Shelley pp 286-295 | Cite as

Defending Poetry

  • Desmond King-Hele


As soon as he had finished Epipsychidion Shelley set about replying to Peacock’s half-serious attack on poetry, The Four Ages of Poetry, which had appeared in Ollier’s Literary Miscellany of 1820. In this witty essay Peacock argues that poetry goes through four phases, or ages, and that once these are past it is obsolete. In the first of the four ages, the iron age, he says, ‘rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs’. The bards can lisp in numbers without much trouble since the language is only half-formed, and they act as amateur historians, theologians, moralists and legislators. In the second age, the golden, poetry attains perfection. It is undisturbed by its nascent rivals — history, science and philosophy — and is cultivated by the greatest intellects of the day. In the third or silver age, having to contend with these rivals and a rigid language, poetry emerges polished, fastidious and superficial. The fourth age, of brass, rejects the polish of the silver age and goes back to the barbaric age of iron, while professing to recover the age of gold. Poetry has then become a triviality, unworthy to stand beside the useful arts and sciences.


Critical History English Poetry Rough Number Severe Labour Poetic Theory 
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Notes To XIII: Defending Poetry

  1. 2.
    P. Sidney, Apology for Poetry, ed. G. Shepherd (Nelson, 1965), p. 113.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    See, e.g., Keats, Letters, p. 108; A. E. Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933);Google Scholar
  3. R. Graves, The Crowning Privilege (Cassell, 1955), p. 82.Google Scholar
  4. See also J. Press, The Fire and the Fountain (1955), Ch. 1.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-worship, and T. S. Eliot, Essay on Dante in Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (Faber, 1932).Google Scholar

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© Desmond King-Hele 1984

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  • Desmond King-Hele

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