Two hundred years ago, in The Defence of Poetry, English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. In the centuries following, that redolent formulation has been seized on and applied to themselves by many writers of poetry.
It’s a fine label of course, and apt in many cases. But Shelley meant more than that versification was a high-minded act. He had an agenda of action and creative collaborators in mind, as shown so clearly in A Philosophic View of Reform, written before the essay on poetry, in which poets are joined by philosophers as the putative lawmakers.
Certainly, the threat posed to bad and evil regimes by the words flowing from the pens (or keyboards) and lips of writers is an acknowledged fact. It was precisely the forensic verbal precision of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman orator, lawyer and defender of the Republic, that led to Mark Antony ordering his murder and that his head and hands be chopped off and displayed in the Forum in Rome. Why? Plutarch, the classical Greek historian, explains in his life of Cicero: “…Herennius cut off his head and his hands – the hands with which he had written the Philippics. (It was Cicero himself who called these speeches against [Mark] Antony ‘the Philippics’…)”.
The barbaric military rulers of Myanmar are treating Burmese poets in much the same way. Three so far have been killed (that we know of): one by bullets at a protest, the other two rather more deliberately by being arrested, detained, tortured and savagely murdered. The body of one was returned to his wife with all internal organs removed, presumably an organ-harvesting exercise on the side, a collateral benefit of the assassination.
Another historically and routinely repressive state, Turkey, jailed its greatest 20th-century poet, Nazim Hikmet, many times, the longest for 13 years. His “crime” was being a leftist and a Communist; his punishment was a series of fabricated charges. The last and gravest accusation was inciting an uprising by the Turkish army, for which Hikmet was imprisoned until 1950, when he was freed as part of a general amnesty. He lived outside Turkey until his death in 1963.
‘No laughing matter’
Towards the end of his incarceration Hikmet wrote On Living, which is one of his most searing and poignant poems. Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, its first lines are:
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example –
I mean, without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole life.
The regime in Ankara implicitly acknowledged Hikmet as a dangerous alternative legislator. A century before, Louis Napoleon took a similar dislike to Victor Hugo, the towering figure of the French Romantic movement, France’s greatest poet of the 19th century, a political playwright for the ages – and, oh, also the author of two of French literature’s most beloved novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; woefully mistranslated in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) and Les Misérables (1862).
Hugo was more than an “unacknowledged legislator”: he was elected to the legislative assembly after the 1848 Revolution, and his Republican leanings soon came to the fore. Among other causes he espoused and supported were free education and universal male suffrage. But when the coup of 1851 turned Prince-President Louis Napoleon into Napoleon III and brought with it the Second Empire, Hugo went into exile on the island of Guernsey.
It was there, at Hauteville House, surrounded by family and friends and with his mistress Juliette Drouet living next door in a house that Hugo rented, that Les Misérables was created. The pernicious effects of the musical of the novel – fine though it is as an adaptation and piece of musical theatre – mean that for most in 2021, Les Misérables is a love story, a tale of redemption, a battle of good versus evil.
It is far more than that. The musical omits the vital philosophical and political tract that is part four of the novel, which elaborates Hugo’s ground-breaking political and social manifesto. Here is what Hugo writes in Book IV, Crevices Under the Foundation, from the fourth part, Saint Denis and Idyll of the Rue Plumet. Even the most cursory reading of this passage shows why Shelley is eternally correct: great poets are the supreme unacknowledged legislators of the world.
“All the problems which the socialists propounded, aside from the cosmogonic visions, dreams, and mysticism, may be reduced to two principal problems.
To produce wealth.
To distribute it.
The first problem contains the question of labour.
The second problem contains the question of wages.
In the first problem the question is of the employment of force.
In the second of the distribution of enjoyment.
From the good employment of force results public power.
From the good distribution of enjoyment results individual happiness.
By good distribution we must understand not equal distribution, but equitable distribution. The highest equality is equity.
From these two things combined, public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity.
Social prosperity means man happy, the citizen free, the nation great.”
(From the translation by Charles E Wilbour.)