Can Poetry Change the World?

First published in June of 2017, Graham’s article (see below) reflected on the UK Labour Party’s use of a quote from Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy: “For The Many. Not For The Few”. The line was in fact the Party’s campaign slogan. Today, this article has sudden new relevance due to developments in Europe.

With the recent election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in the United Kingdom and the looming risk that the governing Conservatives under his tutelage may be toppled by the Labour Party opposition at any moment, Jeremy Corbyn has been catapulted into the spotlight. If politics is fundamentally a contest of different visions of the future, then the visions of each of the respective party leaders could not be more antithetical. At heart of the Brexit debate that has tattered the nation’s fabric is not simply an issue of securing economic prosperity, but rather an issue of who belongs and who may prosper in the national fold. Consistent with the political trend abroad, the leaders’ have appealed to nationalist sentiments in order to shore up support, but the meaning behind the oft bantered catch-phrase “the people” could not be more different.

While the Brexit debate is voiced as an economic issue that if successful would ultimately recuperate the nation’s prosperity, lingering behind the economic claims is an implicit attempt to reshape the nation’s social pattern by redefining its foreign ties. The irony, of course, is that the United Kingdom’s wealth is precisely the result of its long imperial history abroad. Just as the onset of industrialism and the imperial phase in which it was a part led to the mass dispossession of the lower classes as the feudal economy was reformed, dispossession continues in a more insidious form today as wealth becomes ever more concentrated in the hands of the few. Even if Brexit is an attempt to restore the prosperity of the masses as the Conservatives claim it will do, that claim is revealed as specious considering the centrality of transnational capital to its economic policies. Although both parties appeal to class-based claims about how to rejuvenate the prosperity of the commonweal, the Conservatives’ attempt to redefine Britain’s relationship with continental Europe specifically gestures toward the real essence of its aim: to define who belongs in the commonweal, for which the policies of the European Union are categorically problematic. The attempt to break ties with the EU speaks more to Brexit supporters’ longing to undermine the nation’s pluralism than the goal of recuperating the nation’s wealth.

Shelley’s early draft of “Ode to the West Wind,” 1819, Bodleian Library

Writing at the height of Britain’s colonial reign, Shelley, unlike some of his contemporaries such as John Clare or William Wordsworth, actually saw globalization in a positive light. While The Mask of Anarchy is often invoked as a key poem evincing Shelley’s social philosophy, his later poem “Ode to the West Wind,” written one year after Mask of Anarchy in 1820, makes interesting—and certainly timely—linkages between racial politics, globalization, and poetic creation. At first glace the autumn leaves—“Yellow, black, and pale, and hectic red”—appear to be stock botanical metaphors, but closer inspection uncovers that they represent various races who collectively comprise the “pestilence-stricken multitudes.” Pestilence-stricken not just because the west wind has desiccated them, but because the West is where so much of the colonial activity is occurring at this time, namely the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery in the Americas. Of course, the United Kingdom is also geographically West, perhaps intimating how the colonial enterprise has affected nations in the East. While Shelley identifies how globalization can have negative social ramifications, he nevertheless one of its ardent proponents. Just as the seeds that lay dormant require the spring rains that are incited by the cyclical ebb and flow of winds around the earth, the poet summons those same winds as a source of poetic inspiration. Poetic inspiration is thereby syncretic, fostered by global myths that capture—and envision—a universal humanity. In a moment when that universal humanity is under siege by cordoning off borders and shoring up nationalist sentiment, we need to look at its social and poetical implications alike.’

With that said, here is what Graham had to say on 2017.

James Regan, University of Toronto.

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.

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.

Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, 1830

James Regan is an English Literature scholar at the University of Toronto and also works with me as a research and editorial assistant.