“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What do you understand by this sentence? How are these ideas cashed out in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Ode to the West Wind?
The Defence of Poetry by Percy Shelley is a written commentary as a response primarily to the literary critical piece The Four Ages of Poetry by Thomas Love Peacock who wrote in his essay the following in regard to modern poetry:
“But in whatever degree poetry is cultivated, it must necessarily be to the neglect of some branch of useful study: and it is a lamentable spectacle to see minds, capable of better things, running to seed in the specious indolence of these empty aimless mockeries of intellectual exertion. Poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the intellect in the infancy of civil society: but for the maturity of mind to make a serious business of the play-things of its childhood, is as absurd as for a full-grown man to rub his gums with coral, and cry to be charmed to sleep by the jingle of silver bells.”
Shelley’s Defence is inspired by the above passage and is literally defending poetry from the offensive Peacock is laying upon it. He emphasises, however, throughout the work that he is not just responding to the conjecture of Peacock that poetry has become merely a decorative spectacle in an otherwise enlightened society but that this particular piece has a higher cause. It evolves from merely a polemic reply to a fervent justification of not only the beauty and worth of poetry in society but how it is the driving force behind the shaping of civilisation. He argues that poetry makes you see the world anew and it is not only the decorative part of society, but the very cause of knowledge. He also goes on to talk of poets and their roles as both the prophets and the legislators of mankind and how they can both predict and allow the future, he argues that they are the virtuous and wise, a controversial statement for the time.
The points made in Defence can be segregated into two sections: firstly, the value Poetry as an entity has upon the world at a very base level and secondly, the attributes of poets as people and the responsibility they carry in society. Both of these aspects come across very strongly in both Ode to the West Wind and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Firstly though, the idea of Poetry’s role in society and its attributes to modern knowledge as viewed by Shelley must be explored. In Defence he says:
“Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring and doth adorn all…”
What Shelley is attempting to put across here is his direct retort to the idea that poetry is solely a decorative non-necessity as put across in The Four Ages of Poetry. He argues that this line of thought is intensely one-dimensional as although Poetry represents, to him all beauty, he is trying to put across the idea of its more intrinsic property also. He believes, that not only is poetry the beauty in the world, “the blossom” but it is also the source of knowledge, “the root”. His idea is that without poetry our knowledge and view of the world would be completely skewed as he says, “which comprehends all science and to which all science must be referred.” This idea also appears in his poetry as in stanza 5 of Ode to the West Wind he is also commenting on the potency of poetry. He says:
“Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of prophecy!”
Here he is speculating upon the value his poetry in particular can have upon all humankind. He talks of it superseding the life of the poet and enduring beyond the death of its creator and despite the long ages that may pass eventually light a fire in the minds of man. His conjecture is that poetry is what will continue to inspire and enlighten long into the future. The idea of the future is very important to Shelley when discussing poetry as is made clear by “the trumpet of prophecy” as clearly here he believes that poetry is the spawn of future events. It’s this idea that leads one to believe in Shelley’s idea that poetry can be supra-human and reflect an aspect of divinity as is made clear in West Wind which is a plea to a deity of Romantic power. The entire poem is a prayer but the closing stanza emphasises the divine inspiration sometimes shown upon poetry.
The idea of poetry’s role in the future is strengthened in Defence when he says:
“Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.”
This is also a comment on the worth of poets as individuals which is the prelude to the final statement upon which this idea is speculated, but it also gives definition to his view on poetry as an independent entity. He believes that poetry has the power of prophecy, that it can bend and shape the direction of civilisation and thus govern its future. This is another direct response to Four Ages as he argues on a different plane not only the beauty of poetry but its fundamental use in the shaping of human society. Therefore, he begins to stipulate upon the nature of poets as people and the responsibility they carry. This idea can be seen clearly in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, stanza 6 where he says:
“They know that joy illumed my brow
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, oh awful loneliness,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.”
Here Shelley is making a plea to the animus of knowledge that is so pure it is also beautiful. His ideas about the work he leaves behind he pledges solely to the deity of wisdom that it may scatter his thoughts across into the minds of many, a very similar concept to the one expressed in West Wind. However, in this instance it seems more focused upon Shelley as a poet as opposed to poetry as a separate entity. The weakness of men as poets seems to concern Shelley as is evident when he says, “these words cannot express” so he feels that the poetry of a man alone cannot inspire people without a divine backing of the deity of knowledge. This is also briefly speculated upon in Defence also when he says, “The persons in whom this power resides may often…have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are ministers.” Here, it seems that Shelley is criticising the occasional weakness of man in regards to conveying what is seen by him as the ultimate form of knowledge.
However, the final line in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry is “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, not “Poetry is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Here Shelley is recognising the intrinsic value of poets as the vessels from which poetry flows and without them we would never be aware of is immense power. Despite his earlier misgivings it seems Shelley still remains unshakeably sure that although poetry as an independent force is unassailably vital to society it is still poets that harbour that force. They are the legislators of the futurity shown them by the power that resides within them and that is what I believe should be understood from the conjecture that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”