"Unacknowledged Legislators of the World":
The Poetry and Politics of Percy Shelley


Although most of his poems are not overtly "political," Percy Shelley was never prepared to draw a line between his politics and his poetry. Instead he argued that the best literature always resulted from engagement and sympathy with political affairs and the tide of human history. In his Defence of Poetry (2.789802), Shelley expressed his view that "the literature of England . . . has arisen as it were from a new birth"; this renaissance did not result from a crop of individual geniuses but rather from "the spirit of the age":

It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations, for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age.  (2.802)

Shelley's assertion that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" is the clearest illustration of his belief that imaginative practice and political activism were inextricably intertwined. It follows that a poem by Shelley which makes no direct reference to world affairs, such as "Ode to the West Wind" (2.730–32, may be as revolutionary in spirit as one which deals with a recognizable historical event.