Holding The High Ground: Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in 2021

Ian Parks

When Plato famously banned the poets from his Republic he did so because he thought they were subversive. Dealing as they did in intangibles, they had no place in his strictly ordered and stratified view of how he thought the ideal society should function. Since then, poets have never fared very well under repressive regimes unless they have subscribed to the aims of those regimes and written overtly propagandist poems in order to support them. Despite the rigorous efforts of these regimes to suppress poetry it has continued to thrive. One only has to think of the work of the Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova whose terse and enigmatic poems insisted on celebrating the beauty and inherent dignity of the human spirit in the face of the Stalinist persecutions instigated by Soviet Union. Today, in the West at least, we live in what passes for a liberal, democratic society in which the right to freedom of speech is deeply embedded in our culture. Poetry, and the activity of poets, certainly needed defending in the early part of the nineteenth century when Shelly wrote his Defence. The question that needs to be asked two centuries on, after all the progress we have made, is whether poetry still needs to be defended and, if so, from what?

Shelley is my favourite poet. Matthew Arnold’s assessment of him as ‘a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating … his luminous wings in vain’ against the gates of paradise is based on an extremely narrow, and predominantly Victorian, view of the work of the great Romantic (351, original emphasis). There is beauty in Shelley’s lyric poetry certainly, especially when he writes in his transcendental manner about nature and the purity of the human spirit. But there is another side too. Shelley would have wanted to be remembered not just for his nature poems but also for his deeply political longer works that addressed the injustices that existed in the oppressive society in which he lived. He believed that poetry had a function and that function was to agitate against the draconian government under which he lived. When he took up his pen and began to write his Defence two centuries ago, he had only one year of his brief, intense life left to him. At his back he had the weight of a previous defence in the form of Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry which argued that the primary purpose of poetry was to instruct and delight; to appeal to the intellect and the imagination and to communicate, ultimately, to the soul by transforming the natural world into language. It was a hugely influential argument and one that Shelley was eager to challenge. Yes, poetry is possessed of marked didactic qualities, and yes, it appeals to the aspirational nature of the human spirit – but if it is to fulfil its potential it should also agitate at the political level, addressing questions related to social and political injustice. A good example of this would be Shelley’s own great poem, The Mask of Anarchy,which was an immediate and scathing response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which he names the members of Parliament he held as being responsible for the atrocity. In the Defence then, Shelley makes some huge claims for poetry. Above and beyond the constraints imposed upon it by the need to entertain and delight it is a mouthpiece, a discourse, and a force for change. When Shelley calls poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the word’ he is saying that their influence, appealing as it does to the imagination as well as to the reason, is more permanent than that of politicians or philosophers (701). Poetry, Shelley argues, moves from the specific to the general and is the perfect vehicle for bringing about change.

Shelley would die before his ideas about poetry came to fruition. The early nineteenth century was a time of extreme repression. Terrified by the two great revolutions of the previous century – in America and, nearer to home, in France – the establishment in the British Isles was shaken by these seminal events to such an extent that draconian measures were introduced, among which was an outright attack on freedom of speech and other civil liberties. It was left to the generation after Shelley to implement his ideas about poetry and political agitation and to put them into practice. When I was researching Chartism in Oxford under the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, I began to read The Northern Star and the other numerous Chartist newspapers that had thrived during the period between 1834 and 1854 and was surprised to discover the amount of poetry that had been published in their pages. The Chartists were the first mass popular working-class movement to organise for electoral change in a country where privilege and social status dictated who was allowed to vote and, by extension, govern. They were known as Chartists because their manifesto was enshrined in the famous six points of the Charter which called for, among other things, universal (male) suffrage and shorter parliaments. It was an attempt to extend the franchise and to bring an end to the social injustices which had grown since the effects of mass industrialisation began to be felt. The Chartists organised mass public gatherings such as the great 1848 meeting at Kennington Common in London, and took other direct action through strikes and protests. But the Chartists were not only a political movement. At the most fundamental level they attempted to establish a vibrant working-class counter-culture. And at the centre of that culture and the political agitation that went along with it was poetry. Page after page of Chartist newspapers contained poetry written by and for the members of the movement, all of which raises some interesting questions about literacy among the masses during this period. Shelley’s great radical poem Queen Mab was known as the Chartist Bible and his arguments regarding poetry as having a clearly defined function within society became central to the dissemination of the movement. So important was poetry to the Chartists that one prominent leader and poet, Ernest Jones, would write poems in his own blood because he had been denied pen and ink while serving a term in prison for his radical activities.

