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"Imagining" History: Shelley’s Use of History as Rhetoric
in A Defence of Poetry

-- Richard Eichman

The connection between literature and history is as old as the skill of writing, the two often appearing inseparable in the oldest manuscripts. Fully aware of the similarities in form and purpose of these writings, Edith Hamilton argues that the purpose of mythology is "to show us the way the human race thought and felt untold ages ago. Through it, according to this view, we can retrace the path from civilized man . . ." (13). She goes on to call Homer one of the most important sources of Greek mythology (21). While Hamilton’s area of expertise was ancient literature, her description could be easily applied to history. Aristotle compared poetry to history and suggested that poetry was "more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry states tends to express the universal, history the particular" (http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html)   . Homer’s Iliad, for example, provides us with some valuable historical information for consideration, in addition to its aesthetic value. The ruins, referred to as "Troy VIIa" by historians, were of a city on the Hellespont destroyed around 1235 B. C. and are considered the probable location of the Troy sacked in Homer’s Iliad, because their location and approximate date of destruction correspond with Homer’s description (Breisach, 5). Perspective creates the distinction between literary and historical values.

In his introduction to Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Ernst Breisach, noted historian and historiographer, makes some very important observations about history that can be applied to literature. His position is that history is, ultimately, the "commerce" between humanity and time:

Every important new discovery about the past changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future; on the other hand every change in the conditions of the present and in the future revises our perception of the past. In this complex context history is born ostensibly as reflection on the past; a reflection which is never isolated from the present and the future. History deals with human life as it "flows" through time. (2)

Since history can be reinterpreted based on events of the recent and distant past, it lends itself to some level of subjectivity–in this way, history becomes individual. This is the basis for the constant need for new interpretations of history; it is a discipline where all information requires a context, and that information is always changing because each new interpretation of history changes the context for the rest of what is known about history. Here, history is very much like literary criticism because each new explanation affects what is written before as well as after it, but readers should be aware of the underlying assumptions and secondary motives implied by these writings. Percy Shelley’s work illustrates both the need for the constant revision in history and literature and the secondary goals that these writings sometimes have. Based on a progressive interpretation of history, Percy Shelley uses history as rhetoric in A Defence of Poetry to advance his argument of the importance of poetry in society, and in doing this, he positions himself as one of the greatest poets.

In writing about poetry, Shelley places it in history and in a cultural and intellectual context. Shelley’s entrance into the conversation is perfectly natural because he wrote at a time when the disciplines were only beginning to part. Given the nature of essay writing, Shelley viewed A Defence of Poetry as both literature and history. In Shelley’s era, history and literature were virtually the same because both were ventures in eloquence, rhetoric, and narrative–only the motives were significantly different. Where poetry was primarily concerned with beauty and perhaps some didacticism, according to the taste of individual authors, histories were first meant to discuss the relationship between the past and present, thus imparting important lessons, but histories were no less concerned with aesthetics–they were erudite statements for the cultivated. While defining poetry, Shelley writes a history of poetry, and in effect, his work seeks to place poetry in history.

When Shelley wrote A Defence of Poetry, the current historiographic approach was progressive and optimistic, which probably affected his approach to history and his view of his place in history. According to Breisach, amid several competing theories, progressivism became a dominant approach with the publication of the Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1793-1794) (205). Breisach’s description of this text reflects the general characteristics of the Romantics: "Past, present, and future were once more linked in a development with a common direction; this time not toward a spiritual goal but toward human betterment in this world" (205). Ideologically similar, the Romantics believed that the culture was advancing, but progress required active assistance. Blake viewed the French Revolution and the emergence of America as progress (except for the physical violence of revolution), as he indicated in his illuminated books Europe a Prophecy and America a Prophecy; Byron fought for the unification and independence first of Italy, then Greece; and Shelley wrote on Irish freedom and other political subjects.

