In the run-up to the anniversary of Peterloo, Jenny Farrell discusses political poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Kinsella
On 16 August 1819, tens of thousands of working men and women demonstrated in St. Peter's Fields near Manchester demanding reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The yeomanry attacked, injuring over four hundred and killing eighteen. This slaughter went down in history as 'Peterloo'. Shelley reacted with one of the earliest works of socialist literature, his famous ballad The Mask of Anarchy.
Shelley’s lifetime was defined by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and severe political repression in England and elsewhere in Europe. In contrast to other European countries, the power of the bourgeoisie in England had been consolidated in their own revolutionary period in the seventeenth century. Therefore, the ruling class in England had little sympathy for revolutionary France as it could potentially rouse the growing working class, which had been so far effectively suppressed.
The more violent the revolution in France became, the more alarmed the English bourgeoisie grew. Jacobinism was a threat to the ruling class, and this in England was the bourgeoisie, not the aristocracy. So, while in every other European state the deadly line was drawn between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, in England this confrontation took place between the bourgeoisie and the radicalised lower and working classes.
These times of both great political hope ignited by the French Revolution, and unprecedented social unrest among the dispossessed fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, produced radical leaders who came under attack and were imprisoned by the government in a campaign of repression and violence. Prime Minister William Pitt unleashed a crusade of ‘white terror’ and throughout the 1790s held treason trials, suspended habeas corpus, issued a Proclamation against Sedition, passed the Treason and Sedition Act, the Unlawful Oath Act and banned Corresponding Societies. However, the government attempt at silencing protest only led to further strife and the increase in rebellion, including nonconformist religions and atheism.
Until Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle at Waterloo in 1815, Britain was involved in a prolonged state of war. The first result of the peace was a severe political and economic crisis. A new, more political quality enters the riots and protests and the 1817 ‘Gagging Acts’ (the Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) served to further suppress radical agitation and publications. The political unrest of 1817 and the government’s silencing tactics culminated in the Peterloo Massacre.
Shelley had left England for Italy in March 1818, and news of the massacre only reached him on 6 September. He set to work almost immediately, writing the 91 stanzas of The Mask of Anarchy inside a few days. It is rightly considered one of the greatest political protest poems written in English.
On the 200th anniversary of these events this month, let’s consider Shelley’s great poem and the effect it had on two other poets – Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Kinsella.
The Mask of Anarchy opens with a gruesome parade of the government’s key players: Murder (Castlereagh - Foreign Secretary), Fraud (Eldon - Lord Chancellor), Hypocrisy (Sidmouth - Home Secretary), and other Destructions (bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies):
I met Murder on the way-
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw-
‘I am God, and King, and Law!’
The poem continues, outlining Anarchy as the true ruler of England. On his rampage, he comes across Hope, looking like Despair, and Time running out:
… a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:
‘My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!
Hope then lies down before the horse’s feet, in an act of passive resistance, and a vapour like shape appears that inspires the multitude with hope – and thought. The effect of this is announced in the next stanza, Anarchy, the ghastly birth,/ Lay dead upon the earth. There follow two stanzas, that are indelibly written into English socialist awareness:
‘Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
‘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.
Next, Shelley asks: ‘What is Freedom? - ye can tell/ That which slavery is, too well -
He then goes on to outline in a savage and empathic way the condition of the working class in England and how they are killed at whim: ‘And at length when ye complain/ With a murmur weak and vain/ ‘Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew/ Ride over your wives and you-/ Blood is on the grass like dew. This is an allusion to the protests over the recent years.
Shelley then, before giving his own view of what Freedom means, concludes:
This is Slavery - savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do-
But such ills they never knew.
The attributes of Freedom that Shelley outlines are: food, clothing, heating, true justice for all (ne’er for gold), wisdom, peace and love. Freedom is guided by science, poetry and thought, spirit, patience, gentleness.
