In Defense of Poetry

"Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.” ~Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defense of Poetry"

A good friend of mine asked me about this quote, and I thought I’d flesh out my reply here, to encourage you all toward reading more poetry. It’s an acquired taste, but it’s incredibly worth it. Let me prove it to you.

"Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.”

Analyzing the Quote

This quote is a statement about poetry, about what it does to us when we read it. 

The key word is "redeem”. Poetry redeems. That word isn’t used here to mean “atone”, but to “buy-back”. Poetry buys back. What poetry does is it buys back something within us from decay. 

What that something is is what caused me to look at the poem twice. It’s “the visitations of the divinity in man”. That phrase is sticky. "Visitations” is the direct object, that is what is being redeemed. So poetry is buying back those visitations of something—of divinity. Is the divinity within man, or is it outside of man? At first blush it might seem to indicate that man himself is divine and that poetry helps him find that divinity within himself. But Shelley explains this divinity earlier in the essay:

“It is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea, which the coins calm erases, and whose traces remain only, as on the wrinkled sand which paves it.” 

I think he means that the visitor is the Divine, who leaves His mark within us as we experience Him and His fingerprints in the world. The Divine penetrates our nature and weaves its way into our soul, leaving its trace as it goes and comes. And something more: that as we experience Him we experience his divinity within our souls. Since we are made in His image, we can be transformed to be more like Him by experiencing Him. And poetry gives us that chance.

Poetry gives us the space to stop, reflect, and see the visitations of the Divine, and to adopt that divinity into our souls so that the visitation is redeemed to us, and not wasted in the refuse pile of lost time.

Amusement vs Art

To say that art is for our pleasure is to make art about us, and that ruins it. That’s entertainment, not art. Entertainment doesn’t create space, it fills it so that we don’t have to think. The Greek word “muse” means to think, and it’s no coincidence that the word museum refers to a place to go think about old stuff. The word amusement, in Greek, is to do the opposite of think. You go there when you want to get away from thinking entirely. So there is a fundamental difference between amusement and art.

Function of Art

What art does is it engages us at deep levels about deep and abiding things, and it creates space for us to reflect on those things. It enhances our ability to think, and it leads us to experience the eternal Truths behind it. And since God is Truth, when we do that, we are led to see and experience Him, not just a piece of artwork. The art becomes a window into a much bigger experience that makes sense of not just our lives but Life in general, not just our sorrow or happiness but Sorrow and Happiness in general. Art connects our small experience of life to the Bigger Picture and the Big Story behind it all. Or, it at least gives us that opportunity.

To sum it up, Michael Card, a Christian songwriter and philosopher of music, wrote this to his fellow artists: “God calls us to create a space in time for ourselves and others to meet with God, to gaze upon his beauty and to worship him.” That is what all of art does, and poetry is (it’s been said) the queen of the arts.

It’s time to read more poetry.