Jeremy Corbyn speaking to crowd at Glastonbury Jeremy Corbyn reciting Shelley at Glastonbury, 2017. Photo: YouTube/Official Jeremy Corbyn Channel

200 years after it was penned, Jacqueline Mulhallen explores the politics of Shelley’s great poem

Many poems were written in response to the Peterloo Massacre and were published in the radical press (see Alison Morgan, Ballads and Songs of Peterloo, Manchester University Press, 2019), but the poem which has lasted until our own day and which has been described as the greatest political poem in the English language is The Mask of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was not published in 1819 but in 1832, 10 years after Shelley himself had drowned in a sailing accident in Italy. Leigh Hunt, the editor to whom Shelley originally sent the poem, was afraid to publish it in 1819 because of the repressive laws against ‘sedition’, but the poem was still appropriate in 1832 when once again there was agitation for reform of Parliament and he published it then.

It became immediately popular, and remained so among the Chartists and, later, among the suffragettes. In 1911, the striking garment workers of New York (the Rising of the 20,000) chanted it on the demonstrations and so did the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The phrase ‘Ye are many – they are few’ has been used by poll tax campaigners, the Occupy movement and now by the Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn reciting the lines beginning ‘Rise like lions after slumber’ at Glastonbury, 2017. Its popularity and longevity was perhaps because it was not just a personal response to Peterloo but a political commentary on the politics and politicians of the day and so put the event into context. And also because it is a beautiful, striking and dramatic poem and one which used a style and imagery immediately familiar and popular with working people.

Shelley selected a ballad form, one which is extremely easy to follow and to remember, and which has been popular since the Middle Ages in English, Irish and Scottish literature and later in American and Australian literature. It was the traditional form used to tell of great events from the Ballad of Otterburn to 18th century themes of adventure or injustice and was used by Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Shelley does not use the form slavishly, but varies it. He sometimes adds extra lines to a verse and also varies the rhyme scheme and the rhythm. It is full of imagination and political thought and – despite its ghastly theme – wit and humour. Gallows humour is something the working class have always appreciated. The Mask (or Masque) of Anarchy draws on other forms of popular 19th century culture, such as the prints displayed in print shop windows – people would crowd outside to see the latest – carnival, and pantomime with its Harlequinade and fairy story characters and magic transformation scenes.

Like other ballads, the poem is told as a vision seen by Shelley as he ‘lay asleep in Italy’, (p. 87) which includes the visionary ideal, the historical, the commentary on current events. The opening lines describe a huge carnival procession, the Prime Minister, Sidmouth, the Lord Chancellor, Eldon, and the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, riding in triumph, richly clad. The masks they wear reveal their true nature: Hypocrisy, emphasised by the crocodile Sidmouth rides, Fraud and Murder. The figures would have reminded 19th century readers of the scene in pantomime when the figures of fairy tale lost the huge papier maché heads which portrayed their roles and were transformed into abstractions. The characteristics are interchangeable – all of them can be Fraud, Hypocrisy and Murder – and they would have been easily identifiable at the time. We may supply modern equivalents since the politicians of our own day have different names but have not changed their nature.

Riding across Britain suggests the way in which the ruling class destroy both the environment by constructing their mills and mines, and the working people by imposing their laws, waging war, and, by arbitrarily closing works, cause unemployment and starvation. They all worship Anarchy, ‘GOD AND KING AND LAW’ characterised by a Skeleton that looks like ‘Death in the Apocalypse’ (p. 88) – familiar to workers from prints of Thomas Rowlandson or Benjamin West. Anarchy is wearing a ‘kingly crown’ and Anarchy ‘bowed and grinned to every one/As well as if his education/Had cost ten millions to the nation’ (p. 89) in a royal gesture – royal ‘education’ is indeed very expensive! The image is comical, but Anarchy symbolises religion, law and monarchy, all that the ruling class claim as their justification for what they do, which cloaks the chaotic system of capitalism. This allows Anarchy to proceed to the Tower of London and the Bank of England to seize the nation’s wealth and then to the Parliament where he has all the MPs in his pocket (‘pensioned’ as Shelley says). The whole parade rouses our horror and at the same time we laugh in contempt – a very healthy reaction when looking at the ruling class as it counteracts fear.

