English Romantic Poetry Has Certain Qualities English Literature Essay

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"...it was subjective rather than objective, fragmentary rather than complete, organic rather than preconceived in form, interested in nature, the self, the wonderful, and the supernatural". Romantics gave the reader an insight into his own self, his relations with others, his reactions to the social and political realities of his time, and his awareness of the cultural and natural world around him. [1] In the following essay I will discuss the social, cultural and personal utilitarianism of poetry in Percy Bysshe Shelley's essay A Defence of Poetry and Thomas Love Peacock's essay The Four Ages of Poetry.

In order to understand these essays one has to get an insight into the era in which Romantic writers were writing in. This period was a turbulent period in which England experienced huge changes; the country was going from an agricultural society where wealth flourished to a modern industrial society. [2] 

According to Greenblatt et al (2006) this change occurred in a context of revolution, firstly the American and then the more radical French-

"...and of war, economic cycles of inflation and depression and of the constant threat to the social structure from imported revolutionary ideologies"

(Greenblatt et al, 2006: 2).

Peacock and Shelley were good friends however their views on literature were drastically opposite. Both poets were speaking for two opposed attitudes towards poetry. While Shelley defended poetry Peacock spoke against it. In Peacocks essay he argues against poets, he attacks the whole concept of Romantic poetry. Peacock satirizes the political, cultural and social scene of his time; the progress of mankind was linked to the decline of poetry. Peacock believed poetry had now become absolute. [3] The fundamental question in Peacocks essay is what is the point of poetry? He condemns poetry as being venal, retrograde, artificial and non-utilitarian. Contrastingly Shelley wrote A Defence of Poetry in response to Peacocks essay. Shelley sees literature as utilitarian; he felt it was about social, political and personal change. Peacocks essay is largely famous because of Shelley's response. Both essays can be seen as similar in style as both reflect an aspect of high Romanticism style which is freedom to think, this is obvious in both essays as both Shelley and Peacock express their own personal view on the utilitarianism of poetry.

Peacock regarded poets as lazy whom had no social or cultural function in society, [4] who

"...lives in the days of the past. His ideas, thoughts feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward"

(Peacock, 1820: 9).

However Shelley opposes this argument, he believed one had to work at poetry. Poetry is about inspiration but also craft, as Shelley states "the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study" (Greenblatt, 2006: 846) consequently poetry is personal as one has to look within for inspiration. Shelley continues to show how poetry is a craft; he links truth to imagination, stating poetry was about trying to seek out the truth in society. This link to truth through poetry can be seen in Shelley's political poem The Masque of Anarchy. In this poem Shelley presents us with powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time 'God, King, and Law'. This poem was written as a response to the Peterloo massacre where notorious acts of violence were committed. Shelley presents us with a revolutionised modern world where murder was met on the street and where children "had their brains knocked out of them" (Anarchy Archives, The Masque of Anarchy, 2001). For Shelley this was the ultimate art and function of poetry, to speak the truth which would otherwise be left untold and to tell us about life and not dress it up. Consequently this poem ultimately shows how Romantic poets played an essential role in society, they questioned those who governed and imagined a radical new form of social action "let a great assembly be, of the fearless and the free" (Anarchy Archives, The Masque of Anarchy, 2001) and therefore poets were not lazy, nor were their thoughts and feelings barbarous, poets instead played an essential role in opposing the unjust nature of the unruly laws in society and therefore they played a major social, cultural and political role in society.

However this is one of the major flaws Peacock saw with Romantic poets, that they were not merely imitating reality but representing its hidden and ideal aspects therefore he felt they did not contribute to poetry and had no social, cultural or political function.

"It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted"

(Peacock, 1820: 5).

Shelley neglects this claim stating Romantic poets were producing and making it new. Shelley's poem Queen Mab emphasizes this statement as it shows Romantic poets making it new. Here Ianthe, the main character takes us from past, to present, to future. The past, where mankind was enslaved by evil tyrants and confined by society and then the future where society has changed, where  

Hope was seen beaming through the mists of fear  Earth was no longer hell 

Love, freedom, health had given

their ripeness to the manhood of its prime  

(Anarchy Archives, Queen Mab, 2001)

This is one way in which Romantic poets were making it new, they were not simple imitating reality they were arousing hope for both social and political reform for a better, free society. Shelley's poem Ode to the West Wind emphasises Shelley's wish for change. Here the role of the poet is seen as a voice of change and revolution, Shelley was expressing his views of the political and social world around him through his poetry. [5] As Watson asserts "Romantic criticism was concerned with the poet; poetry became less a matter of imitation, and more preoccupied with expression" (Watson, 1985: 12). This is why Romantics placed a huge emphasis on the imagination as with an imagination one could hope and envision a better life. [6] They believed that with an imagination you can go anywhere in the world and be happy,

"…poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts 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 forever craves fresh food"

(Greenblatt, 2006: 845).

