‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ is one of the best-known and most frequently quoted lines from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), but, like John Donne’s ‘no man is an island’, it doesn’t come from a poem but from a work of prose. But what Shelley means by ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ is not entirely clear without further analysis and examination, and this is before we consider whether his claim is categorically true or not.
One of the most important prose works of the Romantic era, and a valuable document concerning Shelley’s own poetic approach, Shelley’s 1821 essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ argues that poetry is mimetic: that is, it reflects the real world. In the early days of civilisation, men ‘imitate[d] natural objects’, observing the order and rhythm of these things, and from this impulse was poetry born. Reason and imagination are both important faculties in the poet. Reason, he tells us, is logical thought, whereas imagination is perceiving things, and noticing the similarities between things (here, we might think of the poet’s stock-in-trade, the metaphor and simile, which liken one thing to another). It is through reason but also through imagination that we can identify beauty in the world, and from such a perception or realisation are great civilisations made. Poets, then, are the makers of civilisation itself.
And it is at the conclusion of ‘A Defence of Poetry’ – indeed, in the essay’s very last sentence – that Shelley makes the declaration, ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’:
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. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Critics have often noticed that ‘A Defence of Poetry’ is a great essay on poetry in spite of what it leaves out: there is no detailed history of the development of poetry (Shelley’s whistle-stop tour of classical and medieval poets notwithstanding), nor is there any list of rules which good poets should follow. Instead, Shelley’s argument is one which reflects many of the tenets of the Romantic movement: the idea of the poet as a visionary or prophet, the primacy of the imagination, and the ways in which the poet can change the world, becoming lawmaker, statesman, and philosopher all in one.
But as the late poet Adrienne Rich pointed out in 2006, ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ is not what Shelley had originally written. In his earlier and even longer political essay A Philosophic View of Reform, Shelley had written:
It is impossible to read the productions of our most celebrated writers, whatever may be their system relating to thought or expression, without being startled by the electric life which there is in their words. They measure the circumference or sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit at which they are themselves perhaps most sincerely astonished, for it is less their own spirit than the spirit of their age. They are the priests of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they conceive not; the trumpet which sings to battle and feels not what it inspires; the influence which is moved not but moves. Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
This essay, written in 1819-20 so around a year before Shelley wrote ‘A Defence of Poetry’, clearly provided Shelley with his concluding remarks for the later, better-known essay (with only a few modest tweaks being made to the prose, such as replacing ‘priests’ with the more grandiose ‘hierophants’). As Rich observes, the philosophers Shelley was talking about were revolutionary-minded men of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods: Voltaire, Thomas Paine (the author of Common Sense and Rights of Man, which had a hand in both the American and French Revolutions), and Shelley’s own parents-in-law, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.
But between 1819-20 when he wrote A Philosophic View of Reform and 1821 when he wrote ‘A Defence of Poetry’, Shelley clearly came to see poets alone as the real lawmakers and civilisation-formers of the world, dropping ‘philosophers’ from his closing remarks to the latter essay. Thus ‘poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ became simply ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ because, for Shelley, much of the valuable philosophy needed to make the world moral and judicial was found in the minds, and works, of poets.