1821 | Pisa

Root and Blossom

Percy Bysshe Shelley defends poetry’s divinity.

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the center and the circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and the blossom of all other systems of thought.

It is that from which all spring and that which adorns all—and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and the splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship, etc.; what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave; and what were our aspirations beyond it—if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. 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. This power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results—but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.


Percy Bysshe Shelley

From “A Defence of Poetry.” After his expulsion from Oxford in 1811 for writing The Necessity of Atheism, Shelley eloped with the daughter of a tavern owner. Not three years later, the great Romantic poet ran away with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. In 1816, during a summer in Geneva with Lord Byron, he composed “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc,” and she began Frankenstein.