The Politics of Poetry
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy
Shelley penned The Masque of Anarchy in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. A rousing cry of defiance and hope, it has given strength to many throughout the years.
Poetry is a unique form of art. It is a river which flows from broken hearts, for the most part. Only the deepest emotions, keenly and unbearably felt, give birth to poems so brimming with passion and power that they are truly unforgettable.
To Shelley, this facet of poetry instilled empathy. It allowed a stranger to experience the thoughts and feelings of another.
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays
Empathy, really, is at the heart of politics. There are those who disregard it completely...
And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.
- Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister, 1979-1990
And there are those who hold it in the highest regard...
Labour is the voice that says to the many, at home and abroad: ‘You don’t have to take what you’re given. You may be born poor but you don’t have to stay poor. You don’t have to live without power and without hope. You don’t have to set limits on your talent and your ambition – or those of your children. You don’t have to be grateful to survive in a world made by others.'
- Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party & The Opposition, 2015-2020
It is no coincidence that For the Many, Not the Few (inspired by Shelley's famous words) was the motto of Corbyn's Labour.
From Blake's observation of London over two centuries ago...
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
- William Blake, London
...to Zephaniah echoing similar sentiments at the end of the twentieth century...
This river speaks
Every boot had a body
Every shirt had a friend,
And the old boys
Say they shall all meet
Where every river ends.
- Benjamin Zephaniah, City River Blues
...poetry has a lot to say that is worth listening to. If nothing else, it helps us to understand how others see the world and their place in it. It can open our eyes to things that we otherwise would not notice.
The greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others.