrity which their flattery of the gross opinions of the vulgar usually conciliates, together with that which belonged to them in their higher character of poets any excess will remain.

His argument against realism and for romance:

§62 Time, which destroys the beauty and the use of the story of particular facts, stript of the poetry which should invest them, augments that of Poetry and forever developes new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains. §63 Hence epitomes have been called the moths of just history; they eat out the poetry of it. §64 A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

On the transparency of ulterior motives, and their deleterious effect upon the work:

§121 But in periods of the decay of social life, the drama sympathizes with that decay. §122 Tragedy becomes a cold imitation of the form of the great master-pieces of antiquity, divested of all harmonious accompaniment of the kindred arts; and often the very form misunderstood: or a weak attempt to teach certain doctrines, which the writer considers as moral truths; and which are usually no more than specious flatteries of some gross vice or weakness with which the author in common with his auditors are infected. […] §124 To such purposes Poetry cannot be made subservient. Poetry is a sword of lightning ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it. §125 And thus we observe that all dramatic writings of this nature are unimaginative in a singular degree; they affect sentiment and passion: which divested of imagination are other names for caprice and appetite. […] §129 Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, becomes, from the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting: it is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new food; which it devours in secret.

On the inspiration of the muse, and the unfortunate necessity of filling in the gaps she leaves behind:

§283 Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. §284 A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” §285 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. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and grace, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet. §286 I appeal to the greatest Poets of the present day, whether it be not an error to assert that the greatest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study. §287 The toil and the delay recommended by critics can be justly interpreted to mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired moments and an artificial connection of the spaces between their suggestions by the intertexture of conventional expressions; a necessity only imposed by a limitedness of the poetical faculty itself. §288 For Milton conceived the Paradise Lost as a whole before he executed it in portions. §289 We have his own authority also for the Muse having “dictated” to him “the unpremeditated song.” [Milton, Paradise Lost] §290 And let this be an answer to those who would alledge the fifty six various readings of the first line of the Orlando Furioso. §291 Compositions so produced are to poetry what mosaic is to painting. §292 This instinct and intuition of the poetical faculty is still more observable in the plastic and pictorial arts: a great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother’s womb, and the very mind which directs the hands in formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the origin, the gradations, or the media of the process.

Reiterating the nature of the muse:

§319 Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect from logic that it is not subject to the controul of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence has no necessary connexion with consciousness or will.

Note that I didn’t say any of the above; Shelley said it. These extracts from the Big Name Poet are merely intended to show that neither what I have said about the muse, nor what I haven’t said but has nevertheless been attributed to me, is new. These are things people have been saying about writing ever since Plato, and saying Shelley was full of himself is no argument against his experience of the muse.

I, for one, would be better off with an ego like Shelley’s; I’d certainly write more if I believed more in my writing. On the other hand I’d probably edit less, so, tempting as it is, I won’t go on that ego trip some seem to think I’m already on. I’ll just lay out some chocolate to tempt the muse and get back to writing.

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