I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts of my artist and art loving friends regarding the matter below. I'm not trying to solicit anything here, I'm just genuinely curious.
A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I'm currently enrolled in a French literature class where we study 19th century French theater pieces. The second play we read was called Chatterton by Alfred de Vigny. It's a fictionalized account of a real-life English poet named Thomas Chatterton who lived during the middle of the 18th century. This play depicts the plight of Chatterton, a young man struggling to earn a living as a poet. In the end (spoiler alert), when he fails to do so he kills himself. (According to Wikipedia, the real Chatterton "died of arsenic poisoning, either from a suicide attempt or self-medication for a venereal disease." Either way, tragic.) (Incidentally, his death date is my birthday.)
The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Poor guy. Image from here.
For every piece we read in this class we're supposed to write a paper expounding upon a theme or topic found in the piece. For Chatterton, one subject my teacher suggested for such a paper was the role of the poet in society. Her opinion is that the poet is a guide for the people, a person who gives inspiration and enlightenment. And in order to produce works of such enlightenment and inspiration, a poet needs time for constant reflection and pondering -- time that should not be lost in the pursuit of earning one's living, as a factory worker, or a cobbler, or a mason, or whatever it was people did for work in the 18th century. Therefore, as a guide for the people, it is then the people's duty -- or really, the government's duty -- to provide for the living of the poet.
Now, in theory, I don't necessarily disagree with that sentiment. While I'm not much of poetry reader, I enjoy literature, fiction, stories -- dare I say? -- more than the next guy. Not only do I find enjoyment in prose, poetry's sibling, I find a great deal of insight, hope, and wisdom therein. There's no doubt that the written word has been vital to my general well being as a human. I very much agree that writers, whatever their medium, contribute much to the enrichment of our society.
This sentiment in practice, however, is a different story. For one, sadly, not everyone in the society to which I belong will like reading as much as I do. I have friends who celebrate how little they read. That's fine, that's OK. They have different interests, to which they are just as entitled, that I will not begrudge them. Maybe, someone can find just as much meaning in, I don't know, football as I find in reading and re-reading some of my favorite books. (The same can be said for music, or photography, or painting, or film, or sculpture, or name your preferred form of art). So, what complex society of such differing interests and passions will support the poet or writer but not the photographer or painter? Or, is it up to society to provide a living for all these supposedly invaluable artists?
Furthermore, in a society whose government supports the poet/writer/guide-of-the-people, who or what determines who gets to be town poet? Let's say that in a society of 100 working adults there'd be room for one poet. The rest of the working population would have to fill the other important posts: baker, grocer, thatcher, tailor, cooper (someone's gotta make the town's barrels), butcher, farmer, and you get the point. But, what if in this same community, there are 10 individuals who want to be town poet but society has the means to provide for only one? What is the fate of the other nine wannabe poets? Do they kill themselves because they think that poetry is the only profession in which they would find success and enjoyment, just like Vigny's version of Thomas Chatteron?
Anyway, I've been wondering about all this lately -- because being town poet would be a pretty sweet job.
Additional Reading: "Distressed Nation Turns To Poet Laureate For Solace"