In his biography, Richard Holmes writes that Shelley first became aware of Condorcet’s writing through Dr. James Lind during Shelley’s last two years at Eton (25) and turned to other "radicals" like Voltaire, Paine, Franklin, Rousseau, and Godwin (43). Shelley’s actions and readings suggest that he agreed with the progressivist or positivist theory, a theory that argued that "the march of history had slowed down at times but could never aim anywhere else but ‘forward’" (208).

Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry was written to refute The Four Ages of Poetry by Thomas Love Peacock, which argued that poetry had become useless. Peacock’s treatment of poetry was influenced by the opposition to the progressive theory of history: Giambattista Vico’s cyclic theory of history. According to Breisach, Vico’s theory outlined three stages in human civilization: the Age of Gods, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Men (210-213). In the first, society was primitive, with all things coming from God, and records of the time came through the generations as myths. The Age of Heroes began the political/civil state. Heroes were half gods and were recorded in the verse-tales of their heroic deeds. The final stage, the Age of Men, featured a highly structured society, and histories were narrative tales. At the end of the last stage, the cycle would start over again. After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was no more need for heroes: the era had ended. Peacock’s positioning of the poet in society makes this point clear:

A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. (578)

Poetry was the medium of the previous age, and in Peacock’s scheme, that was the Age of Heroes; he must have considered the current era to be the Age of Men, a time when logic and reason were at their highest degrees in the cycle. However, this betrays Peacock’s own agenda: since he was not a poet and had no stake in poetry, it was in his interest to move the highest form of writing to prose–his art–which forces him to prefer Vico’s schema of cyclic history. In the most advanced stages of society, prose is the most cultivated written art because it favors reason and logic.

Differences in ideology and investments in art forms between Shelley and Peacock put them at odds. Shelley uses Condorcet’s system as a base but modifies it to give poetry a more significant role in civilization. Early in Shelley’s essay, he detaches poetry from any specific historical era: "Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of the Imagination . . ." and is "connate with the origin of man" (489). The use of imagination cannot be limited to a specific era, due to its connection with art, which dates back to prehistory. To make his argument viable, Shelley’s first task must be to alter the nature of historiography; Condorcet’s view did not give a specific medium for historical writing, so Shelley could disavow a set time period without creating inconsistencies in his argument. He defines poetry as a noble art that belongs to all humans and moves toward discrediting Vico’s theory because his scheme of poetry is only for history during the second stage of the cycle. Condorcet’s view would, when connected to poetry, suggest that poetry would be improving just as society was. In this scheme, society would improve with each passing generation; likewise, poetry would make the same progression. Its removal from lyrical history, in the sense of Peacock and Vico, would allow it that ability to advance.

Shelley believed poetry to be the highest form of writing, and elevated verse to the highest art by connecting it to "Imagination" as opposed to making it merely a medium of history. He distinguished between stories and history by saying that "a story is a catalogue of detached facts which have no other bond of connexion than time, place, circumstance, cause, and effect . . ." (493). This relegates prose fiction to a lesser form of expression and seems to have only a distant relationship with history. However, poetry was for Shelley "the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds" (493). Poetry is an expression of the truths that exist in all humanity; not all poetry is history, but history can contain poetry.

Jean Hall argues that Shelley saw the poet’s thought as representing the best of humanity: "Poetry becomes the opposite quantity to selfhood and assumes a divine character because it transcends normal boundaries of human identity" (141). He ascribes the greatest faculties, achievements, and vision (in the broadest sense) to poets:

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. (513)

Very subtly, while arguing the relationship of verse to history, Shelley has suggested that poetry is the highest form of writing, based on the idea that only it gives thoughts that are at the heart of humanity and, through this argument, has placed himself as a great poet by suggesting that poetry was improved alongside society; thus, as one of the newest poets, Shelley would of course be among the finest poets. Even though his poetry and historical time would be superceded, he would still be the measurement of his time, the future’s window into Shelley’s era.

