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International Socialism, July 1997


William Keach

Rise Like Lions? Shelley and the Revolutionary Left


From International Socialism 2:75, July 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The task of reclaiming Shelley’s poetry for the revolutionary left, most notably undertaken by Paul Foot in his book Red Shelley, inevitably raises difficulties and complications which I would like to address. I worried about some of these difficulties and complications several years ago in a 1985 review essay that considered Foot’s Red Shelley together with Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley and Paul Dawson’s The Unacknowledged Legislator. My judgement then was that, while Foot’s desire to claim Shelley for the real socialist left was deeply important, his book did not address some of the difficult questions of Shelley’s political writing as convincingly as Scrivener’s and Dawson’s had done. My perspective today has shifted substantially from what it was in 1985, when I had just finished an avowedly formalist study of Shelley’s style and was still a member of a social democratic group called the Democratic Socialists of America. I have come to have a much stronger commitment to the political tradition from which Foot’s work on Shelley springs, and I see strengths in Red Shelley that I had not seen or had not been able fully to realise before. However, I still think that the questions posed by Scrivener in his case for an anarchist and utopian Shelley, and by Dawson in his case for a reformist Shelley, need to be confronted.

It is not that Foot himself is unaware of these questions. I was struck, rereading Red Shelley, by his acknowledgment of Shelley’s doubts and uncertainties and contradictions. I was also struck by the perspective of ‘reform or revolution’ announced in the title of Foot’s sixth chapter and rooted in his understanding of Rosa Luxemburg’s great argument that revolutionaries make the best fighters for reforms because they see them as coming from below and contributing to a fundamental transformation of society. I was struck by how effectively Foot used this perspective to relate the tactical changes in Shelley’s political writings to their overarching drive. Still, Foot’s declared purpose, ‘to pass on Shelley’s political enthusiasms to today’s socialists, radicals and feminists, in the hope that their commitment will be strengthened and enriched by Shelley, as mine has been’, [1] means that he often moves very quickly past doubts, difficulties and contradictions. There is something to be gained, I think, politically as well as critically, from slowing down and staying with the hard points, with things that do not fit, or that fit only uneasily, with the ‘enthusiasms’ that Foot so engagingly transmits.

What I propose to do here involves a double agenda. On the one hand, I want to keep alive the main points at issue in recent scholarly assessments of Shelley’s politics: the implications of his epistemological idealism and scepticism; the problem of Shelley’s audiences, of his writing for ‘a select class of readers’ more often than ‘for the people’; the consequences of his class position for, among other things, the social and cultural circumstances of his Italian self exile; the question of Shelley’s practical relation to political organisation and action, including his relation to armed resistance and struggle. On the other hand, I want to give the views of Shelley’s readers on the militant left their own independent validity and interest, whether they correspond to what Shelley scholars take to be his ‘actual’ politics or not. That is, I am concerned with what leftist radicals have made and can still make of Shelley’s writing.

Ultimately, of course, I would like to see the doubleness of this agenda dissolve. To say this may be to ‘talk utopia’, as Maddalo says in chiding Julian – or perhaps to entertain an ideal of intellectual work that is more Gramscian than Shelleyan. But Julian, not Maddalo, has the last, grimly anti-utopian word. And what Gramsci and Shelley share is a concern with a revolutionary social transformation in which the seemingly ineluctable division between intellectuals and ‘the people’ disappears. More concretely and practically, I want to look at some of the poems Shelley would probably have included in the volume of ‘popular songs wholly political’ he thought of publishing in 1819 and ask this question: what doubts, uncertainties and complications might people encounter who have been inspired by Paul Foot to read Shelley?

