Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hierophants of Unacknowledged Inspiration

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.


  1. Can you say it smoothly and fluently?

    Its rather easy but I can only do it in a declamatory style (creature of habit). That suggests in terms of getting the meaning (which is dictate by the rhythm) " the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire" is the line not to arse up in terms of getting the sense, as the rhythm and unnatural style I use suggests the key inflection to hit should be on not (they understand not).

    The key sense to get across, the song will not die. I don't think you need anything more than the rhythm and inflection to speak it, the sense takes care of itself. Its not the words you have to understand or apprehend to convey it to an audience. Not where the art or skill lies at least when it comes to performing.

  2. "...only do it in a declamatory style..."

    Well, it's not exactly low-key language, is it? It's quite ceremonial in nature. A declamatory style would suit it well I think.

  3. "Well, it's not exactly low-key language, is it?"

    You can tone it down, its pure form is not used anymore, it is useful when learning as it requires so much control. Done correctly people have no choice but to listen. Its also so demanding to learn it has knock on effects.

    I think classical actors deal with over- sibilance much better ( I may be biased). If you listen to an old school classical actor and listen for the way z is replaced with s as much as possible (easy one to spot when you know what to listen for). Once you become attuned to the style, understand the technique and note the difference in other actors trained differently the difference becomes glaringly obvious when done badly and it often iz or isssss.

  4. Meanwhile, I wonder about that word "hierophants." How would it have struck Shelley's readers?

  5. Other than his work (and I have not read the above) I know only one thing about Shelley. He was familiar with Lord Monboddo's Origin and Progress of language and owned a copy. Its been claimed Shelley is also given a bit part in Thomas Peacock Loves Meliricourt or Oran Haut-ton parody of Lord Monboddo's beliefs.

    The figure claimed to be Shelley is Mr Perriwnkle, an atheist who brought up an ape in the country.

    "He believes, with Monboddo, that apes are a species of men; and, in short, has so little reason, feeling, knowledge, or virtue..."

    I have no idea how firm the claim is I have not looked at it yet. If true its presenting him as a follower of Monboddo's perspective in regard to our hairy cousins at least.

    The words that interested me were unmoved mover. Lord Monboddo's other work Antient Metaphysics ranges all over the place but it is in origin a rather unsuccessful attack on Newton, Monboddo's ire with Newton is that he does not place god as prime mover in his work. Monboddo's concern is to ensure the ongoing role of God yet radical enough to be the most forceful voice claiming language is not God given and placing linguistics on a historical footing.

    I suspect whatever word you pick you fall down a rabbit hole with this when you start to look at wider reception of text (as the inflection will be wide).

    I wonder what Shelley s position was on Language, imagination, reason art science and God. Placing a poet as legislator, legislation is a somewhat dry and forensic processes based on careful observation and reason (according to Lord M who was a highly successful and seriously able lawyer and judge).

    Whatever the case it hints at a series of rather interesting series of arguments.

  6. "...Shelley's position was on Language, imagination, reason art science and God."

    I suspect you'd find some of that in the essay, which I've not read in years.

  7. I see the work is related to Thomas Peacock Love. I have no idea who he is but have read a lot of stuff of late. He is a busy bee poking around intensely in some things I look at. Wondered what he was up too. Some form of policing activity I suspect.

    Most interesting