This intriguing statement connects to a more divine presence in the mind than one can imagine. Poetry evokes a sense of happiness in all of us that is both unique and intrinsic. For Shelley the imagination is as important as soul and your organs and he states this, "the great instrument of the moral good is the imagination" (Greenblatt, 2006: 844). Imagination is the spirit that moves and poetry administrates to moral good by acting on the imagination.

Peacocks states that the industrialized civilisation has outgrown the need for poetry and now that society has become more complex there is no longer a need for poets as philosophers and statesmen have taken on this role. He states that

"...while the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and ranking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age"

(Peacock, 1820: 8).

Therefore, in this current brass age, poets, as Peacock sees them, are simply "a semi-barbarian in a civilised community" (ibid: 9) whose poems are marked by "verbose and minutely-detailed description" (ibid: 6). Shelley opposes this view that poets are no more than semi- barbarians and that Romantic use of literature brings cultural decadence, Shelley reinforces that poetry creates novelty where we can see the seed of revolution.

Shelley continues to respond to this argument regarding poets as the true historians in the world, thus they have an important cultural role in society. Shelley basis this argument on language as it is this, Shelley believes that is more important than history because it is language that we leave behind, history such as buildings will sometimes crumble but language is vital as we will pass it on, as Shelley states "language itself is poetry" (Greenblatt, 2006: 840). Shelley believed that the poets function was to describe what is universal and significant in human activity, and not merely record what actually occurs like historians. Poetry therefore has a greater social and cultural role than history in that it seeks to analyse human behaviour rather than record it. Shelley's believed we could change society through language by means of communication. [7] Likewise Shelley opposes Peacocks view of poetry by claiming poetry is "within the in-visible nature of man...the actions and passions of our internal being" (ibid: 840), thus poetry is primary and not just historical, "it touches the deepest parts of man and is therefore a fundamental moral art" (Pricket, 1981: 253). Shelley's statement saying poets are the true historians can be related to how Peacock once viewed poets, "poets are yet the only historians and chroniclers of their time" (Peacock, 1820: 10). However unlike Shelley, Peacock believes this era of the poet was in the Iron Age which has long since passed, consequently poets no longer have relevance in society as we now have historians, thus Peacock believes poetry no longer has a cultural role, and it is instead artificial.

Shelley's utilitarian view of poetry is personal and also serves to have a powerful social and political function. Unlike Peacock, Shelley believed that each poetic mind creates their own private universe and thus poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (Greenblatt, 2006: 850), for Shelley it is poetry which will help one reach the ideal world. However this argument that Shelley makes is radical, because here Shelley advocates that poetry supersedes religion, that the foundation of religion is poetry. He is placing poetry above all; by doing this Shelley is challenging almost every social order around him. However in Shelley's defence he considered poetry to be everywhere, music, documenting, history, painting and architecture are all part of poetry while thus poetry was a significant cultural aspect in society. He does go too far in arguing the totality of poetry however he does make a convincing argument for poetries influence on society

"...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."

(ibid: 843).

Peacocks satirical tone in the essay and his critique of poets would make one think Peacock was a hater of poetry however this essay can be linked to Peacocks unsuccessful career as a poet.

As seen both Peacock and Shelley give contrasting insights into the personal, cultural and the political utilitarianism of poetry. While Shelley's essay is largely aspirational it does however show that poets and poetry played a role in "seeking a better world, and a new life to replace the old systems and the old corruptions" (Watson, 1985: 250). Shelley is defining the world as he'd imagine it to be, the ideal world, "however he was fighting against, not with the ideological tide" (O'Neill, 1989:18). Above all Shelley made "the ideas of social and political change central to his notion of poetry" (Pricket, 1981:257). The following statement in The Four Ages of Poetry clarifies that Peacock was not in fact a poetry hater, "poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect in the infancy of civil society" (Peacock, 1820: 10). Twice in the essay Peacock refers to poetry as been utilitarian therefore Peacocks essay can be seen as largely contradictory and flawed. One has to agree that throughout both essays both Peacock and Shelley make interesting arguments on the social, political and personal utilitarianism of poetry. However I would be more inclined to say Shelley's arguments in A Defence of Poetry are more convincing than Peacocks satirical essay The Four Ages of Poetry.