Vital Signs

The Poet: Companion of the Common Man

What is the role of the poet in society?  In a frequently misunderstood remark, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in “A Defence of Poetry” (1821) that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  Shelley’s idea is that poets shape our view of ourselves and the world, which in turn shapes the very course of history since all human action can be ascribed to one or both of these two things.  Yet this “legislating” is neither arbitrary nor tyrannical.  The poet himself is dependent on “the true and the beautiful.”  Rather than impose his own order on others, he tries to “imagine” and “express” the “indestructible order” at work in the world.

The context of Shelley’s essay is important.  It was written in response to Thomas Love Peacock, who argued in “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820) that the poet of his day was a “semi-barbarian in a civilized community. . . . His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions.”  For Peacock, poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge merely patched together “disjointed relics of tradition and fragments of second-hand observation.”

While Shelley’s own poetry can be too straightforwardly political, his point in “Defence” is that poetry, at its...

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