Percy Bysshe Shelley: “A Defense of Poetry”

(1821)

Explanation and Analysis of the Document

Shelley begins by referring to “two classes of mental action.” One is reason, which is analytic and passive. The other is the imagination, which is synthetic and active. Reason is the mind “contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another.” Imagination is the mind “acting upon those thoughts … composing from them … other thoughts.” Reason contemplates relations rather than thoughts, but imagination acts on the thoughts themselves. Reason is concerned primarily with differences among things, so it focuses on making distinctions. Imagination has to do principally with similarities among things, so it focuses on discerning patterns.

Shelley writes that human beings “dance and sing and imitate natural objects,” and they observe “a certain rhythm or order” in the act of imitation. It is the rhythm and order of the act of imitation that catches Shelley’s eye, for that order results in “the highest delight.” Poets, exercising...

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"Percy's Cottage at Lynmouth" by Elisabeth B. Warren (Yale University Art Gallery)

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