Prophecy and Social Change: the Unacknowledged Legislators, the Watchmen, and the Prophets
A prophet, Shelley once observed, is someone who can see into the present. And like all great poets, he added, they not only see – they communicate, they rage, and they galvanise, and in this role they’ve traditionally presented a major problem for the ruling elites. As Andrew O. Winckles notes in this compelling article, prophets have always told it like it is, spoken truth to power, and their main object of scorn and anger has usually been the elites themselves. It’s a tradition that political and religious authorities have always found uncomfortable, always sought to silence, for what the prophets say fundamentally challenges the authority of their rule and lays bare its usurping, brutalising character.
It’s no surprise that religious authorities would prefer us simply to pray, to meditate, to unplug our anger, as this presents little challenge to the status quo – while the prophetic tradition burns with life and crackles with insurrection. As Blake once remarked, “Every honest man is a Prophet. The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God”, and both he and Shelley forcefully drew on the tradition of the great Biblical prophets in order to energise not only their own work but to re-energise society itself. ‘Old Testament’ prophets weren’t about foretelling the future, but about revealing the present. It’s a tradition of vocalisation, action, and mobilisation quite at odds with the passive and pacifying rhetoric of most spiritual traditions. Prophets call us to action, force us to see things anew, and encourage us to transform all oppressive systems of thought. For as Abraham Heschel notes,”God is raging in the prophet’s words”.
A Defence of Prophecy
In A Defence of Poetry (1821) Shelley claimed that “poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets.” This identification of the poet, and specifically Shelley, with the prophetic has been fertile ground for academic inquiry. Even a cursory glance of Shelley’s poetry and political beliefs reveals a keen interest in what is wrong with the world, how to fix it, and what will happen if no positive action is taken. However, the problem with these academic studies is that they fail to fully assess what makes up prophecy and specifically the prophetic imagination. Instead, they have confined their discussions of Romantic prophecy to discussions of prophetic inspiration, futurity, and rhetoric – divorcing the work from its radical impetus for social change and empowerment. This study will examine Shelley’s poetry and prose as intentionally prophetic texts that seek to critique the dominant consciousness of his (and future) times and energize a community of resistance to the status quo.
The Romantic Poets as Prophets
In recent years, a relatively large and distinguished body of criticism has emerged linking the Romantic poets to the prophetic tradition. This work has been most useful in establishing some of the prophetic modes in which the Romantic poets operated and how this prophetic reading of their work changes how we view them. Specifically, good work has been done regarding prophetic inspiration, prophetic rhetoric and the power of prophetic language, exploring both the futurity and historicity of prophetic speech, and on the symbolism of prophetic poetry. However, most of the studies to date have failed to fully take into account the origins of prophetic poetry in the Old Testament prophetic texts and the ways in which the Romantic poets, and specifically Shelley, utilize these prophetic modes to affect socio-political reality.
The purpose of this study is to utilize Shelley’s work to bridge the gap between literary scholarship and religious studies. By putting Romantic poetry in conversation with Old Testament scholarship, it will shed new light on the ways in which poets have accessed a living and vital Biblical tradition and point to ways in which both Old Testament prophecy and Romantic poetry continue to speak and act today. While previous studies have focused on Romantic prophecy as a predominant historical phenomenon, this study will utilize the best Biblical scholarship available to argue that prophetic poetry is constantly and vigilantly active and that it becomes eviscerated if we take away its power to confront societal problems and affect change in the present.
Prophecy in Context: The Need for Social Change
Despite the tremendous work that has been done linking the Romantic poets to the prophetic tradition, there remain some significant gaps in the scholarship on Romantic prophecy. Specifically, most of this scholarship confines its discussion of Romantic poetry merely to the realm of thought, ideas, and writing. You would think, after reading much of this criticism, that these poems were written in a vacuum, there is so little connection to historical reality and the radical social and political changes these poets hoped to enact. I would argue that each of these critics has an important piece of the prophetic puzzle, but they miss the big picture. Prophetic poetry is in reality a conglomeration of all of the models presented in the scholarship on the subject. It is based on inspiration and the efficacy of the words, but it also involves a radical reassessment of dominant cultural patterns and a complete revisioning of how the world should work. In order to better understand these ideas, an alternative prophetic framework is necessary, one that takes into account the true nature of prophecy as a radical, society-altering speech form that works outside of the traditional constructs of both prophecy and poetry.
Furthermore, this topic is especially important to today’s literary conversation as we seek to find new ways of reading literary texts and fully understand them in context. It is especially important that, as we move into an increasingly secular literary landscape, we not forget the religious climate much of Romantic literature was written in and that we seek to understand the full extent to which these writers were influenced by religious texts, regardless of the extent they personally may have rejected religious belief in their personal lives. Shelley, for instance, while professing to be an atheist, “read the Bible daily” (Balfour) and had a deep respect for Christ, while at the same time despising institutional Christianity. As literary scholars, we have a responsibility for trying to understand the totality of an author’s influence and work, not just bits and pieces.
Shelley also would have been familiar with Biblical scholarship, like Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Not only this, but there is evidence that the Romantic poets borrowed some of the stylistic conventions of Hebrew poetry in their writing as a reaction against the Classicism that had so dominated the previous poetic era (Heschel). Shelley, in particular, seems to have been greatly indebted to not only the content, but also the form, of Hebrew poetry as explained by Lowth, and I will look at some of the ways in which his poetry adopts the stylistic characteristics of Old Testament prophetic poetry.
