When Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World’ he was writing about poets, about what poets do, not about what poetry does (701). His aim was to show ‘the effects of poets in the large and true sense of the word upon their own and all succeeding times’ (693). Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’ is an essay which lauds the primacy of the imagination, and particularly, the power of the imagination to inspire social justice. Shelley argues that ‘language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful’ (676-77). He claims ‘Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world; and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar’ (681, emphasis added). It effects change in the world merely by being: ‘it reproduces all that it represents’ (681).
This vision of the poet as a prophet-seer echoes William Wordsworth’s lines in The Prelude, in which the poet is:
Connected in a mighty scheme of truth,
[with] his own peculiar faculty,
Heaven’s gift, a sense that fits him to perceive
Objects unseen before.
In the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth calls the poet ‘the rock of defence of human nature; and upholder and preserver’. Poet as saviour. Poet as superhero. For Wordsworth ‘in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it spreads over the whole earth, and over all time’. In this binding, Wordsworth’s poet is ‘singing a song in which all human beings join with him’ (141). How full of hope and wishfulness.
Can a poet really do these things? It seems somewhat unlikely, as I sit in my room in my pyjamas moving words around and I doubt it, again and again, but still I make poems, I work in the medium of poetry. Or poetry works in the medium of me. I continue to believe that to set a poem free in the world is to release a tiny agent of provocation. Wordsworth moved here, to the village where I sit now, in the hope he would write poems ‘that might live’ (5). Will you live, I ask the words I have arranged, have I done enough? Am I being enough.
When Shelley writes that poetry ‘lifts the veil’ he shows us poetry as apocalyptic, in the original sense: a revelation, a literal reveal of those things unseen before. Poetry, he argues, is the way in which we may manifest moral good. Poets, to Shelley, are the ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’, priest-teachers to an ancient god which they cannot possibly comprehend. They are ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present’ (701).
I don’t think I recognise this Poet. This interpreter of the sacred and the arcane. I don’t recognise Poetry as a moral good. I have seen many things, reader. I have seen many terrible things done and said and written by Poets that I see no moral good in. Had they been drawing from the wrong deep source? Had the poetry forsaken them?
I don’t believe in this vision of the Poet. I don’t believe in this vision of What Poets Do. What I do believe in is What Poetry Does.
People are always quoting Auden’s line ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (ii.5). They use it to gesture to the redundancy of poetry, the impotency and apostasy of poetry. They use it to say that poetry is an ineffectual angel. To counter the notion that poetry can change minds, people, places, reality. That poetry can be its own reality. That it is an essential tool in forming reality.
I understand. Why write a poem when you could write a pamphlet, run for office, storm the Bastille? Aren’t there better and more efficient ways to get things done than to write little verses about them?
When people quote this phrase of Auden’s, they almost always ignore its source. It is a phrase extracted from a poem – it is, in itself, poetry, an agent of poetry – and the poem goes on. It has its own reality:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Poetry survives – through place, out-of-place – in ‘the valley of its making’ – in some geography of the imagination. It is not only a thing, but ‘a way of happening’. It is a ‘mouth’, a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.
When they ignore the poem, they ignore the power of poetry.
It survives. In uncertain times, survival may be the greatest triumph, the best possible result. Poetry is unstoppable, unquashable. It flows on regardless of human beliefs, of life and death.
Poetry is a made thing and a making.
Poetry does not need defending. Poetry is its own defence.
The poet is nothing more than a lightning rod. The storm will come whether we stand on the edge with our arms up or not. Poetry is the power, both a mouth and a happening. An event and the telling of the event. Poetry does not need legislators or priests. Poetry is like water. It will find its way. People lock up and shut down its spokespeople and it still speaks. We are like ants to Poetry. There will always be more of us, with our tiny lives, for it to move through.
Poetry messaged me today in the medium of birdsong after a rainstorm. It told me to tell you it is mildly is embarrassed by all these attempts to champion it. Not for its sake, but for ours. It says stop trying so hard.
Poetry does not need a saviour. It can disclose itself. It is free to come and go as it wills. The veil is only a veil.
Its existence is its defence. It is more powerful that we could ever dream of.
It begs us to remember this, next time we try to step in.
Auden, W.H. ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, in Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957. Faber, 1969.
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.
Wordsworth, William. ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’, in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. by W.J.B. Owen and Jane Worthington. 3 vols. Oxford University Press, 1974. Vol I, pp. 118-58.
Wordsworth, William. ‘Preface to The Excursion’, in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Vol III, pp. 5-9.
Wordsworth, William. ‘The Fourteen Book Prelude of 1850’, in The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850). Ed. by Jonathan Wordsworth. Penguin, 1995.
Polly Atkin lives Cumbria. Her first poetry collection Basic Nest Architecture (Seren: 2017) is followed by a third pamphlet, With Invisible Rain (New Walk: 2018). Her first pamphlet bone song (Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award, 2009, and second, Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013), won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. Her second poetry collection Much With Body (Seren, 2021) was supported a 2020 Northern Writers Award and a residency at Cove Park.
She has written the first biography focusing on Dorothy Wordsworth’s later life, Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth (Saraband, 2021) and is working on a memoir exploring place, belonging and disability.
She has taught English and Creative Writing at QMUL, Lancaster University, and the Universities of Strathclyde and Cumbria. With Kate Davis and Anita Sethi she co-founded the Open Mountain initiative at Kendal Mountain Festival, which seeks to centre voices that are currently at the margins of outdoor, mountain and nature writing. She works as a freelancer.