Shelley in Egypt: How a British Poem Inspired the Arab Spring

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Percy Shelley wrote in 1821. Not surprisingly, this claim has earned some snickers from people who think of poets as barely able to legislate their own grooming habits. Fellow writers have made fun of it, too: in the twentieth century Auden shot back, “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.”


But Shelley was speaking metaphorically, of course, and also fairly broadly; his general point was that language is the decisive force in human affairs. Culture, religion, and politics derive from narrative, myth, and rhetoric—and all of these things derive from “poetry,” that is, memorable figurative language.

Even if you interpret Shelley’s words in the narrowest sense possible—“Verse writers are the secret movers and shakers of global politics”—you’ll find that Shelley himself, more than almost anyone else, has proven them true. Don’t believe me? Look up his poem “The Masque of Anarchy,” which, although now largely forgotten, has sparked some of the most sweeping historical changes of the past two centuries.

“Masque” was written in response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which British troops attacked a defenseless crowd of citizen protesters. The poem urges the “Men of England” to rise up—and stand still—against tyranny:

Let a vast assembly be,

And with great solemnity

Declare with measured words that ye

Are, as God has made ye, free.

Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war,

 

And let Panic, who outspeeds

The career of armed steeds

Pass a disregarded shade

Through your phalanx undismayed.

Is this the world's greatest poem? Not by a long musket shot—it’s nowhere close even to Shelley’s best work. The diction and imagery are archaic bordering on stale, the verse chimes along predictably, and the tone is earnestly polemical. But the poem does offer one important innovation: it's a description of a nonviolent protest, written before the term had ever been used or the tactic ever attempted.

“Masque” isn't read or taught much these days, but when it was first published in 1832, it reached an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. One of its American readers was Henry David Thoreau, who had it in mind when, in the late 1840s, he wrote “Civil Disobedience”—the first great prose formulation of the concept of nonviolent resistance.

Thoreau’s essay, in turn, was taken up by Tolstoy, whose book The Kingdom of God Is Within You spread a Christianized version of the concept to millions of fervent readers. Then in the twentieth century came Gandhi, a leader openly influenced by Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Shelley’s poem, which he often recited to his own “vast assemblies.”

The rest is history—and the present. In the wake of Gandhi’s work came Indian independence, the American civil rights movement, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity...and in our own time, the predominantly peaceful protests that have toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Not a bad legacy for a poem that even some English professors wouldn’t know offhand.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all historical events stem directly from poetry, or that we should start scouring anthologies for potential solutions to world crises. (Actually, many well-known poets have been notorious political wingnuts—Ezra Pound creeps to mind.) I would argue, though, that Shelley's "Masque" is far from an isolated case. Literature is often reduced in the general public's eyes to a quaint academic pursuit, or a noble but remote spiritual undertaking, or a single specialty "genre" among many. Think of it instead as an underground cultural wellspring that bubbles up everywhere, from Hollywood (quick, name five great movies that aren’t adapted from books or plays) to political oratory, from our everyday turns of phrase to the extraordinary events of Tahrir Square.

Shelley was on the right side of an old literary argument, and his poem has consistently been on the right side of history. Maybe it's time the man got a little acknowledgement.

[Images: Wikimedia Commons; Egypt photo courtesy user Essam Sharaf.]

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.