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.

Almost more than anything I love Shelley because, in this most unpoetic age, I draw again from him the belief that poetry can be a transforming agent in people’s lives: “The most unfailing herald, companion or follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is Poetry.”

ian on sundayThis remarkable claim for poetry, for the power of the imagination to bring about social change – and in his Defence of Poetry he also wrote “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” – explains Shelley’s appeal to readers as different as Baudelaire, Karl Marx, Yeats, Shaw, Gandhi and John Kennedy.

Shelley saw himself as taking part in a great movement of thought set in train by the French Revolution and the unprecedented hopes it generated. He believed that the poet – the prophet who sees into the hidden currents of his time far more acutely than his fellows – has a special obligation “to make the best of it,” to argue against despondency and disillusion and despair. This is the element in Shelley which must speak to us as man’s hatred of man reasserts itself with unbelievable ferocity, as civil carnage mounts across the world, as religious conflict spills blood in country after country, as gross inequality reestablishes itself in the privileged but miserable West, as war looms in the Middle East and avenging terror seems to spread everywhere.

In our own land, where hope has been shredded so often, where daily we are filled with revulsion at brutal public crimes and unspeakable acts of mindless domestic ferocity, let the force and relevance of poetry never be forgotten. Once I was reading Shelley while in “beloved Essequibo where my soul will go/if hereafter good things happen” – the poet’s great ‘Ode to the West Wind’ especially filling me with wonder all over again as it used to do in my young days – I came across some lines which struck me forcefully. They are from ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and they tell us to resolve never to lose heart:

 

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or nights;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to Hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be

Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;

This alone is Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.

 

Thus over the centuries do the words of poets return again and again to define our deepest needs and inspire mankind to endure against all odds. Amidst the chatter of bureaucrats and businessmen, academics and politicians, it is the voice of the poet, as he delves into the heart of things, which never ceases to give us hope.

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