Thus, understanding the Biblical, and specifically prophetic, influences on Shelley’s poetry and thought from the perspective of not only the literary scholar, but also the theologian, should be a vital part of Shelley scholarship, especially as we seek to understand the ways in which the written word interacts with socio-political reality. As I have already stated, many scholars have noted prophetic qualities in Shelley’s work, but none have taken the necessary next step and attempted to truly understand the nature of Judaic prophecy – its interest not only, and not even primarily, in futurity, but also its emphasis on addressing the systemic injustices of society and the creation of a community of hope and resistance to the status quo. It is my contention that this much more robust and more efficacious understanding of prophecy is the paradigm Shelley operated from, hoping that his poetry would not only have an aesthetic effect on his readers present and future, but a powerful motivational effect as well: one that would push them into action, into addressing systemic injustices in their own time and place.
Prophecy as Radical Critique
In this study I will explore the extent to which Shelley understood and utilized Old Testament prophetic forms and functions in his poetry to critique the dominant social consciousness of his and future times and energize a community of resistance to inherently unjust systems and situations that had become normative. It will utilize a prophetic framework, developed from the work of Walter Brueggemann and Abraham Joshua Heschel, two prominent Biblical scholars, and synthesize this analysis of the nature of prophecy with some of Shelley’s most radical poems and social statements. Using these tools, I will then explore some of the ways Shelley’s poetry draws on the prophetic tradition and attempts to bridge the gap between the poetic and real, the ways in which he seeks to inspire and motivate real-world action and movement for social change.
Walter Brueggemann, a Christian Old Testament scholar from Columbia Theological Seminary, has identified the two key characteristics that make up what he calls the “prophetic imagination,” in his book of the same title. The prophetic imagination first of all “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant [or royal] consciousness” of a culture; and second it seeks to energize an oppressed community against the dominant cultural consciousness. As simple as this basic construction might seem, in reality it encompasses a broad range of prophetic function.
The key here is an understanding of what Brueggemann means by “royal consciousness.” In The Prophetic Imagination, he uses the example of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and points to Moses as a prophet who railed against Pharaoh’s abuse of power and co-option of religious rhetoric as an instrument of oppression. Against this, he contrasts the community of resistance, liberation, and hope that Moses establishes when he leads the people of Israel out of captivity and sets up a social system based not on the desires of the richest and most powerful in society, but the needs of the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed. In this study I will examine some of the unique methods Shelley utilizes to perform the same function in critiquing the prevailing “spirit of the age,” but also to set up the hope that, maybe not in his lifetime but someday, justice will prevail.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and leading Jewish theologian of the 20th century, also constructs a useful prophetic framework in his massive, definitive work on the subject, The Prophets, which sheds tremendous light on the processes and traditions Shelley drew upon while constructing his poetry. In it he outlines seven basic characteristics of the prophetic function and then proceeds to apply these characteristics in various ways to the major prophetic figures and social situations of the Old Testament. While not all seven of these characteristics apply to Shelley or are outside the scope of this study, several of Heschel’s ideas will be useful for this evaluation of Shelley’s poetry. For example, one of the main characteristics of the prophet, in Heschel’s model, is an overarching concern with the abuse of economic and religious power by established authorities.Thus, establishing a consciousness of this repression was the special province of the prophet.
Heschel argues that one of the key characteristics of the prophet is that he or she “feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed”. Throughout the books of the prophets in the Old Testament, there are constant denunciations of human greed and economic injustice. The prophet Isaiah rails against those who oppress the poor:
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain. (Isaiah 10:1-4)
As Heschel writes, “Prophecy is the voice that God had lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words”. God’s logic is not man’s logic, and He is eminently concerned with the wellbeing of the poor – enough that he would speak especially on their behalf through the prophets. Shelley takes up this vocation as the voice of the poor and oppressed in both his own and future times. Thus, this study will draw extensively on Heschel’s work to pinpoint some of the ways in which Shelley operates prophetically.
However, the ways in which Shelley operates as a prophet are only part of the picture. It is not enough for a poet to write explicitly prophetic poetry if nobody bothers to read it or take it to heart – it must have the power to move people to action, it must have efficacy. This study will utilize the work not only of Brueggemann and Heschel but also Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin to explore some of the ways language interacts with reality. Benjamin writes that he “can only understand writing, as far as it effects matter, poetically, prophetically, objectively but in any event only magically, that is to say, immediately… only where this sphere of the world opens into the unutterably pure power can the magical spark spring between word and action, where the unity of these two equally real entities resides” (Balfour).
What Benjamin seems to be working towards is a “simultaneous conception of language as action and action as language” (Balfour). This paradoxical phenomena seems to work in the world via the process of naming, thus “language is…both creative and the finished creation, it is word and name” (Balfour). It is this process of naming, combined with Benjamin’s unique conceptions of history and prophecy, that lay the groundwork for poetic expression that has agency or efficacy.
Thus the very language of prophecy is involved in creating the reality it hopes to see. This also helps us get a better picture of what Shelley means when he names poets as “prophets and legislators,” for it would seem that he too is wrapped up in the idea that poets, and creative forces in general, have the power to shape reality through their work.
The Prophet’s Song
Though the scholarship on the Romantic poets and the prophetic has blossomed over the last twenty years, very little of it has focused on Shelley, perhaps because of his professed atheism. Instead, we have seen numerous studies on Blake, whose work is the most “obviously” prophetic, and, more recently, Wordsworth and Coleridge. However, Shelley’s contribution to Romantic prophetic poetry has been left relatively untouched, despite its radical social content. Instead, scholars have been content to examine him as a political poet, using the narratives of cultural materialism to interpret his poetry.