Shelley’s understanding of the fundamental clash between the propertied class in power and the working class, led Eleanor Marx to conclude in Shelley and Socialism:
More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that to-day tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery.
Shelley goes on to say that the working people, the oppressed should meet the tyrants calmly, thereby shaming them. The poem however ends on a note not of passivity, but of action, returning to the stanza in the middle:
‘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.’
Shelley's Influence on Brecht
The Mask of Anarchy has not only become an early part of the canon of socialist English working-class literature; it is also an integral part of the international socialist literary heritage. Brecht uses this poem as an example of realism in his 1938 essay Breadth and Variety of the Realist Mode of Writing. In this he writes:
If (Shelley’s) great ballad ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, written immediately after the bloody upheaval in Manchester (1819), suppressed by the bourgeoisie, does not correspond to the common description of realist writing, we must ensure that the definition of realist writing is changed, expanded, and made more comprehensive.
A famous example of the survival of Shelley's tradition is Brecht's own poem of 1947 The Anachronistic Procession, or Freedom and Democracy. Brecht, who follows Shelley’s ballad form of four beat lines, describes in his poem a procession through the ruins of Western Germany after the war. A ragged procession carries two old boards, one bearing the faded inscription ‘freedom’, the other ‘democracy’: At the head a featherbrain. He is followed by Two in monkish garb from under which emerges a jackboot. They hold up a flag with the swastika’s hooks removed. And there are others: company directors from the arms industry, teachers, doctors, academics, “de-Nazified” Nazis in high offices, “stormtrooper” editors, a judge exonerating all of “Hitlerism”, and many more:
Then the faceless trust directors
Those men’s patrons and protectors:
Pray, for our arms industry
Freedom and Democracy
Keeping step, next march the teachers
Toadying, brain-corrupting creatures
For the right to educate
Boys to butchery and hate.
Then the medical advisers
Hitler’s slaves, mankind’s despisers
Asking, might they now select
A few Reds to vivisect.
Three grim dons, whose reputation
Rests on mass extermination
Next our whitewashed Nazi friends
On whom the new State depends:
Body lice, whose pet preserve is
In the higher civil service.
Brecht’s succinct and apparently detached voice is similar to Shelley’s. Like Shelley, this results in vicious satire. However, Brecht targets the essentially unchanged society in the West of Germany, then under Western Allied control. He takes from Shelley the form and the idea of a procession of the perpetrators of inhumanity. While in Shelley’s poem, these represent government and power, Brecht shows how both the ordinary and the powerful Nazis of a few short years ago are not only whitewashing themselves, they have retained, thinly disguised, their posts of influence. De-Nazification is shown to be a meaningless façade in this part of Germany. Now their chant has changed to a deceptive and hollow cry for US style “Freedom and Democracy”.
As the procession reaches the “Capital of the Movement” (Munich), six Vices emerge from the ‘brown house’. They are Oppression, the Plague, Fraud, Stupidity, Murder, and Robbery.
Bony hand grasping a whip
First OPPRESSION takes a trip
In a half-track furnished free
By our heavy industry.
In a rusty tank, much greeted
Next comes PLAGUE. His breath is foetid.
To conceal his flaking skin
He wraps a brown scarf round his chin.
After him see FRAUD appear
Brandishing a jug of beer.
You will get your glasses filled when
You have let him take your children.
Older than the hills, an yet
Still out for what she can get
STUPIDITY staggers on board
Riveted she stares at Fraud.
Lolling back, as at a play
MURDER too is on his way
Perfectly at ease as he
Hums: Sweet dream of liberty.
Shaken by the latest crises
In Field-Marshal’s uniform
With the globe beneath his arm.
Each of these six grisly figures
Firmly based, with ready triggers
Says that there has got to be
Freedom and Democracy.
… great rats
Leave the rubble in their masses
Join the column as it passes
Squeaking ‘Freedom!’ as they flee
‘Freedom and Democracy!’