And so it is that we can detect a clear and strongly radical line running from the poetry of Shelley into the Chartist movement and beyond. What makes this line so easy to detect is the fact that it coheres around the idea that poetry has a practical function, that it can work as an instrument of change within the individual and the society in which that individual operates. And, to some extent, poetry still performs that function in parts of the world where freedom of speech is challenged or repressed. If the Chartists were able to organise, invigorate, and reach hundreds of thousands of individuals through the medium of poetry, inspiring them to take direct action in order to challenge the establishment of their day then why, with all the possibilities offered by the expediential growth of social media and mass communications, can’t we? What has happened to poetry in the intervening decades in order to render it so ineffective? If poetry needs defending in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, then, I would argue, it is from itself.

Poetry used to be popular. Tennyson, who was poet laureate at the time, commanded such huge audiences for his poetry that The Charge of the Light Brigade alone was read by hundreds of thousands of individuals when it was published in The Times. It was viewed as a public as well as private activity. And now even the most popular of popular poets are lucky to sell more than a thousand copies of their latest collection. Modernism, of course, played its part in this, with poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound driving a wedge between the popular audience and the small group of intellectual elites that they chose to address through their work; and, in a sense, it has never recovered. I am not saying that all poetry should be political or that it should aim to address only a wide and popular audience, but I am saying that poetry as an activity that can perform a political and social function still has an important part to play in the world. It has something to do, also, with the current obsession with marketing. All poets want their poems to be read (just as all poetry publishers want their publications to sell) but the current obsession with the market place, with poetry competitions, prizes, and awards has shifted the emphasis to such an extent that many poets are in real danger of having the nature of their work dictated to them by the pressure of having their success measured by these trends and by what, in a fundamental sense, is a form of patronage. Patronage may well offer a way of keeping the art form alive but, as we know, it can also be used to effectively control the output and nature of the artist’s work in order to serve the patron’s needs.

If Shelley were alive today, I suspect he would still be agitating, arguing passionately that the possibilities afforded by poetry as a means of communication are still in need of recognition, now more than ever. But I also think he would be reminding us of what poetry can achieve and warning poets against allowing themselves to be controlled by the instruments of an establishment whose best interests are served by reducing poetry to an innocent entertainment. W H Auden, perhaps the greatest political poet of the twentieth century, famously said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (II.5).  It was a deeply pessimistic view challenged, in a different context, by that other great voice of the century, Robert Graves, who said that ‘True poetry makes things happen’ (34). The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Yes, poetry can and should “entertain and delight” – but it should also be fully aware of its own ability to challenge, question, and redress. If poetry needed defending from outside forces at the beginning of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the twenty-first, it needs to be defended from those that lie within.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. ‘Shelley’, in Essays in Criticism: First and Second Series. J.M. Dent, 1964. Pp. 331-51.

Auden, W.H. ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, in Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957. Faber, 1969.

Graves, Robert. ‘Science, Technology and Poetry’. New Scientist (2 December 1971) 34-5.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in The Major Works. Ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill. Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. 674-701.

Ian Parks
is the author of eight collections of poems, one of which was a Poetry Book Society Choice. He is the only poet to have his work published in The Times Literary Supplement and The Morning Star on the same day. He was writer-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library in 2012 and Writing Fellow at De Montfort University from 2012 to 2014. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry and runs the Read to Write Project in Doncaster.