In Shelley's introduction to Prometheus Unbound, he proudly remarked that he had a “passion for reforming the world”. For a poet who struggled to publish his more radical poetry during his lifetime, he has a remarkable record for actually accomplishing his objective. His effect upon the modern labour and union movements has been well documented. If we took a single example, his influence on Pauline Newman who, inspired by Mask of Anarchy, helped create the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (one of the most powerful and effective unions of the 20th Century) and the Worker's University (where courses on the radical poets of the French Revolution were taught), Shelley could be well satisfied. I have written about this here.
Today I want to look at two recent examples of poetry’s potential to reform the world: poet and performance artist Arielle Cottingham and rapper Eminem.
Cottingham, a Texan now living in Melbourne, won the 2016 edition of the Australian Poetry Slam. She was recently interviewed by Andrea Simpson for the magazine ArtsHub. In an article meaningfully entitled, “Why We Need Poets More Than Ever Before”, Cottingham cited Shelley as an inspiration for her work and pointed to his famous comment in A Defense of Poetry: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
I have unpacked what Shelley meant by this here. It was PMS Dawson who pointed out that Shelley used the term "legislator" in a special sense. Not as someone who "makes laws" but as someone who is a "representative" of the people. In this sense poets, or creators more generally, must be thought of as the voice of the people; as a critical foundation of our society and of our democracy. They offer insights into our world and provide potential solutions - they underpin our future.
I think this puts me in essential agreement with Cottingham who explained her own view to Simpson thusly:
[Shelley] argues that poets are the moral barometers of their times and circumstances – and look at the well-known poets today. Bob Dylan is lauded as the voice of a generation. Maya Angelou elevated the voice of the black woman to an unprecedented visibility. Gil Scott Heron wrote a single line of poetry so prescient that it became more famous than he himself did – "The revolution will not be televised." To quote Miles Merrill, "poets are more honest than politicians."
You can watch Cottingham’s championship performance at the Sydney Opera House here:
Cottingham’s electrifying peroration firmly positions her as a modern Shelleyan with designs on reforming the world:
We [women] will shout our poetry into every hurricane that history hurls at use. For we have always shaped history the way the moon shapes the tide; no matter how invisible it seems. We don’t have to be invisible anymore. So when the next storm comes, nail your doors open, bite down on your microphones, let history flood your lungs and unleash hurricanes of your own.
This make me think of another of Shelley’s remarks in the Defense where, using another extreme weather-related metaphor, he says,
The great writers of our own age are…the companions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social conditions or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging is collected lightening….
Well, speaking of discharged lightening, let’s now turn to Eminem. As Bari Weiss pointed out in the New York Times recently, rappers have led the way in providing opposition to the Whitehouse Racist's authoritarian-tinged presidency. But as she goes on to say:
Yet Eminem’s “The Storm,” a scathing four-minute attack on the “kamikaze that will probably cause a nuclear holocaust,” which he debuted at the BET Awards on Tuesday night, has already overshadowed all of these previous anti-Trump musical efforts. It’s made major news headlines. It’s already garnered 8.7 million views on YouTube. And there have been some two million tweets about the performance, with praise pouring in from stars including LeBron James and Ellen DeGeneres.
Weiss ties the greater impact to Eminem’s whiteness and the fact he comes from Detroit – both factors which pose something of an existential threat to the Whitehouse Racist:
Eminem knows that Republicans buy songs — his songs — too. His message to them is to stop buying. After focusing on the evils of the “racist 94-year-old grandpa” in the White House, he gives his Trump-supporting fans an ultimatum. “I’m drawing in the sand a line: you’re either for or against,” he says. “And if you can’t decide who you like more and you’re split / On who you should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this,” he adds, giving his middle finger to the camera.
Weiss goes on to point out that those of his fans who support the Whitehouse Racist have already vowed never to listen to his music again. So Eminem has put a lot in play here. You can watch the full, searing, 4-minute recording of his freestyle cypher here:
Eminem opens by mocking Donald Trump's vague and meaningless "calm before the storm" threats. But then, after a pause, he offers a real Shelleyan storm, discharging his collected lightening with a cold, calculated fury.
And speaking of cold, calculated fury, lets us finally turn our attention to Shelley.
When Shelley famously declared that he was a lover of humanity, a democrat and an atheist, he deliberately, intentionally and provocatively nailed his colours to the mast knowing full well his words would be widely read and would inflame passions.
The phrase, lover of humanity, however, deserve particular attention. Shelley did not write these words in English, he wrote them in Greek using the term: philanthropos tropos. This was deliberate. The first use of this term appears in Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound. This was the ancient Greek play which Shelley was “answering” with his own masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound.
Aeschylus used his newly coined word philanthropos tropos (humanity loving) to describe Prometheus, the titan who rebelled against the gods of Olympus. The word was picked up by Plato and came to be much commented upon, including by Bacon, one of Shelley’s favourite authors. Bacon considered "philanthropy" to be synonymous with "goodness", which he connected with Aristotle’s idea of “virtue”. Shelley knew this and I believe this tells us that Shelley identified closely with his own poetic creation, Prometheus. In using the term, Shelley is telling us he is a humanist - a radical concept in his priest-ridden times.
When he wrote these words he was declaring war against the hegemonic power structure of his time. Shelley was in effect saying, "I am against god. I am against the king. I am the modern Prometheus. And I will steal the fire of the gods and I will bring down thrones and I will empower the people." And not only did he say these things, he developed a system to deliver on this promise.
As I watch the performances of Cottingham and Eminem, I can only wish Shelley could as well. I can imagine the wide grin that would cross his face.
Now, here is an example of Shelley's own discharge of collected lightening: England in 1819. This is a poem whose words, with very minor changes, could apply to the the man Eminem called a racist 94-year-old grandpa:
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,--
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
A Senate,--Time's worst statute unrepealed,--
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.
My point in drawing attention to these two modern poets is to remind us that one of the true fountainheads of radical poetic opposition to tyranny and oppression was Shelley. And whether modern poets knowingly operate in that tradition, as Cottingham appears to, or not, they do function as the voice of the people and in that sense as our representatives; or as Shelley would have said, as our legislators. They are all philanthropos tropos: lovers of humanity.
Today the liberal arts and the humanities are under a similar attack by the parasitic, cultural vandals of Silicon Valley. Right across the United States, Republican governors are rolling back support for state universities that offer liberal arts education. The mantra of our day is "Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics." Or STEM for short. This is not just a US phenomenon. I see it happening in Canada as well. There is a burgeoning sense that a liberal arts education is worthless.
Culture is worth fighting for - for the very reasons Shelley set out. What Shelley called a "cultivated imagination" can see the world differently - through a lens of love and empathy. Our "gifts" are not given to us by god - we earn them. They belong to us. We should be proud of them. The idea that we owe all of this to an external deity is vastly dis-empowering. And it suits the ruling order.
A corollary of this, also encapsulated in Shelley's philosophy, is the importance of skepticism. A skeptical, critical mind always attacks the truth claims of authority. And authority tends to rely upon truth claims that are disconnected from reality: America is great because god made it great. Thus, Shelley was fond of saying, "religion is the hand maiden of tyranny."
It should therefore not surprise anyone that many authoritarian governments seek to reinforce the power of society's religious superstructure. This is exactly what Trump is doing by blurring the line between church and state. Religious beliefs dis-empower the people - they are taught to trust authority.
Eminem has drawn a line in the sand. Shelley has discharged his collected lightening. Arielle Cottingham has unleashed her hurricane. Let's join them at the barricades. Let Liberty lead us.