Shelley, Form, and History

In the preface to Prometheus Unbound, Percy Shelley defines the role of the poet:

A Poet, is the combined product of such internal powers as modify the nature of others, and of such external influences as excite and sustain these powers; he is not one, but both. Every man’s mind is in this respect modified by all the objects of nature and art, by every word and every suggestion which he ever admitted to act upon his consciousness; it is the mirror upon which all forms are reflected, and in which they compose one form. Poets, not otherwise than philosophers, painters, sculptors and musicians, are in one sense the creators and in another the creations of their age.

-Prometheus Unbound, p. 208

The relationship between form and mind, poet and age is reciprocal and mirroring. The human mind is a “mirror” on which all “forms” are reflected and, at the same time, the mirror composes forms into one, singular form. Forms—meaning objects of nature and art and words, according to Shelley—reflect on the mind and combine into one form that affects and changes the mind.

Percy Shelley’s poetry and prose, I suggest, invite us to explicitly consider the connections between form, history, and embodiment, to engage his work transhistorically and reciprocally, and to think about a diversity of aesthetic and human forms. In this section, I examine both Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and his introduction to his translation of Plato’s Symposium in order to demonstrate how he invites us to read form transhistorically and reciprocally.

The Defence defines “poet” and “poetry” capaciously, across a variety of media and modes. Different aesthetic forms provide different and augmented expressions of emotion for “men of society”: “language, gesture, and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony” (511). Poets are defined not necessarily, or not only, by their facility with linguistic or textual form, but by all forms of expression (511); those who have an ability to approximate the beautiful “in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community” (512). Particular forms matter less than a poet’s ability to apprehend and communicate “the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression” (512). The expression necessitates “reduplication” from the community to which it has been communicated.

He goes on to discuss what kinds of poetry a poet might create, or what tools he might use to do so: “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 synonime [sic] of the cause” (513). This passage is notable because it recalls the one above, which states that the arts become at once the “representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture.” Poetry is both that which it expresses and the medium. Although Shelley will go on to explore language’s unique ability to express the beautiful, it seems vital, nonetheless, for me to engage with other types of form that may be reduplicated through rereadings, hyperlinks, replaying (in the case of sound assets), etc.

Language specifically, however, is a “more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being” compared to “colour, form or motion,” which have relationships with one another that interrupt “conception and expression.” While painters and sculptors might still be poets of “equal skill,” they produce “unequal effects” due to their chosen mode.

Shelley finally describes language “as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication” (520). When Shelley describes language as “reflecting,” he means language reflects to its audience. Later, in comparing a story (the reporting of facts) to poetry, he says, “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted” (515). The purpose of poetry is to reflect and disperse the beautiful in human nature, so that humanity improves through a process of self-reflection and self-recognition in the beautiful expressed by the poem and identified with by the reader. Drama can be poetry, insofar as it only reflects the beautiful:

The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.


Rather than merely representing what we see or perceive, in the process of reflection and self-reflection, language actually multiplies and reproduces the beautiful in an endless process of reflection. Shelley’s use of “reproduce” and “propagation” seem to liken this process to a kind of sexual reproduction, but rather than reproduction based on difference (see also Chapter 3 in this study on Coleridge), it seems, rather to be a kind of mitosis, a splitting of one into many in order for them to be reflected on and split again. It seems more like a kind of endless distilling, or refraction, or what I elsewhere refer to as “dispersal” of sounds and particular phonemes throughout Shelley’s poems. Shelley’s poems self-reflectively disperse and refract sounds throughout each line.

This reflection occurs transhistorically. Poetry reflects the eternally beautiful; and, likewise, the “reduplication” necessary for the continual refraction and dispersal of the beautiful occurs across time: “All high poetry is infinite: it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially” and a “fountain…everflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight” that future ages will continually draw from and share. The poem, or the acorn, is simultaneously all of its possible multiplicities, dispersed across time and location, and a tiny, local seed.

