Posts Tagged ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’


Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.


Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)


In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan



Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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Yesterday I republished a post from the early days of this blog which states that I could not remember the details of the car break down dream. All these years later, as this post from February indicates, I found my original notes on the dream. It seems only fair to put the two posts together in this way. 

I was breviting through a drawer in my desk the other day, looking for an old diary to check something out, when I glimpsed at the bottom of a pile of notebooks a clump of papers with these words scribbled on the front: Dancing Flames Dream 21/04/80. I was amazed. I had no recollection of writing it. I never remembered seeing it before even though I go into this drawer quite often.

Yet it was something so important.

Why though?

Well, not least because I have always remembered the core of the dream and its main implications. These concerned how my life was getting out of balance at the time with too much emphasis on left-brain grunt work and too little on the arts, and poetry in particular. I’ve been frustrated in the past because I couldn’t recall the full details of the dream and the work I did on it. I just knew that the dream had told me that I needed to make space for poetry in my life or else.

I even blogged about it in 2009.

I explained there that I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill.’ I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t recall all the details when I wrote the post, but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I described how I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Above the engine there was golden funnel. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car above the engine?

William Butler YeatsHorn of Plenty

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a political fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here, which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding, which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life.

The dream might also have implied that I was driving myself too hard.


Detail from the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church. For source of image see link.

Dancing Flames 

Why it was so good to find these lost notes was for the more exact insights they gave into the meaning of poetry for me. They also added one crucial detail to the content of the dream that enriched my understanding further. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

This had given me another key association, as my rediscovered notes explored.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

(W. B. Yeats Sailing to Byzantium – 4th stanza)

Some Valuable Insights

I don’t plan to be so boring as to regurgitate the whole undigested 13 pages of scribble about the dream, as much of it is of purely autobiographical interest. However, there are interesting flashes of insight into what I understood about poetry at the time which seem to be still relevant to my recent exploration of the nature and purpose of the poem towards the end of the Shelley sequence.

I’ll blend these insights into an expression of my current understanding.

At the start of my reflections in 1980, after spotting the Byzantium association and triggered by the connection with a car, I played with the idea of poetry as one of the possible ‘vehicles’ through which to use the fuel of my spirit for some useful purpose. Psychology alone had begun to feel inadequate for this purpose.

I speculated whether a failure to channel the passions life creates in us into some viable form risks sparking off a fire of the spirit in an explosive way. I admitted, though, that the flames in the car ‘looked beautiful dancing as they did.’

The flames came to seem like the burning of the petrol of the spirit, which is only dangerous if improperly channelled. I saw that human relationships were important to me, as they are to almost everyone, but I also saw that they are not the appropriate channel for all the ‘fury and the mire of human veins.’

I tested out the metaphor further a few lines later. The spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of our work and our relationships to become inauthentic[1] and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. If art, at this interface between mind and life, is successful, it distils the essential truth of the artist’s particular experiences and enables it to be transmitted to other minds. I didn’t close in, as I would now, on the possibility that art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

I mentioned in my Shelley sequence that poetry was my substitute for religion. I have now found the evidence for this. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

I went on then to explain to myself that poetry is an endorsement of my humanity. Pain, violence and lies have been inescapable aspects of human experience from the very beginning, and when seen through poetry, which offers a point of view that accepts all experience as rich in meaning, they become less agonising. Poetry and art, I tried to persuade myself, offer the possibility of incorporating the unacceptable into a pattern of grace. It welcomes raw experience of any kind as a means of achieving a more comprehensive understanding and expression of life, a greater degree of humanity.

I don’t think I placed enough emphasis on the need for achieving the best possible balance in the poem, painting or piece of music, between dark and light, though I did develop the idea to some extent. I wrote that poetry is courage, the courage to face horrors and accept them into a pattern which acknowledges pity, terror, violence, hope, joy, love and creativity. Poetry does not run away from pain, nor does it court it masochistically. Poetry faces what is there and, like all art, puts it into some kind of perspective.

Art/poetry is hope. There is no need to try and run away from hurt if hurt is there to be felt. Beauty is in the whole of life and poetry reminds you of harmony and rest even in the midst of pain and torment. Poetry reminds you of the best even in the midst of the worst. It can accept and express despair, but the very act of writing a poem somehow transcends or counteracts it. The act of writing (or committed reading) implies the hope of resolution and of the existence of other values, of understanding, of reaching out and touching, if not another mind, and at least an unperturbed and accepting part of yourself. Poetry endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.

Art which coarsens sensibility and sets people against another, or makes them more indifferent to their fellow human beings, is counter-productive. Art which draws attention to what humanity has in common, which draws us closer to each other, which is committed to life and love rather than death and hate, is the only art with any kind of value. True art loves life and abhors death and destruction. True art derives its power and meaning from the creative impulses of humanity and is a constant reminder of them.

Attempts to prostitute art for life-hating purposes and petty propaganda are abhorrent violations of art’s true purpose and nature, and should be withstood intransigently at all times. Art is humane, life enhancing, or else it is not art.

On the whole, I was glad to find these notes again and felt some of the insights were worth sharing here. I hope I was not mistaken in that and carried too much away by my own rhetoric!


[1] I was already intrigued by existential philosophy at this stage, though I was to dig much deeper in that field nearly two years later. It’s perhaps also worth saying that I was intellectually still a convinced atheist at this point, which makes the language I was choosing to use in my consideration of the poetic perhaps an indication that my heart and my head were not quite in alignment.

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Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

(Shelley from the Preface to The Cenci)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with an earlier post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It has also given me some much needed thinking time before my next new sequence of posts comes out! This is the last of the sequence and looks at some general issues.

Where do I stand in all this?

I felt it necessary to bear most of the ideas I’ve discussed in the previous posts in mind, but at this point to focus on how best to define what I felt would be most useful to capture in terms of my future exploration of this topic. I also want to find a way of making sure to include what can best be termed the spiritual factors involved in creativity.

I have already looked at this in part in an earlier post.

