The Peterloo Massacre
Monday, 15 July 2019 21:09

More than ‘Rise like lions’: Shelley beyond The Mask of Anarchy

Published in Poetry

Mike Sanders writes about Shelley 'the Chartist poet' as a catalyst for working class creativity, how he envisioned a communist society, and how the privileged classes refused to hear the revolutionary meanings of his poems.

One of the unexpected features of the recent General Election campaign was the ‘co-opting’ of a long-dead Romantic poet as a speech-writer by Team Corbyn. Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches ended with the recitation of the closing lines from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’:

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.

These lines written almost two hundred years ago in response to the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ have long been part of the Left’s cultural memory – anthologised, repeated and recycled for the best part of two centuries. I first encountered them as a teenage punk rocker in 1980 on the back cover of the Jam’s Sound Affects album and the discovery prompted me to buy a selection of Shelley’s poetry from a local second-hand bookshop. In that dog-eared volume, I discovered a poet who could give better shape and expression to some of my own rather more inchoate ideas about the society I lived in and my hopes for a better future.

Subsequently, I came to understand that previous generations of workers had also found in Shelley’s words, ‘resources for their own journey of hope’ (to adapt Raymond Williams’ wonderful phrase). Working-class appreciation and recognition of Shelley began relatively early. Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England observes; 

Shelley, the genius, the prophet, Shelley, and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie owns only castrated editions, family editions, expurgated in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.

Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab was often described as “the Chartist’s Bible". Indeed, there is a sense in which Shelley is a Chartist poet insofar as many of his more overtly political poems, such as ‘Song to the Men of England’, were first published in 1839. 

The poetry column of the Northern Star, the leading Chartist newspaper, attests to Shelley’s importance as a catalyst for working-class creativity. In particular, Shelley’s ‘Song to the Men of England’ is reworked a number of times by various Chartist poets. I would like to suggest that this poem, which identifies the inverse relationship between production and consumption as moral obscenity as well as economic injustice, is even more important than ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The poem begins with a series of questions intended to highlight the paradoxical way in which the economy distributes economic rewards:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Replace “lords”, “tyrants” and “drones” with “bankers” and “bosses” and you have a concise summary of our current economic woes. But Shelley does not rest there, he continues by observing that the workers also produce the means of their own political oppression:

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Next, Shelley asks his readers if they enjoy the key features of a genuinely human life?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

Thus far, the poem consists of a series of questions designed both to defamiliarise and thereby make visible the structural features of the economic order. These questions also invite the reader to think. However, in the second half of the poem statements predominate, as Shelley offers two very different views of the future. The first of which is the maintaining of the current economic and political order:

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.

The second envisages a future in which there is a direct correlation between production and consumption.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

In the poem’s penultimate verse, Shelley makes clear that social change will require resistance and courage on the part of the oppressed. The “drones” will indeed shed, if not drink, blood to preserve their privileges if necessary:

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

In the final stanza, Shelley makes clear that the choice is one between life and death.

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.

The clarity with which Shelley both identifies the structures of exploitation and oppression, and identifies two very different visions of England’s future in this poem goes some way to explaining the different assessments of his work in the Nineteenth Century (and beyond). The privileged classes simply refused to hear this Shelley, preferring to construct him as a naïve dreamer – “A beautiful and ineffectual angel” to quote Matthew Arnold.

The Chartists and their successors heard a different Shelley. They heard a Shelley who was in no doubt as to either the necessity or the difficulty of securing political and economic change. The “Rise like lions” passage is inspiring, but if we read it in isolation there is a danger of seeing it as a promise of easy victory. For Shelley, the murdered victims at Peterloo were sufficient testament that there would be no easy victory. And the same is surely true for us today.


Lions After Slumber: six poems by Peter Branson and one from Daniel Defoe
Monday, 15 July 2019 21:09

Lions After Slumber: six poems by Peter Branson and one from Daniel Defoe

Published in Poetry

Lions after slumber

for Maxine Peake, who read Shelley's ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in Manchester

D’you recognise them, university?
They’re playing hunt the beggar, light cigars -
'It’s only money' - festival of fools.
Their greed’s a virtue: let me get this right,
one day, if we don’t kick against the pricks,
no promises, some scraps may fall our way.
What price our hopes, our punctured commonweal,
our national health? We bleed, a thousand cuts.
They lay the blame on us. We foot the bill,
bankers who bring this ogre to its knees
get pensioned off. We do their dirty work
abroad, come back in body-bags, no clue,
rhyme, reason why. These thoughts in mind, recall
the poesy, 'Ye are many – they are few'.

Blue Shift
The ayes have it all: General Election Day plus one

After the razzmatazz, papershop bloke’s
hindsight mumming-play trite, grounded, you know
little will change for many, yet, for some,
strings will snag tight. Their mates, they’ll do all right,
gross ever more. Poor, jobless, old and sick
will moulder on the vine: disparity
their sub-text, by degrees, ex Bullys, old
Etonians, will spin to weave crook law.
My youth, we dreamed the time danced free, yet they
unlevelled things again, each five year stretch
a liberty, hard labour, public face
'No other way!' one nation, same tired score;
key players crowding Mother’s market stall,
Necessity unbridled, tooth an’ craw.

It’s Ours
(Tune: adapted from ‘Spanish Lady’ – Irish traditional song)

They’ll say it can’t be done; the profit motive makes the world go round.
Go tell that to our soldiers who they’ve maimed or planted underground.
Tell folk who work for charity, tell teachers, nurses, others who
give everything for little pay: self sacrifice is human too.

