The Words That Won’t Change The World

Percy Bysshe Shelley famously declared poets to be the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Adam Kirsch updates the sentiment, claiming that “the social role of poetry has actually changed very much in the last 200 years…. No one in power in 1814 was asking for Shelley’s views on the Congress of Vienna, just as no one in power in 2014 is asking for John Ashbery’s views on climate change”:

There are, however, two significant differences between our time and Shelley’s, both of which work to the disadvantage of 21st-century poets. The first has to do with cultural literacy — the kinds of things that educated people, who then as now furnished the personnel of government and business, are expected to know. In the Victorian age, when a critic like Matthew Arnold addressed the public, he could expect it to know and care about the classics of English poetry. That is why writing about literature, for Arnold, could serve as a way of writing about society and even politics. Today, no such knowledge can be taken for granted; neither the poetry of the past, nor still less the poetry of the present, can be readily invoked in public discussion, because only specialists are familiar with it.

This in turn may explain the second difference between then and now: the imaginative confidence of poets themselves. Shelley was wrong to think that writing poems like “Queen Mab” or “Prometheus Unbound” would bring revolutionary change to England, but his conviction that they would is what allowed him to write the poems in the first place. Today, poets with a grasp of reality must start from the premise that nothing they write will be much read or have much influence on public discourse. A poetry written under such circumstances may have its own virtues, but they will not be the virtues of the Romantics — conceptual boldness, metaphysical reach, the drive to bring religion and politics themselves under the empire of art. As if in recognition of this fact, poets in our time prefer to imagine themselves not as legislators, but as witnesses — those who look on, powerless to change the world, but sworn at least to tell the truth about it.

Recent Dish on political poetry here.