The first key issue to note is that the reduction of genius to creativity is in danger of missing the point (page 425):

[T]he study of the real thing – “genius” – has largely degenerated in modern times into the study of diluted cognates such as “creativity” or even “talent” which happen to be relatively accessible to the more “objective” means of investigation currently favoured by most investigators.

A brief quote from a recent book should serve to illustrate what they are saying. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, in their treatment of the issue in Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, define creativity as they see it (page 4):

In human behaviour, creativity refers broadly to generating new ideas, whereas innovation refers to changing the way in which things are done. Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behavior or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others.

It is immediately apparent that this is a long way short of what Myers is speaking about when he refers to genius (page 426):

In Human Personality vol 1, page 71, he writes of genius as: A power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought. . . . . [Inspiration] will be in truth a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being.

I accept that it is likely to be impossible to define in words the exact nature of the creative process when conceptualised in this way and at this level. However, I did feel initially that the best metaphoric model to capture it, from among all the somewhat tired analogies on offer, was likely to be an organic rather than mechanical one. I could see why the idea of volcanic eruption or fire was so appealing. I felt at first that it misses a crucial dimension: creation is a living rather than purely material process.

Does that mean I accept some kind of Freudian reduction of creativity to a purely sexual sublimation process? No it doesn’t. Jung’s break with Freud was over the excessive value the latter placed on sexuality as the ultimate explanation of everything about human behaviour. Jung felt passionately that this discounted the spiritual dimension.

So, no surprise then to those who have read some earlier posts. I’m for a model that is rooted in a non-reductive model of consciousness. Clearly though I had to find some way of bringing this down to earth so I could define the important variables and seek them in the experience of the artists we read about or in our own experience of creativity, whatever that may be.

I didn’t use the word earth by accident. So no prizes for guessing where I started from.

Our garden meadow

Schematic Presentation:

Any model I provisionally devised needed to account for the power of external triggers, conscious sensibility and subliminal processes to contribute to creativity. I perhaps also needed to distinguish, if at all possible, between influences that push the creative process (‘subliminal uprush’ might be one such) and those that pull on it (such as the sense of purpose in the artist).

Because it helped me think clearly I started with a pseudo-equation (Did I hear someone groan?), sketching out one possible model.

Seeds + Soil + Cultivation + (Sun+Rain) + Seasons = Harvest

a. Seeds are such things as activating stimuli from reading and experience: these are more likely to push than pull the process.

b. The Soil is the subconscious, which in an artist is particularly rich and accessible. The soil quality is probably the result of:

  • Genetic predisposition and congenital influences (push?);
  • Early experience (push);
  • Skill acquisition; and
  • Spiritual orientation (pull?).

c. Cultivation is anything, such as weeding or fertilizer, connected with the process of planting and later material influences of a human kind that nurture the growth of the artefact. These may come from the artist or from outside: this includes the facilitation of creativity by interactions with friends – good examples are how his association with Byron helped produce Julian & Maddalo and his wife Mary’s trigger to write Frankenstein. I have also made mention of David Gilmour. These are more likely to be push factors.

d. Sun and Rain are the cosmic processes not in human control. Their influence can be strengthened by consciously trying to connect with them, for example through nature, meditation or prayer. Probably these are pull factors.

e. The seasons, probably push factors, are to do with the timing of developmental triggers related to the creative process and not in our conscious control.

f. The harvest is the work of art. Harvesting is its production and publication and involves a degree of conscious organisation and selection to ensure the result is as good as it is possible to make it.

An excellent harvest (f) will not be possible without all the preceding stages/components. Without the careful and diligent exercise of conscious control under cultivation (c) and harvest (f) the art will earn Myer’s stricture concerning Blake – that the subliminal uprush has not sufficiently been subject to conscious control. With excessive and constricting conscious control, or in the absence/depletion of seeds (a), soil (b) or climate (d), the work will not resonate at the highest levels of great art.

The Dissolute Artist Problem

The operation of none of these factors depends upon the artist being in anyway anarchic in his personal life, although not following convention in any way that hampers the creative flow is an advantage. It can be tricky to distinguish between meaningless and unimportant conventions and core moral values. Transgressing the former will not damage and might even foster the quality of the art: transgressing the latter will probably damage the art, or at least stifle its full potential.

Ludwig Tuman, in his thoughtful book The Mirror of the Divine, shares insights that are helpful on this issue, though he is addressing a slightly different aspect of the problem. He argues (page 114-15):

The tension between artist and society is… resolved by recognising his right of self expression, and by recognising, too, that the freedom of the individual must be tempered with a sense of spiritual responsibility towards the community. In conclusion, the Bahá’í teachings would seem to condone neither of the two extremes found in the history of art: neither the extreme of suppressing the artist, for to do so transgresses against his rights as an individual: nor the other extreme of allowing him absolute license, for the rights of those who are affected by his work must also be taken into account.

Two Key Issues

There are at least two other key issues to be resolved.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

1. How does one write with such a high intent without falling prey to Shelley’s strained and overwrought diction? (This is closely related to the issue of didacticism and dissonance, which I have dealt with already, so I won’t rehearse all that again here.) George Herbert manages not to sell his ideals short, where many others fail. Humility may be a key factor here.

It is possible that my misgivings about Shelley’s diction are misplaced. I say that in the light of Bahíyyih Nakhjavání’s article Artist, Seeker and Seer, which addresses almost the same issue. She writes:

Great art, therefore, is the expression of the soul’s glimpse of certitude in the double-lensed burning glass of an aesthetic structure commensurate with the patterns it perceives. To be great it must also seize us with an entirety that leaves no word untouched by wonder, no line untouched by light.

Maybe I’m just a pathologically understating Englishman cringing irrationally at the faintest hint of exaggeration! I leave that for you to decide. In the meanwhile, I will hold onto my doubts about Shelley’s high-flying style.

I perhaps need to clarify that this issue is not the same as the problem that some modern readers might have with what they could experience as an ‘archaic’ or ‘old-fashioned’ style. The latter problem is worth struggling to overcome as Shelley is in that case simply writing according to the conventions of his time and very effectively so at his best.

