Percy Bysshe Shelley

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What does Percy Bysshe Shelley mean when he calls poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?

Percy Bysshe Shelley is saying that poets have an unrecognized level of influence on shaping society. Legislators write laws that define right and wrong and shape the political, social, and economic structures of the world. Shelley suggests that poets have a similar power.

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In this quote from “In the Defence of Poetry,” poet Percy B. Shelley is commenting on the unrecognized level of influence that poets have in society. Consider how a legislator is someone who writes laws. Laws impact the political, social, and economic frameworks of most of the world. They also shape peoples’ understandings of what is right and what is wrong. By comparing poets to legislators, Shelly suggests that when poets write poems they also play a role in shaping these frameworks.

This may initially seem like a confusing claim, especially because so many poets write about subjects like love and nature. However, a great deal of poetry also ponders morality and truth. Shelley suggests that in exploring these subjects, poets are actually imposing their thoughts on society onto readers and thereby influencing how society thinks and acts. But it is important to note that Shelley says this influence that poets have goes “unacknowledged,” meaning that people do not see it or give poets credit for it.

Of course, what poets write about political philosophy and related subjects are not binding the way that a law is. But Shelley’s choice to compare a poet's influence to that of someone who makes binding laws highlights how strong he feels poetry’s influence is.

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