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 best, expresses truths that transcend mere “manners” and “customs.” Its observations are firsthand and, therefore, never out of date. In this respect, Shelley’s “Defence” is not so different from Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesie” (1595), in which Sidney argues that the poet, unlike the historian, is not “captived to the truth of a foolish world” but free to draw a “perfect picture” of unchanging virtues.
What a difference a hundred years makes. Less than a century later, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire expressed a new, seemingly grander vision of the poet’s role in society that would prove to be devastating both to poets and to poetry. In The Cubist Painters (1913), Apollinaire argues, following Nietzsche, that the apparent order of the world is an “artistic illusion.” Neither truth nor beauty is immutable. “Truth,” he writes, “will always be new.” “The monster beauty is not eternal.” Rather than discover order already at work in the world, the poet arbitrarily superimposes his own order, guided by his “intuition.” In fact, without poets or artists, Apollinaire writes, “Everything would be reduced to chaos. There would be no more seasons, no more civilization, no more thought, no more humanity.” The only responsibility “great poets and artists” have is to “renew” nature in such a way as to prevent people from getting “bored.”
This renewal, however, required the destruction of the old moral and aesthetic orders. “Picasso,” Apollinaire writes, “studies an object like a surgeon dissecting a corpse” (and not, tellingly enough, like one healing a living body). It is no coincidence that at the beginning of the 20th century military metaphors begin to be applied to groups of artists and art. Instead of “schools” of poetry and painting we now have the “avant-garde.” In “It’s Too Early to Rejoice” (1918), Mayakovsky wrote that “It is time / to pepper museum walls with bullets.” In “To Gottfried Benn” (1958), Frank O’Hara writes that poetry is like “the passion of a nation / at war it moves quickly / provoked to defense or aggression.”
While still sharing Apollinaire’s relativism, André Breton argued that poets should develop new forms, not to prevent boredom but to bring about social change. In his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Breton expressed hope that the use of automatism might provide readers with a vision of the world in which all differences, particularly between social classes, would be obliterated.
In both Apollinaire and Breton, the poet becomes a little god who writes against his audience, transforming the world through his art for personal or political ends. This view of poetry and the poet’s relationship to society continues in the “radical” experiments of postmodern and conceptual writing and protest poems. Today, when we speak of a poet’s role in society, we almost always think in terms of politics and revolutions, with the poet standing above the masses calling them to arms or to chant the Heart Sutra, as the case may be.
In a recent piece for NPR on the Beats, Juan Vidal wrote that for “centuries” poets “were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice” and “once served as a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent”:
There was fervor, there was anger. And it was embraced: See, there was a time when the poetry of the day carried with it the power of newspapers and radio programs. It was effective, even as it was overtly political. What has happened?
It’s hard to know where to start with Vidal’s strongly felt demonstration of historical ignorance. Political poetry did not end with Amiri Baraka, as Vidal would have us believe. Allen Ginsberg may have been popular, but it was more for his persona than his actual poems, and most of the other Beats were entirely unknown to most Americans. (There’s a reason Elsa Dorfman’s Paterson Society—a proposed reading tour featuring poets like Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, and Joel Oppenheimer, among others—was scrapped almost as soon as it was started.) Most importantly, however, Vidal’s remark that poetry is, and always has been, “overtly political” is patently false, at least in the way that Vidal imagines (“expressing social and political dissent”).
For the greater part of almost 3,000 years, poets have tended to view themselves not as maudits but as men speaking to men, calling others to live according to shared ideals. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, the poet does not create his own moral order willy-nilly but embodies ideals based on shared values and observable reality, which, of course, does not exclude occasions for questioning or correction. In Virgil’s Eclogues, which was written in the confusing and chaotic years between the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c. and the final triumph of Octavian at the Battle of Actium (31 b.c.), the poet is frank and open about the hopes and heartbreak of the world. At the same time, poetry in the Eclogues is presented as neither the solver of all problems nor the criticizer of all opponents, but simply as the comforter of the downtrodden. In short, in the traditional view, poetry both calls and consoles.
The Odyssey begins with the poet calling on the Muse to tell the story of Odysseus’ difficult return home after the battle of Troy. This convention would seem to suggest that the poet occupied a special place in society as a conduit for divine revelation. The later Roman idea that the poet was not just a poeta but a vates—a word than means not simply a writer of metrical verses but more accurately a prophet—suggests as much. Yet, in a world in which all events—from the flight of birds to thunderclaps—could be read as divine signs and in which all actions are of possible divine origin, the religious associations of poetry seem less extraordinary. Furthermore, while the poet may have been inspired by the gods, he was not one himself, and always addressed his listeners as, and in the service of, fellow men.