Here, Brecht both follows and varies Shelley. While Shelley conjures up Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, Destruction and Anarchy, Brecht lets Oppression, Plague, Fraud, Stupidity, Murder, and Robbery appear. Murder, Fraud and Anarchy emerge in both ballads. Destruction made an appearance in Brecht’s brain-corrupting teachers. He also castigates Hypocrisy mercilessly in the Vices of Capital’s chant for "Freedom and Democracy". Brecht places further accents, aspects which he also sees continuing in West Germany, and which were instrumentally involved in the catastrophe of fascism: Stupidity and a metaphorical Plague. Shelley depicts the vices that accompany the dictatorship of Capital at the beginning of the 19th century; Brecht, writing after the Holocaust – in the sense of the all-encompassing genocide – of the world wars, emphasises both the continuity and the development of these vices 128 years on.
Brecht offers no call to the German people that may be compared to Shelley’s “Men of England” verses. His insight into the merely cosmetic changes in the Western Allies’ part of Germany was remarkable in 1947, and its truth was borne out in the years that followed. Brecht’s poem (and thereby Shelley’s) lived on in the imperialist part of Germany. In 1980, a political street theatre took place in protest against Franz Josef Strauss, the rightwing CDU/CSU candidate for prime minister at that time. A procession was made up of pedestrians and vehicles. In the final vehicle stood mechanical dolls representing Oppression, Plague, Fraud, Stupidity, Murder and Robbery. All wore masks of former Nazi greats, who were firmly held in their seats by a performer wearing a Strauss mask. Brecht's daughter Hanne Hiob was centrally involved in this performance.
Another anachronistic procession, from Bonn to Berlin, took place in 1990, reiterating Brecht’s caution against fascist tendencies in a reunited Germany. Even today, more than 70 years after the The Anachronistic Procession was written, Brecht's warning has lost absolutely none of its validity, as Germany is involved in wars once again, and the fascist AfD is gaining in power at a fast and frightening pace.
Shelley's Influence on Kinsella
Finally, a further famous echo of The Mask of Anarchy is Thomas Kinsella’s A Butcher’s Dozen. Kinsella’s poem, again in four beat line ballad form, is about another British massacre, in this sense closer to the events of Peterloo. In Derry, on Bloody Sunday, 13 people died as Britain’s soldiers shot dead randomly unarmed civilians on a civil rights demonstration, one person died later of his injuries.
Like Shelley, Kinsella uses an ‘I’ who revisits the scene of murder:
I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
Instead of encountering the perpetrators, this speaker comes across the victims, who speak. These victims expose their attackers, who like in Shelley’s poem represent the British repressive state:
A harsher stirred, and spoke in scorn:
“The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where’s the law that can’t be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We’d be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Another ghost stood forth, and wet
Dead lips that had not spoken yet:
“My curse on the cunning and the bland,
On gentlemen who loot a land
They do not care to understand;
Who keep the natives on their paws
With ready lash and rotten laws;
Then if the beasts erupt in rage
Give them a slightly larger cage
And, in scorn and fear combined,
Turn them against their own kind.
Like Shelley, Kinsella offers a solution, albeit a different one – British withdrawal from Ireland:
If England would but clear the air
And brood at home on her disgrace
This is not an appeal to rise “like lions” against the oppressor, rather the speaker in this poem hopes that some kind of peace and reconciliation among those living in Ireland after British withdrawal might be achieved, perhaps in the way that Hope in Shelley’s poem puts an end to Anarchy.
The Mask of Anarchy was not published during Shelley’s lifetime, as Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, the paper Shelley had sent the manuscript to for publication in September 1819, justly feared persecution by the state. He recognised the poem’s inflammatory nature that it has kept to this day. Since its publication and to this day, lines from The Mask of Anarchy accompany and inspire people on their road to freedom.
In 1968, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre at Peterloo, the Trades Union Congress commissioned Arnold to compose what became the Peterloo Overture: