"A Defence of Poetry" is an essay by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1821 and first published posthumously in 1840 in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Edward Moxon in London. It contains Shelley's famous claim that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".
The essay was written in response to his friend Thomas Love Peacock's article "The Four Ages of Poetry", which had been published in 1820. Shelley wrote to the publishers Charles and James Ollier (who were also his own publishers):
I am enchanted with your Literary Miscellany
, although the last article has excited my polemical faculties so violently that the moment I get rid of my ophthalmia, I mean to set about an answer to it.... It is very clever, but I think, very false.
To Peacock, Shelley wrote:
Your anathemas against poetry itself excited me to a sacred rage. . . . I had the greatest possible desire to break a lance with you ... in honour of my mistress Urania.
A Defence of Poetry was eventually published, with some edits by John Hunt, posthumously by Shelley's wife Mary Shelley in 1840 in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments.
Shelley sought to show that poets make morality and establish the legal norms in a civil society thus creating the groundwork for the other branches in a community.
In Gateway to the Great Books, Volume 5, Critical Essays, Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler wrote:
Poets introduce and maintain morality. The mores so created are codified into laws. The social function or utility of poets is that they create and maintain the norms and mores of a society. In English Romantic Writers, David Perkins wrote:
Shelley’s argument for poetry in his critical essay is written within the context of Romanticism. In 1858, William Stigant, a poet, essayist, and translator, wrote in his essay "Sir Philip Sidney" that Shelley's "beautifully written Defence of Poetry" is a work which "analyses the very inner essence of poetry and the reason of its existence, – its development from, and operation on, the mind of man". Shelley writes in Defence that while "ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created," and leads to a moral civil life, poetry acts in a way that "awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought".
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: "Every man in the infancy of art, observes an order which approximates more or less closely to that from which highest delight results..." This "faculty of approximation" enables the observer to experience the beautiful, by establishing a "relation between the highest pleasure and its causes". Those who possess this faculty "in excess are poets" and their task is to communicate the "pleasure" of their experiences to the community. Shelley does not claim language is poetry on the grounds that language is the medium of poetry; rather he recognises in the creation of language an adherence to the poetic precepts of order, harmony, unity, and a desire to express delight in the beautiful. Aesthetic admiration of "the true and the beautiful" is provided with an important social aspect which extends beyond communication and precipitates self-awareness. Poetry and the various modes of art it incorporates are directly involved with the social activities of life. Shelley nominated unlikely figures such as Plato and Jesus in their excellent use of language to conceive the inconceivable.
For Shelley, "poets ... are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society..." Social and linguistic order are not the sole products of the rational faculty, as language is "arbitrarily produced by the imagination" and reveals "the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension" of a higher beauty and truth. Shelley's conclusive remark that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" suggests his awareness of "the profound ambiguity inherent in linguistic means, which he considers at once as an instrument of intellectual freedom and a vehicle for political and social subjugation".