The poetry of human rights

The poetry of human rights

Summertime is often a time to sit back and read. So this month, we thought we would explore the links that exist between human rights, poetry, and literature. What role does poetry play in a human rights framework? What influence does literature have on human rights and vice versa?


In his famous essay, “In defence of poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley penned his famous line, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” They have the gift of being able to express in a few words whole truths of humanity and nature.

Shelley wrote, “[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies the bold and true words of Tasso — ‘Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta.’”

In rereading the opening phrase of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights completed in 1948 — “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world” — it is impossible not to imagine that the drafters of the declaration were not influenced by Shelley, and the other poets of the Romantic era.

Unlike poetry, literature is confined by time, space, and facts. Nevertheless, it can also teach us much about the nature of human beings, our relationships, and the world around us. Recent brain research has shown that we are hard-wired to learn through stories. One of our grad students remarked that reading about law and anthropology was so easy, “the material read like stories.”

If we are lucky, and not all of us are, we hear stories from the time we are very young, and we are introduced to broad themes of equality, dignity, and racial discrimination. Stories like Huckleberry Finn, Les Misérables, The Ugly Duckling, or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl all have elements of human rights within their storylines.

Literature can also function as a stepping-stone to broaden one’s understanding of complicated human rights situations. Human rights matters are often complex, in part because they have deep socio-political and philosophical underpinnings, and also because they take place in areas of the world and within cultures that we are not familiar with.

Set in Burundi, The True Sources of the Nile discusses issues of tribal loyalty following the genocide in Rwanda. Cry, the Beloved Country deals with apartheid in South Africa. Untouchables focuses on the Indian caste system. In the Time of the Butterflies deals with dictatorship and violence in the Dominican Republic.

Spanish literature seems to blur the line between English poetry of the Romantic era and modern literature. The strategic use of fantasy in Spanish literature allows the reader to reflect on what it would be like to live in a perfect utopian setting. Novels such as Los hijos muertos, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Una Carta contain an abundance of autobiographical elements but no boundaries as to location and time.

This magic realism device is used to either highlight human rights violations by showing how life would be better in an ideal world, or to represent a dream for justice with surreal ways to achieve it.

There is a push and pull between human rights and the literary arts. Poetry and literature draw from reality and at the same time shape our understanding of ourselves. And perhaps if enough of us see the aspirational elements of human rights as poets in our own time, we will be able to legislate in a way that upholds us all.

Here are some suggested readings by Canadian authors in no particular order:

Egg on Mao, Denise Chong
Obasan, Joy Kogawa
Refugee Sandwich, Peter Showler
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, M.G. Vassanji
The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill
Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali (A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali), Gil Courtemanche

Lucie Lamarche is the Gordon F. Henderson Research Chair in Human Rights and director of research of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. This article includes contributions from the centre’s executive director Sonya Nigam and research assistant Amélie Larocque.

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