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Ashes Sparks


A Defence of Poetry: A Study of the Relationship Between Percy Shelley and Thomas Love Peacock

by Kate Macdonald


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was inspired to write his most famous work of prose, A Defense of Poetry, by the inflammatory work of a friend, Thomas Love Peacock. Peacock's treatise, entitled Four Ages of Poetry (1820), criticized contemporary poetry and incited Shelley to write his passionate Defense in the early spring of 1821. Despite the debate, the two authors remained friends and Shelly sent Peacock manuscripts of the essay upon its completion. Later, after Shelly's death in 1822, Peacock was to send these to publisher John Hunt. Hunt's edited version of A Defense of Poetry eliminated all references to Peacock's Four Ages and was never published. In 1840, 1845, 1847, and 1852 Mary Shelley printed her own editions of Defense, each one absent of allusions to Peacock. Eventually, as more manuscripts were discovered, some of these references were readmitted into the treatise and Peacock's influence again became apparent. The close connection between Defense and Four Ages is significant because in Defense, Shelley argues that all literature derives from the same creative human source and that, because poetry is a part of this vital encompassing web, it represents an integral part of human nature.


"Your anathemas against poetry itself excited me to a sacred rage, or caloëthesl scribendi of vindicating the insulted Muses."(1)

In February and March of 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) wrote his treatise, The Defense of Poetry, while in Italy with his wife, Mary Shelley. Shelly was motivated to write his critical discourse by the work of a friend, Thomas Love Peacock. In the spring of 1820, Peacock, a confidant and mentor to Shelley, had published The Four Ages of Poetry, a criticism of both poets and poetry in general. While he did not specifically criticize Shelley, he ridiculed the work of his colleagues and friends. The Four Ages of Poetry left such an impression on the mind of Shelley that it inspired him to write his most famous work of prose, The Defense of Poetry.

Shelley's acquaintance with Peacock began in Nant Gwillt, Radnorshire in 1812. Peacock was seven years his senior and exerted a large amount of influence upon Shelley and his writing. The friendship was in many ways a mentorship, and it is possible that Shelley stood "more or less in awe of him"(2) and his prose. Although he acquired an extensive knowledge of poetry, Peacock himself wrote almost exclusively in prose. In 1818 he published Nightmare Abbey, a romance who's naive hero was based upon the character of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Nightmare Abbey criticized Shelley's political idealism by depicting him as a fanciful character that "built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species." (3) Interestingly enough, Shelley's opinion of Peacock's romance was not unfavorable and he seemed to take no offence at Peacock's critique. In a letter to Peacock dated June of 1819, Shelley wrote "I am delighted with Nightmare Abbey. I think Scythrop (4) a character admirably conceived and executed..." (5)

Shortly after receiving Shelley's letter concerning Nightmare Abbey, in the early part of 1820, Peacock published The Four Ages of Poetry, the treatise that was to elicit Shelley's passionate defense. With The Four Ages of Poetry, Peacock criticized Shelley's contemporaries outright, writing "To read the promiscuous rubbish of the present time, to the exclusion of the select treasures of the past, is to substitute the worse for the better variety of the same mode of enjoyment." Peacock specifically names Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Coleridge as well as several other romantics, but was careful to exclude Shelley, perhaps out of respect. Nonetheless, Peacock's language was extremely inflammatory and directed towards contemporary poetry in general. In a particularly negative passage, Peacock writes "A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days of the past." (6)

Shelley's reaction to this provoking writing was both immediate and vigorous. He sent a letter to James and Charles Ollier (Peacock and Shelley's mutual publishers) containing a complete summary of Peacock's Four Ages as well as attacks upon it. This initial letter referred to Peacock's treatise as an "impious daring attempt to extinguish Imagination" and a "parricidal and self-murdering attempt."(7) Between February 22 and March 12, 1821, while sick with fever, Shelley wrote several drafts of Defense. While early copies contained extensive references to Peacock, later drafts reduced these to nine. All of the allusions were eventually cut out by editor John Hunt when he prepared the manuscript for a post-humous publication in a quarterly entitled the Liberal. This publication, which Mrs. Shelley opposed, was prevented by the demise of the quarterly in 1823. A letter written from Godwin to his daughter on November 15, 1822 demonstrates that, after Shelly's death in July of 1822, Mrs. Shelley was extremely adamant about securing all of her late husband's manuscripts for her own possession. In an excerpt from the letter, Godwin chastises his daughter's obsessive behavior saying "you should never give one commission but to one person; you commissioned me to recover these manuscripts from Ollier, you commissioned Peacock, and I believe, Mrs. Gisborne. This puts all in an awkward situation." (8) Along with other pieces of Shelley's work, manuscripts of A Defence of Poetry were eventually returned to Mary Shelley. In 1840 she subsequently printed Defence in her own edition of Shelley's Essays and Letters from Abroad keeping the changes made by Hunt. Mrs. Shelley later reprinted various editions of the text in 1845, 1847, and 1852, all lacking mention of Peacock.

