Poet as legislator  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The theme of poet as legislator reached its grandiose peak in the Romantic era, epitomised in the view of the lonely, alienated poet as 'unacknowledged legislator' to the whole world. It received its most memorable formulation however in Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1820 essay "A Defence of Poetry".

However the concept had a long prehistory in Western culture, with classical figures like Orpheus or Solon being appealed to as precedents for the poet's civilising role.

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Classical origins

Plato's opposition to poets in his ideal Republic was predicated on the contemporary existence of Homeric expounders who claimed that "a man ought to regulate the tenour of his whole life by this poet's directions". Plato only allowed the already censured poet to guide the young, to be an acknowledged legislator at the price of total external control.

Less threatened by the poetic role, the Romans by contrast saw poetry, with Horace, as primarily pleasing, and only secondarily as instructive.

Renaissance and Augustan views

Building the view of the fiftteenth century Florentine Neoplatonists on the poet as seer, however, Sir Philip Sidney developed a more powerful concept of the poet as overtopping the philosopher, historian and lawyer to stand out as "the monarch...of all sciences.

Such a viewpoint was more or less institutionalised in Augustan literature, Johnson's Rasselas maintaining for example that the poet "must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind" - a fully public, even patriotic role moreover.

Romantic peaks

By contrast the Romantic view of the poet as unackowledged legislator emerges at the turn of the century in the writing of William Godwin, with his anarchic view of the poet as "the legislator of generations and the moral instructor of the world" (The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer).

It received its most memorable formulation however in Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1820 essay "A Defence of Poetry". Shelley maintained that, through their powers of imaginative understanding, poets (in the widest sense) were able to identify and formulate emerging socio-cultural trends; and were as a result "the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration...the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

Modernist irony

The grand claims of the Romantics began to give way in the twentieth century to a more ironic stance - Yeats speaking for his calling in general when he wrote "We have no gift to set a statesman right".

What remained of the Shelley claim was to be further diminished by Postmodernism's distrust for grand narratives, if not perhaps destroyed entirely.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Poet as legislator" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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