Paul Foot

Poetry of protest

(July/August 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.155, July-August 1992, pp.18-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Like most poets, Shelley, born two hundred years ago, seems to have little relevance to our lives and concerns today. On the contrary, argues Paul Foot, his poems are a powerful indictment of injustice and class division, and an inspiration for change

SHELLEY WAS BORN 200 years ago, and all over the world he will be celebrated in two very different ways. Those who honour him as a ‘great lyric poet’ will put him on a pedestal and pay him homage. At University College, Oxford, where Shelley was briefly educated, they are planning a great feast. No one will be allowed to mention that Shelley was expelled from the college after only two terms for writing the first atheist pamphlet ever published in English.

A quite different set of celebrations is being arranged by the descendants of the people for whom Shelley cared and wrote: the common people, and especially the workers. Very early on in his life Shelley developed a passionate hatred and contempt for the class society in which he found himself. His main teacher was the philosopher William Godwin who put into English the glorious ideas of the Enlightenment. Godwin spurned all revolutionary activity. He sought to change the world by changing people’s minds – a quite hopeless project since people’s thoughts, left to themselves, are at the mercy of their rulers’ propaganda. Shelley worshipped Godwin, but could never agree with his appeals to passivity. He flung himself at once into revolutionary activity. At Oxford he wrote his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, which ridiculed all religion. He sent it to every bishop in Oxford demanding a debate. He was on the high road out of the city within half an hour of the first bishop choking over the freshly opened envelope at the breakfast table.

Shelley’s first long poem, Queen Mab, is a ferocious and sometimes magnificent diatribe against the social order. In Ireland he wrote and attempted to circulate his Address to The Irish People, in which he argued for an Association to campaign for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. When three revolutionary workers were executed after the Pentridge uprising in Nottinghamshire in 1817, Shelley wrote a furious pamphlet scornfully comparing their unnoticed deaths to the public hysteria about the death of a young princess. In the same year he wrote another pamphlet urging the sort of demands for parliamentary reform which appeared on Chartist banners 20 years later.

All this political writing and activity was carried out in almost total isolation. Shelley was inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, but he lived in a time of counter-revolution. The great revolutionary poets of the 1790s – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey – were stampeding to the right. Their talent and wit, so effectively directed against the politicians, kings and priests of the ancien regime, was now being deployed in their defence.

Shelley was not, as these three were, a renegade. He utterly refused to bend his opinions. He was resolutely revolutionary all his life – but his confidence ebbed and flowed according to the ebb and flow of popular movements and uprisings. After his move to Italy in 1818 his best revolutionary poetry, especially the Ode to Liberty and Hellas, were written in tune with the European revolts of the time – in Spain, Naples and in Greece. But when there was not much happening, especially when the news from England was all bad, he wrote more and more lyric poetry. His political passions were never forsaken, but they were often buried deep in lyrical metaphor.

But the anger burned furiously, never far beneath the surface. Every so often it erupted like the volcanoes he was always writing about. The most extraordinary example of this is his poem about the massacre at Peterloo – The Mask of Anarchy. The demonstration in August 1819 in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, was at that time the biggest trade union gathering ever organised in Britain. In spite of the Combination Acts and all the other government inspired measures to do them down, the trade unions were growing in strength and influence. The main speaker at the Manchester demonstration was Henry Hunt, a working class agitator. The huge crowd came with their families as though to a picnic. It was like a miners’ gala of modern times.

The ruling class was terrified. The yeomanry, a special police force consisting mainly of wealthy tradesmen, had a single plan: to stop Hunt speaking and teach the new union upstarts a lesson. They charged into the crowd flourishing their weapons and screaming abuse. The crowd scattered where they could, but the yeomanry pursued them, slashing and stabbing with their swords as they went. Altogether 11 people died that day, and 150 more were seriously injured.

