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Criticism of Consciousness in Shelley's A Defence of Poetry
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John Robert Leo CRITICISM OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN SHELLEY'S A DEFENCE OF POETRY IN his "Ode to Liberty" Shelley locates by encircling and enfolding metaphors a mythic Hellenic moment, one in which verse was yet "speechless" and philosophy still burdened with "lidless eyes." Greece— always for Shelley either the displaced Garden of prethematic unity or the mythic dream of integrated civic and aesthetic life—is about to inaugurate Athens and the "wrinkled image" of historical consciousness .1 Poetry, thinking, and the tilling of an earth "to human use" are implicitly related and foreseen as destiny: from their enchanted caves Prophetic echoes flung dim melody. On the unapprehensive wild The vine, the corn, the olive mild, Grew savage yet, to human use unreconciled; And, like unfolded flowers beneath the sea, Like the man's dark thought in the infant's brain, Like aught that is which wraps what is to be, Art's deathless dreams lay veiled by many a vein Of Parian stone; and, yet a speechless child, Verse murmured, and Philosophy did strain Her lidless eyes for thee . . . (11. 49-60). Shelley could be describing the reading or speaking of a text, for poetic experience is an originating moment which unfolds our reflections and anticipations. Poetry elides speechlessness and the empty gaze. Its goings are all returnings, its experience is always inventive before meanings codify and resolve: "Every original language near to its source," we find in the Defence (p. 279), "is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem; the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry." What was dark to experience is now illumined, 46 John Robert Leo47 as different regions in experience are uncovered or redistributed by language across our shifting horizons. Thus this bringing-foward-intoclarity , this moving of the previously inexpressed into articulation, is the pattern not only behind Shelley's view ofGreece producing a "sun-fire garlanded" Athens (1. 68), but also the more pervasive design describing other regarded experience. James Edie puts it this way: "We . . . can learn to make distinctions in our experience by attending to differences of meaning which are normally below the level of our own cultural threshold. By attending to a given region of experience, we can lower the differential thresholds already sedimented in our language almost indefinitely and make what was implicit in our experience more and more explicit."2 Edie's comments may be taken as responses to questions emerging from modernist readings of Shelley and other visionary poets—Blake, Hart Crane, or Charles Olson are instances—who sense the poetic project as a criticism of consciousness, within the lived body, as it struggles to make a world. How do language and the imagination consort in the critical regeneration of our lives? In what sorts of ways is renascence the uncovering and unfolding of an indefinite wholeness by the unlayering of fixed habits and attitudes? How does Shelley's Defence of Poetry, both a text on aesthetics and a reading of the world, suggest their alignment? What methods from critical discourse make Shelley's poetics present to our experience and thought? The adjustment of these issues is the task of the remainder of my article. First I examine Shelley's organization of consciousness into "reason" and "imagination" and trace the meanings of these functions in their immediate social context. A brief dispute with the reductive idealism of Platonic tradition allows for my third procedure, which is a phenomenological description of the imaginative field according to Husserl. Finally, I try to explicate Shelley's understanding of imaginative "decentering" within our experience . I Poetry and prose are saturated with references to phenomena. Texts refer to interior and exterior events (memory, rain), which are objects ofandfor consciousness. Shelley grasps this co-givenness of consciousness and world, their correlativity, as a condition revealed and strengthened by metaphor, which itself arrests us as "that of which we are speaking through words."3 But if it is the nature of language to be both perceptual and yet transcendental, both present and absent, it still exists as the imagination's voice in...