Among other things, doing so will allow me to focus on the little volume of Shelley’s 1819 political poems, together with A Philosophical View of Reform and a wonderful introduction by Foot, published in 1992 by Redwords. Everyone who works on Shelley’s poetry, including Mary Shelley, talks about this projected volume, but now it is a reality called Shelley’s Revolutionary Year. It stands in the great tradition of cheap editions of Shelley brought out by radicals who lay claim to him as one of their own. [2]

Even the typographical error on the excellently designed front cover – the subtitle is The Peterloo Writtings of the Poet Shelley, a mistake that Redwords was, of course, truly embarrassed by – probably has its analogues in some of the Chartist and 19th century socialist editions of Shelley’s poems. The reading texts of the three poems from the volume that I want to look at are as good as those in any available edition of Shelley, I hasten to add (though, as you might expect, there is no scholarly apparatus). So imagine that someone buys Shelley’s Revolutionary Year and reads Song to the Men of England on the basis of Foot’s claim that it is one of the poems which ‘are direct and deliberate appeals to the masses to rise up and trample their oppressors’. [3] In line 24 the poem is explicit and unflinching in its call for armed insurrection: ‘Forge arms – in your defence to bear’. It is also, as Scrivener says, unique among radical texts of its day in its ‘uncompromising view on labour alienation’. [4] An understanding of economic exploitation that generates alienation for workers and surplus value for ‘the lords who lay ye low’ is unmistakably articulated in the poem, through diction, imagery and cadences to which a very broad range of readers could and can respond.

However, the tone of the poem, the mode in which Shelley addresses the Men of England, might well present a problem. (I am responding particularly here to a very good article in the 1978 Keats-Shelley Journal by Richard Hendrix called The Necessity of Response: How Shelley’s Radical Poetry Works.) The poem might have been titled Challenge to the MPs of England: the sequence of questions in the first 16 lines conveys critical dismay at, as well as sympathy for, the oppressed condition of its audience. That Shelley’s ‘appeal’ to the oppressed here primarily takes the form of critical challenge becomes even clearer in the shift to declarative and imperative rhetoric in stanzas five and six. But the real difficulty comes in the final two stanzas:

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells;
In halls ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade, and hoe and loom,
Trace your grave, and build your tomb,
And weave your winding-sheet, till fair
England be your sepulchre.

Bernard Shaw tells us that Mr G.W. Foote (no relation), President of the National Secular Society, recited this poem before a large audience of ‘working men who took Shelley quite seriously’ at the Hall of Science in St Luke’s parish, east London, on the occasion of the 1892 Shelley centenary. There were, says Shaw, ‘thunders of applause’. [5] My students have tended to respond differently to this poem – with respect and admiration for Shelley’s poetic analysis of economic oppression, but also with puzzlement about how to take the last two stanzas. It is surprising to me that the Shelley critics who have commented in any detail on this passage have not themselves been more puzzled. Kenneth Cameron acknowledges that ‘the conclusion is at first puzzling’:

Shelley, after urging the workers to arise and take back the wealth they have created, defending themselves by armed force, here seemingly tells them to retreat. The mood, however, is sardonic, the motive that of shaming the workers into action, implying that unless they act, they will become lethargic. [6]

And Cameron leaves it at that, without any further comment on what we – or Shelley’s immediate audience among the oppressed – are to make of being shamed into action. The only detailed analysis of these lines that I am familiar with is Stephen Behrendt’s in Shelley and His Audiences. ‘Shelley concludes’, Behrendt writes, ‘in a disturbing tone of bitter irony.’ The poem’s ‘argument’, he says, is ‘sceptical’:

[T]his poem comes as close as Shelley ever comes to sanctioning violence as a last resort, and I believe that the reversal in both sense and tone in the final two stanzas suggests that he did not consider the ‘men of England’ actually capable of so decisive an assertion ... The poem’s conclusion is a variation on the reverse definition. Having presumably raised the audience’s ire in the opening stanzas ... Shelley’s final lines are a calculated challenge to the audience to reject their subhuman images ... and to assume their full status as human beings. The deluded masses fall into the habit of nursing their oppressors, literally ‘giving them all they have’, rather than risk the destabilising trauma of resisting this unjust arrangement. [7]

What I find striking, and also disturbing, about Behrendt’s reading is its emphasis on the complicated sceptical irony of Shelley’s tone. If you think he has over-read the last two stanzas – I don’t think he has, though I disagree with some of his interpretive inflections – then I would like to hear a simpler and more straightforward reading that accounts plausibly for what Shelley says to his readers in these lines.

