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This article is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

Shelley's Political Poetry Jeffrey Wainwright


For the most unfailing herald, or companion, or follower, of an universal employment of the sentiments of a nation to the production of beneficial change is poetry, meaning by poetry an intense and impassioned power of communicating intense and impassioned impressions respecting man and nature.


This assertion of the essential relationship between poetry and progressive social change appears in Shelley's prose work A Philosophical Review of Reform completed early in 1820, and in adapted form in his A Defence of Poetry of 1821. Shelley sent it to Leigh Hunt for publication at about the same time as he proposed a companion volume of 'popular songs wholly political, and destined to awaken and direct the imagination of the reformers'. (1) Hunt took up neither suggestion, and A Philosophical Review, omitted from the 1840 and subsequent editions of Shelley's prose, was only published in 1920. The Popular Songs, all written for the moment of intensified repression following Peterloo, appeared sporadically through the 1830s, and had not been presented as the group Shelley envisaged until the Journeyman Press publication where they are added to the lecture Shelley's Socialism given by Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx Aveling in 1888. In their lecture, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, whilst not claiming to deal with 'the large and interesting question whether a poet has or has not a right to be didactic', take early pains to defuse obvious criticism by saying that there is no reason why a poet 'should ...


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