This impulse is not necessarily wrong, just shortsighted. For, though Shelley was indeed an atheist or at very least irreligious, he read the Bible every day and is certainly, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, a profoundly “prophetic and religious poet whose passionate convictions are agnostic”. This prophetic and religious trend in Shelley’s poetry is no doubt expressed differently than in someone like Blake or Coleridge, but it is there nonetheless. Furthermore, it is my contention that this prophetic tendency has gone largely unexamined because many literary scholars have failed to understand the true nature, purpose, and scope of prophecy as rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Prophecy is not simply or primarily interested in futurity, as Blake’s poetry obviously is, but in present societal institutions and injustice – in critiquing the status quo, calling society back to itself, and envisioning a community of hope in real-world social change. As the prophetic scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”
Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley lays out some of the ways in which Shelley’s notions of prophetic inspiration addressed the social and economic structures of his time. He begins by acknowledging the connection between poetry and prophecy:
A central experience becomes the process of inspiration, the direct communion with a divine presence that exists in nature and humanity. Inspiration leads to an ethical idealism whose ultimate goal is an anarchist utopia. The problem of mediation, however, is difficult to resolve because the inspired poet, like the anarchist prophet, falls between the ideals of perfectibility and the actual historical situation. The poet-prophet has to translate the apocalyptic ideals into an earthly language capable of being understood by mortals. If he allows the ideal vision to dominate every other consideration, then he will write in a language few people can understand. If he concerns himself more with audience expectations than visionary purity, then he is in danger of eclipsing the vision. (‘Romanticism and Religion,’ in Scrivener’s Radical Shelley)
In identifying Shelley specifically with this poetic-prophetic problem of inspiration and transmission, Scrivener is thus able to move the discussion of prophetic poetry into the realm of real-world political efficacy. In other words, if Shelley is transmitting a vision of how he thinks the world should look – how is that vision transferred to the reader and then to action? Scrivener answers these questions by examining some of Shelley’s prose works in the light of these questions and Shelley’s early interest in pantheism. The conclusion he comes to is that Shelley is indeed using these prophetic and pantheistic notions to transmit a very specific political plan for how society should operate. However, what still requires exploration is what this plan looks like, and how it is transmitted prophetically through poetry to current and future generations of readers.
In Prophecy and the Philosophy of Mind, Terence Hoagwood moves us a little closer to a definition of prophetic poetics grounded in the radicalism that is so apparent in the Biblical texts. Specifically, he analyzes the prophetic works of Blake and Shelley as they related to the philosophical traditions of the time. He asserts that “the central symbolic pattern of biblical prophecy is the overthrow of spiritual tyranny” and that “the prophet and philosopher both narrate a revolution of mind in order to effect a renovation of vision”. This prophetic vision, according to Hoagwood, is “composed of images that are to be read as the shapes of ideas… [it] is a composite form, containing verbal and visual images”. Thus prophecy is linked to written, spoken, and visual art in that it uses images to convey its radical re-visioning of the world. This provides a glimpse of how prophetic prophecy, through the use of images and symbols, can begin to enact a real revolution of ideas that spills out into the world at large.
Prophetic poetry is based on inspiration and the efficacy of the words, but it also involves a radical reassessment of dominant cultural patterns and a complete re-visioning of what how the world should work. It draws upon the work of Lowth and the revival of interest in Hebrew poetry, but at the same time is more than just poetical. It is tied to a specific historical time period, but at the same time extends beyond its history.
The Purpose of the Prophetic Imagination
“What manner of man is the prophet?” asks Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his work, The Prophets. The answer lies in the true nature of the prophets’ calling. A prophet, in the Old Testament sense, is not concerned only with futurity, an easy reduction that has been adopted by many observers of the prophetic tradition. Balfour quotes Blanchot, who writes, “The term of prophet – borrowed from the Greek to designate a condition foreign to Greek culture – deceives us if it invites us to make of the nabi [the Hebrew word for prophet] he in whom the future speaks. The prophetic word is not only a word of the future”. What Blanchot hints at is that, throughout most of history, the Hebrew word nabi and the Greek translation of the word prophetes have been unfairly linked. For whereas phrophetes denotes futurity only, nabi is far more complex. Balfour contends that the word comes from a verb meaning “to call” or “to announce”. As Heschel puts it, he is one who is “called (by God), [and] one who has a vocation (from God) (Heschel). Thus the prophetic function encompasses far more that just predicting the future – it is involved with confronting the culture with a word from God that may or may not contain an element of futurity.
As we have seen, Walter Brueggemann has identified the two key characteristics that make up what he calls the “prophetic imagination”: first of all it “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant [or royal] consciousness” of a culture; and it seeks to energize an oppressed community against the dominant cultural consciousness. The concept of the royal consciousness is key to Brueggeman’s idea of what a prophet’s calling actually is. In his book The Prophetic Imagination, he begins by describing Moses’ famous struggle against an oppressive Egyptian regime that was holding the Israelites captive. In Brueggeman’s construction, Pharaoh is the instigator of a royal consciousness of oppression and exploitation in which no dissent or freedom is possible. Furthermore, he uses religion of “static triumphalism” to justify and extend this regime, setting up the Egyptian gods as the justifiers of continued oppression. Moses sets out to undermine this social consciousness by proving, through a series of confrontations with Pharaoh’s advisors, that the Egyptian gods are no gods at all.
Thus, “the mythical legitimacy of Pharaoh’s social world is destroyed, for it is shown that such a regime appeals to sanctions that in fact do not exist”. In place of this consciousness, Moses sets up “the alternative religion of the freedom of God. In place of the gods of Egypt, creatures of the imperial consciousness, Moses discloses that “Yahweh… is extrapolated from no social reality and is captive to no social perception but acts from his own person toward his own purposes”. Thus, in setting up freedom over a system of oppression, Moses is instead proposing a system of a “politics of justice and compassion”. Thus, the critique of the royal consciousness is in reality a setting up of an alternative, just consciousness of freedom and hope against a politics of oppression. In other words, “He [Moses] was not engaged in a struggle to transform a regime; rather, his concern was with the consciousness that undergirded and made such a regime possible”.
