In January 1821 Shelley read an essay by Thomas Love Peacock, ‘The four ages of poetry’, which wittily argued that society was now sufficiently advanced to dispense with poetry; a poet was no more than ‘a semi-barbarian in a civilized community'. Shelley sometimes doubted the usefulness of poetry – ‘I wish I had something better to do than furnish this jingling food for the hunger of oblivion, called verse’, he once wrote to Peacock – but his friend’s essay roused him into a ‘sacred rage’. He responded with the most eloquent defence of poetry since Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie (1595).
The power of the essay comes not only from its arguments, but from its radiant metaphorical language: ‘the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness’; ‘Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it’.
This is Shelley’s intermediate fair copy of A Defence of Poetry, showing the essay’s great peroration. Mary Shelley later wrote out a fair copy and sent it to England for publication. The essay was not, however, published until 1839, in Mary’s own edition of Shelley’s prose.
Percy Bysshe Shelley; (1822) Mary Shelley; (bequest, 1851) Sir Percy and Lady Shelley; (bequest, 1889) Lady Shelley; (bequest, 1899) John C.E. Shelley (later Sir John Shelley-Rolls); (gift, 1946) Bodleian.
Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, VII (1990), ed. D.H. Reiman, esp. pp. 508-11, 543; ibid., XX (1994), ed. M. O’Neill; Shelley’s Guitar, nos. 127 and 128.