At the end of Book V, Odysseus washes up on the island of the Phaeacians. The daughter of the king brings Odysseus to the halls of her father. The Phaeacians are, for the most part, model hosts. They bathe and feed Odysseus, entertain him with poetry and games, and send him on his voyage home with many gifts. Except for Broadsea’s taunting of Odysseus for refusing to compete in the games (Odysseus eventually silences Broadsea with his great strength and speed), the citizens of Phaeacia treat Odysseus with great respect, even though they do not know who he is at first. The island is an example of civilization. Its citizens are virtuous, excellent in both sports and the arts, courageous, and skilled seafarers.
In Book VIII, we have the most detailed portrait of the role of the poet in Greek society in either of Homer’s epics. The first thing we see is that while Demodocus is greatly gifted (“God has given the man the gift of song, / to him beyond all others”), he uses those gifts to serve his fellow citizens. After dinner, he is called into the king’s hall to entertain Odysseus with a song of “the famous deeds of fighting heroes” during the Trojan War. The poem has the opposite of its intended effect on Odysseus, since it brings to mind the many friends he lost in battle, but the Phaeacian lords “reveled” in it. After the party tries its hand at games, Demodocus is again called on to entertain. This time he sings of love of Ares and Aphrodite. Odys seus “relished every note” of Demodocus’s song, and the Phaeacians “rejoiced.”
Phaeacia is an ideal civilization, and Demodocus is an ideal poet. His two songs—one an epic and one a lyric—are representative of all poetry. What we see is that Demodocus has been given this great gift to call his fellow citizens to live virtuous lives. In his first song, while Homer does not retell the entire Trojan War, Demodocus praises the bravery of the Achaeans and the wisdom of Zeus, which functions as an indirect call to the Phaeacians to exercise the same courage and humility. In the second, couples who bring shame on the “marriage bed” are rightly ridiculed.
There are many other examples—both positive and negative—of Greek virtues in the Odyssey. The lack of hospitality is a sign of the lack of civilization. To be inhospitable is to be a witch or a monster. Good wives are faithful, cunning, and patient. Good kings are just and generous. All men should honor the gods, and all men should contribute to the peace and prosperity of the city according to the roles and gifts the gods have given them.
But poetry doesn’t only entertain and teach: It also consoles. Odysseus’ response to Demodocus’ first song, unlike the Phaeacians, as noted above, is to bury his head in his hands and cry. In Book XXIV, the ghosts of Agamemnon and the son of Melaneus, Amphimedon, whom Odysseus has killed for courting his wife, “trade stories . . . far in the hidden depths below the earth.” The point of the exchange is, in part, for Agamemnon, who was killed by his own wife, to praise Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, for her cunning and faithfulness, but the tale also brings some measure of peace to Agamemnon, who suffered so greatly at the hands of his own wife.
The idea that poetry consoles is seen even more clearly in Virgil’s Eclogues, beginning immediately in the opening poem of the collection. Eclogue 1 is a dialogue between two herdsmen of disparate fortunes. It opens with Meliboeus departing his homeland forever and encountering Tityrus relaxing under a tree making music. The tension in the two fortunes is pronounced. “I leave my father’s fields and my sweet ploughlands,” Meliboeus remarks, “an exile from my native soil. You sprawl in the shade / and school in the woods to the sound with Amaryllis’s charms.”
The source of Tityrus’ joy is that he has gained his land and freedom back. Land confiscations were frequent occurrences in the dying days of the Roman Republic. Generals looking to disarm their legions were in need of land to give to retiring veterans. The frequent solution was simply to confiscate farms from local landholders and redistribute them. Tityrus had been one of the dispossessed but had succeeded in going to Rome and reacquiring what had previously been his, for which he will be extremely grateful.
Meliboeus responds not with envy but with amazement. All the other farms have suffered tremendously and are greatly disturbed by the political turmoil. Meliboeus goes on to express his personal calamity. While going off into exile from his land, one of his goats went into premature labor, gave birth on hard stone, and abandoned the newborn twin kids. “I’m not jealous of you,” he tells Tityrus,
I am merely surprised. All
around the farms are so disturbed. I’m tired and yet
I drive my goats on. This one I scarcely drag,
for in the hazel thicket there she’s just dropped twins,
the hope of the flock, and abandoned them on the bare flint.
The poem ends in twin speeches of panegyric and lament. Meliboeus and Tityrus both sing Tityrus’ fortunate fate that allows him to keep his home and farm. (“Fortunate old man, your fields will still be yours.”) The song then turns to the future sufferings of the dispossessed. (“But the rest of us must go to thirsty Africa / or Scythia and the rapid Oaxes’s chalky stream, / or else to Britain, cut off from us by the width of the world.”) They will leave, and some retired soldier, a veteran of the civil wars and most likely not a Roman, will inhabit their dispossessed fields. (“Is some rough soldier to have these furrowed fields? / Some foreigner these crops? What misery civil strife / has brought to us Romans! For such as these have we sown / this land.”)