I can imagine why Mr G.W. Foote’s audience in 1892 gave ‘thunders of applause’ to the poem’s call, challenging as it is, for workers to defend themselves by force against economic exploitation and alienation. But I cannot imagine why that audience, or any of us reading Shelley’s poem now, would give ‘thunders of applause’ to a sardonic request that workers do what Marx and Engels said the capitalist bosses do – dig their own graves. Bracing defiance, perhaps even wincing appreciation for a dose of necessary medicine – but ‘thunders of applause’? Behrendt’s commentary begins to get at the political and poetic difficulties here, and those of us who believe that Shelley is powerfully on the side of the working class need to do more to meet his elaboration of Shelley’s challenge.

Related questions – and comparable points of fierce political insight – arise in the poem that immediately precedes Song to the Men of England in Shelley’s Revolutionary Year. Thomas Medwin titled this poem Lines Written During the Castlereagh Administration when he first published it in the Athenaeum in December 1832, and editors have accepted the title ever since. But as Scrivener notes, by changing Shelley’s own title as it appears in the Harvard Library transcription – where it is simply headed England – Medwin ‘distances the political meaning of the poem for the 1832 audience’. [8] Shelley’s ‘political meaning’ in this case arises from an address not to the oppressed but to ‘thou Oppressor’, although this rhetorical situation does not emerge clearly until the third stanza. The poem opens with a variation on the image of the grave that haunts all the political poems of 1819; the tone in the first two stanzas hovers between anger and, not hope in this case, but despair:

Corpses are cold in the tomb;
Stones on the pavement are dumb;
Abortions are dead in the womb,
And their mothers look pale – like the death-white shore
Of Albion, free no more

Her sons are as stones in the way
They are masses of senseless clay
They are trodden, and move not away,
The abortion with which she travaileth
Is Liberty, smitten to death.

It is hard not to think that in these lines Shelley was somehow responding to Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion. A reader eager to respond to Shelley’s vision here might encounter two difficulties, and she would get very little help were she to turn to the professional Shelleyans: there is virtually no critical commentary on this text. The first problem concerns Shelley’s characterisation of the sons of Albion ‘as stones in the way/They are masses of senseless clay’. Is Shelley again experimenting with the tactic of shaming or goading the oppressed into action? The word ‘masses’ in line seven is interesting: the Oxford English Dictionary gives an example from 1837 as the earliest use of the phrase ‘the masses’ to mean ‘the populace or “lower orders”’, but Shelley’s ‘masses of senseless clay’ certainly anticipates this usage while preserving a figurative sense of aboriginal materiality. The question any reader might have, and especially a reader coming seriously from the left, is: what attitude towards the capacity of the oppressed to resist and liberate themselves is being communicated here? How would you dissuade such a reader from believing that Shelley, for all his liberating enthusiasm elsewhere, is here being either defeatist or condescending, or both?

You could try moving right on to the second difficulty: what is Shelley accomplishing, politically and poetically, by saying not only that Liberty is dead but that it or ‘she’ has been, or is being, aborted? In his remarks at the May 1992 Shelley conference in New York, the late Kenneth Cameron said, among other things, that if Shelley were alive today he would be a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision upholding a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. I haven’t the slightest doubt that, as a woman’s absolutely minimal legal guarantee to an abortion goes, Cameron was correct, despite Shelley’s own personal dislike of abortion and his denunciation of its use as a means of Malthusian population control. But in this poem and elsewhere in Shelley, abortions are images of horrible, deathly prematurity – negations of all those images elsewhere in his writing of yet unborn potential and future rebirth. (Anarchy itself, in The Mask, becomes ‘the ghastly birth’ that ‘Lay dead earth upon the earth’, aborted by the emergent spirit of Liberty in an exact reversal of the image from the poem we have been looking at now.) So why is Shelley saying that Liberty is being aborted, a reader genuinely drawn to this power should want to know? Who commits this abortion – mothers themselves, out of despair that their ‘sons are stones in the way ... masses of senseless clay’? Or the ‘Oppressor’, in a pre-emptive strike against a dangerously proliferating antagonistic class? Why should Shelley leave us in doubt on this point?

