For Percy Bysshe Shelley, poets were the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. He made this defiant assertion in his essay, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in 1821. Why did poetry need defending, and why did Shelley’s defence stress the participation of poets in the political sphere? This seminar, like Shelley, will keep referring these questions back to Socrates, the philosopher, teacher and provocateur given voice by Plato in a work that has informed both literary criticism and political theory in the Western world for the past two millennia: The Republic.
Plato’s dialogue lets us hear Socrates describing the values and structure of an ideal polis or city-state. Amongst the witty, impious and counter-intuitive thought experiments in this unsettling text are several meditations on the nature of poetry and its effect on society, including Socrates’ famous insistence that poets would need to be banned from his ideal city, because they are such liars. The problem with poetic representation, he proposed, was that it is not so much an act of making, or bringing something into being (poiein, to create) as of imitation, forgery or deceptive similitude (mimēsis). Poets, he notes, used to be called craftsmen, but are no longer.
In this seminar, we focus on a period in the histories of Great Britain and the nascent United States of America, in which the ideas of the Republic and of political representation were being ceaselessly discussed, contested and reinvented, and when poetry came to define the kind of writing we think of as literary. From the war of American Independence to the Civil War, from Britain’s enthusiastic or fearful engagement with a post-revolutionary French republic to the struggles for electoral reform in the early nineteenth century United Kingdom, this course is a survey of a time when poetry and poetics seemed at once a vital element in public discourse and a thing apart, separate from the world of politics.
Throughout our seminar, however, we will close in with particular intensity on poets who, for one reason or another, were denied full citizenship: the poetry and poetic culture of women, enslaved persons, indigenous peoples, dissenters and exiles, the marginalised and the economically disenfranchised will be at the centre of our vision. We will seek out the representative strategies of the unrepresented.
In so doing, we will also ask, is there a way of making peculiar to poetry that also constitutes or creates a mode of participation in the political sphere? We will think with political philosophers as well as literary critics along the way: with Socrates but also with Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt, Luce Irigaray and Audre Lorde. We will interrogate and celebrate the art of making as it appears in unexpected places; in the everyday work assigned to the unacknowledged citizens who bake, sew, sing, wash, weave, and write, but who do not – yet – vote.
Indicative outline of topics
1. Enslavement and Participation: Phillis Wheatley and the City-State of Boston.
2. Domestic Work and Foreign Policy: Anna Laetitia Barbauld, ‘Washing-day’ and ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: a Poem’.
3. Cultures of Song: Anne Hunter, Robert Burns, Frederick Douglass.
4. The Maker and the System: William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
5. Poetry, Equality and Fraternity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journals and Highland Tour; William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads and ‘Home at Grasmere’.
6. Poetry in the making: Manuscript study session on Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Shelley, ‘England in 1816’ and Emily Dickinson, various ‘fascicles’ [see https://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/dickinson/].
7. The Offense of Poetry: anti-poetry sentiments and satire of electoral reform in Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836) [extracts provided].
8. The Sovereignty of Poetry: extracts from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem-novel, Aurora Leigh.