5 April 2008

Poetry vs. Greed

Shelley wrote extensively on a very modern theme: the way scientific and technological advances are used not to create the earthly paradise for all but to generate profits for the few:

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labour, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind? From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.

If we substitute a word like ‘imagination’ for what Shelley called ‘the poetical faculty’ this quotation has immediate relevance to our political project.

Shelley was not alone in his revolutionary interests. Other poets of the so-called the Cockney School, including John Keats, shared his anti-capitalist views. Robert Southey, who later joined the establishment and became poet laureate, wrote a poem in praise of Wat Tyler in 1817. Coleridge and later Wordsworth joined Southey in brainstorming ideas about an ideal form of just and egaliatarian government they called ‘pantisocracy’. The aim of all these poets, now termed romantic but more accurately revolutionary, was to rekindle the energy that had led to the French Revolution around the time of their births. The group revolved around Leigh Hunt and bears his name:

The Hunt Circle believed that one could subvert power by undermining the intellectual, emotional, ideological grounds for its appeal. If one could not literally assault the Bank of England, one could raise questions about the use of paper currency and ultimately the economic system it underwrote.

This revival was successful, resulting in political unrest in the UK leading to the Peterloo Massacre, the Chartist movement and the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Several of the revolutionary poets had already predicted that an extension of franchise would be granted rather than a reversal of the economic changes which had led to wage slavery and were their real target. Rather than this message being heard the poets have been sidelined into nature-lovers and creators of beauty. The message from their verse with the greatest staying power ‘A thing of beauty is a job forever’ (written by Keats in 1817) has been transmuted into an appeal for consumption rather than the rallying call of a movement bent on restoring mankind to its natural paradise on earth, as it was intended.


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  2. Molly, are you saying that there once was a state of natural paradise? What was it like?

  3. A thing of beauty may well be a job for ever, but only if you're a poet.