Percy Shelley originally intended to expand on his defense and to write two more parts for his treatise. In a letter to Peacock dated March 21, 1821, Shelley writes "I dispatch by this post the first part of an essay, intended to consist of three parts, which I design for an antidote to your Four Ages of Poetry." (9) Unfortunately, these were never completed and A Defense of Poetry as it was initially published was "merely a defense, with no signs of an attack." (10) All of Shelley's allusions to Peacock (including the subtitle "Remarks Suggested by an Essay Entitled The Four Ages of Poetry) were cut out by editors and when A Defense was post-humously published by Mrs. Shelley, it contained no signs of Peacock's work. However, at the time of Shelley's death, there were seven different manuscripts that had been in circulation among Peacock, his editor, and various others of Shelley's contemporaries. These were later used to compile editions that contained reference to Peacock's Four Ages of Poetry, though most popular editions do not capture the original polemical nature of Shelley's work.

The publication history of A Defense of Poetry highlights Peacock's influence on Shelley's writing and emphasizes that his treatise is a DEFENSE meant to supplement an attack; Shelley himself refers to his essay as an "antidote" to the Four Ages. In the early publications of Defense it is easy to overlook the importance of Peacock. However, the vigorous correspondence between the two writers argues for the pertinence of Four Ages, implying that becoming familiar with Peacock's work may be critical in understanding that of Shelley. The concept that Four Ages is integral to Defense captures the very essence of Shelley's treatise. Throughout A Defense of Poetry, the author stresses the connection between all forms of art and literature, suggesting that regardless of their content, they all arise from the same source: Imagination.

Shelley describes a poet's words as "instinct with spirit-- each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable thought, and many yet lie covered in the ashes of birth, and pregnant with a lightening which has yet found no conductor. All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially". That Peacock's work was one of the sparks that inspired Shelley's imagination is evident. In the above quote, Shelly suggests that poetry is an eternal process of growth and inspiration, that the seeds of one poem influence and nourish that of another, eventually forming an inter-related web of rhythms, motions, and melodies. The intimate connection between Shelley and Peacock's work supports this theory and embodies the very spirit of Defense. By claiming that poetry "is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth," (11) Shelley argues that poetry is essential to all aspects of living. The influential treatise not only promotes and justifies the exquisite writings of the Romantics, it serves to validate the poetry of all man-kind, emphasizing its infinite and ultimate source: that of the human imagination.


1 Ingpen, Roger. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. II, London, 1914. p184.

2 Verkoren, Lucas. A Study of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry': It's Origin, Textual History, Sources and Significance, Amsterdam, 1937. P 14.

3 Verkoren, Lucas. A Study of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry': It's Origin, Textual History, Sources and Significance, Amsterdam, 1937. p.16.

4 Scythrop was Peacock's character meant to represent Shelley, another character, Mr. Cypress, represented Lord Byron.

5 Peacock, "Memoirs". Taken From: Verkoren, Lucas. A Study of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry': It's Origin, Textual History, Sources and Significance, Amsterdam, 1937. P 14.

6 All quotes in this paragraph taken from: Peacock, Thomas Love. Four Ages of Poetry

7 Koszul, Shelley's Prose in the Bodleian Manuscripts, Appendix, pp. 118-20 . (27) Taken from: Verkoren, Lucas. A Study of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry': It's Origin, Textual History, Sources and Significance, Amsterdam, 1937. p.16.

8 Mrs. Marshall, Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, vollI, p.51 Taken from: Verkoren, Lucas. A Study of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry': It's Origin, Textual History, Sources and Significance, Amsterdam, 1937. p.16.

9 Ingpen, Roger. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. II, London, 1914. p.859-60.

10 Ingpen, Roger. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. II, London, 1914. p. 859.

11 Quotes taken from: Shelley, Percy. "A Defense o Poetry," Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxord: Blackwell Publisher, 1998. 944-956.


Ingpen, Roger. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. II, London, 1914. p184.

Shelley, Percy. "A Defense of Poetry." Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. p. 944-956.

The Thomas Love Peacock Society Homepage: <>

Verkoren, Lucas. A Study of Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry': Its Origin, Textual History, Sources and Significance, Amsterdam, 1937. P 14.