Shelley on poetry, reason and imagination

I’m still teaching the Romantics, and thus lack time for my own reading. I thought therefore I’d share something I found stimulating when working on Shelley. It’s taken from a fine website called Romanticism and Imagination, which focuses on Shelley and Coleridge and their differing views on poetry, imagination, reason, and related topics. The hyperlinks are from that site, and link either to passages from Coleridge – in particular his Biographia Literaria, in which he expounded, among other things, his views on these topics, or give explanatory notes in general terms. So here’s Shelley:


Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

‘According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, , the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.

Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the Imagination:” and Poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody…

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” 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…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interluminations of life, and veiling them or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide– abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man.’