This is interrupted by a startling event. A ‘maniac maid’, Hope (who looks ‘more like Despair’), ‘fled past’. Hope’s wonderful lines

          My father Time is weak and gray

          From waiting on a better day;

          Look how idiot like he stands,

          Fumbling with his palsied hands! (p. 90)

evoke for us protest after protest, demonstration after demonstration, broken promises, and indeed, poor and frail elderly people who have spent their lives working and bringing up children and whose hopes of a better life for them have been disappointed. Those at Peterloo were hoping for ‘a better day’. We are still waiting.

In a dramatic gesture, Hope lies down to stop Anarchy reaching his goal and we believe she will be trampled. The willingness of the ‘maid’ to die rather than see Anarchy succeed is the first sacrifice in the poem, reminding us that revolution involves sacrifice and bloodshed. It suggests the maidens sacrificed in mythology and fairy tale, but she is also a symbolic figure. Shelley, who had studied the French Revolution for his poem Laon and Cythna, was aware of how committed women can be to a revolutionary cause. Through Hope, he invokes his mother in law, Mary Wollstonecraft, and inspired the Chartist women, suffragettes and the New York garment workers who would all love this poem. Hope’s sacrifice produces ‘a vapour’ which grows into another allegorical figure, a kind of medieval armour-clad warrior, a fighting spirit which grows and passes over the heads of men. This spirit kills all the monsters on parade, and Anarchy and his murderers are dead. Hope – no longer like Despair but ‘serene’ – is walking ‘ankle deep in blood’. She is strong again and has inspired everyone else. The spirit of the class has been strengthened by the unity which inspires us, just as it was after the Peterloo Massacre.

Something has destroyed the anarchic rule – a revolution. Yet this is not the end of the poem. Shelley knew that it is not as simple as that, although courage and defiance and a willingness to risk your own life is necessary if a revolution is to happen. Hope’s action has been repeated down to our own day – but united action and a plan is also necessary. People need to know what they are fighting for and why. Shelley wants to set out why such a revolution is worth fighting for, what the condition of workers is under ‘Anarchy’ and what it could be like. The vivid and dramatic imagery does not continue into the next section. Some words follow which come from no one knows where, but ‘As if their own indignant Earth/which gives the sons of England birth’ (p. 91) had spoken from each drop of blood with which she had been ‘bedewed’. It is clear that this is the blood of the sons of England, whose blood she had ‘felt upon her brow’ and in a later verse she is evidently thinking of Peterloo when she says:

Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew

Ride over your wives and you –

Blood is on the grass like dew. (p. 93)

Dew renews and refreshes the grass. The blood that was shed at Peterloo will renew the struggle because of the anger and inspiration it causes. But it should be clear why and what workers are fighting for.

In this second section, Shelley sets out a beautiful and accurate description of what the opposite of freedom is:

Tis to work and have such pay

As just keeps life from day to day

In your limbs, as in a cell

For the tyrants’ use to dwell. (p. 92)

Shelley knew the condition of the workers of his own day, and ours, where pay just covers the barest essentials to get by. Hunger, homelessness, rising costs due to financial crises and depressions (as in our own day, post-Waterloo Britain was suffering depression) and the Peterloo Massacre are what freedom is not. In an image familiar to his audience from the Bible he compares the English worker to Christ – ‘All things have a home but one – /Thou, oh Englishman, hast none!’ (p. 93)

Freedom on the other hand ensures enough food, shelter, education, justice, freedom of thought and peace. This is worth fighting for, and a very concrete form of freedom, not just an empty abstract word but grounded in everyday experience of the way the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the lives of working people and how the system was kept in place by GOD AND KING AND LAW, the rhetoric of religion, royalty and the laws made by the ruling class, duty. At this time the ruling class were identifying ‘patriotism’ with these things whereas the working class identified it with a common good.