At the end of the Defence, Shelley makes apparent the connection between poets, time, and reflection: “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.” Following this declaration is the famous sentence, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World” (535). If poets reflect shadows that futurity casts on the present, then poets reflect the shadows of a future they cannot comprehend. Shelley also speaks of poets here in a similar manner as he speaks of poetry; above he referred to poetry as a “mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”—and while he may be speaking in metaphor, he also refers to poets as “words” and “trumpets,” essentially as multimedia—if poetry, in whatever medium, is the mirror, so is the poet.

The image of the mirror, or reflection, appears in his “A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love.” “A Discourse” precedes Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium, completed while he was in Italy in 1818. The essay has become particularly famous due to its relatively frank discussion of homosexuality and sodomy in the context of ancient Greek culture, as well as for laying out some of Shelley’s apparent principles and beliefs regarding love and sexuality (the extent to which these principles matched his actual practices is, of course, debated, but outside the scope of my current discussion).

...Soon the solemn mood
Of her pure mind kindled through all her frame
A permeating fire: wild numbers then
She raised, with voice stifled in tremulous sobs
Subdued by its own pathos: her fair hands
Were bare alone, sweeping from some strange harp
Strange symphony, and in their branching veins
The eloquent blood told an ineffable tale.

she drew back a while,
Then, yielding to the irresistible joy,
With frantic gesture and short breathless cry
Folded his frame in her dissolving arms
Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes…

Click below for audio recording.

-Alastor, 161-167, 184-188

According to Shelley, as others have observed, the Greeks’ homosexual practices resulted from their wrongly positioning women in a lesser position in society. Women had fewer options for education and, in Shelley’s mind, “possessed…the habits and the qualities of slaves” (106). The separation of “a class of beings of intellectual nature, into two sexes, is a remnant of savage barbarism which we have less excuse than they for not having totally abolished” (111). For Shelley, intellectual pursuits, and compatibility, mattered more than the embodied acts—at least according to himself.

Consequently, sexual difference is, in both his prose and poetry, often a moral or cultural failure that he critiques and/or attempts to resolve. Though Shelley seems to prioritize the intellectual over the bodily (by going so far as to say, in reference to both sodomy and sex generally, “The act itself is nothing”), he nonetheless indicates a mirrored or reciprocal relationship between the body and one’s intellect, fostered by education. “They were probably not extremely beautiful,” he writes; “at least there was no such disproportion in the attractions of the external form between the female and male sex among the Greeks, as exists among the modern Europeans” (106). It is a curious claim, on the one hand—Shelley is essentially arguing that Greek women were physically less beautiful, and less sexually differentiated, from men as compared to modern Europeans. It is unclear what kind of evidence he might have to support that. On the other hand, Shelley outlines a complex, mirrored paradox caused by sexual differentiation—if women are sexually differentiated, they will lack the proper social, moral, and intellectual education necessary to cultivate “loveliness.” In absence of loveliness, they will become less differentiated from men (yet in an apparently negative way).

This paradoxical, reciprocal motion centers on the “external form”—the body seems to be shaped by the process of social differentiation (or un-differentiation). The phrase “external form” appears again later, as he discusses homosexuality in Greece: “The men of Greece corresponded in external form to the models which they have left as specimens of what they were. The firm yet flowing proportions of their forms, the winning unreserved and facility of their manners, the eloquence of their speech, in a language which is itself music and persuasion” (108). The phrase, “the firm yet flowing proportions of their forms,” contains an alliteration that emphasizes the paradoxically stable forms that yet seem to convey a fluency and motion. The assonance here, too, of the long "oh" sounds of "flowing proportions of their forms" indicates movement as well as stability. Greek embodiment is thus both literally, and stably, represented (in the form of paintings and sculptures, which he discusses earlier), and figured reciprocally by the interaction between both the present and the past. Shelley’s assumption that the surviving Greek artistic forms necessarily reflect embodiment might seem a bit unusual (since he generally did not view art or poetry as merely mimetic); yet, if we understand Shelley’s complicated, and reciprocal, use of form as outlined above, we see how embodied form and aesthetic form are mutually constituted and not necessarily discrete in his work.