When news of this day’s work reached Shelley in Italy he was literally speechless with rage. He plunged into the little attic room he used at that time as a study. In five days he never appeared for conversation or recreation. He wrote the 92 verses of The Mask of Anarchy, without any doubt at all the finest poem of political protest ever written in our language. It has been quoted again and again in protests ever since. The Chartists revelled in it, and reprinted it. Gandhi quoted it when agitating among the South African Indians in the early part of this century. More recently it was translated and chanted during the students’ uprising at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

THE MOST POWERFUL element in the poem is Shelley’s anger. The horror of Peterloo had fanned the flames of the fury of his youth. Somehow he hung on to the discipline of rhyme and metre. The poem is in many ways the most carefully constructed thing he ever wrote. The parameters allowed by poetic licence in a long and complicated poem like Prometheus Unbound are very wide. In The Mask of Anarchy, Shelley confined himself to the rhythm of the popular ballads of the time. He wrote in short, strong stanzas, four or (occasionally) five lines apiece, which left him very little room for manoeuvre. The result is electric. The poem starts with a description of a masquerade, in which strange and horrifying shapes appear before the poet, all of them disguised in the masks of the Tory ministers of the day. Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, butcher of the Irish rebellion of 1798, appears as Murder. Seven bloodhounds, the seven countries which signed the Treaty of Vienna which carved up Europe after the counter-revolutionary victory of Waterloo, follow him, fed by their master with human hearts. One by one they glide past ‘in this ghastly masquerade

All disguised, even to the eyes
As bishops, lawyers, peers and spies.’

Shelley hated them all. They represented the chaos of the hideous class society of the time. This Chaos comes last in the parade, ‘on a white horse, splashed with blood.’ He is Anarchy. In more recent times anarchy has come to be used as a word of the left. But in Shelley’s day the word had no such progressive meaning. It meant horror, chaos, violence. To Shelley it meant what the poem says is written on the brow of the ghastly skeletal figure on the white horse: ‘I am God and King and Law.’

This line is repeated again and again by Anarchy and his sycophants as they carve their bloody path through England. The picture is one of repression and tyranny so horrible and so intransigent that change seems impossible.

Shelley’s own protest all his short life had been impotent. Many of his angriest poems end in an empty plea or hope that things will get better. But in The Mask of Anarchy he is inspired by what terrified the yeomanry at Manchester – the enormous potential power of the demonstration. His wishes and hopes now have some substance to them. What happens next in the poem, at the very height of the arrogant oppression of Anarchy and his courtiers, is an act of defiance. A ‘maniac maid’ calling herself Hope flies past with a simple message – she cannot wait any longer.

Her father’s children are all dead from starvation – every one except her. The time has come for action, apparently desperate, hopeless action, but action nonetheless:

‘Then she lay down in the street
Right before the horse’s feet
Expecting with a patient eye
Murder Fraud and Anarchy.’

Suddenly there is change.

‘Then between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose.’

Many Shelley scholars have taken this ‘mist’ and ‘image’ to be a further sign of Shelley’s ‘prophetic vagueness’, yet another vague hope or wish. But it is much more than that. First, it is linked to the act of defiance of the oppressed. Secondly, as the poem goes on to explain, the ‘image’ changed into something quite different:

‘Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly
And speak in thunder to the sky
It grew – a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale.’

The vague image has become a ‘shape arrayed in mail’ – the iron fist to deal with the iron heel. Moreover, on its helmet, huge and distinct so that it can be seen a long way off,

‘A planet, like the Morning’s, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.’

This is no gentle wish, but an armed class warrior helmeted with the Morning Star, the symbol of organised labour.

The ‘shape arrayed in mail’ is soon accompanied by an even more powerful force. Side by side with him, with every step he took towards his oppressors, ‘thoughts sprung’ among the multitude. The combination of armed resistance and thought was Irresistible. Anarchy and all his followers are vanquished.