But what is this alternative consciousness of freedom, justice, and compassion? Upon first glance, the covenantal rules set up by God, through Moses, after the Exodus from Egypt seem anything but freeing, just, or compassionate. Yet further study reveals a social and political system based upon not the oppressive assumptions of the royal consciousness but a real concern for authentic religion and the poor and oppressed. In the place of an economic system based on how the rich and powerful can profit from the misfortunes of the poor, Yahweh institutes a system that ensures the poor and oppressed will always be taken care of.
In Leviticus 25: 8-12, God tells Moses that every fiftieth year is to be declared a year of jubilee in which any land that has been sold by a family to pay a debt, or just to survive, is returned to its original owner. In fact, this entire chapter is filled with just rules for how money and property are to be handled among the Israelites:
Verse 23: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.”
Verses 25-27: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property.”
Verse 29: “If a man sells a house in a walled city, he retains the right of redemption a full year after its sale. During that time he may redeem it.”
Verse 35: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you.”
And the list goes on and on, both in this chapter and throughout the Pentateuch. Thus, the covenantal law as laid out by Moses is, instead of being a restrictive document, a radical revaluing of what is important in society. It provides a viable and just alternative to any royal consciousness that would seek to treat others as commodities, expendable in the pursuit of power and wealth.
Yet, despite these specific commands from Yahweh on how society is to be organized, there is little evidence that the Israelites ever observed this year of jubilee or obeyed Yahweh’s commands. Instead, they gave themselves over to kings who established their own version of a royal consciousness, every bit as bad (and in some instances worse) than that of Egypt. Solomon’s power was based on a consolidation of religion under the power of the state (evidenced by the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, making it the seat of both religious and temporal power) as well as the systematic oppression of the people for the gain of the rich and powerful (Brueggeman). In the time of the prophets, the kings of Israel and Judah consistently led the people away from the covenant established by Yahweh – establishing a consciousness of disbelief and disobedience in the populace at large. Furthermore, they engaged in policies of oppression and injustice, for their own gain, which the prophets railed against time and time again.
These concerns with the oppression caused by the abuse of economic and religious power became the special province of the prophet. Heschel argues that one of the key characteristics of the prophet is that he or she “feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed”. Throughout the books of the prophets in the Old Testament, there are constant denunciations of human greed and economic injustice.
As Heschel writes, “Prophecy is the voice that God had lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words”. God’s logic is not man’s logic, and he is eminently concerned with the wellbeing of the poor – enough that he would speak especially on their behalf through the prophets. To the prophets, justice is not blind but has its eyes wide open. Thus, the prophet is God’s voice in dismantling this overriding ethos of greed, of calling people to repentance and a return to covenant of Yahweh, which promises justice and compassion.
Second, the prophetic imagination must serve to “energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (Brueggeman). It is important to critique the royal consciousness, but progress takes time. In the mean time, people must still live with the reality of present day oppression and it is part of the prophetic function to energize a community of hope. A prophet must “create the sense of new realities that can be trusted and relied upon just when the old realities had left us hopeless”. He or she does this in three ways:
1. By pointing out that the alternative community knows something that those of the dominant consciousness do not know. In the case of Pharaoh, this is that God is moving in dark and mysterious ways on behalf of the children of Israel.
2. By taking sides with the “losers and powerless marginal people” and by “daring to speak before the data are in” and “daring to affront more subtle thinking”.
3. By engaging in doxology “in which the singers focus on this free one and in the act of the song appropriate the freedom of God as their own freedom”.
The Song of Miriam (Exodus 15) is one such doxology and it brings to the fore one of prophecy’s long-standing connections to poetry, for a song is very much like a poem. In fact, the prophets of ancient Israel were also their trained singers and poets – thus much of the prophetic work in the Old Testament is written as poetry. The ancient Hebrew poets had their own specific forms of poetry based on parallel and parabolic structures and a call and response format that made these poetic prophecies ideal for usage with large gatherings of people. This kind of prophetic doxology of hope was able to create a communal sense of energy and a realization of the possibility for change and deliverance.
It is here we begin to see a glimmer of prophecy’s connection to poetry and specifically Romantic poetry. Specifically, doxology, and prophetic poetry in general, serves to energize by “speaking a new name that redefines all social perception, reviewing an unlikely history of inversion in which imperial reality is nullified…, asking for the enactment of freedom in dance, freedom in free bodies that Pharaoh could no longer dominated”, and finally in enthroning the assertion that it is Yahweh and not Pharaoh who is in ultimate control of Israel’s destiny.
The Old Testament prophets who followed Moses continued in this energizing poetic tradition. They were not only brilliant orators and fiery personalities, but also talented poets who were able to creatively convey their message. For example, the prophet Isaiah is one of the finest poets of the Old Testament – able to transform his message into a poetic key that made it memorable to those who listened. Indeed, Isaiah is the author of one the most beautiful and poetic passages in Scripture:
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. (40:28-31, KJV)
This passage serves to energize the alternative community that was being oppressed by the kings of Israel and about to go into exile because of their wickedness and it is indicative of the important role doxology and poetry play in prophetic expression.
Thus prophecy, rightly understood, utilizes the past to address the present, while at the same time it speaks to the future. The prophets of Israel were primarily concerned with the state of their own society, with the oppression and injustice that were clear result of a people who had turned away from Yahweh’s covenant. Nevertheless, the prophets were also able to project their words into the future, to give them agency and the ability to address all unjust situations in all times and places.
