Percy Shelley was a radical poet, polemicist and political activist. Jacqueline Mulhallen traces the revolutionary thread that ran through this extraordinary writer’s life and work

Rise like lions after slumber
In unfathomable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
That in sleep have fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few.

That verse is perhaps one of the best known pieces of poetry in any movement of the oppressed all over the world. The Chartists knew it in the 19th century and so did the striking women garment workers in 1909 New York. It was chanted on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square (1989) and Tahrir Square (2011).

The last lines were adapted to ‘We Are Many’ by the campaign against the Poll Tax. The proposed film about the February 2003 Stop the War demo against the Iraq war is titled ‘We are the Many’. We recognise the reference as part of our working-class heritage.

The poet, Shelley, actually wrote, ‘Ye are many’ because he came from the few, but he wrote this poem especially for working people and he would have been very happy to know that it has become as well known and beloved as it is – even though, perhaps because, we have adapted the ‘ye’ into ‘we’.

Why do we love those lines so much? I think because, when we are beginning to fight back, they tell us what we are just beginning to feel, our strength. It should be, but it is not, obvious that ‘we are many, they are few’, and so we need to remember that we are not alone but part of the vast majority, and that being many we can win.

But we don’t always do that. For most of our lives we feel fragmented, cut off – we are divided from each other by ethnicity, sex, age or some other way in which the ruling class assures us that we are isolated and different from those we should be united with. When we are on a demo, when we know we are many, we see the truth of the lines and we know that we can rise like lions.

When Shelley wrote The Mask of Anarchy, in 1819, he would not have been on such a demonstration. He was in Italy. Yet he wrote the poem for English workers whose peaceful demonstration for the reform of the English parliament had been attacked by volunteer troopers. The atrocity became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Although he was on the side of the Italian revolutionary movements and later supported the war for Greek independence, he was not active in either, unlike his friend and fellow poet Lord Byron. Shelley was not working class, though he had effectively excluded himself from the class he was born into, the ruling class.

So how did he know so well what the working class needed to know? How is it that he was able to come up with a poem which stated the obvious, in a way which is instantly recognised?

Emergence of a radical voice

Until he was 18, in 1810, Shelley was the cosseted son of a landed gentleman and MP who intended his son to follow in his footsteps. Shelley went to Eton and Oxford. In the holidays he shot snipe, skated, went to balls, theatre and opera (escorting his cousin, with whom he was in love).

He had read very deeply, and had taken a great interest in science, even conducting scientific experiments. His reading had included philosophy and he was already enquiring about the truth of Christianity. He had written a couple of novels and, with his sister, a volume of poetry. None of this made his family uneasy; in fact, his father encouraged an Oxford bookseller to ‘indulge him in his printing freaks’ and Shelley did publish, anonymously, another book of satirical poetry.

At the time, no one except those professing the beliefs of the Church of England was able to graduate from Oxford: Catholic Emancipation was yet to come, Protestant ‘dissenters’ like the philosopher William Godwin (author of Political Justice) were educated at their own colleges. When Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg wrote a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, and sent it to the heads of the colleges and to bishops, they were expelled from Oxford.

Shelley’s father was so angry he refused to have him in the house or allow him any money, although eventually he did give him an allowance. He hoped that his son would ‘go back to Oxford and apologise’, but Shelley did not agree to do so and compounded his disgrace by marrying ‘beneath’ him. He met Harriet at his sisters’ school, but she was not considered a match for the son of a future baronet and MP as her father had made his money from a coffee shop.

Between 1811 and 1818, when Shelley left England for Italy, he developed his political ideas and writing, as he did his poetry. In 1812 he went to Ireland, accompanied by Harriet and her sister Eliza, where he got to know United Irishmen who had taken part in the 1798 Rising. He spoke at a meeting with Daniel O’Connell, the great campaigner for Catholic Emancipation, and distributed leaflets of his own which were strongly influenced by the writings of Tom Paine, author of The Age of Reason, who had played a great part in the American and French Revolutions.

