Tom Hodgkinson: Why Shakespeare's pain is pure poetry

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Do we need poetry? Last week, appearing on a Radio 4 programme, I praised the poets for making our lives bearable with their words, for adding meaning to our world. Another of the guests, a hard-working businessman wearing a gold watch, attacked me for promoting poetry, and therefore idleness: "People need food!" he raved. "You can't eat poetry!"

It's what you might call the utilitarian point of view. It is put forward by Mustapha Mond, the sinister controller in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in a famous passage. In it, the so-called Savage debates philosophy with Mond:

"But I like the inconveniences."

"We don't," said the Controller. "We prefer to do things comfortably."

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin."

We also find that Plato, in The Republic, is against the poets, as they set a bad example with their wailing and gnashing. The poets will encourage the young reader to indulge his misery: "And instead of having any shame or self-control, he will be always whining and lamenting on slight occasions. Therefore let us put an end to such tales, lest they engender laxity of morals."

We could make the same criticism of, for example, Hamlet, around whose whining a whole play is based. Plato would certainly have questioned Shakespeare's oath that poetry is truth and banned him from his ideal Republic. He would have banned the Romantic poets, too, for their odes on melancholy and general lamenting. Goethe would have been expelled, and perhaps with good reason: his Sorrows of Young Werther led to a cult of suicide among self-pitying young men.

The great utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, beloved of politicians on both the left and the right for his practical philosophy, wrote a famous essay called "Push-pin and Poetry", in which he asserts that the game of push-pin, whose name pretty well describes the point of it, is superior to poetry, because it provides the same amount of pleasure, but without the debilitating moral effect: "Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few. The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consists in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry."

Bentham's argument is pretty much the same as that of Plato and the Controller of the Brave New World (which actually incorporates many of the features of the Republic; for example, the end of marriage): poetry at best can bring pleasure, in which case it could be argued that it is useful, but generally it brings pain by stimulating our passions. In the Benthamite universe, the passions will be quelled and controlled. One wonders whether our leaders today allow themselves the time to read Keats in the park under a tree.

In any case, I believe that the utilitarian arguments are wrong even when you use their own logic, because in actual fact, reading about other people's misery is comforting and even cheering. It makes us feel less alone. What makes us anxious is reading about other people's great successes in life, successes that we will never measure up to. The bland positivity of Hello! magazine is far more depressing to the spirit than a lovelorn sonnet. Dr Johnson's favourite book was Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and even today it is an immensely uplifting read. Six-hundred pages of 17th-century misery: wonderful.

And it is not poetry that lies, as Bentham asserts. Poetry actually speaks the miserable truth. It is the Hello! magazine mentality that misleads, even as it appears to be a document of reality. It promotes a fiction of celebrity happiness. It lies by presenting a tiny slice of the truth as the whole truth. We could say the same for most magazines and newspapers, and indeed for the art of photography. And for that reason, they would be expelled from the idler's republic – except, of course for the one you hold in your hands.

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