It is not that Old Testament prophecy is not interested in the future, just that it uses the past and present to speak to that future and envision a future time when injustice will not exist. It is in essence, then, a call to the future to heed the warning of the past – to actualize the prophet’s words in the present. Oftentimes they used poetry to do this. Many of the Hebrew prophets were trained as poets or singers and thus poetry seems to be a uniquely suited vehicle for prophecy. They also utilized this two-fold framework of criticizing the status quo and creating a sensibility of a community of hope that continues to speak. In the following chapters we will examine how this Old Testament prophetic tradition was transmitted to and modified by the Romantic poets and how both Hebrew poetry and this prophetic model are specifically evidenced in Shelley’s poetry and thought.
Poetry as Prophecy
There is significant evidence that Shelley utilized not only the functions of Old Testament prophetic poetry but also the form, and it is important to understand the ways in which he, and indeed many of the other major poets of his day, understood and integrated the structures unique to Hebrew poetry.
Luckily for the Romantic poets, the groundwork was already in place for this radical shift in style. In fact, it had already been laid nearly a half century before by an Anglican bishop and scholar named Robert Lowth. A professor of poetry at Oxford and later Bishop of London, Lowth delivered a groundbreaking series of lectures at Oxford in the 1741 on the nature of Hebrew poetry (Prickett 144-145). Originally published in Latin, as De sacra poesi Hebraeorum, an English edition was released in 1787, as Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews and then reissued in 1815. The importance of this work, both for Biblical and literary studies, cannot be overstated; for (though Lowth likely did not intend it) the first time it opened the door to readings of the Bible strictly as literature, and not as divinely inspired revelation. Lowth encouraged his audience to read selected Old Testament texts as poetry, within the “specific context of ancient Hebrew life” (Prickett), and then went on to outline the unique poetic style utilized by the ancient Hebrews.
This method of reading the Bible represented a radical break, both from a religious establishment that insisted on reading scripture solely as the divine word, separated from its cultural context, and from contemporary poetics, which first and foremost looked to the Greeks as the source of poetic form and style. It is no coincidence that, as Lowth’s work was being published in English for the first time in 1787, William Blake was developing some of his greatest work and Wordsworth was coming of age – Lyrical Ballads would be released just twelve years later, and already the stamp of the turn from classicism was upon it.
Lowth, for the first time, designates Hebrew prophecy as poetry, a distinction that had hitherto been denied it, even by Jewish rabbinical scholars (Heschel). He also makes clear that the Hebrew word nabi was originally used in “an ambiguous sense, and that it equally denoted a Prophet, a Poet, or a Musician, under the influence of divine inspiration”. Thus, though Lowth perhaps does not understand all of the intricacies of the Hebrew word, he recognizes that it intentionally binds up prophet and poet in one, that in ancient Israel the prophets were trained as poets, and that one of their functions was to sing and create poetry. Having established the Hebrew prophets as poets, Lowth goes on to delineate the unique poetic devices and structures common to Hebrew poetry that are radically different from the poetics of the west. In particular, Lowth points to the prophets’ use of parallelism and parabolic style, absent of any Western sense of meter or rhyme, which distinguishes their poetry. Lowth’s “discovery” of parallelism is widely regarded as his greatest contribution to the understanding of Hebrew poetry – the key that unlocked the previously closed door of poetic inquiry.
Parellelism, for Lowth’s purposes, is defined as “The poetical conformation of the sentences… [which] consists chiefly in a certain equality, resemblance, or parallelism between the members of each period; so that in two lines (or members of the same period) things for the most part shall answer to things, and words to words, as if fitted to each other by a kind of rule or measure”. Just to excerpt one, from the prophetic books, Lowth cites Hosea 11:8-9:
How shall I resign thee, O Ephraim!
How shall I deliver thee up, O Israel!
How shall I resign thee as Admah!
Thus the parabolic style, as conceived of by Lowth, uses clear images and allegories to delineate current and future events in a manner that is calculated to prompt emotion and action. The parable is not simply to be heard, but acted upon, and this action is most effectively prompted by prophetic poetry.
For an example of the parabolic in the prophetic, Lowth uses the prophecy included in Isaiah, chapters thirty-four and thirty-five, beginning by quoting the exordium:
Draw near, O ye nations, and hearken;
And attend unto me, O ye people!
Let the earth hear, and the fulness thereof;
The world, and all that spring from it (Lowth II:281).
In this passage, Isaiah is “invoking universal nature to the observation of these events” (Lowth) and utilizing a figurative style to make a point. This tendency to “express generals by particulars” is further evidenced later in the passage, when the prophet Isaiah uses specific, vivid images to evoke a broader perspective:
For my sword is made bare in the heavens;
Behold, on Edom it shall descend
Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews was a terrifically important work to both Biblical scholarship and poetry. The Romantic poets, in search of a poetic discourse that more accurately represented common life, were naturally drawn to it and particularly to Lowth’s revelatory exposition on the Hebrew prophets as poets. As Balfour states:
Lowth’s analysis of the parallelistic structure and figurative texture of prophetic speech was in itself enough to establish the poetic character of prophecy. But Lowth went further to claim that the prophets were the greatest of poets, and he helped secure their status as the sacred writers most worth emulating. The progress of poetry from the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth shows a gradual displacement of the Psalms in favor of the prophetic writings as the dominant model for religious poetry, a movement for which Lowth’s lectures were a catalyst.
Shelley was certainly aware of this trend in poetry, familiar with Lowth’s lectures, and clearly knew the Biblical texts themselves very well. In his “Defence of Poetry,” he even refers to the prophets as poets, admiring the “astonishing poetry of Moses, Job, Solomon, and Isaiah” and of course makes his famous claim that “poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators or prophets”.
