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Assigned: Percy Bysshe Shelley. "Defence of Poetry" (837-50); "Mutability" (744); "To Wordsworth" (744-45); "Mont Blanc" (762-66); "Ozymandias" (768); "Ode to the West Wind" (772-75); "To a Sky-Lark" (817-19).

Of Interest: Author Image | Literary History | Romantic Circles | Keats-Shelley Association | Wikipedia Entry on Sirocco, "West Wind" | Skylark Images | Skylark Page, with Audio | Skylark Song, Audio | Wikipedia Entry, Mont Blanc | Ozymandias Statue

"Defence of Poetry"

1. On 838-39, how does the metaphor of the "Aeolian lyre" figure (838-39) in Shelley's theory about poetic inspiration and expression -- how does Shelley develop this metaphor beyond its simplest level, thereby offering a complex analysis of the concept "expression"?

2. On 839-42, how does Shelley define poets -- what qualities do poets have, and what do they do for their fellow human beings? How were those who best wielded the poetic faculty vital to the earliest societies?

3. On 843-44, how does Shelley address the difficult issue of how we may judge the excellence of a given poet? On 843, he makes the famous statement that "A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds." In the surrounding commentary, how does he more fully explain the relationship between poet and audience, poet and literary history? On 844, how does the issue of "morality" figure in Shelley's analysis of poetic value?

4. On 845-46, while explaining why he thinks poetry is necessary, Shelley writes, "we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know." Shelley was certainly no despiser of science or philosophy, but in what sense do his remarks here criticize the tendencies of modern scientific practice, and somewhat deflate the claims of philosophy to ultimate wisdom? In addition, what does he imply is responsible in modern times for denigrating both individual imagination and any sense of community?

5. In Plato's Ion, Socrates argues that inspiration is a direct transmission of emotion from the gods to the poet to the reader or listener. Is that the way inspiration works according to Shelley? Explain, with reference to his "fading coal" metaphor on page 846, and his remarks more generally on 846-47, culminating in the sentence at 847 bottom, "Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man." (A few other metaphors to consider, time permitting or if you are presenting on this question, occur on 846, "the colour of a flower which fades and changes," and 847, "a wind over a sea.")

6. In the Norton selection from The Statesman's Manual (488-90), Coleridge suggests that symbolic utterances bridge the gap between mind and matter, subject and object, and that a symbol "participates in the Reality which it renders intelligible" (488). Is Shelley's view of poetic language as optimistic as Coleridge's? Are there differences between the two authors on this key issue? Consider Shelley's claims on 847, final paragraph through 848 -- "poetry," he writes, "purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being" and "creates anew the universe," etc.

7. On 850, Shelley concludes with a stirring declaration: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." To judge from the surrounding content on this page and elsewhere in "A Defence of Poetry," he isn't simply arguing that we should pay more attention to poets. Explain the paradox involved in his claim, and try to unpack its complexity as a statement about the value of poets and poetry.

8. General question: are Shelley's definitions of poets and poetry based more on expression than inspiration? Is there a conflict between claims about a poet's "inspiration" and claims about the social function of poetry? Why or why not?


9. In this poem Shelley describes the inconstancy of human emotions and aspirations, even of life itself. To what extent is the sentiment in this poem a comment on poetry's potential to transform the individual and the community?

"To Wordsworth"

10. Shelley laments Wordsworth's withdrawal from the revolutionary optimism of his early poetry. How, if at all, does this poem comment on the present power of Wordsworth's early work to inspire and transform a reader's sense of self and community?

"Mont Blanc"

11. How does the speaker describe the mind's relationship to the material world? How does he connect the mind's processes and natural process, if in fact he does connect them? And is the mind an active, creative power, or does Shelley describe it some other way? Explain.

12. In what sense might Mont Blanc be said both to invite and to challenge interpretation, based on the way the speaker responds to the sight of the mountain in the middle and latter sections of the poem? Moreover, what promise does the mountain hold forth, and for whom?

13. How do Mont Blanc's glacial movements, combined with the elements, compare with or offer insight into the workings and durability of human civilization? In other words, how does the speaker reflect upon nature in such a way that he is also reflecting on human desire and achievement?


14. The traveler suggests that the statue's sculptor intended his work to express the cruelty of Ramses II. The sculptor and time's ruinous effects appear to have issued their sentence against the Pharaoh, but in what sense has he defeated them both -- what statement do the ruins still make about human history and human nature?

"England in 1819"

15. What is the source of the potential for a coming social and political transformation in the Great Britain referenced in this poem?

"Ode to the West Wind"

16. Describe the structure of this poem. How does the interlocking Dantean terza rima verse form suit the poem's subject and aims? (If you know some Italian, read a few stanzas of La divina commedia out loud to get the best possible sense of how terza rima flows. Allen Mandelbaum's translation is also very good, although it abandons the rhyme scheme to capture something of the movement in English.)

17. With regard to the first three stanzas, what are the West Wind's powers? What effects does it have on nature and the poet? In what way does it embody both danger and hope? How is the operation of Shelley's West Wind different from natural forces in Wordsworth and Coleridge (or Blake, or Keats)?

18. Alternately, concentrate on other kinds of nature description in the first three stanzas of "Ode to the West Wind" -- what qualities, what potential, do Shelley's descriptions draw from the natural world's processes and its beautiful or sublime objects? One possibility would be to consider how the "organic metaphor" operates in "Ode to the West Wind," making sure to address both this metaphor's positive, uplifting dimension and its darker implications.

19. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, how does the speaker characterize his relationship to the Wind (both in the past and in the present)? How does that relationship involve deep affinity and, in a sense, strife (if that is the right term)? What assistance does the speaker ask of the West Wind?

20. When in the final stanza the speaker prays to the Wind to scatter abroad his words and thoughts like "withered leaves" (line 64) and "ashes and sparks" (line 67), what is he implying about poetic language? Is he certain that the West Wind will grant his prayer? What burden does he place upon his utterance with regard to his personal hopes and those of "mankind"? How, more generally, might we apply Shelley's theories in "A Defence of Poetry" about inspiration, expression, and poetry's value, to "Ode to the West Wind"?

"To a Sky-Lark"

(Male Skylark Singing, from

21. Why can't the poet define the skylark? How does the bird exceed the capacity of human language to describe its qualities or the qualities of its song?

22. What is the purpose of the similes that the speaker employs in place of direct definition? Do they adequately describe the skylark?

23. What is the relationship between the skylark and physical nature? What is the source of the bird's song?

24. What prevents the speaker (and us) from singing as the skylark does? Why is the skylark's song better than even the best productions of human genius, language, and emotion?

25. In what sense might this poem (like many other romantic lyric poems) be said to efface the act of writing in favor of the spoken word? Why would a poet do that, whether consciously or otherwise?

26. At the poem's end, does the speaker seem confident that his words can have the same effect on future readers as the bird's pure song has upon him? Why or why not?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 2 (Vols. DEF) 0-393-92834-9.