How Poets Are the Legislators of the World


I discuss today how Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that literature could change the world, the subject of my current book project. I am seeing two strains of thought on the subject, Shelley’s progressive vision and Matthew Arnold’s conservative vision. I’ll be writing on Arnold next week.

The progressive strain sees literature challenging the existing order while the conservative strain sees literature as upholding it. In the progressive tradition are Marxists, feminists, race and ethnicity theorists, post-colonialists, and queer theory practitioners. All see literature giving voice to the previously voiceless.

The conservative strain, meanwhile, has benign and reactionary sub-strains. The benign features literature professors who believe that literature is above politics and can get us to behave better (rouse us to virtue, as Sir Philip Sidney puts it). The reactionary side (think of the NEH under Bill Bennett and Liz Cheney) sees reading the classics as a way to stave off the invading hoards represented by a multiculturalism and postmodernism.

Shelley argues in Defence of Poetry (1821) that, although social institutions impede humans from reaching their greatest potential, literature has always understood what we are capable of. The greater the literature, the greater the understanding.

We feel elevated in the presence of great literature, Shelley believes, because we encounter there our best selves. But because we are time-bound beings, we cannot grasp everything that this literature is telling us. We only discover it over hundreds or even thousands of years:

All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed. A great poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight.

History may even regress, in which case the great literature of the past serves to keep the vision of human potential alive. But Shelley, writing in an age of revolutions, appears to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice and mentions two great advances that were aided by literature, the ending of slavery and the liberation of women.

Literature has long had visions of equality and liberation, Shelley says, even the works written when slavery and female submission were seen as the natural order of things. Literature has subtly sent out its message to the world, ultimately making possible the great breakthroughs of civilization. In this way, to quote the most well-known phrase from Shelley’s essay, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Here’s an example to illustrate Shelley’s point, one that I’ve explored in past posts. Today we can read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a remarkable exploration of gender identity, a play within which there are men who discover they have an inner woman, women who discover they have an inner man, men who are attracted to other men, and women who are attracted to other women. We are only now, in the 21st century, beginning to affirm and sanction these multiple identities and to appreciate how far ahead of his time Shakespeare was. Understanding humans as well as anyone ever has, the Bard found a vehicle to acknowledge our complexity.

But he had to couch the whole drama is a comedy of misunderstanding and he had to tack on a “happy ending” that has everyone returning to his or her socially sanctioned identity. Shakespeare sends out subtle signals that this ending is not as happy as it seems—the play ends with the fool singing of “the wind and the rain—but Shakespeare doesn’t blatantly challenge the orthodoxy of his day. It may even be that, as a 17th century man, he himself shared many of his age’s prejudices. His imagination, however, was in touch with a deeper truth, and the play would help shape the thinking that has culminated in recent developments.

Or to provide another example, here’s Shelley seeing the seeds of women’s liberation in the late medieval love poetry of Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Dante, Petrach, and Chaucer:

The freedom of women produced the poetry of sexual love. Love became a religion, the idols of whose worship were ever present. It was as if the statues of Apollo and the Muses had been endowed with life and motion, and had walked forth among their worshippers; so that earth became peopled with the inhabitants of a diviner world. The familiar appearance and proceedings of life became wonderful and heavenly, and a paradise was created as out of the wrecks of Eden. And as this creation itself is poetry, so its creators were poets; and language was the instrument of their art…

One problem with Shelley’s articulation is that he focuses only on literature’s longterm impact. For instance, it took over 400 years for society as a whole to support (back to Twelfth Night) Sebastian marrying Antonio, Olivia marrying Viola, and Orsino marrying a Cesario who is actually a man. Shelley doesn’t see his longterm emphasis as a problem, but he sounds a bit heartless as he contrasts the great poets with those thinkers that he sees as mere reasoners:

The exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, and their disciples, in favor of oppressed and deluded humanity, are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement which the world would have exhibited, had they never lived. A little more nonsense would have been talked for a century or two; and perhaps a few more men, women, and children burnt as heretics. We might not at this moment have been congratulating each other on the abolition of the Inquisition in Spain. But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief. The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.

Now, if I were one of those heretics, I would feel very grateful if the withering satire of Voltaire’s Candide shamed my executioners into thinking twice about burning me. For that matter, if I were living the miserable life as an exploited Manchester factory worker in the early 19th century, I might appreciate feeling bolstered by Shelley’s own “Song to the Men of England.” I know that Shelley is being dramatic in his defense so as to make his point—he’s distinguishing between the truly great and the not-so-great—but the elevated air of the revolutionary can be hard to breathe by people trying to get through the day.

Literature, in other words, can impact history on a variety of levels. My current book project involves honoring them all.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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