Shelley on Poetry and the Art of Seeing
By Maria Popova
“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote in contemplating the crucial difference between knowing and seeing. To apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions, to truly see rather than pre-know, takes a special receptivity, a special channel of perception that bypasses our ordinary, habit-blunted ways. Poetry provides one such opening, perhaps the supreme one — a subtle portal of receptivity that allows us to take in the universe anew. Poetry unlatches the backdoor of the psyche to rewire the optic nerve of our perception, giving us new eyes with which to regard the world, inner and outer, personal, political, and cosmic. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she observed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside”; John F. Kennedy knew this when he proclaimed that “when power corrupt, poetry cleanses”; Adrienne Rich knew this when she wrote that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire”; I too intuited it in turning to poetry to celebrate the science and splendor of the natural world, and to protest their political assault, with The Universe in Verse.
But no one has articulated that singular power of poetry more beautifully than Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822) in a piece titled A Defence of Poetry, originally composed just before his untimely death and later included in his Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (public library | public domain) — the posthumous collection his equally visionary widow, Mary Shelley, edited and published in 1840.
All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.
Complement with This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — a lovely French picture-book about how poetry works its magic — and Elizabeth Alexander, one of the great poets of our own time, on what poetry does for the human spirit, then revisit Shelley’s prescient case for animal rights and the spiritual value of vegetarianism and savor some highlights from The Universe in Verse.
Published September 30, 2019