But ‘blood is on the grass like dew’. Shelley suggests another demonstration is necessary, ‘a great assembly’, and another sacrifice. There should be a declaration of freedom from the ruling class ideas. It is to be held on some outdoor place in England and everyone who is sympathetic should attend, from ‘every hut, village and town’, from ‘workhouses and prisons and even some ‘from the palaces’ (those ‘prison houses of wealth and fashion’) p. 96. Then ‘if the tyrants dare’ to attack this demonstration:

Stand ye calm and resolute…

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

The demonstrators are to remain like this while the military attack not just them but also their wives and children. This section is seriously problematic since it is impossible. No one could stand calm and resolute while a child is being slaughtered, and ironically the last person to have done so would have been Shelley. So – did he mean this?

In A Philosphical View of Reform Shelley does say that the ‘true patriot’ would ‘exhort’ ‘a more considerable number’ to ‘expect without resistance the onset of the cavalry, with folded arms’. He did think that the attackers would be overawed by this behaviour into holding back. Shelley had learnt politically from the Quakers with whom he campaigned as a young man against the slave trade – meetings, petitions, letters to the press. Quakers believe in non-violence and they had practised facing hostility with calm in Ireland in the 1798 Rising. However, their success may well have owed more to the respect in which they were held than to the tactics themselves. Shelley also probably knew of instances during the French Revolution when soldiers refused to fire on the crowd and believed English soldiers would also refuse. The Manchester Yeomanry, however, was not drawn from the class they were attacking, and they were not sympathetic, as an ordinary soldier might have been. Furthermore, although Shelley admired the ideal of non-violent resistance, there are signs that he was ambivalent about it because he believed that the ruling class will resist violently or, as in his poem Laon and Cythna, make a violent counter-revolution. In A Philosophical View he frequently puts forward objections to non-violent revolution. Although he believed civil war to be ‘a calamity’, he states that ‘it will be necessary to appeal to an exertion of physical strength’ (p. 83) and that ‘we possess a right of resistance’ (p. 81). And, more vividly, ‘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’ (p. 32).

Just as his ambivalence pervades the prose essay, so it also exists in the Mask, which Shelley presents as a vision. The sections on the demonstration and the resistance to attack are just as visionary as the earlier part. The lines about the gathering of people all opposed to the regime from all over the country to ‘some (unidentified) spot of English ground’ (p. 95) describe an imagined but hardly possible event. All those people would not be able to come together simultaneously, and the ‘spot’ would have to be massive to hold them all. We realise this and when we go on to read or hear about the attack on the demonstration and the resistance we do not take him literally. What is carried away from the poem is the sense that resistance and rising are necessary, whether peaceful or not. The most famous verse beginning ‘Rise like lions after slumber’, is repeated and it ends the poem (pp. 92,99).

The gathering at St Peter’s Field had been peaceful – those who attended were asked to leave their walking sticks at houses along the way to show that they did not intend violence. Ironically, some of those attacked ended by defending themselves with posts and stones they found outside the Quaker Meeting House. And the attackers had been, as Shelley suggests in the poem, universally condemned and shamed. He is commemorating what actually happened, Peterloo itself. The Peterloo Massacre has come down to us in history ‘Eloquent, oracular’, (p. 98) in part because of Shelley’s words.

The phrase ‘Ye are many – they are few’, was one which Henry Hunt used in his speeches. This may appear an impudent borrowing, but Shelley himself used the phrase in his earlier poem, Queen Mab, and it is possible that Henry Hunt knew Queen Mab. By repeating it in the Mask, Shelley emphasised its importance in the movement for reform which Hunt led. Despite massive protests by the working class and partly because of the confused response of Hunt and others, the Reform movement collapsed in the years following Peterloo, although it was to revive in the late 1820s.

Nowadays, Hunt himself is largely forgotten but in Shelley’s poem the words have continued to inspire generations of activists – and at least one activist poet, William Alderson, whose highly praised poem, May Days, was intended as a modern equivalent to The Mask of Anarchy, and was published by Counterfire in 2017.

Page numbers taken from Shelley’s Revolutionary Year edited by Paul Foot (London: Bookmarks 1989)

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.

Tagged under: