Telling not showing – Shelley’s “England in 1819”

Like chemical weed killers, critical principles become destructive when they spread too widely. Take the idea that wherever possible the writer should show and not tell. It’s an excellent editing tool when applied appropriately, and any number of fine poems seem to draw much of their strength from how completely they embody it. We looked at an example in a very good class I went to last week, Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”. But a few seconds’ thought will show how much the field of possible utterance would be narrowed for poetry if “show, don’t tell” were adopted as a universal principle.

Here’s a famous poem whose success depends on how completely it embodies an opposite principle, a poem that lives by its blaze of personal conviction and the power with which it tells us how Shelley feels:


An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless – a book seal’d,
A Senate – Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

In fact wouldn’t a universal application of “show, don’t tell” napalm pretty well all poetry of intense personality, passion or personal conviction? And doesn’t “show, don’t tell” depend very heavily on shared responses? This makes it unlikely to produce a poetry that disturbs a pre-existing consensus of attitudes and emotions.


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