Shelley once declared that poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Utter nonsense. But Shelley was, like many of his contemporaries, and far too many of those who have come after him–obsessed with his own self-importance. But his words found resonance with other self-important people, as the Romantic period cult of the artist grew; and to day his words are unfortunately taken seriously by otherwise intelligent people.
Do poets really create the laws for the world? Not at all. It is true that they can give powerful voice to ideas which may become dominant social rules (I suppose that’s what Shelley was suggesting); but I think they more commonly give voice to ideas which are powerful forces already. So it would be more accurate to say that poets are the unacknowledged propagandists of the world. Certainly Shelley’s Prometheus (along with fellow Byron’s Manfred and Don Juan) served better as propaganda to popularize the Satanic hero than they did to legislate a new social more. For the truth is that men have always been rebellious; and if it is more acceptable now due to Shelley and Byron, it is not because they told the human race what they should do, but because they told the human race that it is okay for them to do what they were doing already.
But “legislators” has such a grander ring to it than “populizers,” or “propagandists.”
But the need to feel self-important is great, and a poet can find many reasons to justify his/her pride. And not just poets; this afflicts many artists. So artists, rejecting their historical status as craftsman, insisted upon becoming an elite, avant-garde class; and a great social enterprise was largely ruined, as poets and artists created increasingly elite works, declaring from on high what the masses were supposed to think and feel–and scoffing at the masses for being unenlightened enough to appreciate the virtues of their art.
Ironically, the intellectual quality of modern poetry became much lower after the Romantic period. Go back before the Romantics and look at Spenser, Johnson, Donne, Dryden, Milton, Pope–you will find precious little today that can equal that. But the Romantics dismissed Pope as being “artificial,” mocked at the religion of Donne and Milton, and perverted Milton’s own work as best they could.
Pride is a terrible thing. And it does terrible things to poetry.
As a poet myself, I think poetry is a magnificent art form, capable of producing great wonder and delight–but that by no means gives it an especial status over and above other human activities that produce wonder and delight. I do not go so far as John Stuart Mill as to say that push-pin is as good as poetry, becuase poetry can communicate ideas. But that virtue only makes poetry as good as the idea it carries (so I guess that makes push-pin better than some poetry). Ideas can challenge, they can build up and encourage, they can inspire–but they can also promote despair, contempt, idolatry, and evil. Tell me, Shelley, which ones are our legislation?
I like the ideas in my poetry; and I offer them to the public in the hopes that they will like them to. I suspect I know where people would tell me to go if I declared that my ideas intrinsically had more value than theirs, because I am a poet.
Let us not be taken in by Shelley’s grand and flattering rhetoric. Poets are not super-human, and do not stand above their fellow man as philosopher kings. Gadflies we may be; and we may suggest legislation from time to time; but let us remember that we are more students of the human condition than masters of it.