Byron and the "Satanic School"
Sunday, 19 May 2024 17:02

Byron and the "Satanic School"

Published in Poetry

George Gordon Lord Byron was born in London on 22nd January 1788, and died 100 years ago, on 19th April, 1824. His father, an officer, died when the boy was three years old. His mother, of Scottish descent, then moved with him to Aberdeen. In 1794, he inherited the title Baron Byron on the death of his great uncle and was titled Lord Byron in 1798.

He attended Harrow and went on to study at Cambridge in 1805. Here he published his first volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness (1807) and his first satirical parody, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). After completing his studies, he travelled to Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, a journey which he describes in the first two cantos of his early great verse epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and which brought him overnight success.

Up until then, Walter Scott had been the most successful author of ‘exotic’ verse narratives. Now Byron shifted the setting of this type of tale from the Scottish past to the contemporary foreign East, and adopted a more subjective perspective than Scott. Scott had developed the historical novel through his experience of great historical upheaval, writing novels that were based on real historical conflicts and class interests – in contrast to costume dramas. Byron extended this to the to the ‘Orient’.

Following several scandalous affairs, Byron married a rich heiress in 1815. However, the marriage was unhappy, and Lady Byron obtained a separation, accusing Byron of cruelty, madness and an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. The scandal ruined his social and financial standing. He left England in April 1816, never to return.

The radicalism of the labourers

However, Byron did not only leave for private reasons. Despite personal arrogance and prejudices, the increasing misery and radicalism of the labourers in the countryside had not escaped his notice and had aroused his anger at the ruling classes, including the church and the urban bourgeoisie.

In 1812, when the Frame-Work Bill was being debated in the House of Lords, which provided for the death penalty for the destruction of power looms, Byron made his famous maiden speech in defence of the Luddites. He argued to the Lords:

These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve. By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation.(…) In the foolishness of their hearts, they imagined that the maintenance and well doing of the industrious poor, were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement in the implements of trade which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire.

He warned:

I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.

Byron, like Shelley and Keats, became the victim of an aggressive smear campaign by state and church, which exercised enormous power over public opinion. Yet it was only after he had left Britain that Byron became increasingly politicized in the fight against oppression in England as well as on the European mainland. In this respect he was also influenced by Shelley, with whom he remained in close contact for the rest of both their lives.

The impression made on Byron by Italian and Greek revolutionaries and his personal experiences in the wars of the suffering and fighting by the people led to a new, socially critical awareness. This was increasingly reflected in his poetry and motivated him to become personally involved in the Greek freedom struggle. 

The reception of Byron’s work by the establishment tends to focus on personal aspects, often reducing his life and poetry to women, sex, “unnaturalness” and money, disregarding his political ideas. So how are his political convictions expressed in his work?

The Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope was much admired by Byron. Pope’s work reflects the rise of capitalism in Britain. He portrays the reality of eighteenth-century England as the best of all possible worlds. However, the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution and its impact on the lives of working people had heralded a new time. This brought with it, in the eyes of the English bourgeoisie, the danger that their own people might model themselves on those of France.

The alienation of the capitalist world

So Pope’s projection of a seemingly eternal, unchanging ground was torn from under their feet. Suddenly change was possible and was feared by the ruling class. It joined forces with the state church and together they began an unprecedented witch-hunt of those pushing for change. This campaign against all who were considered radical unleashed religious rhetoric, which is why the poet laureate Robert Southey accused Byron and Shelley of forming an “incest league” and a “Satanic school”. These intimidatory campaigns targeted the publishers to such an extent that they feared for their livelihood and freedom. So, Byron could no longer write like Pope. Society had changed fundamentally.

Byron’s first great success, the first two cantos of Childe Harold, initially reflected the prevailing European mood of world-weariness, a feeling of powerlessness in a hostile world, linked to motifs of loneliness and isolation. Other poems published in 1812 express a clearer political stance, for example An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill (published 2nd March 1812), in which Byron’s sympathy for the weavers is expressed, although he still believes that the parliamentary system can eliminate the grievances caused by individuals.

However, in the later cantos this loneliness turns into a growing awareness of the alienation of the capitalist world. Melancholy and world-weariness can have their roots in historical and social ills. In addition, the aristocratic outlaw, Byron’s lonely, proud hero, takes a stand against oppression in countries struggling for national independence.

This changed with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). After that, Byron advocated radical political change more clearly. It was now that the establishment turned vociferously against him, and in 1816, Byron separated from his wife and young daughter, and went into exile.

Some of the poetry written at this time still contains moments of gloom and escapism, but it also increasingly calls for resistance against the reactionary regimes in Europe. In the third canto of Childe Harold, the speaker searches more intensely for ways out of alienation, out of an oppressive existence. An escape into poetry or nature is ultimately rejected. In his poem Prometheus (1816), Byron emphasises the need to resist tyranny and in the fourth canto, stanza 98, of Childe Harold he writes:

Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind;
Thy trumpet voice, though broken now and dying,
The loudest still the Tempest leaves behind;
Thy tree hath lost its blossoms, and the rind,
Chopped by the axe, looks rough and little worth,
But the sap lasts,—and still the seed we find
Sown deep, even in the bosom of the North;
So shall a better spring less bitter fruit bring forth.

