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Poet as legislator

The theme of poet as legislator reached its grandiose peak in the Romantic era, epitomised in the view of the lonely, alienated poet as 'unacknowledged legislator' to the whole world.

However the concept had a long prehistory in Western culture, with classical figures like Orpheus or Solon being appealed to as precedents for the poet's civilising role.

Plato's opposition to poets in his ideal Republic was predicated on the contemporary existence of Homeric expounders who claimed that "a man ought to regulate the tenour of his whole life by this poet's directions". Plato only allowed the already censured poet to guide the young, to be an acknowledged legislator at the price of total external control.

Less threatened by the poetic role, the Romans by contrast saw poetry, with Horace, as primarily pleasing, and only secondarily as instructive.

Building the view of the fifteenth century Florentine Neoplatonists on the poet as seer, however, Sir Philip Sidney developed a more powerful concept of the poet as overtopping the philosopher, historian and lawyer to stand out as "the monarch...of all sciences.

Such a viewpoint was more or less institutionalised in Augustan literature, Johnson's Rasselas maintaining for example that the poet "must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind" - a fully public, even patriotic role moreover

By contrast the Romantic view of the poet as unackowledged legislator emerges at the turm of the century in the writing of William Godwin, with his anarchic view of the poet as "the legislator of generations and the moral instructor of the world".

It received its most memorable formulation however in Shelley's 1820 A Defence of Poetry. Shelley maintained that, through their powers of imaginative understanding, poets (in the widest sense) were able to identify and formulate emerging socio-cultural trends; and were as a result "the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration...the unacknowledged legislators of the world".



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