Mediums of Divinity

In his Defence of Poetry, Percy Shelley envisions poets as intermediaries to the realm of potentiality, of the invisible, the unknown. According to Shelley, poetry bridges the gap between the spiritual and the physical–in effect, poetry is paradoxical by nature, for it captures within itself, in an established visual form and structure, an intangible boundlessness. A poem is thus to Shelley an extraordinary, transcendent, ‘divine’ creation that is made possible only by the inspired mind of the sensitive and receptive poet making imaginative metaphorical connections hitherto unforeseen. A poet in the act of creation is like a spiritual medium, filled and ‘interpenetrated’ by an energy that is beyond himself. His poetry, like an incantation, invokes the unseen depths of existence, and casts a new, invigorating light onto stale and familiar surfaces.
Shelley is profoundly aware of the power of perception, of how “all things exist as they are perceived,” and of how this can be a ‘curse,’ locking consciousness into the arbitrariness and particularity of its physical surroundings. He advocates poetry as the means to expand perception, to reawaken the mind to the freedom of the imagination, “rendering the receptable of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thoughts,” thus allowing it to gaze upon its surroundings with the fresh wonderment of a child. Poetry enacts this through the creation of “a being within our being,” an inner world that then transforms the outer world by the revitalized perceptions of the individual. Without this process, the mind becomes locked in the “buried images of the past” and loses sight of the beauty and pleasure of the moment.
This imprisonment of perception occurs most notably as a result of the overemphasis upon reason and science. Reason, according to Shelley, focuses upon what is already known and ascertained, and thus is mired in the past, is cold from having lost the fire of creation. While imagination and poetry reconfirm and nourish the ultimate connection of all things, science and reason regard “the relations of things simply as relations . . . not in their integral unity.” Such an outlook results in an indifferent perception of the world. Poetry and imagination, however, cultivate the empathic faculty of the mind and allow the “identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” Poetry, therefore, serves a moral and social purpose by opening the individual’s awareness of his connection to others, reducing the self in relation to the boundlessness of eternity –“an atom to a universe”–and giving him the supreme awareness of “equality, diversity, unity, contrast, [and] mutual dependence.” In a society that upholds reason over the imagination, Shelley warns that social injustices such as increased disparity between the rich and the poor will occur due to the loss of empathy. The “unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty” and the indifferent perception created by science and logic, Shelley states, results in “anarchy and despotism.”
Thus, to Shelley, poetry liberates man from enslavement to the “principle of Self”; that is, it allows the individual to transcend the physical and mental limitations of his body and perceive the world as if outside of himself. Through this empathic freedom, “the pains and pleasures of his species become his own.” The poet, then, in capturing this empathic vision within a poem, further captures the very “spirit of the age,” and thus it is in fact the poet who upholds and champions society, not the politician.
In order to be a receptacle to this inspired vision, the poet must be “more delicately organized than other men, and sensible to pain and pleasure . . .in a degree unknown to them.” But he cannot control the visitations of his inspiration and can only make use of it when it comes, of its own volition, like “a child in the mother’s womb . . . the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own.” The poet himself is like an instrument of a greater consciousness, just as the pen he uses is an instrument of his own. Due to this separation between perception and exposition, the resultant record of the inspiration of the poet is only a “feeble shadow” of the actual vision. But then again, it is the very function of the poet to present the ultimate connection of things that appear to be detached. As Shelley puts it, “a poet is to apprehend . . . the good which exists in relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”
The role of the poet, then, is to harmonize the disparate objects of his world with a higher order, to unite a seeming chaos into a vision that shocks closed perceptions into a new awareness, to present an inner unity within the detachment of the external world. Shelley even sees poets as prophetic, for they are gazing into the uncertainty of what might become, “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” Even as they are capturing this potentiality within a poem, in a sense attempting to cage a vision that is already gone by the time it is written, the poem retains within it a seed of the eternal, a quality of the unknown that keeps the poem potent for all time. Indeed even the poet himself cannot fully comprehend what he has written, for it is the product of an “unapprehended” inspiration, which moves through him from beyond his understanding. His poem, even as it becomes a known quantity, a part of the immediately perceptible universe, makes within it metaphysical connections that cannot ever be fully grasped, at least not rationally. To Shelley, poetry is a manifestation of the divine, a window to the eternal, containing a being within its being, a supreme vision of unity. The paradoxical nature of the poem makes it the primary vehicle for making man aware of his ultimate connection to the universe, for the poem itself is a detached, self-contained world–apart from the poet, apart from the inspiration that was its source—that yet unites perceptions into a higher consciousness. This capacity of poetry for empathy is, to Shelley, what makes poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the World,” for their poetry renews the individual’s sense of kinship with his society, it frees man of the enslavement to his own perceptions and allows him to understand the world in a fresh, selfless way.


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

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