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Percy B. Shelley verteidigt Poetry – allerdings seinerzeit noch nicht auf der Schreibmaschine. (Foto: MichaelJBerlin –
Neu erschienen: „English Poetry in Context: From the 16th to the 21st Century“

The Power of Poetry

Wann haben Sie zuletzt in einem Gedichtband gelesen? Vielleicht gestern? Vor einigen Tagen, Wochen, Jahren? Im Studium? Noch nie? Nun, dann wird es aber Zeit! Ein Blick in das umfassende und spannend ausgearbeitete Werk „English Poetry in Context: From the 16th to the 21st Century“ lohnt sich.
Warum gerade Gedichte? Vorweg ein kleiner deutscher Verweis:

Ein Wiesel
saß auf einem Kiesel
imnitten Bachgeriesel.

Wißt ihr

Das Mondkalb
verreit es mir
im Stillen:

Das raffinier-
te Tier
tat´s um des Reimes willen.

(Das Ästhetische Wiesel von Christian Morgenstern)

Morgensterns ästhetisches und poetisches Wiesel ist ein Beispiel für ein einfach schönes Gedicht. Wir haben den Reim, den Klang, die Pointe. In ein paar Versen ist viel Inhalt und oft auch Witz, Kritik und Gefühl eingebunden. Wer nun Lust auf Gedichte bekommen hat: Ralf Hertel und Peter Hühn legen in „English Poetry in Context: From the 16th to the 21st Century“ dar, was Gedichte und ihre Dichter und Dichterinnen noch alles ausmacht.

Lesen Sie hier einen Auszug über den Schritsteller und Dichter Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822):

In addition to lyrical poems, Shelley wrote several verse narratives and prose works, which are equally characterised by a radical pathos of freedom, a belief in social and philosophical ideals and a spirit of hope and utopia. His verse drama Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama (1820) celebrates the Promethean liberation of man, and his verse epic The Revolt of Islam (1818) portrays the French Revolution in an exotically alienated form. Such a simultaneously critical and idealistic orientation is also found, for example, in the political prose text A Philosophical View of Reform (1820, published in 1920).
Shelley’s poetological conception is laid out in his treatise A Defence of Poetry (1821, published in 1840). This is a poetics in which he programmatically established the value of the creative imagination and the social function of poetry. In many respects, this programme can be regarded as symptomatic of the Romantic view of the central role of art and poetry, and of the recourse to the self as a force creating the world and meaning. This is manifested, for example, in the belief formulated by Shelley that poetry is capable of healing social corruption and reviving man’s dull senses, restoring him to his original, perfect (quasi-divine) nature: “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.” Shelley emphasises the power of poetry to create or recover a coherent world order through the imagination and to fuse the rational, emotional and perceptive abilities of man:

        [Poetry] makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos.
        It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients,
        and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures
        from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we
        perceive, and to imagine that which we know.
        It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated
        in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.

Like Coleridge, Shelley emphasises the role of “pleasure”, the all-embracing joy, for the effect of imagination. This power capable of creating the world and providing it with coherence comes from within, from the realm of the soul, but is not subject to conscious and deliberate control:

       A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it:
       for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence,
       like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness:
       this power arises from within, like a colour of a flower which fades
       and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our
       nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.
Shelley alludes here to the idea of inspiration by a higher power (“inspiration” is etymologically related to Latin “spiritus”, i.e. whiff, wind, breath, spirit). Locating the creative power of the poet outside of his own consciousness expresses a desire to protect it from paralysis through too much reflection. The high demand on the role of poetry is expressed particularly vividly in the famous final paragraph, in which the ancient view of the poet as a prophet and divinely inspired medium is renewed:

       Poets are the hierophants [Initiation priest; mediator of the sacred]
       of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows
       which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what
       they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not
       what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves.
       Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.

In confidently proclaiming such a high relevance of poetry, Shelley might, however, also be attempting to compensate for what he perceives as the marginal position of poetry in contemporary culture. Shelley’s lyrical work is diverse. It includes descriptive, reflective, philosophical and hymnic poems as well as longer texts with narrative and often visionary allegorical structures such as “Alastor: Or the Spirit of Solitude” (1816) and the unfinished “The Triumph of Life” (1822). A further work characteristic of Shelley is his elegy on the death of John Keats, “Adonais” (1821). Keats, suffering from tuberculosis and invited by Shelley for a cure in Italy, had died in Rome in 1821 at the age of 26. Shelley mourns his death (and that of other poets who died young, such as Sidney) in the style of an ancient pastoral elegy and hopes for his rebirth as part of an ideal, eternal beauty.

Another poem to be mentioned is his political allegory “The Masque of Anarchy” (1819, published in 1832), in which he sharply attacks the brutal suppression of the demand for reforms and for more freedom in England on the occasion of the so-called “Peterloo Massacre” of 1819 in Manchester. The poem ends with the praise of freedom and the call for an assembly of workers in order to achieve the non-violent selfliberation of the masses:

       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.

Wer nach diesen inspirierenden Worten und schönen Zitaten Lust auf mehr Informationen über Shelly und sein Werk hat, kann in English Poetry in Context: From the 16th to the 21st Century weiterlesen.
Auf den obrigen Auszug folgt ein detailliertes Close-Reading von Shellys Gedicht „Ode to the West Wind“.
English Poetry in Context bietet einen umfassenden und vielseitigen Überblick zu Gedichten verschiedener Dichterinnen und Dichter der frühen Neuzeit bis in die Gegenwart. Das Buch gibt ausgearbeitete Beispiele von Anlysen und Interpretationen, Auskünfte über den Kontext der Werke und regt zum Nachdenken, Entdecken und selbst Interpretieren ein.

Die Autoren
Ralf Hertel is professor of English Literature at the University of Trier. He has published widely on poetry, for instance a study on dance and modernist poetry („Tanztexte und Texttänze: Der Tanz im Gedicht der europäischen Moderne“, 2002) and essays on W. H. Auden and John Agard.

Peter Hühn is professor (retired since 2005) of English Literature at the University of Hamburg. He has published widely on poetry, especially „Geschichte der englischen Lyrik“, 2 vols. (1995), „The Narratological Analysis of Lyric Poetry: Studies in English Poetry from the 16th to the 20th Century“ (with J. Kiefer, 2005), „Europäische Lyrik seit der Antike“ (with H. Hillmann, 2005), „Facing Loss and Death: Narrative and Eventfulness in Lyrik Poetry“ (with B. Goerke, H. du Plooy, S. Schenk-Haupt, 2016).

English Poetry in Context: From the 16th to the 21st Century
von Ralf Hertel und Peter Hühn

“English Poetry in Context” offers an accessible, comprehensive survey of the genre from the early modern period to the present day. Situating close readings of selected poems within their larger literary and historical contexts, it is an ideal starting point for students, teachers and other readers looking for a book that maps out the field of English poetry. Whether you are interested in a comprehensive overview or in in-depth case studies of your favourite poems, “English Poetry in Context” will cater for your demands.
Proceeding chronologically and discussing both canonical and less canonical poets, “English Poetry in Context” provides concise surveys of the periods discussed, biographical information on individual poets, case studies of their poems as well as suggestions for further reading. The book invites readers to look closely at what the poetic text, both in form and content, reveals about the context in which it was written, and to make individual poems and their larger historical contexts reflect upon each other.

Programmbereich: Anglistik und Amerikanistik