Shelley Was Right When He Said Poets Are 'The Unacknowledged Legislators Of The World'

Shelley Was Right When He Said Poets Are 'The Unacknowledged Legislators Of The World'
We humans are made up of memories, aren’t we? In the film Dark City, the aliens experiment with switching the memories of their captive humans around, taking them from one and injecting them into another. The hero in the end tells the aliens that they “went looking in the wrong place” for their humanity, pointing to the heart instead, implying that emotions and feelings are what make us human.

But memories are also nuggets of emotion. What we remember is significant to us in some way. Memories point us back to a time when we felt intensely—whether it was fear, or joy, or revulsion. Any strongly felt emotion becomes part of memory, except the ones which are too threatening, the ones we repress, as per Freud. Do we remember anything that has no emotional value? If we do, we certainly don’t remember it well. This is also why the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

We humans have a very short life span if you think about it. In childhood and adolescence, the years stretch before you, like those never-ending summer holidays I remember from my childhood. In later years, time seems to fly past, though it can sometimes be interminable. When you’re older, you reminisce about youth; when you are older still, you begin to forget the recent past. Reminiscing is like crying alone; it has the sweetness of nostalgia. One could argue that this is a luxury denied to many. Most individuals are caught in the meaningless daily grind imposed on them by the group; they cannot afford to stop and take stock. They have responsibilities to meet—jobs to go to, family to support… Or are they the lucky ones, since they avoid this solitary stock-taking? We almost always envy the ones who are different.

I have a friend who is in the habit of writing every single day in her journal. For as long as I have known her—19 years to be precise—I have witnessed her writing compulsively in those pages, noting down everything that is significant for her in the day’s events. She has all her memories on hand if she wants to live them again. I envy people who are compelled to write like that; I feel like they have a vocation. For me, writing is more akin to the line attributed to Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” One knows about the French writer Flaubert’s obsession with “le mot juste”—the exact word that would fit into whatever he was writing. It’s not easy.

I have written in my journal too, but sporadically, whenever the emotion needed to be spilled on to the page, so that my entries read like a series of explosions, some calmer than others. When such writing is also a record of your illnesses and physical frailties, re-reading it often resuscitates the feelings associated with those literal hurts, so that it’s like lightly touching old wounds again, thinking to yourself: yes, I have suffered not a little. It can absolutely bring on a bout of self-pity. Going over painful memories—painful both figuratively and literally—revives them somewhat, so that while writing about them may have been an act of catharsis, re-reading them shows you that you never were healed and that you still nurse those scars.

Self-pity: it’s not a pretty emotion. Yet most poets and writers wallow in it, especially the poets from this part of the world. Urdu poetry is full of pessimism, self-pity, dejection, and grief. Still, only those who feel strongly can be poets, though form is absolutely essential. Expression is what redeems these emotional spills and turns them into art. Feeling must be communicated to the reader so that it will affect him or her viscerally, not just intellectually, and evoke a response. Shelley calls poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The idea sounds funny today, in a world about to be taken over by artificial intelligence (or has the takeover already happened?) But Shelley is right nonetheless. It goes back to the hero of Dark City telling the aliens that they must look for humanity’s defining characteristics in the heart—the seat of emotions. The poets have given some resounding words to the world through the ages—liberty, sacrifice, love for one’s fellow beings. In this, the poet has acted as prophet and messiah. I don’t think that Plato really banished poets like these from his Republic. For, was Socrates himself not one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world, even though Plato’s Dialogues show him as a rather annoying arguer?

Do memory and emotion equal poetry? Yes, if they offer something to those who read it. They are, after all, common to all humans. In this sense, even prose can be poetic. Writer Bill Roorbach says that all knowledge is a form of memory. That is certainly true, as every experience moves into the past every second, and becomes memory. In a world become too cruel, our defining characteristics are not our intellect, our wealth, or our power, but our feelings. Hold on to memory and emotion, then, if you are human.

Dr. Naveed Rehan is an English professor at Forman Christian College (A Chartered University), Lahore.