The final response of Tityrus is telling. He doesn’t allow Meliboeus to vent his bile at being so mistreated. He doesn’t engage in the trite condescension of the fortunate that “it will all work out for the best,” or “everything happens for a reason.” There are no political or philosophical maxims offered at all. Instead, Tityrus ends the poem with an invitation to sit with him by the fire.
But still, you could stop here with me this one night,
sleep on a bed of green leaves. I have ripe apples.
Soft chestnuts, and a fine supply of pressed cheese.
And now, over there, the roofs of the farms begin to smoke,
and the shadows fall farther from the tops of the high hills.
Virgil himself regained a family farm lost through political confiscation. Here, he offers his poetry not as political propaganda, nor as subversive diatribe, or even as Epicurean retreat from the harshness of reality. Rather, he offers his poetry as consolation. Tityrus doesn’t offer to solve Meliboeus’ problems. He offers to sit with him, and nourish him, and share his food for the night before he continues on the unfortunate journey that is set before him. The rest of the Eclogues might be understood as the fireside songs sung that night by these two herdsman as they contemplate and cope with their diverging futures: songs of death and of tragedy, songs of prophecy and love, songs of humor and hope.
The two-fold function of calling and consolation is found in many of the West’s greatest epics and lyrics. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, there’s no shortage of calling. Example after example of sinner is paraded before us in the Inferno as a warning to the living of the consequences of indulging in sin. Yet the poet himself regularly (though not always appropriately) laments the fate of the sinners he sees and expresses his compassion. When the poet encounters the Harpies who have been transformed into thorn bushes, he is unable to speak, because “such pity fills my heart.”
In Paradise Lost, Milton famously (and somewhat provocatively) asks the “Heav’nly Muse” to grant him power in his poem to “assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men.” There is much assertion and nuanced justification in the poem, but there are also moments of consolation. Book X ends with Adam’s long lamentation for his sin and for the consequences he now knows it will bring on the world. After this, he turns to Eve and comforts her. “[L]et us contend no more,” he tells her, “nor blame / Each other, blamed enough elsewhere, but strive / In offices of love how we may light’n / Each other’s burden in our share of woe.” While Adam is referring to the consolation of marriage here, poetry also lightens burdens, as Milton knew. In “L’Allegro,” he praises the “sweetest Shakespeare” whose “immortal verse” drives out “loathed Melancholy” and “eating cares” and laps the reader “in soft Lydian airs.”
In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth provides a portrait of the English countryside that is both beautiful and full of poverty and death with no solution to such suffering offered other than to “speak” it. In John Keats’s “I Stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” the beauty of nature “Charms us at once away from all our troubles.” Poetry, however, is “Full of sweet desolation—balmy pain” and consoles us with images of “beauty . . . desolate.”
The pity that Dante and Milton feel when they encounter sinners is in stark contrast to the contempt and condemnation that many contemporary poets express when encountering modern “sinners.” Amiri Baraka writes that white people could “be killed / in the right / Situation,” and in “Letter to Mrs. Virginia Thomas, Wife of Whatzhisname Lamentable Appointed to the Supreme Court, U.S.A.,” June Jordan calls Clarence Thomas “a first class / colored fool / an Uncle Tom” and “brown nose cut-throat.” While poets, like all people, can be nasty for no reason, both Baraka and Jordan espoused a “revolutionary” view of poetry (Baraka was for many years a devout Leninist) that gave them carte blanche to use poetry as a political weapon against others.
This is not to say that there’s no place in poetry for satire or biting portraits of fools—though Clarence Thomas hardly qualifies as one. Yet the view that the primary function of poetry is to construct reality and impose (an often self-serving) moral order on society rather than reflect shared values removes the poet from society and sets him against it in a way that is harmful to community.
In the classical view, the poet is not a Delphic oracle babbling esoteric lines unintelligible to the uninitiated, nor a political mouthpiece of the regime or the revolutionaries, but the companion of the common man, sitting beside him, helping him wrestle with the questions he has, seeking first to understand and give meaningful expression to the problems and experiences and frustrations of life—to hint, suggest, explore, and point toward possible answers. Such poetry, in turn, draws a community together, uniting a society by being the mouthpiece of their hopes and fears. The poet understands and gives voice to the struggles the reader experiences. The reader, in hearing his anxieties eloquently expressed, feels less alone in the cosmos.
Such a poetry is not entirely absent today, and we can be thankful for the deeply humane work of Dana Gioia, Paul Lake, Geoffrey Brock, Bill Coyle, John Poch, and many others. But we could certainly do with more of the above and fewer of the self-appointed Mayakovskys thundering from the pulpit of the aesthetic, moral, or political revolution.
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