2. It might also be argued that empathy and art could clash if too much concern for family, friends and others distracts the artist from his work. However, if we take seriously the evidence Ricard adduces in his brilliant book Altruism, then it could be that compassion energises as well as bringing wisdom, suggesting that altruism, a disposition to consider the needs of others rather than a simple feeling state, and art would be deeply compatible to the great benefit of the art, and probably of the artist and of society as well. Presumably also the wider the compass of compassion and the stronger the disposition towards altruism, the greater the art will be.

Questions concerning the Model

In terms of a model of inspiration, various other questions arise. Should we be talking about triggers as the promoters of ‘subliminal uprush,’ or would the idea of pricking the membrane between consciousness and the subliminal be a better way of conceptualising it. This would make my soil model ineffective as an explainer. The subliminal could also be building up a kind of pressure that creates the possibility of its breaking through without a trigger – more like Byron’s laval image.

One Size will not Fit All

All of which inevitably leads me to feel that probably any one model of creativity is going to be too simplistic to cover all bases. I am reminded that Bahá’u’lláh, in conveying to us the nature and processes of the human heart, used at least three different images at different times: earth, fire and mirrors. I’ve explored these at length in an earlier sequence of posts.

The earth metaphor is relatively consistent in the Bahá’í Writings. The heart has or is soil in which spiritual qualities are to be planted, such as the hyacinth of wisdom or the rose of love. We need to weed it, seed it and tend it.

The mirror image is similarly consistent. Our heart, if polished and clean, will faithfully reflect what is placed before it, and it is advisable that we are turning it towards life enhancing aspects of experience, as well as keeping it clean.

Fire is slightly more complex in that it can be either the means of cleansing the heart, for example in the prayer which reads:

Ignite, then, O my God, within my breast the fire of Thy love, that its flame may burn up all else except my remembrance of Thee, that every trace of corrupt desire may be entirely mortified within me, and that naught may remain except the glorification of Thy transcendent and all-glorious Being.

Or of lighting its candle as in:

O BEFRIENDED STRANGER! The candle of thine heart is lighted by the hand of My power, quench it not with the contrary winds of self and passion.

This makes me fairly sure that the soil metaphor, which was influenced both by Bahá’u’lláh and by Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, has some value.

However, at times, as Byron and Shelley themselves testify, inspiration looks more like a volcano or a fire. So I think I have to find a way of factoring at least those two into the mix.

I realised then that I needed to see if Shelley’s writing contained the idea of a mirror anywhere in this kind of context before I simply began pulling that in as well.


Shelley and the Mirror

It was no surprise to find, in Shelley’s The Defence of Poetry, many references to the idea of a mirror linked to poetry.

After explaining (Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: page 946) that ‘poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’ Shelley goes onto add that, for him, ‘language . . . . is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being’ than other more plastic or acoustic forms of art.

Presumably, to reconcile this with Iain McGilchrist’s view of right-brain holistic experience as being inherently inexplicable, Shelley simply means that poetry succeeds best in communicating with verbal consciousness because it has translated ineffable inner experience into musico-metaphorical terms that get as close as possible to transmuting those experiences into a form that left-brain language doesn’t have to decode before trying to understand them.

The key point that Shelley goes on to make is probably more crucial. He distinguishes rightly between ‘conception’ (an interesting word as it can mean an idea or a moment when the birth process is initiated) and ‘expression.’ He sees them both as means of ‘communication’ for the ‘light’ to use, but the conception is a ‘mirror which reflects’ that light, whereas expression is a ‘cloud which enfeebles it.’ He seems to be privileging language over other means as a communicator, in a way which I’m not sure I yet understand[1].

Shelley goes onto describe (page 947) ‘[a] poem [as] the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.’ He sees prosaic accounts as ‘epitomes’ or summaries stripped of their essential core and therefore subject to the corrosion of time. Poetry, however, ‘forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.’ His conclusion is that:

A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

There are two other less relevant references to mirrors in The Defence before Shelley reaches his triumphant conclusion (page 956):

Poets are the hierophants [expounders] of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

This clearly suggests that even the poet does not know the full import of what he says. He is simply a channel for meanings beyond his reach.

I think that just about clinches it. I have to draw on all three metaphors.


For source of image see link

Overarching Assumptions

There is the possibility for two overarching assumptions to any model I then create.

(1) If there is no transcendent realm, then we might only need to adapt McGilchrist’s concept of right-brain holistic, metaphorical, nonlinear kinds of processing, which create experiences irreducible to language. These processes frequently occur beneath awareness and produce new insights, sometimes quite complex, that surprise. We still would need to prepare the ground, protect the flame or shine the mirror to foster such experiences, enable us to see the truth at some level of our being, and permit it to enter fully into consciousness. None of this would require moral rectitude or spiritual development as an essential or even important component.

(2) If there is a transcendent realm, then all of the above would apply but also, moral rectitude/spiritual development would be an essential prerequisite for the highest levels of achievement.

At this point I have no intention of pretending that my tripartite model is correct. I merely want it to be useful as a lens through which to examine other creative lives and the art they have produced.

My assumption for now is going to be that, while it is theoretically possible for the transcendent realm, which I believe is there, to seed the soil of an artist’s subconscious, be reflected in the mirror of his consciousness or shine from the lamp of his mind to illuminate the present, I am going to be very cautious before concluding that any significant work of art I examine will provide evidence of any such thing.

I am going to be more confident of supposing that the greatest works of art are partly the product of subliminal processes of some kind, and I want to understand more clearly what they might be.

I also would like to believe that great art will teach us something of value to improve our daily lives, perhaps by connecting us with nature, enabling us to understand other human beings better, or showing us how to bring more beauty into the world. I will be looking for evidence of that, most probably in the art form I understand best – poetry.

Exactly how and when the metaphors of earth, fire and mirrors should be applied is going to be an empirical one, I feel, and I shouldn’t leap at this point to claim I have an integrated model.

