Tom Hodgkinson: Why Shakespeare's pain is pure poetry

Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Chelsea players celebrate winning the Premier League title  

Success isn’t enough if you’re going to be boring

Simon Kelner

If I were Prime Minister: I'd save small businesses from the negative influence of banks

Anil Stocker
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power