P.B. Shelley, from “A Defense of Poetry” (1821)

Alfred Clint,  Percy Bysshe Shelley  (1829)

Alfred Clint, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1829)

“Poets… are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers… Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”

In his great essay “A Defense of Poetry,” Shelley gives us his famous definition of the poet: to be a poet is to represent a spirit of change, both within the world of letters and beyond it. Those who write verse are poets, of course, but poets also create in other ways: musicians, performers, sculptors, and painters all embody the force of poetry—that is to say, a kind of creativity that challenges and thereby inspires change.

Shelley returns to an ancient understanding of the poet as a prophet, one who, like the writer of Job or The Odyssey, was gifted with a rich and mysterious language from the gods. But Shelley’s prophet-poet is not literally given a glimpse into the future from on high, as a Biblical prophet would be. Rather, with his ear to the ground, the poet possesses a deep understanding of the world, and this gives him or her a sense of where their society is going. This, finally, is what makes the poet an ideal “legislator”: the poet’s deep knowledge both of human nature and the social conditions of his/her time means that their best gifts come in the form of social instruction and leadership. 

Shelley wrote at a time in which the value of what we now call “the arts” was questioned like never before. Up went the cries: what is the value of reading or writing something like poetry? Shouldn’t a young man like Shelley commit himself to something more socially beneficial and less self-indulgent? Shelley responds by claiming that in order for a society to function at its best, it requires the kind of creative voices that allows it to know itself, to be self-critical, and to change.