The mock epithalamium which unfolds in the last three stanzas of England is a brilliant piece of Shelleyan grotesque. But the savage taunting of the ruling class depends upon an extension both of Shelley’s taunting the working class:

Then trample and dance, thou Oppressor!
For thy victim is no redresser –

and of the imagery of abortion from the first two stanzas:

Thou art sole lord and possessor
Of her corpses, and clods, and abortions – they pave
The path to the grave.

The ‘Oppressor’ in this poem will abort himself in the very act of celebrating and consummating his marriage to ‘Ruin’. A reader might be forgiven for thinking that this is not a revolution but an anarchist nightmare. And by the way, she might ask, what is an ‘Epithalamium’? The word is right there at the end of the fourth stanza in what we can safely assume was one of the ‘popular songs’ Shelley wanted to publish in 1819, a vestige of the position of inescapable cultural superiority from which Shelley reached out to ‘the people’. Foot recurrently acknowledges Shelley’s cultural and social distance from the oppressed and often takes up the task of helping the people he wants to read Shelley to negotiate that distance without any undue bother. Foot calls The Mask ‘one of the great political protest poems of all time’ [9], and I entirely agree with him. But this greatness is inseparable from doubts, hesitations, even contradictions that make some passages of the poem confusing for all kinds of readers. The passage I want to focus on here – and in this instance the difficulties have received attention from almost everyone who has written on Shelley and politics – is the sequence of 15 stanzas that begins with the appearance of the ‘maniac maid’ and leads into the rousing call to resistance that makes up the rest of the poem.

Whose voice utters the great call to resistance? This is one difficulty the passage presents, and it is linked to a range of others having to do with the politics of the ‘maniac maid’s’ actions; with the figurative dynamic of the ‘mist’, ‘light’, ‘image’ or ‘Shape’ that rises up ‘between her and her foes’; with the relation of passive resistance to violent action; with Shelley’s own self-representation in this poem. In the introduction to Shelley’s Revolutionary Year, Foot sets most of the difficulties to the side:

Anarchy is itself destroyed in Shelley’s poem by a ‘maniac maid’ who calls herself Hope, though she ‘looked more like Despair’. She rouses the people to free themselves from their oppressors, by supplying them, among other things, with a powerful definition of freedom. [10]

Now it may be perfectly possible to interpret those 15 stanzas in a way that conforms to Foot’s summary of them, but what worries me is that someone who reads his introduction will turn to the poem itself and find her expectations – say, of a powerful feminine voice and agency at the centre of the poem – frustrated by writing that is quite demanding and elusive.

There is no explicit indication in the text either that the ‘maniac maid’ destroys Anarchy or that she utters the culminating song of resistance and freedom. Instead, as Foot himself shows in his more detailed reading of this passage in Red Shelley, there is an extraordinary figurative intervention at this juncture upon which the entire poem turns. Just when the maid lies down in despair and, as Foot says:

There is nothing for it but the most desperate direct action suddenly in between her and the advancing horde, ‘A mist, a light, an image rose.’ It is ‘small at first’, but then ‘it grew’ into a great shape in armour, with luminous wings and a helmet which glistens like the sun. The image cannot really be seen by human beings, but they know it is there ... And it has the most astonishing effect:

As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.

’Thoughts sprung.’ People start to think about their condition, and the way out of it. Nothing, in Shelley’s view, is more powerful.

