A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays by Percy Bysshe Shelley


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Page 2

What is life? Thoughts and feelings arise, with or without our will,
and we employ words to express them. We are born, and our birth is
unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in fragments; we live
on, and in living we lose the apprehension of life. How vain is it
to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being! Rightly
used they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves, and this is
much. For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is
birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What
is birth and death?

The most refined abstractions of logic conduct to a view of life,
which, though startling to the apprehension, is, in fact, that which
the habitual sense of its repeated combinations has extinguished
in us. It strips, as it were, the painted curtain from this scene
of things. I confess that I am one of those who are unable to refuse
my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that
nothing exists but as it is perceived.

It is a decision against which all our persuasions struggle, and we
must be long convicted before we can be convinced that the solid
universe of external things is 'such stuff as dreams are made
of.' The shocking absurdities of the popular philosophy of mind
and matter, its fatal consequences in morals, and their violent
dogmatism concerning the source of all things, had early conducted
me to materialism. This materialism is a seducing system to young and
superficial minds. It allows its disciples to talk, and dispenses
them from thinking. But I was discontented with such a view of
things as it afforded; man is a being of high aspirations, 'looking
both before and after,' whose 'thoughts wander through eternity,'
disclaiming alliance with transience and decay; incapable of
imagining to himself annihilation; existing but in the future and
the past; being, not what he is, but what he has been and shall be.
Whatever may be his true and final destination, there is a spirit
within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution. This is the
character of all life and being. Each is at once the centre and
the circumference; the point to which all things are referred, and
the line in which all things are contained. Such contemplations as
these, materialism and the popular philosophy of mind and matter
alike forbid; they are only consistent with the intellectual system.

It is absurd to enter into a long recapitulation of arguments
sufficiently familiar to those inquiring minds, whom alone a writer
on abstruse subjects can be conceived to address. Perhaps the most
clear and vigorous statement of the intellectual system is to be
found in Sir William Drummond's Academical Questions.

After such an exposition, it would be idle to translate into other
words what could only lose its energy and fitness by the change.
Examined point by point, and word by word, the most discriminating
intellects have been able to discern no train of thoughts in the
process of reasoning, which does not conduct inevitably to the
conclusion which has been stated.

What follows from the admission? It establishes no new truth, it
gives us no additional insight into our hidden nature, neither its
action nor itself. Philosophy, impatient as it may be to build,
has much work yet remaining, as pioneer for the overgrowth of ages.
It makes one step towards this object; it destroys error, and the
roots of error. It leaves, what it is too often the duty of the
reformer in political and ethical questions to leave, a vacancy.
It reduces the mind to that freedom in which it would have acted,
but for the misuse of words and signs, the instruments of its own
creation. By signs, I would be understood in a wide sense, including
what is properly meant by that term, and what I peculiarly mean. In
this latter sense, almost all familiar objects are signs, standing,
not for themselves, but for others, in their capacity of suggesting
one thought which shall lead to a train of thoughts. Our whole life
is thus an education of error.

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and
intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves! Many of
the circumstances of social life were then important to us which
are now no longer so. But that is not the point of comparison on
which I mean to insist. We less habitually distinguished all that
we saw and felt, from ourselves. They seemed as it were to constitute
one mass. There are some persons who, in this respect, are always
children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie, feel
as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe,
or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being.
They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which
precede, or accompany, or follow an unusually intense and vivid
apprehension of life. As men grow up this power commonly decays,
and they become mechanical and habitual agents. Thus feelings and
then reasonings are the combined result of a multitude of entangled
thoughts, and of a series of what are called impressions, planted
by reiteration.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 12:28