Shelley’s visionary notion of poetry affects his sense of history by making it less concerned with "factual" information than it is with those truths which can be arrived at through language itself. Shelley’s attack has two prongs: first to convince the reader that there is a natural beauty in humanity and, second, that language in rhythm is as old as humanity:

In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm and order. And although all men observe a similar, they observe not the same order, in the motions of the dance, in the melody of the song, in the combinations of language, in the series of their imitations of natural objects. (490)

Shelley fails to give an exact date or era because it is not necessary for his interpretation of history; poetry’s transcendent quality makes the writing seem to escape conventional time in its audience and subject. The use of Imagination diminishes the value of conventional understanding; in effect, Shelley would argue that focusing too much on trivialities like dates would obscure anything valuable in history. Unlike Peacock’s (and Vico’s) notion of history, Shelley viewed the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth centuries as neither an era to be labeled as "barbaric" nor a time of "lesser" value–as evident in his use of "order" to describe the state of the world but– requires devaluing some of the traditional ideas of civilization that might use events of the 1790s to reduce Shelley’s time to an example of chaos. Shelley connects nature’s order, ornate language, and people who observe. According to Shelley, poetry dates to the "youth of the world." Homer and other poets figure into Shelley’s argument because they seem to be the proof for his position; Greek and other literatures provide evidence for poetry more than 2,000 years ago. This historiography, heavily influenced by Condorcet, depends less on the lifeless facts than it does on the vitality of language to maintain its value.

Shelley’s essay suggests two errors in Vicoan theory: the people were not savages and poetry was not confined to the Heroic Age. Shelley describes humanity as open to beauty, even able to interpret and find language for it; aesthetic appreciation is not something likely to be found in barbarians. Since there is poetry in all points of history leading back to Homer, the three age theory shared by Peacock and Vico is weakened. One could argue that the earliest examples of poetry did, in fact, belong to the Age of Heroes, but the existence of poetry since then leaves an unresolved problem unless the Age of Heroes was still in progress when Vico (1688-1744) and Peacock (1785-1866) lived. Peacock would have been mistaken because, according to his comments in The Four Ages of Poetry, he believed that he was living in the Age of Men:

Poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect. In the infancy of civil society: but for the maturity of mind to make a serious business of the playthings of its childhood, is as absurd as for a full-grown man to rub his gums with coral, and cry to be charmed to sleep by the jingle of silver bells. (579)

In addition to taking a position on poetry’s place in history, Shelley placed the poet at the nexus between nature and the heart of humanity. In light of his work as a poet, he positioned himself as a part of the highest order of people: those who could imagine the past, present, and future–people who were in touch with beauty in its deepest sense. In his scheme, poets were the beginning and center of everything that was worthwhile in society:

But Poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion. (491)

Against Peacock and Vico, Shelley argues that poets are not merely the recorders and historians of a middle stage but priests and creators of all stages of society. Shelley’s position is purely Aristotelian. Where Vico and Peacock argue that poetry has only limited use in a short segment of history, Shelley works to discredit Vico and places poetry and, by implication, himself as the visionary center of society.

Rhetorically and poetically, Shelley has made himself completely indispensable. He has made himself the architect and builder, and poetry the foundation of society and then he becomes the critic who proclaims it wondrous. By 1821, when he wrote A Defence of Poetry, Shelley had written nearly all of the poetry he would live to create; it was perfectly reasonable for him to call himself a poet. Therefore, it would not be possible for Shelley to allow Peacock’s essay to go unanswered; that would be Shelley allowing Peacock to call his life’s work useless. However, in an essay outlining the history of poetry, Shelley could restore the dignity of poets and poetry and create a place for himself in that history–as the author. He accepts the place of the poet/historian by sensing the order and interpreting it in ways more sensitive than the other people who dance and sing in the "youth of humanity" (490). His strategy sets him as the representative and champion of the highest form of the people in society and history.

