Poetic Sovereignty in the Work of the Romantic Poets: Self-Determiniation and Revolutionary Thought

By Hayley E. Tartell
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 1/1


This essay first explores how Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley invoke the medium of language, specifically poetic language, to opine on the relationship between the reader’s sense experience and freedom. Subsequently, this piece delves into Romantic thinker Walter Benjamin’s analysis of Holderlin’s poetic language in order to reveal the power dynamics between poetry and the readership. Furthermore, by probing and fleshing out the work of Shelley, one can gain a deeper understanding of the nature of poetic sovereignty and its rootedness in themes of possession and ownership. These authors belabor the argument that poetry as a medium plays a crucial role in the reading process and experience. According to these authors, poetry’s legislating powers posits a “shared” inability to self-determine in readers, and this inability problematizes the process of self-identification. This lack of sovereignty possesses striking political analogues and has important implications for revolutionary thought and action, which are ultimately examined in this essay.

The Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley work through language to elucidate the bridge between experience and freedom. The Romantic thinker Walter Benjamin also examines this relationship between sense experience and freedom by interpreting Holderlin’s poems. In his poem Crossing the Alps, Wordsworth deliberately focuses on language in his text to reveal the medium’s potential for disrupting the reader’s interpretative process. His account of language creates profound political ramifications for individuals as a sovereign body, raising the question of whether or not readers are capable of ownership.

Benjamin’s analysis of Holderlin’s poems takes Wordsworth’s idea of the reader’s sensorial rupture a step further. He builds upon Wordsworth by attributing a dialectical quality to Holderlin’s poetry. Benjamin suggests that Holderlin’s shift from courage to timidity establishes a unique constitutional relationality whereby one element cannot exist without the other. Shelley further investigates the nature of poetic sovereignty by raising themes of possession and ownership in his text.

These authors complicate the nature of sovereignty and intimate that poetry as a medium governs the experience of readers. Poetry’s ability to legislate creates a “shared” inability among readers to self-determine, and this lack of self-determination creates problems for self-identity. This absence of sovereignty can be politicized, as the “demos,” or community of people, much like the community of readers, “share” an inability to exercise autonomy due to a governing medium. This lack of freedom has a powerful influence on revolutionary thought and action, which will be further explored in this essay.

In the poem Crossing the Alps by William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet raises the notion of the sublime by evoking imagery so unimaginable that it transcends a human being’s ability to begin to perceive. Wordsworth references dawn, alluding to its “dumb cataracts and streams of ice, a motionless array of mighty waves” (Wordsworth, lines 458-459). The intimidating, awesome visual of massive cataracts and “mighty” waves inspires a feeling of awe in the reader, rendering him or her speechless. The sheer titanic imagery overwhelms one’s faculties, making it impossible for the reader to exercise purposiveness to arrive at the concept of the natural object.

In this sense, the reader experiences the feeling of the sublime: when exposed to the sublime, any human construct of understanding is totally incapable of comprehending the object. There is an inability to even begin to perceive the object. The individual can never form any sensible representation of it, so there is this departure from the sensible that is triggered by the sensible. In effect, the reader becomes detached from the natural object, and a break occurs between sense experience and nature.

This break between one’s faculties and the natural world not only manifests itself through his sublime imagery, but also through Wordsworth’s careful diction. The poet’s word choice raises some interesting paradoxes, as cataracts ostensibly cannot be “dumb,” just as ice cannot flow like water in a “stream.” By the same token, the contradictory nature of these few lines is reinforced by his characterization of moving waves as being “motionless.” These descriptions seem to defy the reader’s understanding of fundamental natural principles. However, exploring the way in which these relational elements such as “dumb” and cataract” interact with each other can help unpack these seeming contradictions.

For example, “cataracts” may be interpreted as the medical condition that leads to blurred vision, whereas “dumb” may actually be referring to a person who is deaf or mute. Rather than opposing each other, these words work together to reinforce the idea of suppressing the senses. Vision, sight, and hearing are being jettisoned to emphasize this disruption of the continuity of sense experience.

Wordsworth continues to illustrate a gap in sensory experience when he describes the French soldiers as following a path “after a little scruple and a short pause” (Wordsworth, line 507). Wordsworth demonstrates this gap through the narrative context as well as through the medium of language. In terms of the narrative, the French soldiers literally halt, creating a temporary rupture in their movement. Interestingly, this pause is embodied in the very meaning of the word “scruple,” which is a hesitation involving thought.

These narrative and definitional parallels of temporary cessation are further reinforced by the etymology of the word “scruple,” which derives from “scrupus,” meaning “sharp stone” or “pebble.” This reference to stone alludes to the invisible “stony channel of the stream” that lies hidden underwater, and this invisible stream symbolizes a rupture in one’s ability to see. In effect, Wordsworth is using alternative connotations of these words to implicitly suggest a withdrawal from nature. Wordsworth provides all of these cues in the language, content, and form of his text in order to underscore this disruption of sense experience.

Perhaps Wordsworth’s most effective tool for drawing attention to this sensorial rupture lies in his grammar and form. For instance, the poet inserts a line break after the words “there broke off” (Wordsworth, line 503). No poet inserts a line break after those words unless he wants to associate this break within content with the materiality of the poem. This intentional decision by the poet to cut off the sentence helps to advance the poem’s shift away from nature and towards a materialistic account. Wordsworth then uses dashes when describing the stony channel in order to disrupt the unity of his poem: “We must descend, and there should find the road which in the stony channel of the stream lay a few steps, and then along its banks –” (Wordsworth, lines 515-517). This grammatical element creates disunity between the line and sentences that seems to parallel the rupture of sense experience.

One might then ask why Wordsworth places such emphasis on this departure from sense experience. The poet creates this rift in order to facilitate the shift towards the materiality of language as an exterior medium. This medium penetrates the reader’s play of faculties, fragmenting the internal mental process by which he consciously relates to the physical world. Therefore, language, as a mechanistic tool, interrupts the reader’s relationship to himself by interrupting his sense experience. One might argue that a break in sense experience allows the reader to withdraw from nature and gain agency, as his faculties are no longer dependent upon nature.

Accordingly, one could say that the reader has become sovereign, as the play of his faculties are no longer governed by the natural object. However, this argument is weakened when one considers that language is responsible for this rupture in sense experience. It seems that this medium of language is now governing the individual’s relationship to himself. Wordsworth is working through language to show how this medium can disrupt the reader’s relationship to himself. Thus, language exists as an external tool that penetrates and compromises the reader’s sovereign circuit of self-legislation.

While reading the poem, the individual’s break in sense experience, caused by language, takes away his ability to form concepts. Since this break is caused by language, language can be interpreted as reducing the individual’s capacity for self-determination. Thus, Wordsworth’s mechanical account contaminates autonomy with the heteronomous, extrinsic role of language as a medium. The individual is stripped of his sovereignty by the authority of language.

In his essay entitled Two Poems by Friedrich Holderlin, Walter Benjamin outlines a similar notion of sovereignty when he says that the poetized “brings the god” (Benjamin, 32). This phrase implies a shift in agency from the gods before the reader, as the gods are being “brought,” almost as if they are controlled by another’s agency. Accordingly, the gods become a dead form, and there is a shift from a divine world view to a world view in which the readers wield power or agency. In order to emphasize the supreme authority of the “form,” otherwise known as the medium of poetry, Benjamin deploys an analogous political framework using diction:

“The heavenly one is brought…the Greek god has entirely fallen prey to his own
principle, the form…the god ceases to determine the cosmos of the poem, whose
essence—with art—freely elects for itself that which is objective: it brings the god”
(Benjamin, 34).

In this passage, the essence of the poem “freely elects for itself,” meaning that it self-legislates and self-determines. The use of the words “freely” and “elect” undeniably problematizes the notion of ownership and the source of sovereignty. By associating freedom and sovereignty with poetry rather than the poet or reader, Benjamin seems to be advocating for a society in which power cannot be possessed or owned by anyone.

Benjamin elaborates on the sovereignty of poetic activity when he describes Holderlin’s relationship between courage and timidity: “The poet does not have to fear death; he is a hero because he lives the center of all relations. The principle of the poetized as such is the supreme sovereignty of relationship, shaped in this particular poem as courage” (Benjamin, 34). This passage suggests that the language of poetry as a medium exercises supreme sovereignty. According to Benjamin, the poet is “a lonely deer,” (Benjamin, 34) timid and frozen, but this timidity is actually related to the essence of courage:

“‘Timidity’ has now become the authentic stance of the poet. Since he has been
transposed into the middle of life, nothing awaits him but motionless existence, complete
passivity, which is the essence of the courageous man – nothing except to surrender
himself wholly to relationship. It emanates from him and returns to him”
(Benjamin, 34).