Art and the Artist – a final thought

As a final thought, this whole process has led me to believe that as Shelley matured as a man, through personal suffering, key friendships and exposure to testing events in the politico-social sphere, he also matured as a poet. I feel that there is therefore a relationship between the development of the person and the development of the art which is not reducible to a question simply of skill acquisition.

The blind spots of the human being limit the reach of the art. However, because the impaired vision of the artist can be more penetrating than mine, even a flawed artist can open my eyes to truths unavailable otherwise to me. It saddens me to realise how much more such an artist would have achieved with more focus on his or her own spiritual and moral development. Defying pointless convention is one thing: debasing yourself is quite another. We all need to get better at telling the difference.

Let’s see where my next exploration leads me, whenever that will be!


[1] He wrote: ‘For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication.

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Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

This is an age when the poet is not the only seer we have on earth, but is the seer particularly endowed to sing of what he sees.

(Bahíyyih Nakhjavání in Artist, Seeker and Seer)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This is the last post in the sequence,.

At the end of the previous post I had come to the conclusion that in the poem Julian & Maddalo we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.

This is, I think, very different from the situation we now encounter in the next two poems.

The Mask of Anarchy – the Music

First of all, does its music match its meaning?

A good place to look is a key moment of transition in the poem. In an earlier post I have quoted the opening lines that lead to our first sight of Anarchy riding along exulting in his power and the adulation of his followers. Then things are about to shift.

Then all cried with one accord,
“Thou art King, and God, and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!”

And Anarchy, the skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education,
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

For he knew the palaces
Of our kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.

So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned parliament,

When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair;
And she cried out in the air;

“My father, Time, is weak and grey
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

“He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me–
Misery! oh, Misery!”

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses’ feet,
Expecting with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

Ship STC
This is a completely different verse form from that of Julian and Maddalo. This is ballad metre, the verse form of the people not the elite, similar, it is interesting to note, to the metre Coleridge chose for his masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Michael Schmidt, in his massive overview of poetry in English – Lives of the Poetsastutely remarks (page 384):

This is not the language of the ballad. Ballad was beyond the aristocratic populist. He can write directly, but on his own terms which are – in his view – universal. Ballad is rooted in the tribal and rural; this poem addresses an urban populace, a proletariat.

It tells a story well. Written in this way, the language is plain and accessible to all. The rhythm and the rhymes are strong, perfect for the forceful and dark anger of this poem, but also capable of carrying the depth of compassion for the oppressed it also includes. The repeating rhythm is like a hammer or a drum beating the meaning into our skulls.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

I have no doubt about this. The outrage Shelley feels against the atrocity of the massacre is one almost everyone would share as is the feeling that a strong protest needed to be registered in as many ways as possible.

In this poem, though, Shelley took his own understanding and that of his audience to a completely new level. After the intervention of a mysterious power,

. . . the prostrate multitude
Looked — and ankle deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien . . .

The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. It is perhaps no accident that here we have another ‘maniac.’ She describes the forces arrayed against them before she advises them how to respond:

“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.”

The combination of a powerful theme and a new understanding make this poem great in this respect at least. I feel the combination of that with a strong but accessible verse form, brilliantly managed, makes this a great work of inspired poetry.

The Inspiration

So, now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

It is undoubtedly the trauma of Peterloo that triggered this poem, though it was also fed from years of mulling over in prose and poetry the political ideas that underpin its message.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to the outrage of Peterloo. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

That a poem of this length and quality was written in a mere 12 days suggests something of the subliminal pressure that might have been behind it. It is not just the speed though that suggests the inspiration of the poem goes beyond the kind of emotional reaction that fuelled Julian and Maddalo.

He avoids repellent didacticism, even though the poem clearly has a message. The message is rooted in a vividly created situation. There is a narrative and the characters, even though symbolic, have a physical presence that is conveyed by few but telling details – ‘skeleton,’ ‘palsied’ ‘ankle-deep in blood’ etc. At the same time, amidst the horror and the outrage, he does not lose the music, moving between dissonance and grace as the occasion demands: in one stanza even we move from the dissonant half-rhyme of ‘. . . the prostrate multitude/Looked — and ankle deep in blood’ to the harmony of the long rhymes ‘Hope, that maiden most serene,/Was walking with a quiet mien . . .’

This is, for me, Right-Brain Poetry of a high order.

Just as importantly, he also does not capitulate to the dissonance of the events by making them all there is in the poem. Shelley manages to avoid this trap, which I described in an earlier post, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. I feel he has lifted his own consciousness and thereby become capable of lifting ours.

This makes the work far greater than the man. So, great art like this – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being. It can be written at great speed – too fast perhaps for conscious control to explain it completely – and yet break new ground and maintain a wide-angled perspective on events.


‘The Angels descending the Heavenly Ladder’ by Gustave Dore (for source of image see link)

Ode to the West Wind – the Music

First of all, does this poem’s music match its meaning?

Of all the poems I have chosen to consider, this is by far the most musical, the most purely lyrical.

The form is a mix of two – terza rima and an improvised sonnet structure. Terza rima is best known in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sonnet blend is achieved by dividing his poem into five fourteen-line sections, each ending as the Shakespearean sonnet does, with a couplet. I’ll quote the first section in full to illustrate:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

I feel Shelley is at his best when he constrains his impetuous turbulence within tight forms such as this and the ballad form of The Mask of Anarchy. The way Shelley uses this form evokes the gusts and eddies of the wind he addresses. Enjambments cross over stanza breaks, not just line breaks, and focus switches between the ends and beginnings of lines in mimicry of the wild wind’s switches of direction. Even the apparently clumsy parenthesis in the last triad serves to convey the hidden strain of new life bursting through once spring is here.

