Fiona Sampson has written an absolutely brilliant article which I urge you to spend some time with and share widely. She opens by referencing Shelley's Defense of Poetry and his famous claim that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." She also cites The Mask of Anarchy. You can find it here: Jeremy Corbyn is Right: Poetry Can Change the World.
In an other excellent article (From Glastonbury to the Arab Spring, Poetry can Mobilize Resistance) in the same online news source, Atef Alshaer, Lecturer in Arabic Studies at the University of Westminster, looks at other instances of poetry's power in the political context. "Poetry," he notes, "has remained a potent force for mobilization and solidarity." He traces the influence of Shelley to the words of the Tunisian poet, Abu al-Qassim al-Shabbi (1909-1934). He also observes that Shelley's words were "echoed across the Middle East within the context of what has been called the 'Arab Spring'."
It is important, however, to understand what Shelley meant when he said poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." I believe 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. An attack on creators is therefore an attack on the very essence of humanity.
Exposure to cultural works also engenders and inculcates empathy. Shelley thought poetry was the greatest expression of the imagination. This was important because as a skeptic he believed that the human imagination was the principle organ we use to understand the world. A defective imagination can lead to dangerous errors. You might, as did Coleridge, look at the sublimity of Mont Blanc and be misled into thinking it was the work of an external deity. And for Shelley, that is the beginning of a great error that would lead to the abdication of personal responsibility and accountability. He would prefer to look upon the sublimity of Mont Blanc and see a "vacancy". This doesn't mean he saw nothing. This simply means that there is nothing there except as we perceive it. In other words we make our own world. If we abdicate responsibility for what happens in the world, we get what we deserve.
I was recently at a ceremony hosted by the Government of Ontario that was intended to honour its most outstanding citizens. One of them was a "reverend" who was foolishly permitted to offer the "invocation." In the course of this she asked us to thank god for the fact that to the extent we had special gifts - we owed it to god. In other words, what "gifts" we have, we have because of god - they were given to us - not earned or developed. This pernicious idea is exactly the sort of nonsense Shelley was rebelling against. I almost turned my back on the podium.
It is therefore a most welcome development that as a result of the recent British election, poetry in general and Shelley in particular have been brought to center stage. Thank you Mr. Corbyn. And let us not underestimate the importance of Shelley to what happened. A general election in one the world's largest democracies was just fought out on ground staked out by Shelley 200 years ago. Labour's motto, "For The Many. Not For The Few", was directly taken from Shelley's "Mask of Anarchy. Read more about the history of this great poem here.
Watch Corbyn citing Shelley at Glastonbury here:
The motto brilliantly captured (or did it create?) an evolving zeitgeist. People are fed up with the current status quo: wealth is concentrating in fewer hands that at almost any point in human history. Shelley knew that. And he found an ingenious manner of expressing that thought. Someone in the Labour Party winged on to this and the rest is history. I firmly believe that motto was responsible for capturing the imagination of youth and bringing them to the polls. Was Shelley worth 30 seats? He may well have been.
But back to "unacknowledged legislators." I think we are better off to think of Shelley's statement as pertaining to all of the creative arts and not just poetry. Shelley was answering a particular charge at a particular juncture in history - his friend Peacock's suggestion that poetry was pointless. 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.
A recent development has been the re-emergence of stoicism - it is the pet ancient philosophy of the "tech bros", the overlords of Silicon Valley. And it is a very convenient one indeed - because it is in effect a slave's philosophy that teaches us to accept those things over which we have no control. And if the companion philosophy is that technological developments are inevitable, then stoicism suits the governing techno-utopian order perfectly. You can read what Cambridge philosopher Sandy Grant has to say about this here.
If there is an ancient philosophy that we need right now, it is skepticism - a philosophy which teaches to to question all authority. Coupled with an empathetic "cultivated imagination", developed through exposure to culture, you have a lethal one-two punch that threatens the foundation of all authoritarians.
We can thank Shelley for piecing this all together. Poets and creators may have been the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" in Shelley's time. But perhaps no longer. Now, let's haul ass to the barricades.