O mnie

Jestem jak droga polna, niczyja,  którą się mija,

Co nigdzie wiodła i wieść nie będzie, choć idzie wszędzie.

Dzieli mnie zawsze, tak jak tę drogę,
miedza od nieba,
a poco jestem pojąć nie mogę, bo mnie nie trzeba!

Nie byłem nigdy sobie, czy komu,
drogą do domu –
i dobrze życzę każdej godzinie
kiedy już minie.

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Ryszard Antolak



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Shelley, Revolution and the Emasculation of English Poetry

Two hundred years ago, the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley was comprehensively censored and banned by the English establishment. Anyone who dared to publish him (like the radical publisher William Clark or Richard Carlile) was prosecuted and imprisoned for sedition.

The reason? Shelley’s poetry was a call to the poor and disadvantaged to rise up against the powers that used and oppressed them. An enemy of all irresponsible authority, a revolutionary, an atheist, a vegetarian, a fierce fighter for women’s rights, a champion of the working classes, he attempted to liberate the imagination of the poor and disadvantaged from the control of the rich and powerful who exercised their authority to manipulate their thoughts and inform their desires. His poetry still has power to stir the spirit today:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many. They are few.’

For Shelley the distinction between the social classes, between men and women, between animals and humans, were false realities constructed by the rich and powerful to perpetuate their rule. In his Defence of Poetry, he distinguishes (like William Blake) between Reason, the organ which perceives differences and categories (which analyzes and dissects) and Imagination, which sees connections between things and unites. When we think rationally we see divisions. When we think imaginatively we see connections. ”Reason respects the differences, the imagination the similitudes of things”. Shelley was a fierce champion of the unbound Imagination, and of its organ, Poetry.

Poetry, Shelley argued, exercises and expands the imagination, and the imagination is the source of all sympathy, compassion, and love, (because they rest on the ability of an individual to project himself into the position of another person). In the Defence of Poetry he writes, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb”.

No other English poet of the early nineteenth century so emphasized the connection between beauty and goodness, or believed so avidly in the power of art’s sensual pleasures to improve society. Byron’s prose was one of amoral sensuousness, or of controversial rebelliousness; Keats believed in beauty and aesthetics for their own sake. But Shelley was able to believe that poetry makes people and society better; his poetry is suffused with this kind of inspired moral optimism, which he hoped would affect his readers sensuously, spiritually, and morally, all at the same time.

Two hundred years ago, English Poetry still had power to shock and to change minds, and hence to challenge the political and social powers that ruled in England. And so, that power had to crushed. This was shortly after the French Revolution when Britain expected the masses to rise up in a similar fashion as they had in France and remove the landed and aristocratic classes from power. It was a real fear.

At first, the establishment’s tactic was to attack the poet himself. He was expelled from Oxford University and hounded out of Devon by the Home Office (after writing a seditious pamphlet on Ireland). He was the subject of two assassination attempts by Tory landowner Captain Pilfold. After the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, he was refused custody of his own children on grounds of (supposed) immorality. Conditions in England forced him to flee to Europe. In 1821 when the radical publisher William Clark attempted to sell his poem Queen Mab on the street bookstalls, he was immediately prosecuted. Richard Carile published other editions shortly afterwards and was sent to prison for sedition. The preface to Hellas, in which he proposed arguments for an English Revolution, was erased from all editions of his works for over seventy years. His Philosophical View of Reform was suppressed until the 1920s (and even then, only circulated privately). When he died, the London Courier thundered: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned. Now he knows whether there is a God or no”. Hated and ridiculed by reviewers, his works were completely censored by the authorities for years after his death.

Even today, almost 200 tears after his death, Shelley is still mistrusted and often omitted from syllabuses in universities. My English professor at university detested and ridiculed his poetry. A few years ago, a Channel 4 TV programme spent a whole hour attempting to prove the poet’s work was mostly gobbledy-gook nonsense and made no logical sense.

While they could attack the poet’s reputation, the English Establishment could not suppress the poetry which, seductive and dangerous, found its way secretly into the hands of potential revolutionaries to fire their imaginations. The Chartists and other social reformers seized upon and devoured them. Karl Marx read Shelley avidly and his works profoundly influenced his own ideas. .

Since Shelley’s Poetry itself was seen as dangerous to the ruling classes, able to communicate great ideas to the masses with brevity, concentration, imagination and emotive power, Poetry itself (in general) became the next target. A deliberate policy was initiated by the establishment to emasculate Poetry, to reduce its content to inoffensive rhyme and lyric, to confine its scope to the purely personal, or to descriptions of Nature. At the same time his enemies perpetrated the myth that Shelley was an aesthete, an ethereal poet, delicate and frail, guided by vague innocuous notions of Love, instead of a poet of dangerous, political ideas.The phenomenal success of this offensive can be seen today where the poetry section is invariably the quietest and most genteel corner of any English bookstore.

This great change in the public perception of Poetry was the result of a need to silence the revolutionary power of one man’s poetry: that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet who believed that poetry teaches people to love, and that love reforms both the mental and the physical universes and so is capable of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. It is something for which many generations of visionaries have strived and will continue to strive.

Ryszard Antolak

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