For my sister, on the day before her birthday.
I’ve been thinking of Shelley’s famous essay, A Defence of Poetry (1821), which I have read in full, but only many years ago. What I remember of the essay is what everyone remembers, the last line. Indeed, for many that is all they know or have ever known of the essay.
But I misremembered the line as “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the earth.” I got that last word wrong, it is “world” not “earth”: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. “Earth” “world” what’s the difference? That’s a little thing, no?
My dictionary glosses earth (also Earth) as: “the planet on which we live; the world.” The term “earth” thus implies a division between the so-called natural world, the earth proper, and the human world, which is excluded from the scope of that term.
Thus that same dictionary glosses “world” as: “the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features.” See, “world” IS a more inclusive term than “earth.”
Shelley’s use of the word “world” thus encompasses the natural and the human in an enfolding whole. It is within THAT that poets pass their laws without acknowledgement.
Now let’s look at the penultimate line:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.
Speak it aloud. Can you say it smoothly and fluently? If not, you know what to do: practice.
Examine that first clause, Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration: five words of a single syllable each, three polysyllables (of three, five, and four syllables respectively), eight words in all. It’s a mouthful. The second clause is longer, twelve words, with a wider range of syllable counts. Do you think that’s deliberate, not necessarily consciously schemed, but deliberate nonetheless? Of course it is. The third clause drops back to eight words; the fourth clause rises to eleven; and the fifth and final clause settles down to eight.
But what’s it mean?
Right away there’s that forth word: “hierophants.” Strange word. It’s from the Greek: hieros ‘sacred’ plus phainein ‘show, reveal.’ Hierophants reveal sacred things. They reveal mysteries, interpret signs. Signs of what? Inspiration, but inspiration unapprehended. Again, an ancient language: inspire, from Latin inspirare ‘breathe or blow into.’ And so we have a link to breath, the substance of language. But also of spirit—see the connection, spirit, inspire? But unapprehended? What does it mean to reveal sacred things in breath/spirit that one cannot grasp (that is, apprehend)?
So many puzzles, so many mysteries. In only eight words, five little, three long.
Let’s continue, but only lightly now.
Second clause: the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present. We’re in the realm of time (future and present) and sight. Notice how Shelley’s figure collapses time into space, asserting that the future is to the present as the sun to a shadow. And poets know this, are this.
Third clause: the words which express what they understand not. Now language, as though spirit/breath (1st clause) PLUS time/space (2nd clause) EQUALS language.
Fourth clause: the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire. Now music, but battle music. These poets, after all, mean to change things. And change, radical change, is not gentle. But to feel not what they inspire, how strange. Or maybe not: you decide. Hint: he’s setting us up for the final clause.
Fifth clause: the influence which is moved not, but moves. And that’s Aristotle, the unmoved mover, ou kinoúmenon kineî, the cause of all motion in the universe. Shelley’s now kissing blasphemy, for what is an unmoved mover but a god?
And so he ends at the beginning:
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.