Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Politics and Human
Rights

Percy Bysshe Shelley spoke for many poets when he called them “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For Shelley, poets had a particular power of imaginative vision to understand the times in which they lived and also to be prophets of what lay ahead. It was a poet's responsibility to use his poetic gifts for political means for the betterment of society. It is frequently argued in response that literature cannot be political without sacrificing art to ideology. But good poets write good poetry, regardless of the subject matter, and many fine poems have been written about specific political events. Others take up the theme of human rights and the democratic movement more generally and have become lasting expressions of liberty and justice. Burns's “A Man's a Man for A' That” (1795) is such a poem. Some of the most famous British poems, such as Spenser's The Faerie Queen (1590, 1596) and John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), lend themselves to allegorical political readings, while others are overtly about political events.

Many poems were written in praise of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the army that beheaded King Charles I in 1649 and brought in parliamentary rule in place of the monarchy. Cromwell became Lord Protector and head of the new Commonwealth in 1653. It was a troubled time, when families were often pitted against each other and religion (the Parliamentary party were Protestants, the royal family of Stuarts, Catholic) was a large part of the conflict. The complexity of the Civil War and its aftermath was best expressed by Andrew Marvell in his poem “An Horation Ode Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland” (1650). Marvell admired Cromwell and supported the movement toward democracy, but he also questioned the violence of the regicide and painted a heroic portrait of Charles's patient acceptance of his fate:

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