The relevance of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s radical politics and poetry is revealed in Jacqueline Mulhallen’s new biography, finds Alex Snowdon

Jacqueline Mulhallen, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto 2015), xiv, 170pp.

Jacqueline Mulhallen’s political biography of the revolutionary Shelley begins by noting the cinematic release, earlier this year, of a film documenting the great global anti-war protests of 15 February, 2003 and the mass movement surrounding them. Amir Amirani’s superb ‘We Are Many’ took its title from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s furious response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The lengthy poem concludes with these lines (also used earlier in the poem):

‘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.’

Described by Mulhallen as ‘the most famous political protest poem in English’ (p.91), it was a ferociously passionate attack on those ruling Britain and the system they perpetuated. Shelley, by then living in Italy, had heard the news that demonstrators for democratic reform had been attacked (and eleven of them killed) in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The title of an anti-war documentary in 2015 (which, as has often happened, adapts ‘ye are many’ to ‘we are many’ for obvious rhetorical reasons) is just one example of the dynamic afterlife of Shelley’s poetry.

Shelley’s fame rests largely upon his poetry, and his contribution to the English poetic canon, but he was also a polemicist, playwright and radical activist. This biography is packed with fascinating insights into Shelley’s times, which enriches the compelling story of his short life (he died in a boating accident, aged just 29, in 1822) and discussion of his very varied work. It is part of Pluto’s invaluable ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series, which features introductory political biographies of a range of historical figures. As with other volumes in the series, the main focus is on the evolving politics of the subject and on providing the relevant context which shaped their development. It’s a lively, well-paced and highly readable introduction which charts Shelley’s life chronologically, allowing a clear sense of the development of Shelley’s political commitments.

Mulhallen is a socialist activist who has previously written a book, The Theatre of Shelley, focusing on Shelley’s plays, a generally neglected aspect of his output (his plays – ‘The Cenci’, ‘Hellas’, ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘Charles The First’ – have either never been performed or only rarely staged). She has long fused the artistic and political worlds, with experience of writing (and performing in) plays as well as political campaigning. The chapter about Shelley’s theatrical work draws on the author’s own earlier research, while other parts of the book concisely synthesise the work of researchers in addition to returning afresh to Shelley’s own writings. 

Mulhallen acknowledges earlier accounts of Shelley’s politics, most notably Paul Foot’s very illuminating 1980 biography Red Shelley, but she also incorporates more recent research. A good example is the discovery in 2013 of a copy of Shelley’s major poem ‘Laon and Cythna’. It had notes by Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock of the changes Shelley was obliged to make (to make it less radical) before it could be published. Although the changes had been known about before, finding what appears to be Peacock’s own copy confirmed the radicalism of the original.

Mulhallen points out that much biographical writing and literary criticism about Shelley has either downplayed his politics or caricatured it. This new contribution to the field is entirely different. The wider social and political contexts – the legacy of the French Revolution, women’s subjugation, the turbulent politics of Ireland, social unrest, the war with France – are all threads woven into the life story. Their impact on Shelley, a profoundly political creature from a young age, is taken seriously.

This volume is dedicated to establishing Shelley’s place as not only a major poet but also a notable figure in the history of English radicalism: a revolutionary writer and activist who contributed to radical literature (as poet, playwright and political pamphleteer) and to struggles for equality and social justice. Shelley sought to link specific movements against injustice and oppression, especially when they actively involved the poor and oppressed, with a broader critique of a vastly unequal capitalist society that was crystallising into the social classes later analysed by Karl Marx (a process of class formation documented by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class). Shelley articulated an alternative vision of equality and liberation that prefigured the socialist literature – in Utopian, communist and other varieties – which emerged not long after his death.

Shelley’s life and ideas offer insight into the early development of socialism in this country. His ideas were a bridge between the generation of the French Revolution and, later, the Utopian Socialists, Chartists and early Marxists (also feeding in to early critiques of women’s oppression under capitalism). Shelley’s most politically engaged writings expressed great social themes and a yearning for a better world, characterised by economic, social and sexual equality, with emotional force as well as political clarity. Much of Shelley’s more overtly political verse has been deployed as rhetorical weaponry in working-class and progressive struggles from the Chartists, via the suffragettes and striking garment workers, through to the modern anti-war movement, even surfacing in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Shelley’s life, writing and politics are all bound together; they retain relevance as part of a radical, anti-capitalist tradition of mobilising from below to reshape the world.

Mulhallen outlines Shelley’s privileged background (including what might loosely be termed an ‘education’ at Eton) and the politics of his family, moving on to early indications of his questioning of the values with which he was brought up. She tells the story of his premature departure from Oxford University after he and another undergraduate scandalously wrote and published ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, which in turn created a rift between Shelley and his father, and traces the development of an increasingly coherent and anti-systemic set of political ideas. This is interwoven with personal biography and his earliest writings (patchy in quality, but containing the seeds of his later literary and political achievements).

