About the BookA Defence of Poetry and Other Essays contains Shelley’s famous claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Shelley’s argument for poetry is written within the context of Romanticism. According to William Stigant, it is a work which “analyses the very inner essence of poetry and the reason of its existence–its development from, and operation on, the mind of man”. It argues that while “ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created,” and leads to a moral civil life, poetry acts in a way that “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought”.
The book showcases Shelley’s aesthetic philosophy accentuating his opinion that poetry brings about moral good. It exercises and expands the imagination, and the imagination is the source of sympathy, compassion, and love, which rest on the ability to project oneself into the position of another person. Shelley says: “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” Poetry, according to Shelley, enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight. It strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man. For Shelley, poets are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society.
The book which has been read with interest and enthusiasm ever since its first publication in 1891, contains Shelley’s views on love, on a future state, on punishment of death, besides speculations on metaphysics and morals, and the nature of virtue. There is also an essay on the literature, the arts, and the manners of the Athenians, and an essay on “The Symposium”, or “Preface to The Banquet” of Plato.