When Shelley returned to England he continued distributing these leaflets, but there were spies watching him and – although he himself got away – one of his household, Daniel Healey, was imprisoned for billposting them. Shelley and Daniel may also have been shot at while Shelley was working at raising funds for a project to build an embankment in Wales.

Shelley opposed the Napoleonic war and when Luddites (who were destroying new machinery which would put them out of work) were hanged, he subscribed money for their families. In London Shelley made friends with a number of radicals. He was also writing poems. His long poem Queen Mab (1813) was published in an expensive edition, but also serialised in a radical publication The Theological Enquirer. Later there were pirated versions.

Shelley did not believe in marriage. His preferred way of living was with a group of friends but when he tried to include others in his household there were often difficulties. In 1814 Shelley left Harriet for Mary, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women).

When Harriet committed suicide in 1816, Shelley was denied the custody of their children because of his atheism. Shelley had to pay for the children to be cared for in exactly the opposite way to which he would have wished, by a clergyman and his wife. Shelley believed, as Godwin did, that the rich should support poorer people. Unfortunately Shelley, besides giving money to other friends, arranged huge gifts to Godwin of money that he would not have until he inherited – and could only provide by expensive loans which left him deeply in debt.

Polemicist, philosopher, poet

Meanwhile, he continued writing political pamphlets which became increasingly clever and ironic. In A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote, he begins by suggesting that a national vote should be taken to see how many people wanted Parliament reformed, as perhaps no one did. He then shows that reform was so popular that a vote would ensure that it had to take place. Shelley states that he is on the side of reform and compares the House of Commons to a lunatic asylum.

An Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte points out that the death of this princess in childbirth is sad, as are the deaths of many other women, but that the execution of the working-class leaders of the ‘Pentridge Rising’ is far sadder. Similarly, in A Refutation of Deism, it becomes quite clear that neither Christianity nor Deism are tenable and that atheism is the solution.

Shelley wrote to his friend, Thomas Love Peacock, that he thought political philosophy more important than poetry. Over the last 30 years several excellent books have been written on Shelley’s politics: Paul Dawson’s The Unacknowledged Legislator, Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley and Paul Foot’s Red Shelley. Each sheds light on the background but there is disagreement about how revolutionary Shelley was.

This may be because the work he commenced under the title of A Philosophical View of Reform was never finished and contains contradictory remarks. But it is as well to remember that in Shelley’s lifetime there was no ‘reformist’ party such as the German SDP or the British Labour Party in the 20th century. It is not a parliamentary party Shelley is supporting, but a hugely popular campaign for the reform of Parliament which had begun in the late 18th century.

Because of the growth of industry, there were huge new towns like Manchester which had no MP while MPs were elected from deserted ‘rotten boroughs’. The reform campaign was imaginative, with giant petitions, meetings and ‘Hampden clubs’ (named after the 17th century English Revolutionary). There was no contradiction between supporting this campaign as a united front and being a revolutionary: in fact one supporter described himself as a ‘Reformer and a Revolutionist’. They disagreed about their aims as Shelley’s pamphlet makes clear. Some were aiming for universal suffrage, some, like Shelley, for much more.

It is not clear how Shelley would have structured his arguments had he finished A Philosophical View of Reform, but given his practice in earlier essays he might have begun with pragmatic suggestions for reforms, later going on to explain why they will not be granted soon enough (or at all). He suggests the re-organisation of the electorate and abolition of rotten boroughs, and the enlargement of the franchise with a property qualification. If this was granted, ‘let us be content with a limited beginning … we shall demand more and more’. (255)

These demands do not reflect Shelley’s own opinions. He himself would vote for ‘universal suffrage and equal representation’ and make demands far beyond these. Why not ‘immediate abolition, for instance, of monarchy and aristocracy, and the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution, including the parks and chases of the rich’? (252)

Reformers should demand the abolition of the national debt, sinecures and tithes and the disbanding of the standing army and making all forms of religion [including atheism] equal in the eye of law and justice cheap certain and speedy (248-249). These reforms would prevent a civil war, but if that approach does not deliver (and he suggests that it will not) then revolution is the only way.

