The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared at the end of his “ A Defence of Poetry” (1821) that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World” (Norton). By this Shelley meant that while poets are not acknowledged for their insight and wisdom by the status quo -they are usually considered as useless and irrelevant they are in fact the real lawmakers of the World. What he means by “lawmakers” is, I believe, custodians of the truth, keepers of a hidden wisdom that could transform our lives. What makes me believe this? Earlier in the essay –and the whole essay is worth reading and re-reading– he speaks of poetry in the following terms: “Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge…”, “… poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.” “A Poet… is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory….”. A fabulous modern review of the continuing importance of Shelley has been written by the poet Adrienne Rich.
Now whether you are inclined to believe Shelley or not, the literature that we have been studying this week – all of it broadly poetry in its creative use of language- all of it is legislative in a profoundly radical and subversive way. Leonard Cohen’s is a powerful example of poetry/song defying convention, daring to challenge conventional morality. Shakespeare’s Falstaff (in Henry the Fourth), dares to question the value of honour, the “virtue” that keeps the world running on its competitive, adversarial path:
What is honour? Air. A trim reckoning? Who hath it? He that died a ‘Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No….
And Charles Dickens’ uneducated, lisping (lithping) circus master Mr Sleary (Thleary) in Hard Times, dares to challenge the inhumane work ethic of the nineteenth century with the radical idea that instead of work, work, work people ought to have time to let their imaginations be touched by all that a circus represents “people mutht be amuthed Thquire”.
So Shelley is right! Literature, poetry –even poetry by dead poets!- is an animating source of renewal that can assist us all in challenging the life-denying forces that seem to run a frenzied, aggressive world, bent on self-destruction.
This coming week we will see this theme grow and expand in the work of Hafiz, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Jules Renard, Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold….. what a feast in store!