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How Might Poetry Function as an ‘Unacknowledged Legislator’?

Despite the tendency for scholarship to portray W.H. Auden and Percy Shelley as anti-types,

and indeed Auden’s own insistence on Anti-Romanticism (Blair 16), this essay will argue that both

writers use similar poetic techniques to address and ameliorate political disenfranchisement. These

poets seek to unify shattered nationhood through the figure of the disconnected individual, who is

either examined as a social product, or as a personification of broader social themes such as class

oppression. Nationhood is assessed as a collective self-hood, only made meaningful by its constituent

parts. Through these representations of consciousness, microcosmic disorder is revealed to be

symptomatic of the macrocosmic political atmosphere which produced it. In Auden’s words: “Freud’s

error is to limit neurosis to the individual. The neurosis involves all society” (Mendelson 298).

Psychoanalysis in his view can therefore be made more useful once politicised, or when the mind is

analysed within its social context. The individual in this way becomes a metonym for nationhood and

a locus for the confrontation of dominant ideologies. As much as Auden disagreed with Shelley’s

poetics— “’The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.”

(“Writing”)— in many ways he continued the legacy of social re-connection and doctrinal liberation

begun by Shelley and his contemporaries.

There is a crucial ontological difference between the way each poet conceptualises

humankind: Shelley argues for spiritual unity, that each individual represents “different modifications

of the one mind” (On Life, 508). Auden more ironically remarked thus: “Infectious diseases: a sign of

the unconscious sense of unity between men” (Mendelson 299), a typically enigmatic view which only

hints at such a bond. Both poets, however, conceived of their societies as essentially fractured, and

attempted to address this within their work. In the case of Shelley, humanity was severed not only

from itself but from nature, and in Auden’s case private individuals from the public political spaces,

who saw individuals united only in private spheres (Blair 64). A crucial reconciliation was necessary in

both cases, to orchestrate passive resistance and engender social equality: the understanding is that

political change can only occur if each individual that comprises the body politic is liberated from the

ideological constraints imposed upon them. This understanding of peaceful revolution was, Beale

argues, conceptualised primarily by Shelley and other ‘Romantic’ poets in opposition to the extreme

cyclical violence of reactionary politics during the French Revolution (56). The alternative was to focus

on liberation from doctrine, in order to free human minds from ideological constraints: If all actions

and thoughts are co-existent, as Shelley envisioned in his A Defence of Poetry, then political progress

can be effected by the acts of collective consciousness. Concomitant with this issue is the emergent

mechanisation and industrialisation of England’s economy, which was widely perceived as a

dehumanising force. Speaking in the House of Lords on the Framebreaker’s Bill, Lord Byron addressed

this directly: he referenced “a starving and desperate populace” (117) and urged that “[mankind] must

not be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism” (116). The dehumanising influence of industrialism

therefore galvanised the need to reclaim ‘humanness’ from economic as well as political oppression,

an issue which reached its climax in Auden’s time.

Mengham argues that “Auden’s intention is to develop in his writing the sense of a situation

in which the cure of the individual is irrelevant in the face of the power of ideology that can go on

reproducing the same conditions” (171). On this view, Auden’s early work recognises the futility of

psychoanalysis unless it is applied to society rather than only the individual, and so seeks to develop

awareness within individual readers of ideologies which undermine contemporary hegemonies such

as individualism, an aspect of the social neurosis. Individuals within his poetry are often presented as

embodiments of social illness, politicising Georg Groddeck’s notion that illness was “a reaction to

external restraints” (Mengham 169). Auden too lived in a period where unprecedented technological

developments were widening class divisions and alienating individuals from public life. Furthermore,

individuals were being treated more and more as commodities, human capital with — as Marx put it

— “abstract value” (Morton 201). This is embodied by Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”, in which the

detached speaker presents a bourgeois, dehumanised portrait of the average worker. The “Marble

Monument” (2) literally embodies the speaker, who is a manifestation of the “State” (3), and functions

as a metaphor for bourgeois perspective. Marble, being notoriously cold and durable, shows a

monument which reflects the indomitable state control over ideology, and the emotionlessness of

bureaucracy: The clinical linguistic features of the poem overall reflect this inhuman perspective. The

citizen’s life is constructed solely through reference to hegemonic power structures and adherence to

their values: This faceless member of the proletariat “satisfied his employers” (11) in the factory,

“bought a paper every day” (17), and importantly, “in everything he did he served the Greater

Community” (8). This inverted elegy explores the denial of the individual that is consequent of such

political bodies; no view from the deceased’s private world is preserved, only the statistics of public

institutions to which he is subservient. The concept of the “Greater Community” is pertinent, as well

as how the idea “saint” is reconceptualised around this term: In serving the abstract construct of the

Greater Community through his conformity and individualism, the man becomes almost holy “in the

modern sense of the old-fashioned word” (7). The ironic reversal of the traditional saint, and holiness,

serves to expose how hegemonic values have been corrupted by State institutions: instead of

performing any acts of moral worth, the citizen is saintly by virtue of his mediocrity. If we consider

Auden’s view that “one characteristic that all men, whatever their culture, have in common is

uniqueness—every man is a member of a class of one” (“Writing”), the dehumanising perspective of

“The Unknown Citizen” symbolises the necessity of reclaiming one’s forgotten humanity. Auden, in

portraying an absence of conscience, is continuing in the same vein as the Enlightenment philosopher

Rousseau’s work: “Rousseau understood conscience as standing in opposition to the social self – to

public opinion that threatens to swamp one’s individuality" (Andrew 132); What Auden presents is

“the social self”, the public silhouette of a private individual whose very memory, the post-death relic

of existence, has been subverted by public opinion and dominant institutions.

