The original, 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass begins with a free-wheeling prose introduction, touching on poetry, philosophy, and the American experience. Among the many topics Whitman covers is the role of poetry and the poet in the world of politics and government. Given his background as a journalist, it is not surprising that Whitman sees the poet as having a role to play in public affairs. He writes:
If peace is the routine out of him speaks the spirit of peace, rich, large, thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture and the arts and commerce —lighting the study of man, the soul, immortality —federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health, freetrade, intertravel by land and sea . . . nothing too close, nothing too far off . . . the stars not too far off. In war he is the most deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot . . . he fetches parks of artillery the best that engineer ever knew. If the time becomes slothful and heavy he knows how to arouse it . . .
A lovely sentiment, though in a time when poetry is not so widely read, perhaps difficult to believe. Yet it is so ecstatic in its praise that one cannot help but get caught up in its call to arms.
I found myself thinking back to this passage after watching If I Were King (dir. Frank Lloyd, 1938). The film may be set in 15th-century France rather than the 19th-century United States, but it still recalls Whitman’s vision of the poet in the public sphere. Even more: I think the film offers us another way to understand Whitman’s words.
Adapted from the play and novel of the same name by Justin Huntly McCarthy, If I Were King tells a fictional story about a real-life poet, François Villon. A rogue as well as writer, this film’s version of Villon (played by Ronald Colman) is something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the royal storehouses to feed the hungry citizens of Paris. Times are tough in the French city, with a Burgundian siege slowly starving the populace. Meanwhile the king and his court, who have enough food to last them six months, seem oblivious to the conditions on the streets.
Villon finds this state of affairs intolerable, and he will say so to anyone within earshot. This includes, as it turns out, an undercover Louis XI (Basil Rathbone), who has come to Villon’s favorite tavern in search of a traitor, his Grand Constable (John Miljan). Not only does Louis get his man, he also gets an earful from Villon, who takes him for an ordinary tavern-goer. After proposing an ironic toast to Louis (“May the Burgundians take the city away from him—better still, may they take him away from the city”), Villon claims that, given the chance, he would be much better at running the country:
I don’t wish to appear boastful, Brother Long-Nose, but I should think a child of two could do better. Had I been born in a brocaded bed, I might have led armies and served France. As it is you see me here, consorting with cutthroats and wantons and wasting my time with a dull old buzzard like you.
The aristocratic structure of French government greatly limits Villon’s potential power. He cannot be Whitman’s “most deadly force of the war” because he is not of the nobility, from whose ranks the generals are drawn. He can have no soldiers at his command to inspire, no people in the streets to rally to war.
Louis, poking at the poet’s presumption, asks what Villon would do if he, in fact, were king. While Villon mentions enjoying the finest of foods and purging the court of its inept and crooked nobles, his most inspiring proposal concerns how he would connect to his subjects:
VILLON: I’d try to know my subjects. I’d try to earn their devotion and loyalty, instead of their loathing.
LOUIS: By abolishing taxes, I suppose?
VILLON: No! By abolishing despair and substituting hope! I’d learn the longings in their hearts, as a man of the people would, seeing them as they are and admitting that their vices are as deep-rooted as their virtues. I’d treat them as my children, instead of as my enemies. So, by knowing the worst in them, I bring out the best in them.
He would still, as it turns out, be “consorting with cutthroats and wantons,” because those are the people he would be governing. It is somewhat foolish to talk about a democratic spirit to monarchical rule, but Villon’s vision shares at least Whitman’s love of the common people.
Villon soon gets his chance to put that vision into practice. The Grand Constable comes to the tavern, intending to arrest Villon for raiding the storehouses. A skirmish ensues, and Villon kills the Grand Constable, putting Louis in an unusual position: he must punish Villon for killing one of his advisers, and also reward him for killing a traitor. His solution: make Villon the new Grand Constable, and show him that governance is not as easy as it looks.
Indeed, Villon has great difficulty in his new position—but only when he must play by the rules of the aristocracy. Notably, getting the lords to even consider an attack on the Burgundians proves impossible. They do seem overly cautious, given the desperate circumstances. But Villon’s penchant for verbal sparring wins him no friends in the war room. Earlier in film, Villon quipped that “poetry is its own worst enemy,” and here he proves his own point. The nobility aren’t going to stand around and let some poet insult them; they will simply render his words powerless.
No, the poet is far more effective in governance where the common people are concerned. Most obviously, Villon calls on the masses of Paris to counter a charge from the Burgundians, which is what ultimately saves the city from starvation. The people’s surprise success is literally the only thing that convinces the generals to fight. “Who recruits him recruits horse and foot,” indeed.
But even his rhetoric within the court appeals to democratic principles. Consider his message for the Burgundian envoy, who offers the king “an honorable surrender.” Villon’s ode to the people’s strength would hardly seem out of place in Whitman’s preface:
Kings are great in the eyes of their people, but the people are great in the eyes of God, and it is the people of France who are speaking to you now. We are armed and provisioned. We are warm and comfortable behind our strong walls. We laugh at your threats. But, if we who eat were starved, if we who drink were dry, if we who are warm were frozen, our answer would still be the same: ha! We laugh at you, we the people, and the king.
So strong is Villon’s message for the envoy, it seems to win over even Louis, who laughs the envoy out of his court. This victory is short-lived, however; the fateful meeting with the generals follows soon after this scene.
If I Were King may present a rather optimistic view of what poetry can do in the realm of politics. Still, it acknowledges its limits, and in doing so, it helps to refine the praise that Whitman offers in his preface. The power that poets wield is not intrinsic to them. It depends on their audience.