And nothing in Shelley criticism, in my view, gives us a more powerful sense of the political point and force of Shelley’s extraordinary ‘imagery drawn from the operations of the human mind’ (Preface to Prometheus Unbound) than what Foot says here. ‘Thoughts sprung’ in a process horribly and tragically ‘ankle-deep in blood’ and yet so miraculous in its unfolding of collective mental life that only a sequence of explicit figurative proximations can communicate it. In this aspect of what the passage accomplishes, Shelley’s effort to get people to rethink and reimagine without ever forgetting the Peterloo Massacre is, to use Foot’s word, ‘astonishing’.

So a reader who looks into Red Shelley will find just the right kind of help with some of the questions Shelley’s stanzas provoke – but not with all of them. The question of whose voice speaks in the rest of the poem is still open. ‘Who makes the speech is not quite clear’, Foot writes in Red Shelley, in contrast to what he says in Shelley’s Revolutionary Year, ‘though the speaker is certainly female’. [11] ‘Certainly female’? All the text tells us is that:

These words of joy and fear arose
As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother’s throe
Had turned every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood,
As if her heart had cried aloud:
’Men of England, heirs of Glory’ ...

Cameron realises the force of the two ‘As ifs’ in these lines and compares the effect to a passage in The Revolt of Islam, ‘where at the beginning of the revolution, before moving into action, the people:

heard the startling cry
Like Earth’s own voice lifted unconquerably
To all her children. [12]

Shelley did not say, Cameron goes on to observe, ‘that the the Earth’s, only that it is ‘like’ the Earth’s. [13] Shelley’s similes here powerfully transmute the blood of political oppression and violence into ‘an accent unwithstood’ – but why does he make the matter of vocal agency, much as he makes the matter of physical agency in the destruction of Anarchy, so indeterminate? Paul Dawson struggles with this indeterminacy, and then recycles it: ‘Shelley disguises his voice as the voice of the Earth, or the voice of the Earth is making itself heard by borrowing the voice of the poet’. [14] Behrendt too has to resign himself to ‘ambiguity’:

The speech – even though it is quoted as direct address – is presented within the framework of a simile: a transfiguration occurs, and ... We may infer that the words are the apparition’s [not, on Behrendt’s reading, Mother Earth’s], but Shelley’s equivocation permits us equally to infer that they are those of a universal spirit of England and not unlike the elemental spirits who speak in Prometheus Unbound. [15]

This kind of uncertainty about voice in the last part of The Mask of Anarchy gets strangely propagated in Chapter I of Animal Farm, where Orwell’s parody of Shelley’s song of freedom is sung, you will remember, by ‘old Major,’ Mr Jones’s ‘prize Middle White boar’. Old Major recalls in a dream the words of a song which ‘when I was a little pig, my mother and the other sows used to sing’ but which ‘have been lost to memory for generations’ (’Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland / Beasts of every land and clime ...’)

What I think we need to tell ourselves, and other readers who want to understand ‘one of the great political protest poems of all times’, is that for many reasons Shelley needed this indeterminacy. He wanted the course of the poem to turn on the heroic actions of both a despairing woman and a militant ‘Shape arrayed in mail’; he wanted to generalise the effects these figures produce by transforming the ‘maniac maid’ into Mother Earth and by having the voice of political insight and protest arise not from any single individual, not even from any single allegorical figure, but from the collective consciousness of the oppressed; above all he wanted to face what he saw as the inescapability of armed rebellion – ‘He believed that a clash between the two classes of society was inevitable’ [16], Mary Shelley says in her note to the poems written in 1819 – and yet somehow minimise the possibility of mob violence and rioting which, instead of putting an end to the perpetuation of authorised state violence of the kind he had read about at Peterloo, would only provoke further massacres. He wanted to do all this, and he produced a text filled not just with powerful political protest but with all the complications and contradictions and fears – ‘These words of joy and fear arose’, the poem says in introducing the call for resistance and liberation – that a writer who ‘eagerly ranged himself on the people’s side’ would have had to acknowledge to himself and his potential readers.