From this passage, one can construe that poetry derives from the power of relationality. This ties back to the “brings the gods” reference, as the reader only has agency insofar as the gods exist. Without the gods, the relational construct collapses, and the meaning of their sovereignty as readers does not hold. Based on Benjamin’s reference to the gods, true agency lies not with the reader or the subject, but, rather, with the relational construct of reader and god itself. Sovereignty, which lies in the relational construct, appears to be shared by god and reader. This relational sovereignty is ultimately the opposite of sovereignty for the subject. Poetic power is distributed among these relational elements and cannot be owned. This power is actually an “un-power,” so to speak, or an interruption of agency. Accordingly, poetic legislation belongs not to the poet, the god, or the reader, but to the material medium of language and poetry itself.

This notion of the medium of language governing readers is raised again in Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry. In this work, Shelley’s diction when describing poets and poetry itself has interesting ramifications for the concept of sovereignty. For example, when describing poetry as a “record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds,” the poet states that that poets are “subject to these experiences as spirits of the most refined organization” (Shelley, 40). The word “subject” indicates that the poet surrenders his autonomy to poetry and becomes merely its “subject,” as if poetry were the poet’s “king.” This political jargon only reinforces the idea that the poet lacks a possessive quality and can only share the medium of poetry with his readers.

In essence, this passage intimates that poetic legislation is not the sovereign activity of the poet but, rather, the sovereignty of poetry as a medium. Interestingly, if poets are to be considered people, or the “demos,” then poetry can be regarded as being inherently anti-democratic. Further, Shelley continues to employ political language when he personifies poetry: “…it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life” (Shelley, 40). Shelley emphasizes poetry’s agency by using the word “arrests,” which has several connotations, including seizing, incarceration, and a stoppage of motion. Seizing can be interpreted in both the medical and more literal sense, as a seizure occurs when neuronal circuity in the brain is disrupted.

Therefore, a disruption in sensorial experience occurs, which harkens back to Wordsworth’s emphasis on this disruption of the reader’s autonomy. Seizing can also be understood as grasping or taking possession of something or someone, and this reading of the word “arrest” implies that poetry itself is capable of “possessing” or “owning.” The word “arrest” is also a reference to incarceration, whereby prisoners lack freedom or autonomy; thus, Shelley may imply that the readers operate much like prisoners do, serving as subjects without autonomy. Lastly, the word “arrest” can be regarded as a rupture in motion, which serves to reiterate the reader’s interrupted interpretative process. All of these connotations elucidate the association between poetry and sovereignty, which rests within the medium itself. Moreover, Shelley’s particular word choice suggests that poets share the condition of subjectivity – of being owned by the medium of poetry.

Poetry, or the medium of language, as the source of power seems to render the individual powerless to recognize himself. Because the individual will never be capable of “owning” power, he cannot exercise autonomy. Without the autonomy to self-legislate, he cannot represent himself. If he cannot represent himself, then he has no self-representation and will be unrecognizable to himself. This same logic applies to a demos. When a demos lacks the political sovereignty to exercise autonomy and self-legislate, it does not have representations of itself and, accordingly, does not see itself.

Ultimately, the demos will seek this self-recognition by starting a revolution. Prior to the revolution, members of the demos share a lack of power. This absence of power can be considered a shadow or, more specifically, a shadow of sovereignty. Thus, members of the demos are sharing this shadow of sovereignty, and their goal is to unveil that shadow and gain self-representation so that they can recognize themselves. Moreover, revolutionary change is fueled by a desire to affirm this recognizability of themselves, namely, by securing self-representation.

Moreover, these aforementioned Romantic authors explore the relationship between reading and the act of interpretation, moving towards the idea of a shared politics. This concept of sharing manifests itself through the demos, as this body politic is incapable of possession or ownership. Ultimately, these authors draw upon a governing medium’s sovereignty in order to imply a lack of self-representation among those who are governed, namely, the demos. When no political identity exists among the demos, a desire to gain self-representation manifests itself in the form of revolution. Therefore, a governing medium shapes and fuels the drive for revolutionary change.


Benjamin, Walter. "Two Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin."Selected Writings1 (1996): 1913-1926.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A defence of poetry. Ed. Francis B. Pinion. Haldeman-Julius, 1969.

Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism: an anthology. Vol. 5. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

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