This is followed by chapters which discuss Shelley’s major writings, his political ideas and the practical movements in which he was involved. He travelled widely and moved home many times: while this was often driven by avoidance of his creditors, it brought the virtue of experiencing the world and interacting with people from very different backgrounds to his own, including those on the forefront of struggles against the British state (from Irish activists to persecuted radical journalists). The political centre of the biography is a chapter on what Shelley scholar Stuart Curran dubbed Shelley’s annus mirabilis, 1819, which included ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, shorter political poems and the radical political critique ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’ (not published until 1920). The summary of Shelley’s ideas in ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’ is especially lucid; these ideas are examined in connection with the political climate of the time, revealing a vivid sense of their freshness and subversive power.

Shelley polemicized and campaigned for parliamentary reform – at a time when very few had the vote – and for a free press, rights to assembly and protest, and civil liberties. These rights and reforms were all viewed as a means to an end: they could enable working people to shift the balance of wealth and power in society. He emphasised what Marx would later term self-emancipation, people taking action for themselves through collective resistance, not relying on well-meaning middle-class reformers. This was at a time when workers’ strikes were an increasingly important strategy for the early trade-union movement; an era of Luddite destruction of machinery and large demonstrations for democracy. His thoughts on violence and its relationship to popular movements were complex, but in essence he believed a small amount of revolutionary force could be justified in opposition to the large-scale, systematic violence of an exploitative class society.

Shelley was also an early champion of sexual liberation in a deeply patriarchal, hypocritical and restrictive society – a topic explored thoughtfully at a number of stages in the book, both at an ideological level and as a commitment woven into his own life and relationships. He was a proponent of religious toleration against the Anglican establishment, espousing atheism but also sensitive to the need for defending religious minorities irrespective of whether he agreed with their beliefs. He was a steadfast opponent of British colonialism in Ireland; the section on this is insightful about Shelley’s attempts at political agitation, soberly assessing the problems and limitations as well as celebrating his activist commitment. He supported revolutionary uprisings and national liberation movements abroad, especially in later years after he left England.

The poetry, of course, is well worth reading in its own right; Shelley is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished of Romantic poets. He was famously one of a loose grouping of second-generation Romantic poets which also included Byron and Keats among others (Shelley became close to the former in later years). They followed in the wake of earlier Romantics like Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge – poets who had been inspired by the French Revolution but whose youthful radicalism had long since cooled by the time Shelley and his contemporaries came of age. Shelley married Mary Godwin (daughter of progressive thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) whose novel Frankenstein was itself an influential contribution to the literature of the age. The Shelleys’ complex relationship is an important strand of the book.

One of the most illuminating features of this book, though, is how its author traces the influence of a much wider array of writers, journalists, intellectuals and campaigners on Shelley, who is consistently considered as part of an evolving milieu – personally, intellectually, politically – with his ideas examined in relation to others. Those who influenced him included Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, who all made major contributions to radical political literature after the American and French revolutions, but also Thomas Spence, Robert Owen, William Cobbett and others. He took ideas from the Quakers, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and political currents inspired by the French Revolution. Mulhallen brings to life the radical intellectual climate of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, repeatedly demonstrating how Shelley was shaped by that climate and how he made significant, sometimes original, contributions to it.

Shelley influenced a range of literary and political figures. He was cited as an inspiration by later writers including Robert Browning, Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas Hardy. He was subsequently admired by twentieth-century cultural and intellectual figures of the European left such as Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno. However, Shelley was also read by working-class audiences in his own time and afterwards. There are numerous references in the book to examples of his writing, both poetry and prose, being disseminated through the widely-read radical press (often in defiance of state repression). Most of his poems would also have been shared through oral recitation, thus reaching a larger audience. 

Shelley also made his mark on the early socialists. Marx described him as ‘essentially a revolutionist’, remarking that he ‘would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism’. Frederick Engels, speaking to Eleanor Marx in the 1880s, recalled how ‘we all knew Shelley by heart then’, referring to the 1840s. At that time ‘Queen Mab’, one of Shelley’s major poems, was sometimes called ‘the Chartists’ Bible’. Mulhallen informs us there had been at least a dozen pirated editions already in the 1820s, reaching working-class audiences, so it was well-established by the time Chartism emerged.

Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling gave a lecture on Shelley’s socialism in 1888, nearly seventy years after his death. Suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst decorated a hall with quotations from Shelley’s poetry (the suffragette motto ‘deeds not words’ derived from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’). For much of the twentieth century he was out of respectable critical fashion, a state of affairs influenced by disapproval from the poet T. S. Eliot and the conservative but highly influential literary critic F. R. Leavis. Nonetheless, his work lived on in the suffragette movement, miners’ libraries, workers’ education classes and the like.

Benjamin Zephaniah is quoted on the back cover as saying: ‘The world needs more Shelley, the world needs this book’. He is right on both counts. Shelley is fascinating as a way in to a world of radical ideas, debate and struggle around two centuries ago; he should be valued as part of our history of resistance and dissent. But he is also a source of inspiration today. This gem of a book recaptures Shelley’s world and demonstrates the revolutionary poet’s relevance for our own world.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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