In all the succeeding sections the sense ebbs and flows in this same masterly fashion across line and triad breaks, the meaning and the music of the verse are so closely intertwined.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

I think so. Shelley is addressing one of the fundamental questions this whole sequence of posts is in part concerned with. What is art, in this case poetry, for? What is it supposed to do and how is it supposed to do it? For anyone concerned about the over-mechanised instrumental model of education that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our market-driven civilisation, there are few questions more important than this.

We need to leap to the last section to examine this further:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

It expresses a model of inspiration. After all that word comes from the same source as respiration and is linked to spirit as derived metaphorically from breath. It is vital to life. In this case there is a strong link made with attunement to Nature. In part, he sees the poet as an instrument that unseen powers play to produce harmony.

Comparing thoughts to autumn leaves unlocks other powerful implications. Thoughts, on this model, are the product of powerful natural processes involving soil, sunlight and rain. They are part of a natural cycle of creation, death, transformation and renewal. They are meant to fertilize new growth. Interestingly, in the light of the discussion in the next set of posts on a model of creativity, he switches metaphors from compost to fire. While wood ash will help in the processes of gardening, sparks of fire are clearly intended to set other minds aflame.

So, Shelley seems to see the poet’s role as nurturing within himself deep insights into truth, which have to be spread abroad by the same wind whose air has helped form them, so that new and deeper forms of thought may be created that will change the world, make it more beautiful. By ‘prophecy’ Shelley does not mean foretelling the details of the future, but tuning into the spirit of the age and helping shape the future by the intimations so received. Ann Wroe explains (page 312):

Poets, Shelley hastened to say, were not prophets ‘in the gross sense of the word.’ They could not foretell [events]. . . . . [But t]hey could not deny the Power that was ‘seated on the throne of their own soul’ . . . . . ‘For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time. [The quote is from A Defence of Poetry.]

How art is to do this remains an interesting implication. That he sees thought as leaves not seeds suggests that the artist’s work nourishes new growth that is inherent in reality. The seeds are there already waiting to be cared for, fed if you like. The world is fertile with constructive growth: the poet’s job is to make sure the seeds can grow. Our job is to tune into what he is saying and add the dead leaves of our own thoughts to the enriching layer of mulch. There is also here the implication of sadness and sacrifice. We won’t be able to contribute to this process by remaining in our comfort zone. The sacrifices of the artist are meant to inspire us in this respect as well.

Schmidt’s comment (page 386) is helpful here. He contrasts what he terms the ‘abstracting technique’ and a ‘process’ which ‘tends to particularise emotion.’ He spells out a key implication:

Between these two processes a crucial difference exists: the first constructs, the second interprets experience. Shelley’s most popular poems are in the latter category. He sees himself as a moral, not a didactic writer, seeking to ‘awaken’ and ‘enlarge’ the mind, and this he does best through experience, not through projection.

Perhaps it would be best to give Shelley the last word on this issue. In his Preface to The Revolt of Islam he explained  (Ann Wroe – pages 259-60):

I have sought to enlist the the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human passion, all those elements which essentially compose a poem, in the cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality; and in the view of kindling within the bosom of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for the doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind.

Beech hedge

The Inspiration

Now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

Its source this time seems to be his sense of aging, though the immediate trigger was his experience of the powerful winds of Italy in autumn. The resonance we can get from nature, or other aspects of the environment, can help pierce the membrane which separates us from the subliminal, while not being in themselves traumatic events. They simply connect us to our depths by what they represent.

This makes it even more likely that the main source of the poem’s power is from ‘subliminal uprush.’ There is no association with a community of minds behind it in the same way as there was with Julian and Maddalo. There is no dramatic event such as the massacre of Peterloo fuelling an outrage that seeks an outlet in poetry. There simply seems to have been a strong and sudden sense of what his life as a poet should mean, which poured out rapidly in a specially created form, whose solemn music and rich imagery contain a wealth of implications for the rest of us to reflect upon at length, spending more time reading and re-reading it than he did on composing it at the time. For me the poem pushes the boundaries of my understanding of the nature of poetry and its purpose: this is because, in his struggle to capture his own emergent conception, he has seized on a rich vein of imagery with a multitude of penetrating implications, some of which I have tried to explore.

It is probably only fair to add that all three poems probably have a kind of composting gestation of subliminal influence behind them as well, something I have referred to once or twice but not analysed in detail.

The next post takes me to the more difficult bit.

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… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post brings the focus back on Shelley for the penultimate time. It seems to justify my strong sense that I need to go back to this material to see what light can be shed by my current better understanding of the effects of trauma.

The last two posts tackled first the question of what makes a poem before looking at various models of creativity. Now I want to take a closer look at Shelley.

Key Issues

Perhaps the first thing to do is summarise what seem to be the key issues for Shelley’s career as a poet specifically before closing in on three of his poems.

First of all there are a number of contradictory elements that almost certainly led to significant inner conflict:

  1. Almost everyone would agree that Shelley’s character had serious flaws, not least his tendency to violence, his lack of empathy and his casual disregard for the debts he owed to people who could ill-afford to incur them. A telling late example of his oblivion to other people’s legitimate concerns comes in Ann Wroe’s account of a boating incident where he took Jane Williams, a close companion, and her two babies, out on the water in a coracle (page 177-78). He was plainly pre-occupied with death as he gazed interminably into the water. Jane did her best to distract him, but when, in the end, he said he could easily discover the meaning of death by rocking the coracle, Jane had the presence of mind to say, ‘No, thank you; not now. I should like my dinner first, and so would the children.’ When they got back safely on land, ‘Shelley seemed unaware that he had said, or done, anything remotely strange.’ The sad irony is that his final possible acts of recklessness in his boat killed not only Shelley himself but also her husband.
  2. He also had great positive qualities, not least the courage to publicise his idealistic vision of society at a time when to do so was extremely dangerous, even for someone of his privileged background. His attitude towards authority had its roots both in his later fractious relationship with his father, but possibly earlier in what seems to have been his insensitive, even brutal treatment at the hands of most of his teachers.
  3. In his personal life he was both victim, for example of bullying at school, and victimizer, for instance in his treatment of Miss Hitchener and his first wife, Harriet.
  4. In his work he wrestled both with forging a language to describe the mind as well as using language to raise political awareness. I don’t think it’s forcing the issue to suppose that he saw fruitful parallels between what he experienced within his mind and what he saw happening in society around him.

