The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream


In his essay, ‘A Defense of Poetry’ (1821) English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley christened poets the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. He felt that their unique blend of observation, judgment and refined expression identified them as the ideal proposers of laws promoting societal evolution, development and improvement.

That identifies Heaney as one of the breed and Heaney can picture an alternative!  Mindful perhaps of WH Auden’s contrary view that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ he voices his prose-poem to a spokesman (let us call him ‘Poet’) who tests the water and ends up in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare (dream).

In dialogue with DOD (p 181) Heaney had the following to say about his prose-poem: It’s a free-floating invention, that one. I remember writing it in a café in Bray as I waited for my Volkswagen Beetle to be serviced. It’s a corrective to the more tragic-elegiac scenario in ‘Exposure’… This particular unacknowledged legislator is fit as a fiddle, his spirit blithe, his audience in great fettle … but he happens to be a joke in the eyes of his captor and he’s aware that he has simply become a part of some new political spectator sport.

Two examples of movers and shakers! First a trail-blazer from Antiquity in the fields of maths and science (Archimedes thought he could move the world) and the second a giant of popular culture from early 20th century cinema selected by a pal of Heaney’s (Billy Hunter said Tarzan shook the world).

Heaney lets his imagination off the leash using Archimedes’ lever and Tarzan’s creeper. Poet’s mission is ‘political’: he has perceived fundamental weaknesses (chink under the masonry) in the way his homeland is governed (state and statute). An Archimedes crowbar will enable him to prise out political shortcomings and Tarzan’s creeper will be ideal for helping him break into places of repression and free detained (secrets) political prisoners.

He imagines the headlines (wronged people cheer from their cages) but has not taken account of the fascist régime that arrests him (guard-dogs … unmuzzled), pistol to his head (muzzle butt of my ear) and subjection (blindfolded) to barbaric mental torture intended to maim him (swinging from a strappado).

The camp’s apparatchik commandant is receptive to the point of solicitude – honoured to add a poet to our list of political prisoners. He makes light of Poet’s gravitas (amused), serious (genuine) in his contention that detention is actually Poet’s best option (you’ll be safer here).

‘Banged up’ (cell) yet determined to exercise his right to freedom, Poet makes every effort to dislodge first superstructure (wedge heave ) then infrastructure (jump  test) – all to no avail.

Ultimately the Kafkaesque scenario designed to generate paranoia registers signs of success (were those your eyesat the hatch?)

Notable creative figures who were actively opposed to fascist eastern European régimes were routinely detained and undermined by post-WWII tyrants notably Stalin.

  • Archimedes :classical mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer born in Syracuse around 250 BC; he introduced the principle of leverage in Physics;
  • move the world: elevate or improve social, political, and/or financial circumstances;
  • lever: both a beam in Physics that uses a fulcrum to alter or redirect forces and a crowbar used to lift or dislodge an obstacle;
  • Billy Hunter: assumed schooldays pal of Heaney’s;
  • Tarzan: fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his novel, Tarzan of the Apes, around 1912 Tarzan’s friendship with Jane made him a hero of popular culture, later immortalised in a number of films. Ape-like he swung around in the trees using dangling branches and creepers;
  • shake the world: generate a universal impact; cause a seismic tremble;
  • state: organized political community in which a population lives;
  • statute: the written laws that govern a population;
  • Bastille: prison in Paris, symbol of the oppression of the so-called Ancien Régime and sacked in the French Revolution of 1789; in the event there were few if any political prisoners inside;
  • wronged: suffering injustice;
  • unmuzzle: remove from an animal the restraint that prevents it from being aggressive:
  • muzzle: the open end of a firearm’ barrel;
  • butt: stubby end
  • blindfolded: deprived of sight with with an eye covering;
  • strappado: method of torture that suspended the victim by the wrists, his arms to the rear; the weight of his body gradually dislocated his shoulders and the rest of his frame;
  • commandant: officer in charge of a detention centre, camp;
  • genuine: direct, candid;
  • wedge: squeeze, cram;
  • outstretched: held out to its full extent;
  • heave: apply great pressure
  • flag: square or rectangular stone slab
  • hatch: small opening built into in a door for observation;

In his essay, ‘A Defense of Poetry’, Shelley defined poetry as ‘the expression of the imagination and connate with the origin of man’ declaring a link between the values and concepts that generated historical events and the poetic judgment that  judges and best expresses how things are or how they should be.For Shelley (and Heaney fits the bill) elements such as language, colour, form, religious and civil behaviours are the nuts and bolts of Poetry – ‘the order from which the highest delights result’.

Poets gifted in pursuing the order that ‘most approximates to beauty’ are ‘those who imagine and express this indestructible order’ … Poets ‘are not only the authors of language and of music, of dance and architecture and statuary and painting; they are also the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society’… Poets by ‘not only beholding intensely the present as it is, and discovering those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but also beholding the future in the present’ are shapers and architects. In effect Shelley is arguing that Poets who can imagine a better order for things and try to express it are revolutionaries, innovators, and ‘legislators of the world’.

  • Neil Corcoran describes this prose-poem as a parable: in Heaney’s fantasy the poet-as-liberator is simply imprisoned by the secret policeman with his mild-mannered solicitude (NC79);

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