In his desire to break free from classical convention, Shelley could not help but be influenced by Lowth’s interpretation of the prophetic texts and consciously integrated many of the stylistic conventions of Hebrew prophetic poetry into his writings – chief among them parallelism and a parabolic style. As Balfour states, “Shelley is concerned to garner for poetry something of the aura specific to prophecy”. Thus, not only is Shelley’s poetry imbued with prophetic themes, messages, and aspirations for future social change, it also adopts a prophetic form, which only serves to lend the poems added immediacy and power: “The Mask of Anarchy” is perhaps the clearest example of Shelley’s utilization of parallelism to formally support his prophetic aims.The very structure of the poem, rhymed couplets organized into quatrains, lends itself very well to a parallelistic structure.Shelley adopts and modifies the form to suit English poetry – indebted to both Hebrew and Greek traditions – but nevertheless, through the use of parallelism, creating a new, simpler poetry that could speak, sing, and prophesy to the masses, calling them to action.
Shelley was also a master at using the parabolic style that Lowth describes at length in his Lectures. To begin with, much of Shelley’s great prophetic poetry (for example Queen Mab and Prometheus Unbound) is structured in the same manner as Hebrew prophecy – a detailed description of evil, the status quo, injustice – followed by a vision of hope for real change. Queen Mab is an excellent example, for the entire poem is a sort of vision of society, a prophetic rendering of the present and a possible future.
Politics and Language
For both the prophets and the Romantics, language and especially poetic language plays a major role in critiquing the dominant consciousness, energizing the oppressed, and effecting real change in the world. But the real question is how mental being is communicated through language and, furthermore, how this being is put into action through language. In answering this question, Benjamin turns to the creation myth as related in Genesis and the process of creation through naming that God engages in. Naming, for Benjamin, is the fundamental metaphor through which linguistic being is transmitted into reality.
In forming the poetic language of prophecy, the prophets are implicitly participating in the idea that their words have agency, that they can change things and that by speaking, or naming, an alternative consciousness can be set in place and energized:
The evocation of an alternative reality consists at least in part in the battle for language and the legitimization of a new rhetoric. The language of the empire is surely the language of managed reality, or production and schedule and market. But that language will never permit or cause freedom because there is no newness in it. Doxology is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality, and it alone is the universe of discourse in which energy is possible. (Brueggemann)
Thus the very language of prophecy is involved in creating the reality it hopes to see. This also helps us get a better picture of what Shelley means when he names poets as “prophets and legislators,” for it would seem that he too is wrapped up in the idea that poets, and creative forces in general, have the power to shape reality.
It is this prophetic power that is at work in Shelley’s poetry. It calls forth to the present from the past, prophesying the present in essence, prophetically warning the “now” that history and the definition of history is too valuable a commodity to give up to definition by those in power and usage as a tool of oppression. According to Benjamin, the historian “grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time”.
Thus it is only by seizing the past in the present that we are able to carry on the two-fold prophetic vision of combating established power structures which seek to define and control, and enact this messianic hope which prophetic poetry conceives of and brings into being. Thus the past, history, is constantly bound up in the present and how we read the works of the past is bound up in how we interpret and act in the present. In some respects we fulfill prophecy by carrying out its prophetic function again and again – we make a work prophetic by enacting this community of hope in the here and now and seizing back history, seizing back the prophetic word for ourselves.
Likewise, in “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley seems to be cognizant of his own prophetic utility and historicity, as he returns again and again to the image of dead leaves (with a clear reference to leaves as written pages) being scattered by the wind – perhaps the wind of history or prophecy. He concludes the poem with an invocation to the wind, spurring it on to carry his poetry, his thoughts, on to future generations:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? (lns. 63-70)
Each image in these lines is a powerful representation of how Shelley envisions his poetry acting both in history and on history – the “dead thoughts,” and “withered leaves,” that live on after his death, live on to “quicken a new birth” and “scatter ashes and sparks” unto all mankind, a “trumpet of prophecy”. These do not sound like the words of a man concerned only with commenting on history, but instead the prophecy of a poet intent upon spreading his ideas and hope to future generations who will have the opportunity again and again to bring these prophecies into reality. This, then, is what Shelley means by labeling poets “prophets and legislators”: their words have power, they have utility, they are imbued with the power to act, a power that Shelley over and over again reaffirms as a power inherent in and unique to the poetic word.
There is no denying that prophecy can have historical agency, but it becomes eviscerated if we take away its power to confront societal problems and effect change in the present. As Brueggemann makes clear in his analysis of the Old Testament prophets, their major role was to critique the “dominant consciousness” of a culture, and these critiques (while providing interesting insights into the past) also ring true in the present. Jerrold Hogle argues just this point:
We value or should value Shelley today… for how often he reveals and breaks
open rigid systems of self-assessment and social hierarchy that continue to
restrict the potentials of men and women…. [H]e uncovers the deeper, more
mobile logic that has been forgotten… and releases that movement into verbal
activity so that our minds can be reoriented toward the personal freedom to
change and the sense of equality among differences generated by truly
relational thinking. (Goldsmith)
Thus prophetic poetry is not strictly delineated by time or place – it spans all times and addresses all situations that are inherently unjust. In confronts the dominant cultural assumptions of any time and argues for radical change. It projects itself into a future of hope that it speaks into being through the prophetic word, withstands attempts to co-opt its message for purely aesthetic purposes, and stands against a view of poetry as strict historic artifact. The futurity of prophecy is simultaneously and paradoxically bound up in a vision of hope for the future, which foresees a time when the world will be set aright, and justice will prevail. Prophetic poetry, then, is an exposition of injustice, a call to action, and a vision of hope wrapped into one. It speaks, or names, the future it wishes to see and in doing so speaks it into being.