THAT IS A THIRD of the poem. The last two thirds consist of a speech by the ‘maniac maid’ who had flung herself at the horse’s hooves and started the whole process. This is a speech of openly revolutionary agitation, which combines all Shelley’s political ideas. It starts with a definition first of slavery, then of freedom. Classic definitions of both – at a time of bourgeois revolutions throughout Europe – concentrated on the freedoms of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

In Shelley’s time, when the government permitted none of these things, it seemed natural to concentrate on such matters. Then, as now, Liberty was more fashionable than Equality. What makes these definitions in The Mask of Anarchy most remarkable is that they begin and end with Shelley’s outrage at economic inequality. There are 13 verses defining slavery. All of them are about economic control. The first verse, in answer to the question ‘What is Slavery?’, goes like this:

‘Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day.’

That sounds uncommonly like what Marx had to say in Capital about wages being kept to the level of the merest subsistence of the worker. One result, of course, is that the workers have no say in what they produce:

‘So by ye for them are made
Loom and plough and sword and spade
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.’

This is the theme of the poem – ’them and us’, they who have everything and keep it that way by fraud and force, and us who are left to suffer. There then follows a verse which shows how far Shelley had come since reading Tom Paine and Godwin. Britain had been transformed by the industrial revolution – economic growth at breathtaking speed was shifting the social scenery. Here is the process in Shelley’s definition of slavery;

‘Tis to let the ghost of Gold,
Take from toil a thousandfold
More than e’er its substance could
In the tyrannies of old.’

The rate of exploitation of labour had grown a thousand times. The ‘ghost of gold’ took ‘from toil’ incomparably more than in the old feudal tyrannies. This idea has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. It sounds more like Marx, but is unlikely to have come from him – he was one year old when The Mask of Anarchy was written.

Slavery is economic exploitation. Freedom, then, is not a ‘name, echoing from the cave of fame’ but ‘clothes and fire and food for the trampled multitude.’ It is justice (a system of law where what happens in the courts is not bought and sold), peace, wisdom (freedom from religion), science, poetry and thought. Just as the poem seems to be drifting into idealism, Shelley suddenly breaks off in mid-verse, demanding ‘deeds, not words.’

The last part of the poem is a call for another demonstration, stronger and more committed than at St Peter’s Fields. It should be made up of all the oppressed – recruitment for it should start at the very bottom of society.

‘From the workhouse and the prison
Where pale as corpses newly risen
Women, children, young and old
Groan for pain and weep for cold.’

The demonstration should be prepared for another attack by the yeomanry, should meet it with civil disobedience, and should go on defying the forces of the government until the government was defeated by its own impotence over a risen people. Passages in this last section seem over-optimistic today. The belief for instance that the armed forces would split from the yeomanry and take the people’s side puts too much weight on reports of such a split at Peterloo. After fascism, Sharpeville and Tiananmen Square, the appeal of civil disobedience has lost its force. Nor were there any ‘old laws of England which preferred liberty to tyranny – the old laws were even worse than the current ones. But the theme of the poem easily survives these moments of delusion – the theme of anger and defiance, the theme that the long years of Tory government and reaction would come to an end just as soon as the oppressed, especially the new working class, became determined to resist. Peterloo, Shelley insisted, would be avenged.

When he finished The Mask of Anarchy he sent it straight off to his friend Leigh Hunt, editor of the radical Examiner, But Hunt did not publish it. Publication in 1819 would have invited instant imprisonment for the author and the publisher. The poem was, after all, a call to arms, and a call so infectious and persuasive, so easy to commit to memory, that no one could predict its political impact. Hunt hung onto the poem long after Shelley’s death. He published it in 1831, as the urgent and unstoppable cry for parliamentary reform blended with a new working class resistance from Merthyr Tydfil to Glasgow. Then, and ever since, everyone who has ever been angry, as Shelley was, at the insufferable pain and arrogance of class society, has learnt the famous climax of this wonderful poem and proclaimed it with increasing urgency:

‘And that slaughter to the nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

And these words shall then become
Like oppression’s thundered doom,
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again, again, again –

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.’


Last updated on 27.11.2004