It is difficult to imagine great shifts in politics without great poetry informing them…
Students at Wyoming Catholic College memorize many poems in the four years of the humanities curriculum, but few of the shorter lyrics they learn—Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” for instance, or Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”—would explain Percy Bysshe Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”
Poetry as legislation? It has been a very long time since men like Solon, the legendary founder of the Athenian democracy, wrote laws in poetic meter. In the past century, any connection between poetry and politics seems rare and ornamental, such as the occasion when the very old Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” on a wintry Inauguration Day in 1961.
But it is difficult to imagine great shifts in politics without great poetry informing them. During England’s rise to world power, for example, William Shakespeare’s imagination absorbed the political sphere so profoundly that his insight informs almost every conceivable political circumstance. Ambition, rivalry, questions of legitimacy in office, appeals to shifting popular judgment, delusions of power, agonized self-scrutiny—nothing escapes him. Not only can he write Richard II’s self-pitying vacillations, but he can also invent Henry V’s superb St. Crispin’s Day speech for the morning of the Battle of Agincourt.
There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever held public office, but other poets were directly entangled in the public sphere, including the two great epic poets of Christianity, Dante Alighieri and John Milton. Dante was so much in the thick of political matters that he was exiled from his native Florence when the rival faction gained power. He composed the Divine Comedy in exile from his beloved native city, and he scattered the great political figures of Italy’s history through the three cantica of his poem, from the proud and unrepentant Farinata rising imperiously from his tomb in Inferno to the spiritually incandescent Cacciaguida, Dante’s ancestor, in Paradiso.
Politics to Dante was a high calling; it was the sphere that called all of a man’s talents into play, as Cicero insisted. The whole of the Divine Comedy, one could argue, comes out of Dante’s longing to legislate a finer city, both as recompense for not being able to return to his home and as a service to his fellow citizens in the City of God.
Like Dante, John Milton, the great English Puritan poet, suffered exile, in his case internal exile in England after the restoration of Charles II. Milton, too, entered the political fray without reserve. “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,” he writes in Areopagitica, “unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” He embraced the task, given him by Parliament, of writing the justification for the beheading of Charles I in 1649, even though he knew it was a dubious route to the “immortal garland.”
His surer route was poetry. Completely blind by 1652, Milton endured personal persecution after the absolute defeat of his political party by 1660. In these unlikely circumstances, he went on to compose Paradise Lost, one of the world’s great epics, first published in 1666. Despite one’s feeling about Puritanism or about Milton’s politics, the poem (which I am teaching the juniors now) achieves a rare majesty of language and sublimity of imagery in its compelling account of the Fall of Man. Personal loss and exile inform Milton’s depiction of mankind’s exile from Eden, though he claims that his own voice is “unchanged/To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,/On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;/In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,/And solitude.”
Great poetry can come from deep engagement with the problems of politics, but it is especially moving to see how exile—often the consequence of that engagement—subtly becomes the symbol of the condition of fallen man per se. Through the lens of exile, the world is envisioned anew, as we will see this summer. Please consider joining us in June.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (February 2017).