Shelley’s Prophetic Poetry
Queen Mab, Shelley’s first great prophetic poem, elucidates in poetic form many of the prophetic ideas we have discussed. In it he follows, almost to the letter, the prophetic pattern laid out earlier. He critiques the dominant consciousness of his age by pointing out the oppression and injustice created by the aligning of religion and religious sanction with power, and then energizes an alternative community by aligning himself with the marginalized community and providing it with a vision, a doxology, really, of hope.
What is interesting here is how Shelley chooses to frame the problems of oppression and injustice. Throughout the poem, he sounds a sustained note of discontent and accusation against the church and the role it plays in oppressing humankind. But it is not simply the church he is angry at, but the alliance of the church with temporal power. Often, Shelley’s diatribes against king and church go side by side and it is clear that he sees them as in league with each other. He begins several stanzas with some variation of the phrase “Kings, priests, and statesmen, blast the human flower / Even in its tender bud; their influence darts / like subtle poison through the bloodless veins / Of desolate society” (IV.104-107).
Specifically, Shelley sees the government (represented by the kings and statesman) and the church (represented by the priests) as complicit in a scheme to subjugate and plunder the poor. He writes that “War is the statesman’s game, the priest’s delight / The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade” (IV.168-169), which is enacted simply for material gain. On the subject of commerce, he sees the economic system of the industrial revolution as something created by this two-headed power:
Commerce has set the mark of selfishness,
The signet of its all-enslaving power
Upon a shining ore, and called it gold: (V.53-55).
Thus the capitalizing impulse is what drives power to amass wealth at the expense of the many. As he wrote in his “Defence of Poetry,” the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.
In and of itself, this concern for the poor and their oppression by those in power could be considered prophetic. But combine that with the identification of religion as a tool of power for repression, and the resemblance is uncanny. Remember that both Pharaoh and Solomon set up a religion of “static triumphalism” (Brueggemann) to justify and extend their regime. By exercising absolute state control over religion, these rulers were able to utilize religious sanction in order to set up oppressive social policies that enriched the powerful and the expense of the masses. According to Brueggemann, “It is precisely religion that legitimates and makes possible the economics and politics that emerged [in the time of Solomon]”. These ideas of course predate Marx, who would have heartily agreed that religion has been historically used as an instrument of oppression.
In this light, Shelley’s attack on religion is not simply a diatribe against God and organized religion, but an attack on the dominant consciousness of his day in which the church and state were not only linked but almost identical. The church in his time had gotten so far away from the principles of Jesus that he admires in his “Essay on Christianity” and had instead moved towards simple moralizing as an instrument of oppressing the people mind, body, and soul. This cold, state-controlled religion, Shelley is pointing out, is really no religion at all, just another tool in the hands of the powerful, a tool that “the tyrant tempers to his work, / wields in his wrath, and as he wills destroys”. In Mab Shelley identifies Solomon as an example of an oppressive ruler who utilized religion as a tool of oppression.
Prometheus Unbound: how the Church tortures Christ
If Queen Mab is Shelley’s early-life formulation of his prophetic poetics, then Prometheus Unbound is his more mature vision of nature reordered. In it, he specifically accesses the creation myth of Prometheus to underline the oppression of his own and future times and to prophetically sing into being a future of hope and regeneration. This future hope is also more specifically tied to the prophetic word here than in any of Shelley’s other poetry. Through this poem, Shelley lays out the role that poetry, and specifically his own poetry, has to play in naming, and thus creating, a new world.
The poem begins with an image of Prometheus bound to the mountain, with only the spirits Panthea and Ione for company. From the very beginning, Prometheus is sensible that his pain and his punishment is in reality the world’s pain and punishment and that, Christlike, he bears this burden on his shoulders.
No change, no pause, no hope! – Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven – the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm
Heaven’s ever-changing Shadow, spread below –
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
A me, alas, pain, pain ever, forever (I.24-30)!
In fact, as we shall see, Shelley repeatedly associates Prometheus with Christ, his torture with Christ’s torture, and his freedom with Christ’s regenerative work. This may seem unusual for a man so vehemently opposed to religion but, as we have already discussed, Shelley was drawn to Christ and his story as a model for societal change, even if he rejected the insidious links between the organized Church and power.
This imagery is later carried through when the Furies torture Prometheus with a vision of the crucified Christ – emphasizing the fact that Prometheus, as the champion of oppressed humankind, has been entrusted with the same type of work:
Behold, an emblem – those who do endure
Deep wrongs for man, and scorn and chains, but heap
Thousand-fold torment on themselves and him (I.594-596).
Thus, it is for this that Prometheus is bound to the rock, crucifix-like, and the Furies proceed to torture him, not physically, but with images of the corruption and oppression Jupiter has committed in the world because of Prometheus’ binding.
The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
For the powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.
Many are strong and rich, – and would be just, –
But live among their suffering fellow men
As if none felt – they know not what they do (I.618-631).
Once again, as well, Shelley explicitly ties Prometheus’ torture with Christ’s crucifixion, using the phrase “they know not what they do,” which Christ uttered on the cross, and applying it to all of humanity. Humanity knows not what it does, thus it continues to oppress; it continues to do evil.
Furthermore, in this passage in particular and throughout the torture scene as a whole, Shelley consistently references the dangers of an alliance between religion and power which he speaks out so strongly against in both Mab and his “Essay on Christianity.” “Hypocrisy and custom make their minds / The fanes of many a worship, now outworn.” say the Furies and, while Christ is held up throughout this passage, the corruption of his message by the Church is emphasized often. In fact, one of the first torturous images that the Furies present is that of Christ on the cross and the perversion of his message by the Church:
One came forth, of gentle worth,
Smiling on the sanguine earth;
His words outlived him, like swift poison
Withering up truth, peace and pity.
