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2 — Poets: The unacknowledged legislators of the world

A poster with a black border showing a noose, and red capital letters for the word ‘NO’

Above: ‘No’ Poster created by the National Union of Australian University Students in reaction to the hanging of Ronald Ryan; Source: Authorised by the National Union of Australian University Students

English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his manifesto In Defence of Poetry, described poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. For Shelley there was an inextricable link between poetry, political views and social action and he wanted to challenge the legislation of his time through his poetry. 

In this sequence the students explore the interplay between context, political views and social, moral and ethical positions represented in contemporary Australian poet Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’ (published in Sometimes Gladness: Collected poems 1954–1978). Ryan was the last person to die under capital punishment legislation in Australia.

Activity 1: First contact — ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’

Read the poem aloud to the class and invite students to write down two or three questions they have about the poem. They might like to think about:

Activity 2: The context for the poem ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’

Context literally means ‘with text’. This includes the social and historical context of a text as well as the contexts for its reading, hearing and viewing: who interacts with it, where, when and why. In this activity the students explore what was at stake in the writing of this poem by exploring its context.

Preview the following websites that document social reactions at the time:

Students should investigate:

Activity 3: Re-reading the poem ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’

Students re-read the poem again in pairs and revisit their understanding of the poem from the first focus activity. They then analyse:

Activity 4: Rewriting the poem through textual intervention

Through textual intervention, the students learn about the significance of address, tone, diction and syntax in the creation of voice in a poem. After identifying these elements in ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’, they adapt the poem to create a new poem on a political or social issue that is significant to them. The students should choose a significant figure involved in a current social or political issue, then: