There was little danger that Homer, or any of the eternal poets should have so far misunderstood themselves as to have abdicated this throne of their widest dominion. Let it not be objected that patriotism, and chivalry, and sentimental love, have been the fountains of enormous mischief. Those who produce and preserve this pleasure are poets or poetical philosophers. The poetry in the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and the mythology and institutions of the Celtic conquerors of the Roman empire, outlived the darkness and the convulsions connected with their growth and victory, and blended themselves in a new fabric of manners and opinion. His major works were long visionary poems including, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound and the unfinished The Triumph of Life.
The design of this little treatise is restricted to the development of the elementary principles of morals. A majestic form and graceful motions will express themselves through the most barbarous and tasteless costume. At length the ancient system of religion and manners had fulfilled the circle of its revolutions. The domestic actions of men are, for the most part, undistinguishable one from the other, at a superficial glance. We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and feeling sometimes associated with place or person, sometimes regarding our own mind alone, and always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all expression; so that even in the desire and regret they leave, there cannot but be pleasure, participating as it does in the nature of its object. Chivalry was likewise founded on the theory of self-sacrifice. The latter is a perpetual hymn of everlasting love.
Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Undoubtedly the promoters of utility, in this limited sense, have their appointed office in society. He then distincts poetry and believes it superior to all other arts and sciences and the major only? He is propelled to guard against the smallest invasion of his own liberty, though he reduces others to a condition of the most pitiless servitude. Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke, all irreconcilable things. The others, even Voltaire, were mere reasoners. The practice is indeed convenient and popular, and to be preferred, especially in such composition as includes much action: but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley argued that the invention of language reveals a human impulse to reproduce the rhythmic and ordered, so that harmony and unity are delighted in wherever they are found and incorporated, instinctively, into creative activities.
It is admitted that the exercise of the imagination is most delightful, but it is alleged that that of reason is more useful. 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 or order. They are cited only to establish the proposition that, according to the elementary principles of mind, man is capable of desiring and pursuing good for its own sake. Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonym of the cause. Besides that if, as these reasoners have pretended, eternal torture or happiness will ensue as the consequence of certain actions, we should be no nearer the possession of a standard to determine what actions were right and wrong, even if this pretended revelation, which is by no means the case, had furnished us with a complete catalogue of them.
But a narrower meaning may be assigned to the word utility, confining it to express that which banishes the importunity of the wants of our animal nature, the surrounding men with security of life, the dispersing the grosser delusions of superstition, and the conciliating such a degree of mutual forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of personal advantage. Love became a religion, the idols of whose worship were ever present. Milton has so far violated the popular creed if this shall be judged to be a violation as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil. But let us not be betrayed from a defence into a critical history of poetry and its influence on society. Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.
This is no poetry, this is arts in general! Human beings are indiscriminating and blind; they will avoid inflicting pain, though that pain should be attended with eventual benefit; they will seek to confer pleasure without calculating the mischief that may result. Imagination or mind employed in prophetically imaging forth its objects, is that faculty of human nature on which every gradation of its progress, nay, every, the minutest, change, depends. The abolition of personal and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of women from a great part of the degrading restraints of antiquity, were among the consequences of these events. It was not until the eleventh century that the effects of the poetry of the Christian and chivalric systems began to manifest themselves. If any person should refuse to admit that all the radii of a circle are of equal length, or that human actions are necessarily determined by motives, until it could be proved that these radii and these actions uniformly tended to the production of the greatest general good, who would not wonder at the unreasonable and capricious association of his ideas? Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and, although venial in a slave are not to be forgiven in a tyrant; although redeemed by much that ennobles his defeat in one subdued, are marked by all that dishonours his conquest in the victor. They are both sensitive beings; pleasure and pain affect them alike.
But, as Machiavelli says of political institutions, that life may be preserved and renewed, if men should arise capable of bringing back the drama to its principles. The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself. And benevolence, or the desire to be the author of good, united with justice, or an apprehension of the manner in which that good is to be done, constitutes virtue. Livy is instinct with poetry. A Defence of Arts, yes.
The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived; the good affections are strengthened by pity, indignation, terror, and sorrow; and an exalted calm is prolonged from the satiety of this high exercise of them into the tumult of familiar life: even crime is disarmed of half its horror and all its contagion by being represented as the fatal consequence of the unfathomable agencies of nature; error is thus divested of its wilfulness; men can no longer cherish it as the creation of their choice. He was also admired by Karl Marx, Henry Stephens Salt, and Bertrand Russell. The disposition in an individual to promote this object is called virtue; and the two constituent parts of virtue, benevolence and justice, are correlative with these two great portions of the only true object of all voluntary actions of a human being. Their poetry is intensely melodious, like the odour of the tuberose, it overcomes and sickens the spirit with excess of sweetness; whilst the poetry of the preceding age was as a meadow-gale of June, which mingles the fragrance all the flowers of the field, and adds a quickening and harmonizing spirit of its own, which endows the sense with a power of sustaining its extreme delight. Dante at least appears to wish to mark the full extent of it by placing Riphaeus, whom Virgil calls justissimns unus, in Paradise, and observing a most heretical caprice in his distribution of rewards and punishments. Let two persons, equally strangers, make application for some benefit in the possession of a third to bestow, and to which he feels that they have an equal claim. He witnessed many of the mistreatments occurring in the domestication and slaughtering of animals and he became a fighter for the rights of all living things.