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This article is taken from PN Review 5, Volume 5 Number 1, October - December 1978.

The Politics of Literature Jeffrey Wainwright

BENT, AT the outset of his career, upon the task of raising political consciousness, Shelley would launch fire balloons and bottles bearing his pamphlets over the Bristol Channel.


A ray of courage to the oppressed and poor;
A spark, though gleaming on the hovel's hearth,
Which through the tyrant's gilded domes shall roar;
A beacon in the darkness of the Earth;
A sun which, o'er the renovated scene,
Shall dart like Truth where Falsehood yet has been.
                'Sonnet: To a Balloon Laden with Knowledge'


Shelley of course was to experience increasingly how fraught and complex such distribution of Truth can be. The regular obloquy his work earned him culminated in the effective suppression of his great political poems of 1819-20. Richard Carlile, whose editions eventually did give Shelley's rays some post-humous life in the working-class movement, had himself had previous opportunity to reflect upon the limitations of English freedom of expression inside prison walls.

Shelley's case is worth mentioning in order to introduce some qualification of what seems to be an underlying assumption of the 'Writers and Politics' series that the commingling of literature and politics is mainly a twentieth century phenomenon, and moreover, as Dr Morris appears to suggest, a particularly un-English activity. Wordsworth, for instance, is absolved from any real political taint since study of his 'revolt in terms of language and metre' will 'reveal the essentially traditional nature of his ...


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