What are poets good for? Are all attempts to speak of 'the function of poetry', with that reductive definite article, doomed to pompous failure? In response to these questions, the sentence which precedes Shelley's over-quoted dictum that 'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world' is rarely cited, and one can see why. 'Poets,' he writes, 'are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.' It's a daunting job description. But although it may not have been common in the past century or so for poets to speak of themselves as 'hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration', the idea of a special bardic role didn't disappear in the post-Romantic generations. It was still present, in suitably modern dress, in the 1930s, particularly in the actions and pronouncements of the poets of the 'Auden generation', who did indeed see themselves as 'the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present'. Their writing assumed that there was a large public which expected poets, above all others, to take the pulse of the age. The 1930s, as Chris Baldick observed in his excellent recent volume in the Oxford English Literary History, 1910-40: The Modern Movement, were 'the last years in which that assumption was widely shared'.
LRB 6 September 2007 | PDF Download