Radical Poet

In his memoir A Margin of Hope, the great Irving Howe named two key influences on his adolescent development into political radicalism: Marx and Shelley. Growing up in the working-class and ethnic Bronx of the 1930's, this was a fine … Read More

By / August 20, 2007

In his memoir A Margin of Hope, the great Irving Howe named two key influences on his adolescent development into political radicalism: Marx and Shelley. Growing up in the working-class and ethnic Bronx of the 1930's, this was a fine pair on which to model one's outlook if boroughs and cities, not to mention kith and kin, felt too constricting. The romantic impulse to change the world arose as much from the brick-and-mortar ghettos of the new hemisphere as it did from the Lake District and Rhineland of the old. ("Arguing the World" was the title of the documentary made about Howe and his fellow contemporary intellectuals, who, for the sake of convenience, always had their geographic origin — New York — stamped, like an immigrant visa, on their permanent identities.)

The personal is the political but never quite as much as it is with firebrand antagonists of the status quo. Marx lived a yawning private life, but you can't scan his observations about the wife-swapping, adulterous bourgeois without recalling that, even as a catchpenny hack whiling away the hours in the British Museum, he still got around to humping the help.

Shelley's poetry was messianic and revolutionary; so was his boast (somewhat insincere, as it turns out), that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. But he wasn't quite the freedom fighter in his domestic routine and, as Adam Kirsch recounts in this New Yorker review of a new imaginative Shelley biography, the author of "Adonis" and "Ozymandias" rather envied the Catos and Caesars of the planet:

Throughout his adulthood, he considered himself a serious radical—even claiming, “I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science”—whose purpose in life was to advance the cause of liberty in England and Europe. But he consistently displayed an indifference to reality which went deeper than his propaganda techniques. Shelley’s ineffectiveness as an agitator we could dismiss with a smile. But his political beliefs demonstrated the same contempt of consequence, the same elevation of pure motive over practical effects, the same lack of self-awareness. These qualities helped to make Shelley a genuinely illiberal thinker, whose politics verged at times on the totalitarian.

The essay that gave us the "acknowledged legislators" line appeared in a short-lived journal, edited by Byron and Leigh Hunt, called The Liberal. (It's since been revived in Britain as a highly engaging quarterly.) But of course, no conservative critic today can write about the radical litterateurs of the 19th century without seeing them, somewhat prosaically, as germinal totalitarians in the line of Stalin and Hitler and Mao. Yet Byron and Shelley only ever terrorized their own households and, not without good reason, public opinion. The beat Kirsch misses in the above paragraph is that Shelley's "contempt of consequence" — most of all for his own behavior — is precisely what made him incapable of anything other than a domestic tyranny. He lacked cunning and calculation. Though his self-involvement may have led him to become a lousy husband and a delinquent father, one can't quite envision him administering a Committee on Public Safety, or orchestrating a show trial. He was a frustrated man of action, a dilettante who probably resorted to poetry in the first place, and then made grandiose pronouncements about its possibilities, because he knew he'd never make a proper general or prime minister or king. He seems to have been hurt into poetry by his own practical limitations. (Compare this to the equally Romantic Benjamin Disraeli who wanted to be a writer, and was, but then realized his immortality lay in other realms.)

For good reason did Byron expire in Greece trying to fund a nationalist liberation army, all the while adopting an aristocratic hauteur about his efforts and aiming at martyrdom. It was the closest he ever came to making a sort of political difference he thundered about in his verse.

The ominous consistency of thought, said to be the hobgoblin of little minds and surely a necessary condition for dictatorship, was noticeably absent in the Romantics. Nor could they properly be described as "Manichean" for the simple fact that they declaimed the existence of God, but idolized his opposite, Satan — if that isn't having it both ways, I don't know what is. Most of them also admired two wholly antithetical earthly figures, Napoleon and George Washington, the one the most radical counterrevolutionary, and the other the most conservative revolutionary. It was their Promethean natures that the poets loved. Ideology didn't enter into it.

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