Holmes (page 5): ‘All his life, Shelley was to detest violence and the various forms of ‘tyranny’ which it produced. Yet the exceptional violence in his own character, the viciousness with which he reacted to opposition, was something he found difficult to accept about himself.’

The paragraph that summarises the consequences of all this early trauma concludes (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile.

Holmes feels that the character of the monster in Mary’s Frankenstein was drawn in part from Shelley and that expressions such as (page 333) ‘ . . . misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous,’ from the monster, capture something of his psychodynamics.

Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

Claire Clairmont, to whom Shelley was closer than to anyone else in the world at that point, wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

It seems highly likely that the conflicts, by the discomfort of the dissonance they created, pushed him to resolve them, if he could, through poetry. Previous posts have looked at suffering and inner conflict as drivers of development to higher levels of consciousness. It seems likely that a poet would use poetry to help this process. This, in Shelley’s case, was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful.

There is also, of course, the separate issue of his temperament, which provided the unstable context for all those conflicts. He was clearly excitable, even at times hysterical, which may have had something to do with his reckless impetuosity. In one single page (169) of her account, Ann Wroe uses the following words to describe him: ‘imperious,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘impetuous,’ and ‘self-willed.’ This perhaps goes some way to explain his rapid shifts of commitment to people as well as to ideas. His intense involvement with today’s soul mate, which drew people to him and caused them to forge strong attachments, could change almost overnight to indifference or even outright rejection. He left a lot of emotional damage in his wake, even though his avowed intention was to harm no one.

This relates to the caveat that FWH Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

What he learnt from observing his impact on others may eventually have helped him mellow the initially extreme impatience of his political perspective.

For example (page 288):

In the effort to face his certain aspects of himself, his attempts and failures to set up constant and happy relations with those around him, he made a breakthrough into a new kind of reflective writing.

He was also passionately curious about many different areas of human concern, from poetry through psychology and science to philosophy and the translation of classics such as Plato’s Symposium. This seemed to be feeding the subliminal processes connected with his art. [It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.]

In terms of what was at the time the controversial issue of his atheism, perhaps the closest we can get is the description of his beliefs in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (page 820):

In truth, Percy’s attitude to God was more complex than the word ‘atheist’ suggests. It is not surprising that the concept was inimical to someone so opposed to an established church not merely complicit, but deeply implicated, in the social and political oppression prevalent in England at the time. On the other hand, he was tremendously attracted to the pantheist life force of Tintern Abbey, and could not resist pleading the existence of a similar power in his poetry. However, he stopped well short of believing in a benevolent deity capable of intervening in human affairs.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Shelley’s own prose comment is illuminating (page 639), Epipsychidion:

. . . . is an idealised history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood avoid it, consists in seeking an immortal image and likeness of what is perhaps eternal.

My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that emotionally he believed he was connected to what felt like transcendent forces: intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to entertain the idea that these forces had anything to do with the God his contemporaries believed in.

Similar to Sir Philip Sidney, he continues to see (Holmes – page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

What I also need to mention is that, in my view, apart from a significant number of relatively short lyrics, his greatest poetry can only be found in a very small number of his longer more ambitious works. That is why the focus of my consideration of his poetry will be on trying to detect what combination of factors came together to create his masterpieces. I am going to assume that the uneven, or even poor quality of his other long poems needs no explanation except that the necessary combination of truly creative factors was absent or at best intermittent and/or that the necessary control of subliminal material was also missing. I have already indicated that I would be avoiding the dramatic poetry and focusing on shorter more lyrical pieces.

Holmes ShelleyShelley’s Poems

For present purposes it seems to me that there are three poems of Shelley’s that probably fall within the criteria I’ve set for great lyric poetry and lie within my competence to assess. They also offer contrasting possibilities in terms of the sources of their inspiration and their relationship to Shelley’s preoccupations.

I recognise that I have made this decision relatively quickly and largely on the basis of secondary sources. I haven’t done what both Holmes and Wroe have clearly done, which is saturated themselves for a long period of time, not just in Shelley’s poetry, but also in all his available notebooks, letters and formal prose. However, I am intending this to be the start of a journey and if I waited until I’ve had time to read all that, assuming I was interested enough in Shelley in his own right to complete such a mammoth task, the first step would probably never be taken.

So, I’m going to blast on anyway. Let’s see if it all stands up to closer inspection. I have the impression, possibly the illusion that I’m heading in the right direction.

I need to look at each of these poems in turn, first in terms of their quality (i.e. musicality, significance, ambition and solving for the unknown) before looking at them in terms of their process of inspiration.

Julian and Maddalo – the Music

First of all, does the music of this poem match its meaning?

I feel there is no doubt that Shelley’s command of music in Julian and Maddalo has greatly advanced:

This ride was my delight. I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be;
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows; and yet more
Than all, with a remembered friend I love                         20
To ride as then I rode;–for the winds drove
The living spray along the sunny air
Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
Stripped to their depths by the awakening north;
And from the waves sound like delight broke forth
Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
Into our hearts aërial merriment.

He plays with full and half-rhymes. The language for the most part is simple and direct, but changes syllabic groupings with a lightness of touch and delicate shifts of mood: ‘I love all waste’ with its monosyllables and teasing line break (why would he love waste, for heaven’s sake?) shifts into ‘And solitary places.’ This builds up by the long sounds of ‘waste,’ ‘taste’ and ‘see’ (the latter with its reminder of ‘sea’) to a sense of the ‘boundless,’ which then triggers the brilliant leap into the transcendent desire of ‘as we wish our souls to be.’ I won’t bore you with more probably unnecessary commentary.

He sustains this level for almost all the poem, weaknesses such as ‘aërial merriment’ remaining relatively rare, but perhaps not quite rare enough.

