But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true…
But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries as a temporary dress in which his creations must be arrayed, and which cover without concealing the eternal proportions of their beauty… The beauty of the internal nature cannot be so far concealed by its accidental vesture, but that the spirit of its form shall communicate itself to the very disguise, and indicate the shape it hides from the manner in which it is worn…
For the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure… At the approach of such a period, poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed… it is ever still the light of life; the source of whatever of beautiful or generous or true can have place in an evil time… But corruption must utterly have destroyed the fabric of human society before poetry can ever cease… It is the faculty which contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation.
Shelley: A Defence of Poetry.
As we prepare to elect a new legislature I want to reflect on a matter which has not been an election issue and perhaps scarcely could be, but which is implicitly a political matter, and indicates a battle that we must continue to fight long after the polls are closed.
Those of us who have consuming interests – any interests, though I speak especially to those of us with scholarly interests such as history and archives – are very much concerned with fine detail, and in recording the truth as we see it and as near as we can discover it. Now, an interest in detail qualifies any ideology, dissolves its hard boundaries and permits a relaxed wandering beyond those bounds. When we are engaged in our activities we thus create a tacit climate of opinion which is in its essence socially liberal, open and tolerant; but it also, in its concern for detail, promotes the eccentricity and individual character on which the mental health of a society depends. This attitude of mind is created by example rather than by argument.
There is the potential for this social liberalism in everyone. I once, while travelling, read a provincial evening paper whose letters page was full of the ugly prejudices so often to be found. But the paper had a local history supplement with a separate letters page devoted to that subject. These letters were quite different: easy-going, neighbourly and with a deep sense that our place in a community over time matters intensely to everyone. Were these two sets of letter writers drawn, in the statistical sense, from the same population? It seems reasonable to suppose that they were, and if so it follows that our more generous and tolerant instincts can be drawn out by the right stimulus, such as a consuming enthusiasm.
There is an essay by GK Chesterton called A Glimpse of My Country in which he argues that “England is not such a fool as it looks. The types of England, the externals of England, always misrepresent the country. England… prefers that its oligarchy should be inferior to itself.” Even then, over a hundred years ago, Chesterton believed that the standard of parliamentary speaking had deteriorated, and was also worse than much contemporaneous speaking by less exalted people. But the position was odder than that:
For the English political aristocrats not only speak worse than many other people; they speak worse than themselves. The ignorance of statesmen is like the ignorance of judges, an artificial and affected thing. If you have the good fortune really to talk with a statesman, you will be constantly startled with his saying quite intelligent things. It makes one nervous at first. And I have never been sufficiently intimate with such a man to ask him why it was a rule of his life in Parliament to appear sillier than he was.
This to me is hopeful. If politicians in private can discuss ideas intelligently then it follows that if discourse among the wider public is thoughtful, subtle, well-informed and quirky, politicians can in the end be obliged to follow this lead. The pursuit of passionate interests among that wider public is one of the things which best stimulates those qualities: its practice should be encouraged to spread. Chesterton concludes:
I suddenly saw, as in one obvious picture, that the modern world is an immense and tumultuous ocean, full of monstrous and living things. And I saw that across the top of it is spread a thin, a very thin, sheet of ice, of wicked wealth and of lying journalism.
And as I stood there in the darkness I could almost fancy that I heard it crack.
Be in no doubt that our interests in life – and not least our scholarly interests – are among those “monstrous and living things”.