Nigel Smith asks: is poetry political thought?

Written by
Sarah Malone, Department of English
Dec. 11, 2023

In the 12th Ernst Robert Curtius Lecture, Nigel Smith pays tribute to one of the founders of comparative literature, by developing a subject Curtius raised.

A new kind of political poetry emerged in early modern Europe, says Smith, the William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature and professor of English at Princeton. Conventions of praise and blame, the preserve of courtiers and diplomats, were replaced by verse that expressed a consciousness of civic life and a sensibility of political freedom.

It was understood in early modern literary theory, Smith notes, that this kind of verse was a tool of political analysis, providing distinctive insights alongside the other kinds of political discourse written in prose.

“This body of poetic understanding has long been lost,” Smith says.

Smith delivers “Is Poetry Political Thought?” at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, 2023 at the University of Bonn International Center for Philosophy.

“With the help,” Smith says, of Spanish aesthetic and cultural theorist Baltasar Gracián (1601-58) and the Dutch poet, playwright and glazier Jan Vos (1612-67), the lecture will explore how the very nature of verse produces a distinctive political thought.

Like Curtius, Smith notes, his insights are not bound by conventional time divisions or any single national literature. “In an age of rampant protest, where poetry has played a key role,” Smith asks, “what might we gain from a revival of verse as a more reflective form of political analysis?”

The lecture is followed on Dec. 19 by a workshop, “Reading Political Thought as Poetry and Poetry as Political Thought.”

The Ernst Robert Curtius Lectures were first held in 2009 as part of the foundation of the International Center for Philosophy at the University of Bonn. Since then, lectures by prestigious philosophers from around the world have been held yearly at the university.