The Theme

Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’

We get a sense from very early on that this poem is not going to be a superficial or trivial one:

Of all that earth has been, or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint, or suffering may achieve,
We descanted; and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argued against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.
The sense that he was greater than his kind                       50
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.

I accept that simply stating that they talked about almost everything of any importance may be no more than an ironic boast, but there are hints that the intention is not only serious, but that we are also in the hands of a poet who could potentially deliver. The astute analysis of the companion’s character and the sardonic tone here, that we know Shelley was able to command and sustain powerfully over the 14 lines of the sonnet Ozymandias, should give us hope that he can hold this level for longer.

Does the poem aspire to lift my consciousness, help me solve for the unknown?

The next development of the poem suggests that the issue of deciding what to believe is at the core of the poem, and is therefore a theme that could potentially be intimately related to lifting levels of consciousness as high as possible:

                                         . . . .  said Maddalo;
‘You talk Utopia.’ ‘It remains to know,’
I then rejoined, ‘and those who try may find                     180
How strong the chains are which our spirit bind;
Brittle perchance as straw. We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer–what, we know not till we try;
. . . . . . .                   190
‘My dear friend,’
Said Maddalo, ‘my judgment will not bend
To your opinion, though I think you might
Make such a system refutation-tight
As far as words go. I knew one like you,
Who to this city came some months ago,
With whom I argued in this sort, and he
Is now gone mad,– . . . . .’

The interest of the poem does not stop there. It contains, for example, ideas concerning the nature of the soil of experience from which poetry springs (Holmes – page 456):

Maddalo recalls the power of [the Maniac’s] language, . . . . .

And I remember one remark which then
Maddalo made. He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Holmes (page 457) feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement.

Through the Maniac’s monologue, the poem questions what many of us also question, the reason for our suffering:

‘What Power delights to torture us? I know                       320
That to myself I do not wholly owe
What now I suffer, though in part I may.
Alas! none strewed sweet flowers upon the way
Where, wandering heedlessly, I met pale Pain,
My shadow, which will leave me not again.
If I have erred, there was no joy in error,
But pain and insult and unrest and terror;
I have not, as some do, bought penitence
With pleasure, and a dark yet sweet offence . . .

I accept that the abstractions Shelley litters across the last lines – ‘error,’ ‘insult and unrest and terror’ – weaken the force of the passage. He has still not shaken off this habit of straining into the abstract for effect. But he is certainly beginning to master his medium.

He is also probing, at the personal level here, issues that have relevance to society as a whole and the politics that plays out at that level:

As some perverted beings think to find
In scorn or hate a medicine for the mind
Which scorn or hate have wounded–oh, how vain!
The dagger heals not, but may rend again!

He goes on to plead that they do not believe:

. . . . . that I will join the vulgar cry;
Or with my silence sanction tyranny;
Or seek a moment’s shelter from my pain
In any madness which the world calls gain,
Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern
As those which make me what I am; or turn
To avarice or misanthropy or lust.

Shelley is clearly using a story of personal pain to make a political point. This poem for me represents a blend of the personal/psychological and the political, making it therefore an ambitious enterprise – perhaps too ambitious, hence its failure to deliver consistently on its intentions. It helps us see perhaps from where the power of the other two poems I’m going to look at partly derives: The Mask of Anarchy is focused exclusively on the politics while Ode to the West Wind sticks with the personal.

This blend or fusion continues even as the Maniac rants against his fate at the hands of the woman he loved:

But me, whose heart a stranger’s tear might wear
As water-drops the sandy fountain-stone,
Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan
For woes which others hear not, and could see
The absent with the glance of fantasy,
And with the poor and trampled sit and weep,
Following the captive to his dungeon deep;
Me–who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of this earth,                      450
And was to thee the flame upon thy hearth,
When all beside was cold:–that thou on me
Shouldst rain these plagues of blistering agony!

I sense that we see here exactly how the character of the Maniac in this poem speaks for Shelley’s own self-dramatising perspective on the world, where he is the victimised but noble ally of the oppressed. This perspective has power in its compassion for the wretched and is deeply flawed in its self-pity. This seems to me the Shelley problem, from which I can never quite escape when I read most of his poetry. It is rooted in his early experiences, as we saw when we looked at his life.

I think, then, that this poem, in its intentions at least and probably in its achievement just about matches the criteria set for what we are terming a ‘great’ poem. To be fair, I have to acknowledge that Duncan Wu’s 1000-page anthology of romantic poetry does not include even a mention of this poem, let alone a quotation from it. He clearly does not number it among Shelley’s greatest achievements. I accept that it has its flaws, the main one for me being the overlong ‘Maniac’s’ monologue.

Let’s see how far I can get exploring the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

So what triggered it?

In Julian and Maddalo the inspiration is largely derived from social interaction.

It was in Venice in 1819, as a result of Shelley’s deepening relationship with Lord Byron, that Holmes feels we begin to see appearing what was ‘the first of Shelley’s masterpieces’ (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.

This close friendship with Byron, who would seem to have probed the weaknesses of Shelley’s philosophy of life in a way that Shelley could not ignore because of his admiration for Byron as a poet, had apparently triggered something of a crisis in him and fired up the need to find a way of asserting his sense of reality but from behind the protection of a mask.

What I am not completely sure of is whether he is simply seeking to justify his position or whether he has been spurred to explore it. My money is on his having felt stung to defend his worldview. The poem would have been greater had he been able to rise to the challenge of exploring it.

The poem, via Maddalo’s comment on the Maniac, also suggests that the pain Shelley was suffering in his personal life at the time had also played its part in the generation of the poem. This might explain why the suffering of the Maniac is so central a theme and why Shelley at this point is unable to place it in perspective. We have only his word that he is more sinned against than sinning, and we are expected to accept his values on trust as right and noble.

I have come to the conclusion that in this poem we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.

This is very different from the situation we encounter in the next two poems, I think, which I will look at next Monday.