Having established himself as the defender of poets, Shelley reconnects poetry and history and thus keeps himself in the role of both poet and historian. To establish a greater base of credibility for historians, Shelley moves to a broader definition of poetry which includes lines of poetry enclosed in prose works, provided that those lines have "subjects with living images" (494). Shelley uses this expansion to name Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy, all great historians, as great poets. Through this act, he makes himself one of the greatest of historians by being able to incorporate the occasional poetic line into a work of history and create poetry independent of history. He would have to be one of the greatest of all historians, even if his contemporary critics considered him a mediocre poet, but since he believed that he was a great poet, he has constructed a circuitous claim by his rhetoric to be a truly brilliant mind both in poetry and history. Either by his own poetry or his history of poetry, Shelley includes himself as one of the great poets.

For Shelley, as for many other scholars of the period, there was little or no distinction between literature and history. In his description of poetry, he writes:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. (495)

Literature, according to Shelley, performs the same functions as history: both show a new way of looking at the contemporary world, give profound insight into the past, and stand as reminders of great minds of earlier times. History makes the familiar unfamiliar by providing new and better contexts through interpretations, as a story about humanity that is always being edited and reedited.

Shelley also saw poetry as enriching humanity in both aesthetic and practical senses, equating poetry with all knowledge and further discrediting the Vicoan model in an Aristotelian sense by invalidating the cycle of history through Peacock’s limited poetics. The Condorcet model of history, endorsed and amended by Shelley, would suggest progression by way of carrying technological and intellectual advancements through aestheticism. He expanded poetry beyond aesthetic exercises or historical narrative to include explorations into other areas of inquiry. Shelley writes:

Poetry is indeed divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree and life. (508-09)

Here, Shelley has asserted that poetry is not only still a valuable part of science, but all intellectual life, in effect balancing Peacock’s notion of society on Shelley’s poet. Although poetry is meant to be beautiful, it cannot and should not exclude the intellectual accomplishments of its age. This is the heart of Shelley’s definition of poetry.

Some scholars, like Frederick Pottle, have even suggested that Shelley’s work is related to prophecy because his was "to create an apocalypse of the world formed and realized by Intellectual Beauty of Love" (368). In A Defence of Poetry, he was not concerned with a formal political history that would have described governments and national power, structures or wars. Instead, he focused on culture through poetry, and in effect, charges poets with writing a history that represents and cultivates the culture and the age as a whole.

In a time when the distinction between history and literature was tenuous at best, Shelley was striving to define poetry, and in doing so, he created a place for himself that showed him as one of the great minds. Profoundly influenced by Marquis de Condorcet, Shelley, in The Defence of Poetry, formulated a definition of poetry which accommodated Condorcet’s belief that civilization is constantly working toward perfection. The rhetoric for Shelley’s position favors him in an interesting fashion: if society is getting better and poets are among the best and most sensitive members of that society, then Shelley must be one of the greatest to have lived because he was a fine poet of his age, the newest and best ever. It is true that his time would be superseded, but Shelley would still be immortalized, just as Homer had been. For Shelley, poetry was ornate and musical language written by a person who was uncommonly aware of nature’s beauty. Furthermore, the poet was a person who was able to render thoughts and feelings beyond his or her own generation, as an ambassador of intellect and culture to all following generations.

Richard Eichman


Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher, 1994-1998, MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic

Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 10, 2000,  <http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.sum.html>

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. 2nd ed. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1994.

Hall, Jean. "The Divine and Dispasionate Selves: Shelley’s Defence and Peacock’s The Four Ages." Keats-Shelley Journal: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Their Circles 41 (1992): 139-63.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of gods and Heroes. 1940. New York: Meridian, 1989.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1975.

Peacock, Thomas Love. "The Four Ages of Poetry." Prose of the Romantic Period. Ed. Carl R.  Woodring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. 569-580.

Pottle, Frederick A. "The Case of Shelley." English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 2nd ed. London: Oxford U. P., 1975. 366-83.

Shelley, Percy B. The Defence of Poetry. Prose of the Romantic Period. Ed. Carl R. Woodring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961. 488-513.