Let’s claim what’s ours by right from those who hold the future in their hands,
spiv bankers and fund managers, all smoke and mirror, shifting sands.
Let’s take our water companies on, the oil, electric and the gas:
vast billions go to shareholders; we’ll act to grab that back en masse.

Chorus: They'll say it can't be done etc.

Let’s wrest our transport back, control our buses, trains and aeroplanes,
not subsidise smug plutocrats who run things for their private gains.
Let’s keep our national health our own and pay a reasonable amount
for vital drugs sick people need: let’s sort those multinationals out.

Chorus: They'll say it can't be done etc.

Let’s win control, co-operate, get organised, campaign and fight,
not let the greedy few make hay from what we all should own by right.
Let’s plan for what the future holds, root out unfairness far and wide;
let’s work with nature in our thoughts, green city, town and countryside.

Final chorus:
They’ll say it can’t be done; the profit motive makes the world go round.
Go tell that to our soldiers who they’ve maimed or planted underground.
Tell folk who work for charity, tell teachers, nurses, others who
give everything for little pay: self sacrifice is human too -
self sacrifice is Christian too –
and Muslim too.

‘High Ho Silver, Away!’


Light slides down reels
of spinning celluloid,
freewheels through silvered streams
of space and time where ghosts
dance out from two dimensions, black
on white, rides technicolor myths
to flood the screen.
The stranger in the mask
would choke injustice in a cloud
of dust on sets of cardboard rocks
and plywood frontages,
where punches pull
and shell blanks ricochet.
A cowboy arms and head,
mad galloping
through hobbled streets
on hopalong back legs
and slapping thighs, you’d wing
hostile young kids with finger guns
beneath dark cobbler skies.

That hero tucked inside
your head, recall
first rueful day your thoughts
outgrew his dreams.
He’d conjure reds from greys
where Pax Americana rules,
seel hearts and minds,
Korea, Vietnam,
time-warp, same script,
like Superman and Captain Kirk.
You’ve seen what’s happening:
talking forked tongues in cheek,
(‘The national interest’);
Afghanistan, Iraq; lost souls
in orange isolation suits;
wetbacks who hold
this brave new world intact?
As troops clean up
another street, stars fizzle out,
stripes cringe from sheer embarrassment.

No Use Aged Forty-Two
(for the Sally Army lady who shakes her tin at us)

The brass band’s playing in the square,
Sing Merrily on High,
King Wenceslas, The First Noel,
Watch Ships Come Sailing By.

Well it’s winter now with Christmas here,
No angel’s wings for you,
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
No use, aged forty-two.

Your bed tonight a cold stone floor,
Shop doorway off the high street,
With cardboard for an eiderdown,
Brown paper for a sheet.

Chorus: Well it’s winter now etc.

You crave long summer days, warm nights,
Some shelter from the rain,
Bleak winter is your terror time,
Chills bones and dulls the brain.

Chorus: Well it’s winter now etc.

What brought you here, so far from friends
And family, tell me why
You’ve slept outdoors alone for years,
Blank stares from passers-by?

Chorus: Well it’s winter now etc.

'Lost everything, job, wife and kids,
The demon in my head;
No other way, I had to leave,
That’s what my voices said.'

Chorus: Well it’s winter now etc.

'I read their faces, people round,
Grow louder by the day:
To them I’m an embarrassment
They wish would melt away.

Chorus: Well it’s winter now etc.

Folk wash their hands, police move you on,
Leave charities to cope;
Your world inside one carrier bag,
Can’t live on faith and hope.

Chorus: Well it’s winter now etc.

First verse repeated

Chorus: (modified):
Well it’s winter now with Christmas here,
No angel’s wings to cope,
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
Can’t live on faith and hope.

Excerpt from The True Born Englishman
by Daniel Defoe, 1701

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend'ring off-spring quickly learn'd to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus'd betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv'd all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.

Which medly canton'd in a heptarchy,
A rhapsody of nations to supply,
Among themselves maintain'd eternal wars,
And still the ladies lov'd the conquerors.

The western Angles all the rest subdu'd;
A bloody nation, barbarous and rude:
Who by the tenure of the sword possest
One part of Britain, and subdu'd the rest
And as great things denominate the small,
The conqu'ring part gave title to the whole.
The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu'd,
The very name and memory's subdu'd:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish'd fall,
And Englishman's the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e'er they were they're true-born English now.

The wonder which remains is at our pride,
To value that which all wise men deride.
For Englishmen to boast of generation,
Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.
A true-born Englishman's a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.
A banter made to be a test of fools,
Which those that use it justly ridicules.
A metaphor invented to express
A man a-kin to all the universe.

For as the Scots, as learned men ha' said,
Throughout the world their wand'ring seed ha' spread;
So open-handed England, 'tis believ'd,
Has all the gleanings of the world receiv'd.

Some think of England 'twas our Saviour meant,
The Gospel should to all the world be sent:
Since, when the blessed sound did hither reach,
They to all nations might be said to preach.

'Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

Our Mongrel Breed
by Peter Branson

This poem’s a fox amongst the hens, each word
a claw, each phrase a wrecking ball, roof, wall
and floor, foundation – ignorance, till there’s
no house of folly left at all, that sense
of being overwhelmed by strangers, folk
who try their fortune here – blind panic, bile,
'What a to-do! – in Europe’s jakes, enhance
our culture, vitalise our mongrel race.
This morning’s pallid, root-stock still, time stalled,
ice chandeliers on twigs, the slightest move,
keen-set hawk’s breath, will shatter, send to ground
to glisten like the dew, these brittle shards
of frosted glass, self-doubt, small-mindedness,
ill will, that meld to nothing in the grass.

'High Ho, Silver, Away!' was first published in Ambit.