We can acknowledge The Mask of Anarchy’s indeterminacies as aspects of Shelley’s politically motivated poetic practice, as aspects inseparable finally from the poem’s power of protest – without forfeiting our critical judgement of them. Commenting on those passages in The Mask that urge passive disobedience as a way of responding to a situation such as that at Peterloo, Foot says, ‘Shelley’s was bad advice ... The only way the masses could have stopped the yeomanry at Peterloo was by pulling them off their horses, disarming them with as much violence as was necessary, and organising an insurrection’. [17] I once wrote that this remark demonstrates the distance between Foot’s own politics and Shelley’s, and I still believe that it in certain respects it does. But Foot is right politically here; what he advocates is not at all what Jerrold Hogle means, in his analysis of The Mask of of Anarchy, by ‘mimetic violence’. [18] And the rightness has behind it the force of Shelley’s own refrain, ‘Ye are many – they are few’, as well as of that line from Song to the Men of England: ‘Forge arms – in your defence to bear.’

I want to move back now from the protest poems of 1819 and look for a moment at The Revolt of Islam, partly because of its specific bearing on the questions of women’s political agency and of political violence that come up in The Mask of Anarchy, but more generally because of its problematic place in the way Shelley is currently being taught and read. The Revolt is, after Prometheus Unbound, Shelley’s most ambitious political poem, and it addresses the historical circumstances of political struggle in the in early 19th century more explicitly. But the problems it presents to academic as well as non-academic readers, though different in many respects from those presented by Shelley’s experimental metaphysical drama, are formidable. Paul Foot is characteristically upfront and undaunted: ‘This poem is difficult to read. The narrative twice doubles back on itself, and is clogged by complicated imagery. Yet it throbs from first to last with energy and excitement. [19] Foot may be right about ‘first to last’ – there are moments of powerful writing throughout The Revolt. But there are long stretches in between that are bewildering and trying. Shelley describes the poem in the Preface as ‘an experiment on the temper of the public mind, as to how far a thirst for a happier condition of moral and political society survives, among the enlightened and refined, the tempests which have shaken the age in which we live’. [20] I know I am not alone in feeling either that the experiment sometimes does not work, or that I must not belong among those whom Shelley thought of as ‘the enlightened and refined’.

Still, I have long felt that it was a distortion of Shelley’s career not to teach The Revolt of Islam, and in the spring of 1991 I was provoked to do something about it. The immediate provocation was the war in the Persian Gulf: I found myself getting ready to talk to a large class at Brown University about Romantic orientalism, and somehow the gruesome spectacle of watching George Bush and Saddam Hussein compete for the distinction of being the Ozymandias of our day led me to add to the syllabus the brief excerpts from The Revolt in the Norton Critical Edition, about 20 double pages of additional excerpts from four key moments in the narrative, Shelley’s Preface, and Mary Shelley’s Note from the 1839 Poetical Works. Since I basically agree with Paul Foot that ‘no idea shines through the poem with more unbounded and sustained enthusiasm than that of women’s liberation’ [21], the excerpts I gave my students included Cythna’s account in canto seven of her isolated imprisonment in a cave surrounded by the sea. The students responded strongly to this episode, and they had questions about it, and about Shelley’s evident feminism more generally, that I could not answer very effectively at the time. They were able to deal with what it would mean to think of Cythna as an Islamic woman – a week on Byron’s The Corsair had alerted them to some of the confusions of orientalist disguise. It was the questions they raised about Shelley’s image of a woman transforming the conditions of confinement into possibilities of liberation that were so challenging. They specifically wanted to know if there were other female figures in Romantic writing like Cythna. And they had another question, one which I now think is crucially connected to the question about voice, gender and political agency in the last part of The Mask of Anarchy: why are the stanzas representing Cythna’s account of her experiences set off in quotation marks, unlike the stanzas belonging to Laon?

