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Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Revolutionary Poet We All Need Right Now

By Hannah Sole | Miscellaneous | March 9, 2017 |

By Hannah Sole | Miscellaneous | March 9, 2017 |

The year was 1819. A peaceful protest was underway in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester; it was a rally, where families brought picnics to hear speeches calling for political reform. 60,000 people gathered in the heartland of industrial Britain, at a time when more and more people were becoming engaged with politics, and were calling for liberty, universal suffrage, and fair representation in government: in short, an end to the tyranny of the ruling elite. But this was only 30 years after the French Revolution, and the ruling elite, recalling la terreur, perceived these demonstrators as enemies of the state. They issued a warrant to arrest the speaker, Henry Hunt, and then sent in the cavalry. Swords sharpened, they charged, cutting down any who stood in their way. This became known as the ‘Peterloo’ massacre.

Hundreds of miles away in Italy, Shelley responded the only way he could: he wrote a poem. ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ is a scathing attack on the political leaders of the time, the worst offenders being depicted as twisted versions of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse:

I met Murder on the way He had a mask like Castlereagh Very smooth he looked, yet grim; Seven blood-hounds followed him: All were fat; and well they might Be in admirable plight, For one by one, and two by two, He tossed them human hearts to chew Which from his wide cloak he drew.

The tyrants have their supporters too, but Shelley is quick to point out that these people suffer with everyone else; they cause their own doom by blindly supporting an evil and corrupt system:

Last came Anarchy: he rode On a white horse, splashed with blood; He was pale even to the lips, Like Death in the Apocalypse. And he wore a kingly crown; And in his grasp a sceptre shone; On his brow this mark I saw ‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’ With a pace stately and fast, Over English land he passed, Trampling to a mire of blood The adoring multitude.

The tyrannical horsemen are protected by “hired murderers” and all of the traditional systems of power. Anarchy promises “glory, and blood, and gold” while destroying the nation he claims to represent, plundering its riches for himself. And just when he is about to trample a maiden named Hope to death, making her a martyr to the cause, there is an epiphany among the crowd: “a sense awakening and yet tender was heard and felt”. The spirit of Revolution starts to take shape, “arrayed in mail”. Hope is saved; the horsemen are destroyed, and a voice is heard. 54 of the 91 stanzas in this poem are devoted to this voice’s extraordinary speech. The voice is Shelley, of course, but it is also the voice of the revolutionary spirit, and perhaps even the voice of the “indignant earth’, who will stand for this horror no longer.

In the speech, we get a real sense of how ahead of his time Shelley was. He points out the essential equality of humankind, saying that we are all “nurslings of one mighty Mother”, the earth. He calls for an end to social injustice, which he compares to being “a slave in soul”. He argues for the power of “science, poetry and thought”, instead of an organised religion that was exploitative and restricted one’s personal liberties. And his call to arms is perhaps the most surprising part of the poem. For all of the ruling elite’s fear of a brutal British uprising to rival the French Revolution, Shelley called for total pacifism:

And if then the tyrants dare Let them ride among you there, Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, What they like, that let them do. With folded arms and steady eyes, And little fear, and less surprise, Look upon them as they slay Till their rage has died away. Then they will return with shame To the place from which they came, And the blood thus shed will speak In hot blushes on their cheek.

I’ll admit, he loses me a little bit with this part of the argument, as it relies heavily on the notion that our abusers will eventually feel ashamed of themselves and stop - but this is a man who is clearly not inciting violence. As the nature of protesting comes under scrutiny and moves are made to criminalise it, Shelley’s message of standing “calm and resolute, like a forest close and mute” seems particularly important.

Shelley’s poem was too radical to be published at the time, and it did not surface until 1832, 10 years after his death. But it has become one of the most interesting arguments for nonviolent protest, and an eloquent reminder of the potential power of the electorate against a brutal and unjust system. They might have the weapons, but we have the numbers. It is a poetic manifesto for collectivism and solidarity. It is not his only political poem — he shows us in ‘Ozymandias’ that vain and egocentric tyrants will eventually be humiliated when their legacy is destroyed, and in ‘England, in 1819’, he longs for “a glorious Phantom” to come and “illumine our tempestuous day”. But in ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, he gives us the ultimate rallying call:

Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number- Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you- Ye are many — they are few.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.