Byron’s close collaboration with Shelley in exile in Italy and his personal experience of the liberation movement in Italy and Greece led to a better understanding of society and the revolutionary struggle of the people. In these countries struggling for national independence, including Poland, the Byronic hero was often seen as representing their quest for freedom and Byron became very well-known and celebrated.

Between 1816 and his death in 1824, he composed a large number of great satirical dramatic poems, including Manfred (1817), the unfinished Don Juan, Cantos III and IV of Childe Harold, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), The Age of Bronze (1823) and The Deformed Transformed (1824).

The final victory of the allied powers in 1815 led to a Holy Alliance under the rule of Catholic Austria, Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia, whose declaration of principles was explicitly written in the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity and the divine Saviour. Dissent, non-Christian religions and natural religion were equally condemned, and the reactionary forces persecuted anything that smelled of French thought. In the context of English Romanticism, Coleridge's turning away from his earlier radical positions logically also included turning away from pantheism.

In Don Juan, Byron postulates that poetry can replace Christianity with new ways of understanding the world; John Keats did at the same time in Ode to Psyche, for example. Such a challenge was be understood as blasphemy of colossal proportions. A parallel to this is Goethe's Walpurgisnacht in his verse drama Faust, part I. Christianity is eliminated, and art is given central importance.

Postulating paganism as an alternative to the Christian religion was also deemed subversive. An inseparable part of this radical questioning of the existing Holy Alliance is the sensuality and this-worldliness inherent in ancient mythology. Sensuality is neither suppressed, spurned nor relegated to an afterlife.

Arising from his own experience of the national liberation movement in Italy, Byron’s point of view has clearly matured in Marino Faliero (1820). While the isolated, brooding hero was still at the centre of Manfred, now a repressive power opposes the people. As the Doge Marino Faliero joins the people in their struggle, Byron plays out his own conflict here with regard to alliances. The fact that he considers alliances at all and moves away from an individual struggle is a significant change. From the outsider position of Manfred, Byron now moves in a direction in which the alliance is conceived as a struggle against his own class; the strength of the movement lies in the alliance:

Should one survive,
He would be dangerous as the whole; it is not
Their number, be it tens or thousands, but
The spirit of this Aristocracy
Which must be rooted out; and if there were
A single shoot of the old tree in life,
'Twould fasten in the soil, and spring again
To gloomy verdure and to bitter fruit.
Bertram, we must be firm!

The character of Israel Bertuccio has the most developed political awareness. He involves Marino Faliero in the conspiracy, plans and leads its course. The rebel Bertuccio comes from the people and embodies their strengths. He fights selflessly for the freedom of Venice and its people. Byron has come to recognise that the leaders of such a liberation movement can, perhaps even must, come from the people. It is Faliero who joins the people, recognises their leadership role, and not the other way round.

In his new cantos of Don Juan Byron’s stories gain social significance, the dialectical relationship between the individual hero and the historical process emerge, and growing trust in the actions of the masses is felt:

But never mind;—‘God save the king and kings!
For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—
I think I hear a little bird, who sings
The people by and by will be the stronger:
(…)f,—and the mob
At last fall sick of imitating Job.

At first it grumbles, then it swears, and then,
Like David, flings smooth pebbles ’gainst a giant;
At last it takes to weapons such as men
Snatch when despair makes human hearts less pliant.
Then comes ‘the tug of war;’—’twill come again,
I rather doubt; and I would fain say ‘fie on ’t,’
If I had not perceived that revolution
Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution.

The religion of rent, rent and more rent

For all that, Byron ultimately leaves private property – the basis of capital – untouched. He sees liberal state reform as the way to improve society and create more humane living conditions for the population. However, in one of his last poems, The Age of Bronze (1823), it is expressed that the greed for profit of the large landowners played a devastating role in politics and especially in the Napoleonic Wars:

Behold these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Peasants of war, dictators of the court;
Their ploughshare was the sword in the hands of hirelings,
Their fields fertilized with the blood of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine farmers sent
Their brothers to battle - why, for rent!
Year after year they voted for cent. after cent.
Blood, sweat and tears devoured millions - why? - For the rent!
They roared, they dined, they drank, they swore
To die for England - then why live? - For the rent!
Peace has made a general malcontent
Of these honoured patriots; the war was torn!
Their love of country, millions, all misspent,
How to reconcile? By reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the borrowed treasures?
No: down with everything, and up with the rent!
Their happiness, their unhappiness, their health, their wealth, their joy or dissatisfaction,
Being, purpose, goal, religion - rent - rent - rent!

In January 1824, Byron travelled to Greece, where he planned to take part in the struggle for liberation from the Ottoman Empire. He died of a “fever” in Missolonghi on 19th April before this could happen. Nevertheless, he became a national hero in Greece, which he still is to this day. His name – pronounced Veeron in Greek – is a popular name for boys; even an entire district of Athens (Vyronas, Βύρωνας, older: Vyron Βύρων) is named after him.

Peterloo: the socialist poetry of Shelley, Brecht and Kinsella
Sunday, 19 May 2024 17:02

Peterloo: the socialist poetry of Shelley, Brecht and Kinsella

Published in Poetry

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.

peterloo peterloo

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”.

Peterloo Hitler


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
ROBBERY materialises
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.

Peterloo Tk2

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:

The Peterloo Massacre
Sunday, 19 May 2024 17:02

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.