My students’ question about previous Romantic women warriors led me back to Southey’s (and in the first edition also Coleridge’s) Joan of Arc, and I now think that Shelley’s representation of Cythna’s access to discursive and political power can be usefully understood as a critical rethinking of Joan of Arc’s relation to the voices of visionary prophecy in Southey’s epic. And their question about the representation of Cythna’s voice in relation to Laon’s led me to work my way again through Jerrold Hogle’s remarkable account of The Revolt of Islam, and to see, with his and my students’ help, both the radical brilliance of Shelley’s response to the problem of women’s vocal and political authority and the contradictions that remain in his revisionary alternative to Southey’s Joan of Arc. Cythna, not Laon, is Shelley’s real hero of self-projective love and liberation – but in the rhetorical structure of The Revolt of Islam it is only through or within Laon’s voice that she speaks.

I introduce these current critical interests of mine realising that to do so near the end of this essay may seem tendentious or merely anecdotal. But I want to suggest that there are advantages in running more risks in deciding what Shelley we read, and of not assuming too quickly that the difficulties and obstacles of contending with Shelley’s most ambitious poetic experiments will necessarily turn non-specialist readers away.

The work still to be done is of course multi-faceted, and it ought as far as possible to be dialectical rather than merely at cross purposes. Not many readers, I suspect, agree with Donald Reiman’s characterisation of Shelley as an ‘agrarian reactionary’. [22] It is clear, I think, that I do not. But the evidence about the material interests and inclinations deriving from Shelley’s class position set out in Reiman’s essay, together with the additional vantage points brought out in Paul Dawson’s piece on Shelley and Class, have got to be taken seriously; from they derive many of the sorts of poetic complications that I have focused on here. Scholars and literary critics have an obligation to uncover, define, analyse these complications – that, after all, is an important part of our work. But scholars and critics who are also teachers have a further obligation to evaluate: to assess the relative importance of such complications and to help students and other readers confront them as part of a larger experience in which what is most vital and most historically consequential is kept to the fore. This further obligation needs to be honoured even more intensely by scholars, critics and teachers who think of themselves as political activists, and who, in the case of Shelley, feel politically as well as aesthetically and professionally committed to what is great about him.


1. P. Foot, Red Shelley (Bookmarks 1984), p. 13.

2. The only comparable effort I am aware of is the 1979 Journeyman Press volume containing Shelley’s Socialism, two lectures by Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx Aveling originally published in a privately printed edition of 25 copies in 1888, together with Popular songs wholly political, and destined to awaken and direct the imagination of the reformers. This volume does not include Ode to the West Wind or A Philosophical View of Reform.

3. P. Foot, op. cit., p. 169.

4. M. Schrivener, Radical Shelley: the Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Princeton University Press 1982), p. 232

5. G.B. Shaw, Shaming the Devil about Shelley, The Albermarle Review, quoted in Pen Portraits and Reviews, p. 244.

6. K. Cameron, Shelley: the Golden Years (Harvard University Press 1974), p. 343.

7. S. Behrendt, Shelley and his Audiences (University of Nebraska Press 1989), pp. 195–196.

8. M. Schrivener, op. cit., p. 227.

9. P. Foot, Shelley’s Revolutionary Year (Redwords 1990), p. 15.

10. Ibid., p. 15.

11. P. Foot, Red Shelley, op. cit., pp. 176–177.

12. T. Hutchinson (ed.), Shelley: Poetical Works (Oxford University Press 1970), p. 123.

13. K. Cameron, op. cit., p. 348.

14. P.M.S. Dawson, The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics (Oxford University Press 1980), p. 207.

15. S. Behrendt, op. cit., pp. 198–199.

16. T. Hutchinson (ed), op. cit., p. 588.

17. P. Foot, Red Shelley, op. cit., pp. 181–182.

18. J. Hogle, Shelley’s Process: Radical Transference and the Development of his Major Works (Oxford University Press 1988), pp. 134–148.

19. P. Foot, Red Shelley, op. cit., p. 116.

20. T. Hutchinson (ed.), op. cit., p. 32.

21. P. Foot, Red Shelley, op. cit., p. 116.

22. D. Reiman, Shelley as Agrarian Reactionary, Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 30 (1979), pp. 5–15.

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