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In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with last Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post, like the last one, constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

N.B. now we’re back on track after the two posts out of sequence! To read 5a now see link.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

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[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake. I realised too late that I had jumped over two posts to leap to 5a – so here they come, better late than never!

In the last posthttps://phulme.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/reality-art-the-artist-4c5-shelleys-poetry-and-politics-2/ I focused mainly on the Mask of Anarchy, and concluded that Shelley manages to avoid the trap of painting only in black, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man.

Ode to the West Wind

At about the same time as he completed this superb protest poem, another of his great poems was incubating, according to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In this poem, I feel, Shelley has managed to curb his tendency to over-wrought diction, which mars so much of his poetry, without selling out the intensity of his feeling and the exaltation of his vision. Also, he has been more successful, as a result, in pitching his imagery at a deeply resonant level. For example, at first sight the idea of ‘dead thoughts’ seems inherently despairing and negative, until you see the comparison with dead leaves, whose death is precisely what is necessary to fertilise new growth. There is a sense of Shelley’s willingness to sacrifice himself in this process, but he does not rub our noses in it in the self-aggrandising way we see so often elsewhere in his poetry. It may be no coincidence that this poem follows on from the risk he took in trying to get The Mask of Anarchy published. (I will be returning to a closer analysis of both these poems in a later post.)

It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I find his use of the word ‘hearth’ particularly rich in implications. It contains the words ‘art,’ ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ within it, as I have explained elsewhere. As this was a poem I read often in my late teens, I now find myself wondering whether the core image in the dream I had in my 40s of the hearth, which was so important to my understanding of spiritual processes, was first planted by Shelley.

1 Earth Heart alone

For source of image see link

Elusive Inspiration

I will skate over another long poem – Peter Bell the Third – even though it does have some powerful passages. It is too uneven, and therefore ultimately unsuccessful, to be included here, where I am focusing exclusively on his more powerful poems for what they might reveal about the creative process at its best.

Holmes’s commentary on this period is relevant (page 556):

The astonishing speed and range of his creative output, which had now run in an unbroken curve from 6 September when he first received news of Peterloo, until 5 November, embracing such widely different genres of poetry and prose, and simultaneously throwing off a comet’s tail of ballad fragments and songs, suggest a state of exultant energy and vision, a consciousness of formidable active power that is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms.

He amplifies on this (page 569):

Like the great creative efforts of 1812 and 1817 – which were, equally, responses to political and social crisis in society – the effort of 1819 pushed forward the range of Shelley’s literary powers. It established in his mind more mature conceptions both of the actions and sufferings of other men, and of his own. In artistic terms the greatest gains were in economy and intensity of style.

Ann Wroe makes the astute observation that (page 92) ‘he could not will or control the poetic power, and when it lapsed he was merely a man again.’ What I would very much wish to be able to define, are the factors that connect him to this power so that his work resonates at a higher level than his more workaday verse. This would help me understand better the difference between poetry and verse: they can sometimes, to a cursory glance, appear the same, but repeated exposure reveals the former to penetrate reality far more deeply than the latter.

It was Erich Fromm who alerted me to the distinction between two kinds of stimuli. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, having discussed simple stimuli, which is the common usage of the term stimulus and means a trigger to reaction, he explains that there is another kind of stimulus (page 269):

. . . . one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, and landscape, music, or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’… by becoming more awake and more aware.

He unpacks some of the implications of this distinction (pages 269-70):

Stimuli of the first, simple kind, if repeated beyond a certain threshold, are no longer registered and lose their stimulating effect. . . . Activating stimuli have a different effect. They do not remain the same; because of the productive response to them they are always new, always changing: the stimulated person… brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.

When ‘poetic power’ is present we have activating stimuli which can change our awareness and which repay revisiting: when it is absent there is unlikely to be any such effect. In the final group of posts I will be exploring this issue in greater depth, though it will mean digressing into a discussion of the novel’s capacity to promote empathy as well as exploring the difficulties of distinguishing between a poem that is merely a simple stimulus and therefore probably only verse, and a poem that is an activating one, and therefore poetry in the best sense of that word.

I bet you’re looking forward to that discussion.

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

A Defence of Poetry

After the end of this period comes A Defence of Poetry, which Holmes (page 642) regards as something of an anthology of his earlier prose writing. A well known antecedent is Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. The Wikipedia article acknowledges his influence on Shelley and beyond, and summarises his message:

In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function.

One of the most recent descendants is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry, where he speaks of (page xvii) how poetry can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’

This may not seem consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):

[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.

He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):

Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.

Shelley stands at a point of time approximately halfway between these publications. Similar to Sidney, he continues to see (page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Shelley draws a distinction which anticipates Iain McGilchrist, in a way (page 645):

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has for want of the poetic faculty proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world.

Approaching his End

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

His total lack of interest at this same time in the situation of his own children by Harriet points in the same unfeeling direction.

Writing to Claire at the time of the composition of Adonais, he explained (page 656) that:

. . . .  in writing poetry he found the only real form of mental relief which lifted him above ‘the stormy mist of sensations.’

I won’t be dwelling on this poem here, not only because of its flawed empathy, but also because, while I do not I agree with Holmes’s dismissive description of it as mannered and pompous (page 657), its unevenness raises too many doubts in my mind about its overall quality. I need more time before I can come to a measured assessment.

Concerning what poetry was for him, he said something revealing at this time, which I have also quoted in an earlier post (page 659):

‘The poet and the man are two different natures,’ he explained . . . ‘though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other.’

The best poetry of this period comes under the heading of Pisan Poems though I am not sure at this point what exactly triggered them and therefore am unclear how they might help clarify my current theme.

This is where my rather rapid overview of his poetic output comes to an end and I now face the daunting task in the next set of posts of integrating what I have learnt into my working model of the creative process so I can test it out on other writers. I’ll probably stick to writers because I understand the written arts better than the others, though I don’t necessarily value them more.

Because I messed up the sequence in republishing, the next post in the sequence is 5a: to read that if you wish, see link before moving on to 5b.

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