Thomas Love Peacock’s The Four Ages of Poetry stands as a near-perfect archetype for perhaps the finest type of negative critical evaluation, one that defiantly provokes the creators of the work it is criticizing while elegantly pointing out the problems in the work itself and at the same time issuing a heartfelt call for wholesale evolution of the form. Thomas Peacock choose a style of writing that is not only guaranteed to offend but, unfortunately, to be misread by some less careful readers. His ironic, satirical tone and his beautifully scathing deconstruction of the deleterious state of poetry can cause readers to mistake him as a mere hater of poetry. Clearly, that point of view is undermined by a statement such as “Poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect in the infancy of civil society.”
Peacock obviously does not see poetry as a branch of useless knowledge, else why would he be so passionate in his attack? The underlying theme of the essay is to question why isn’t poetry evolving like all other the arts and sciences. What may seem like a mean-spirited attack is in actuality a ringing of the bell for change from a man who desperately loves the art form he is assaulting and who wants nothing less than to see it restored to its former glory. Peacock wants contemporary poetry to move forward, not backward, and he is savvy enough to understand that nothing so foments evolutionary revolution as calling the violators to the carpet in the most provocative language possible.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude” is most obviously a celebration of poetic idealism despite its desires to be a condemnation of it for the very reason that the poem exists in the form it does; for the very reason that it exists at all. What is the purpose of the poem except to celebrate the occasion of poetry? The poem is about, if anything, Shelley’s love of words and the way they are put together and how those words can make a person feel. Near the end of the poem Shelley writes, “Let not high verse, mourning the memory / Of that which is no more, painting’s woe / Or sculpture, speak in feeble imagery / Their own cold powers.” I take this to be a rejection of the power of art to address the feelings caused by life’s many woes. And yet what is Shelley doing with this or any poem except making an effort to allow the reader to experience some great show of feeling which transcends one’s natural inability to control what life throws at them. What is the purpose of a poem such as this-a poem which doesn’t really tell a traditional story-but to bring from the depths of the reader feelings which they may not yet be ready to address. The poem is meant to appeal to the reader’s sense of romance and aesthetic appreciation and that is a certain rejection of the desire to condemn poetic idealism. Shelley may be fooling himself by thinking that he’s producing poetry of a higher order than Wordsworth, but just as in “The Prelude,” Shelley like Wordsworth is ultimately appealing to the reader’s sense of wonder and desire to escape from the drudgery of everyday life into a literary creation at once part and apart from the world in which the reader lives.