Though Auden certainly would not have wanted him to be interpreted as such, the citizen also

functions in Shelleyan terms as a distorted Aeolian lyre who embodies the problematic urban

environment to which he assimilated (25-27); a “series of external and internal impressions” (ADOP,

511) have effected “an internal adjustment” (ADOP, 511), and he has become harmonious with a

detrimental society. Similarly, Shelley’s ‘madman in “Julian and Maddalo” pre-figures this notion of

the individual debased by corrupt society, though I argue against the traditional reading of his

madness. He is deemed mad once he has “no cash or land” (249), and is incarcerated by the police on

public perceptions of his “wild” (249) state. Contrastingly, he has his own conception of madness,

commenting that he will not “seek a moment’s shelter from my pain / In any madness which the world

calls gain,” (364-5). His subjective conception of madness refers to the normative practices of his

society, while we can infer from the rhyming linkage of “pain” and “gain” the anti-imperialist

undertones of his view. This positive reading of the madman’s perspective is reinforced by Shelley’s

vision in A Defence of Poetry: “The abolition of personal slavery is the basis of the highest political

hope that it can enter into the mind of man to conceive”, and poetry is the mechanism by which such

“revolutions in opinion” (515) take place. While the ‘madman’ has ostensibly been wounded by lost

love (345-50), he also laments social change: “I cannot bear more altered faces / Than needs must be,

more changed and cold embraces,” (312-3), and in his visionary dreaming “Of sweetest peace” (335-

7), he awakes to find himself considered mad for imagining reform. He vows however not to cease

from his reconceptualising of mankind: “Nor dream that I will join the vulgar cry, / Or with my silence

sanction tyranny” (362-3). As an idealist, he is necessarily alienated from his contemporaries and

driven into solitude. While many of the characters, including Maddalo, see the man as one who

exemplifies the vanity of “aspiring theories” (201), the quasi-Shelleyan figure of Julian who shares his

idealist tendencies perceives that the man “spoke — as one who wrote and thought / His words might

move some heart that heeded not / If sent to distant lands” (286-8). This analysis implicitly critiques

the society that has led to the visionary’s rejection, and envisions that he could thrive in a land both

spatially and temporally “distant” to the present.

Shelley utilises the figure of the mariner in “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills” for

twofold purpose: firstly, to explore the psychology of the disenfranchised individual, and secondly to

personify the national woe. Having composed this poem in October 1818 after the death of his infant

daughter Clara, themes of personal loss and desolation pervade the text. Shelley, however, is by this

time all too aware of the poet who looks only inwards and loses touch with the world, as explored in

the poet-figure of “Alastor” two years earlier, and so does not contain the turmoil within the individual

but seeks more universal meaning within the form of such emotions. This is reflected in the blurred

imagery of the “sea of Misery” (2) in which he travels, which at once suggests pathetic fallacy, in which

internal emotion is projected onto an external domain, and a metaphor which connotes that the

journey lacks physical dimensions. Other spatial landmarks mark the metaphorical progress of this

journey: He references “the sunless sky” (9) and “the beach of a northern sea / Which tempests shake

eternally” (12-13), images which recall not only the physicality of England’s national space but also the

“disturbed state” of which Shelley wrote to Peacock in the following year (Peacock 197). It

undoubtedly also alludes to the ongoing political unrest in Italy itself as this time following Napoleon’s

conquests and subsequent expulsion. On one level, the speaker arguably represents Shelley’s

personal woe, but his conceptualisation as a mariner has unavoidable class and (nation) connotations,

given England’s naval dominance at this time. Furthermore, the repressing nature of England’s

political space is symbolised in the contrasting imagery attributed to Lombardy, which solidifies the

political undertones of the previous stanzas. The aesthetic power of the landscape testifies to the

potential for revolution, hence the use of epic language and heroic verse: “Ocean’s nursling Venice

lies, / A peopled labyrinth of walls, / Amphitrite’s destined halls” (95-7), a land in which the sun is

contrastingly “radiant” (101) as compared with England’s darkness. It almost as if the mariner has just

undergone a katabasis in England, journeying through the River Styx — or the aforementioned “sea

of Woe” (2) — in order to literally and spiritually return to the earth. Morton’s view that “For Percy

Shelley, nature and culture were coterminous” (185) requires some qualification: while he certainly

perceived this within ancient Greek society, whom he viewed as “living in perpetual commerce with

nature” (Peacock 167), he wished to show that contemporary society had imbalanced this relationship

and become unnatural. The poem’s ultimate vision is the victory of idealism, represented in the

speaker’s “windless bower” (344) in which “The polluting multitude” (356) can experience a “healing

paradise” (355) which regenerates the earth’s youth (373). This healing entails the reconciliation of

contemporary culture with nature, and thus only in Shelley’s poetic vision of the future does humanity

return to the Greek state of being and again become coterminous with nature.