Hark that outcry of despair!
‘Tis his mild and gentle ghost
Wailing for the faith he kindled. (I.546-560)
Read carefully and it is clear that not only is Christ the “One,” but it is after his death, when his words are twisted and misused, that they become “swift poison” and contribute to the “outcry of despair.” In fact, Christ is even portrayed as “wailing for the faith he kindled,” because of the way in which his message of love has been twisted into a means to power, oppression, and injustice. Thus once again, Shelley is prophetically concerned with the ways religion is used and abused by those in power, and he makes it clear that it is this alliance that contributes so insidiously to the status quo.
In fact, this vision of the near-desecration of Christ’s message and sacrifice deeply disturbs and pains Prometheus as a Christ-like character:
O horrible! Thy name I will not speak,
It hath become a curse. I see, I see
The wise, the mild, the lofty and the just,
Whom thy slaves hate for being like to thee (I. 597-606).
What Prometheus finds so disturbing about this image is not so much the crucifixion itself but the fact that, through interpretation and manipulation, it has been made not a symbol of hope and regeneration but a curse, a tool of further oppression.
Shelley’s Essay on Christianity: the Christian Church vs Christ
In his “Essay on Christianity,” Shelley argues that Christ “tramples upon all received opinions, on all the cherished luxuries and superstitions of mankind. He bids them cast aside the chains of custom and blind faith by which they have been encompassed from the very cradle of their being, and become the imitators and ministers of the Universal God”. He then proceeds to successively outline both Christ’s key doctrines and the ways they have been ignored by the Church. Christ’s commands to love enemies, not to value material possessions, share everything, and to care for the poor are all covered – as are his followers’ consistent failures to do any of these things. He grants that the first disciples attempted to carry out this vision but says that “after the transitory glow of enthusiasm had faded from the minds of men, precedent and habit resumed their empire, broke like a universal deluge on one shrinking and solitary island”, and things returned to how they were, with the rich jealously guarding their money and power.
This state of affairs, in Shelley’s mind, led directly to the state-established church which, under the guise of following Christ’s teaching, actually took every opportunity to subvert them. In fact, Shelley argues that the doctrines of Christ actually lead to freedom and the moral regeneration necessary for a reformed, just, and equal society, whereas the established church made it a point to oppose these reforms at every turn and jealously guard their rights and privileges to power:
The doctrines [of Christ] indeed, in my judgment, are excellent and strike at the root of moral evil. If acted upon, no political or religious institution could subsist a moment. Every man would be his own magistrate and priest; the change so long desired would have attained its consummation, and man exempt from the external evils of his own choice would be left free to struggle with the physical evils which exist in spite of him. But these are the very doctrines which, in another shape, the most violent asserters of Christianity denounce as impious and seditious; who are such earnest champions for social and political disqualification as they? This alone would be a demonstration of the falsehood of Christianity, that the religion so called is the strongest ally and bulwark of that system of force and fraud and of the selfish passions from which it has derived its origin and permanence, against which Jesus Christ declared the most uncompromising war, and the extinction of which appears to have been the great motive of his life.
State-sponsored religion naturally fights any movement for equality or justice because such a movement is actually a threat to its authority. Nevertheless, as Shelley makes clear, Christ’s teachings are remarkably consistent in calling for the overthrow of such systems of tyranny and the establishment of a system where every person would be his or her “own magistrate and priest.”
Likewise, in “A Philosophical View of Reform,” Shelley attributes much of the institution of unjust social institutions on the perversion of, or outright disregard for, Christ’s teachings by his professed followers:
That superstition which has disguised itself under the name of the religion of Jesus subsisted under all its forms, even where it had been separated from those things especially considered as abuses by the multitude, in the shape of intolerant and oppressive hierarchies. Catholics massacred Protestants and Protestants proscribed Catholics, and extermination was the sanction of each faith within the limits of the power of its professors. The New Testament is in everyone’s hand, and the few who ever read it with the simple sincerity of an unbiased judgment may perceive how distinct from the opinions of any of those professing themselves establishers were the doctrines and actions of Jesus Christ (232, italics mine).
Throughout the essay, Shelley instead takes every opportunity to highlight the fact that Christ and his teachings are on the side of the poor and clearly advocate reform.
Above all, the final goal towards which Shelley is aiming throughout his poetry and political prose is the regeneration of the human spirit. Though often claimed, both in his day and ours by socialist movements, in reality Shelley is closer to a philosophical anarchist. As any cursory glance at his work makes clear, he is deeply suspicious of any large concentration of power exerting influence over the individual. Instead what he is really aiming for is a society in which every man and woman is his or her own “magistrate and priest,” and possesses the power and means to control his or her own destiny.
Thus, what Shelley is really striving to do through both his poetry and prose is to set up language in direct opposition to the unjust economics, religion, and politics of the industrial revolution. Poetry, for Shelley, is a tool whereby an alternative consciousness can be tracked and created in the world at large, an alternative consciousness that both attacks the dominant consciousness of the day and of ages to come; and which energizes this alternative community, providing it with the hope that, one day, they will be able to look back on events like the Peterloo massacre as ancient history – drowned out by the light of freedom, justice, and compassion. In other words, in becoming a legislator and prophet, Shelley aims to become a “voice from beyond the dead of those who will live in the memories of men”.
This article is an excerpt from Andrew O. Winckles’ doctoral dissertation, ‘The Prophetic Imagination of P. B. Shelley’ (Eastern Michigan University, 2009). To read the full thesis please click here.