The extraordinary claims of poetry
Intermittently through the year, and especially during memorable times up the immense and soul-redeeming Essequibo, I like to read Shelley – as we all should do from time to time since he is pre-eminently the poet of hope. “Let us believe in a kind of optimism in which we are our own gods,” he wrote, “because Hope is a solemn duty which we owe alike to ourselves and the world.”
Shelley had a Promethean vision which seemed to his age, as it must certainly seem to ours, wholly unattainable – a vision of men and women “Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless.” But we cannot and should not live without ideals, however unreachable they may seem. Shelley’s poetry argued always against the despair which in his age, as again in ours, seems to follow every hopeful upheaval, each successive glimpse of the vanishing form of liberty and the brotherhood of man.
Think of the despair that so quickly followed in the wake of the great burst of optimistic expectations of a new world dispensation arising out of the break-up of the communist empire and the end of the Cold War. Think how the promise of the Arab Spring has so quickly disappeared. Shelley would have spoken eloquently against such quick disillusion. He would have counselled us to keep the faith. In the same news programme that tells us of the latest horrors out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Syria or a score of other places we hear described the shining lives of the men and women who strive to bring help to such countries and so we hold on still to the slim hope that all may yet be well.