Auden similarly employs the internal anxiety of the individual as a personification of social

disorder in “XXVI [It’s no use raising a shout]”. Hamilton’s recent studies in cognitive linguistics prove

useful here, as they confirm the widely-held assumption that the body and body language “is indexical

of the mind” (408), and that Auden pre-empted this somewhat in his “abstract personifications” (409);

hence, Auden’s paralysed, shell-shocked speaker comes to personify the stagnant social landscape in

which the common man is not only powerless, but hopeless. His disconnection, as with Shelley’s

mariner, is considered both physically and mentally:

“In my spine there was a base,

And I knew the general’s face:

But they’ve severed all the wires,

And I can’t tell what the general desires”.


His war-time injuries are attributed to an external agency (21), a line which could refer to surgery but

also possesses political connotations: if referring to Authority, we see that the horrors of mechanised

war have severed communities into broken, disconnected individuals. This isolation is further explored

on a temporal level: before such injuries his perceptions were much clearer (19-20), whilst afterwards

only uncertainty remains: “It wasn’t always like this? / Perhaps it wasn’t, but it is”. This uncertainty is

epitomised in the recurring couplet: “Here am I, here are you: / But what does it mean? What are we

going to do?”. Only the present is perceptible or intelligible, and the speaker can neither see

backwards nor forwards in time. This disassociation from the past is crucial in the context of Auden’s

poetry, as he perceives history to be crucial to national identity: "In poetry as in life, to lead one's own

life means to relive the lives of one's parents and, through them, of all one's ancestors; the duty of the

present is neither to copy nor to deny the past but to resurrect it." (“Yeats as an Example”). The

speaker’s physical pains, and subsequent apathy, have left him emotionally insensitive — “I don’t want

any more hugs” (3) — and mechanical: his imperative demands “Make me some fresh tea, fetch me

some rugs” (4) hint at the destructive influence of the Great War and militarism and on interpersonal

relationships as well as the collective psyche.

Lucas observes of Auden that “There is nothing of random observation in Auden’s method, no

hapless recording of social ephemera. What we are given are synecdochic details, clues by which to

read society’s ills” (156). From this we can view the physical pangs and apathy of the veteran

translated into a personification of the wounded nation, particularly through the seemingly innocuous

inclusion of images such as the “fresh tea” (4), which by this time had become closely associated with

English identity. Language, another crucial element to national identity, is used here to create

empathy within Auden’s readers. This reading is predicated upon Auden’s view of language as the

“common property” of its specific linguistic group (“Writing”), and therefore one of the only surviving

— if abstract — national spaces. Language in the hands of the private individual is shown however to

be powerless: Opening the poem with “It’s no use raising a shout” immediately refers to Auden’s

concept of the increasing divide between the private and public spheres; The shout will not be heard

in a public domain where one’s personality is less important than “the printing presses and

loudspeakers that he can command” (“TWTM”, 3). This concept is an ideological rendering of Marx’s

bourgeois control over the means of production, representing discourse as an increasingly hierarchical

mode which is becoming the prerogative of the ruling classes. Beale’s comment that for Shelley,

“Metaphor is unity, and language is thus the central articulation of human communion” (620), helps

to identify how Auden’s conception of language, and thereby the function of poetry, resembles a

blending of his early Communist interests (Dunn 328) and the ideals of his Romantic predecessor.

These writings attempt to engender an awareness within the reader of their own social

agency, whether potent in the case of Shelley or minimal in the case of Auden, both nonetheless

encourage a revolt from oppressive, hegemonic power structures through an exploration of their

inhumanity. Stauffer argues that introspection and meditation are essential to the Romantic

conception of self and world, an alternative to the “cycles of cruelty” (139) perpetuated by political

chaos during the early nineteenth century. Auden, though often pessimistic of the potential of

oppressed individuals, perceived the truth of this notion and explored ‘social neurosis’ through

marginalized figures in order to critique the individualism promoted by modern technological society,

as well as the devastating impact of mechanized warfare on the common man. Ideals of individual

improvement and concomitant social reform are envisioned by both poets, who utilise their art in

order to destabilise social norms. The threat of emotionless mechanisation and bureaucracy is

challenged through their works; poetry, as a form entirely reliant on the significance of its linguistic

symbols, is conceptualised as a tool by which this seemingly meaningless world can be assessed,

challenged, and re-imagined. No man, they argue, should be separated from “his true role as part of

a living, vital universe informed by love” (Beale 52), and in this way Auden’s purpose in his early poetry,

if not his overall conception of poetics, can be reconciled with the work of Shelley and other ‘Romantic’

poets. By attempting to effect a revolution of thought, these poets function as “unacknowledged

legislators” in their consistent exposition of and opposition to a political and economic élite which

sought to dehumanise and commodify its citizens.


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