This revolution is entirely the responsibility of the ruling class since ‘They would shoot and hew down any multitude […] they would calumniate, imprison, starve,, ruin and expatriate every person who wrote or acted, or thought […] against them’. (256) Shelley had no illusions in the ruling class!

Shelley did not believe that Britain’s rulers would grant any substantial reform. Although it ‘ought questionless to be immediately nominated by the great mass of the people’ (254), it was unlikely that ‘Commons should reform itself’. (253) ‘So dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then, nor now, nor ever, left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood’. (231)

Shelley did not want the civil war and bloodshed he believed would result from revolution, but still less would he ‘hesitate under what banner to array his person’. ‘The last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection […] derived from the employment of armed force to counteract the will of the nation’. (259)

He advises the ‘patriot’ (activist) with arguments that seem remarkably familiar. He recognises the problems that arise when people get demoralised, ‘subdued by the killing weight of toil and suffering […] panic-stricken and disunited’. An activist should not lie to the class but be ‘indefatigable in promulgating political truth’. He should not work in secret associations which ‘cause tumult and confusion’, but in a united front and ‘rally round one standard the divided friends of liberty’.

The people should ‘exercise their right of assembling’. Then he suggests, as he does in The Mask of Anarchy, that if they are shot at by troops, they should ‘peaceably risk the danger’ so that the soldiers will stop attacking them, on the grounds that fighting and fleeing both provoke the soldiers’ trained response of attack. (257)

Although there have been occasions when this has happened, it is dangerous advice unless the balance of forces are in favour of the protesters and the soldiers are prepared to listen to their arguments. When Shelley tried it himself, without strong support, he merely got knocked off his horse.

A poet for equality and human liberation

Shelley believed that all should be equal and that people can change in struggle – in the Notes to his drama written in support of the Greek struggle for independence, Hellas, he mentions a Greek whom Byron remembered as ‘timid and unenterprising’ but who became the ‘commander of insurgents’. He also remarks ‘We are all Greeks’.

As an admirer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Shelley believed in women’s equality and encouraged the women he knew to develop their talents. His poems have revolutionary heroines, like Cythna in The Revolt of Islam and Asia in Prometheus Unbound.

It is difficult to be a great artist and a political activist – as each requires dedication – but when ill-health caused Shelley to give up his activity he channelled his talents into poetry and became one of the greatest poets, constantly experimenting. His poems reflect his politics – it is not just The Mask of Anarchy that is so apposite.

In Swellfoot the Tyrant, Shelley satirised a dispute between George IV and Queen Caroline (or ‘Punch and his Wife’ as Shelley called them), pointing out that the queen should not be regarded as a heroine or followed by the radicals just because she opposed the king on one issue. Nevertheless, he emphasises how disgusting George and his ministers were, and it is the only play I know of in which the people invade Parliament.

In contrast to this rollicking comedy, Charles the First was planned as a magnificent historical play on Shakespearean lines. The title would refer to the times, not to the king, since Shelley regarded Charles as ‘one of those chiefs of a conspiracy of privileged murderers and robbers’. (232)

Unfortunately, Shelley never finished this play. A few months after he had begun and four weeks before his 30th birthday, he was drowned, sailing home after visiting his friend, the journalist Leigh Hunt, who had come to join him in Italy.

It was a great loss to both literature and radical politics. He died at the height of his powers. His poetry is still giving joy today, and political inspiration for a new generation.

Further reading

Citations in the text are from Shelley’s Prose: the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. by David Lee Clark (Fourth Estate, 1988).Two new complete editions of Shelley’s poems are in preparation, though only some volumes are available at present, one published by Longmans and the other by the Johns Hopkins University Press. You can get them from libraries. A more affordable edition is Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. by Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat (Norton, 2002),

Also recommended is Shelley’s Revolutionary Year – which refers to 1819 – with a critical introduction by Paul Foot (Redwords 1990). A play about Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford, The Necessity of Atheism by Sean Lang, directed by William Alderson, will be performed at the Anglia Ruskin University Drama Centre, (Covent Garden) 11-13 April 2013 and the Old Fire Station, Oxford, Saturday 4th May. It will also be entered in the Cambridge Drama Festival, 23-27 April.