For centuries, it has been the artists who pursue the active role in political discourse, in one form or another: the Folk artists of the late 1950s through the ‘60s; The Beats in the late 1940s through the ‘50s; even back to the Greek dramatists. During the politically charged atmosphere following the Enlightenment, there emerged a pool of writers – fueled by the turmoil of the French Revolution and empowered with the budding philosophy of The Rights of Man – who would take up the banner and use their voices, their words, to reject accepted social systems such as religion, spirituality, and politics. The Mask of Anarchy, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819, is an occasional poem written about what became known as The Peterloo Massacre. However, Shelley understood that the political nature of the poem, as well as certain aspects which could be considered libelous, and therefore, didn’t publish the poem until 1832. Much has been written about the political philosophies of the Romantics, Shelley not withstanding; much of the criticism tends to point out that these political philosophies are often idealistic and fanciful. Consequently, The Mask of Anarchy tends to draw negative criticism for being a politically sophomoric and almost juvenile treatise on a specific event in English history. On the other hand, if the critic digs deeper into The Mask of Anarchy – analyzes the structure, takes into account the historical implications, and compares it to other works of the time – he will find that Shelley’s use of common language, uses of literary devices, and overall depiction of the event all lend themselves to readers better understanding the society in which they live, no matter the time period.
To better understand the aim of The Mask of Anarchy, readers must closely examine the structure Shelley constructs for them. The firm foundation of the text lies in the ninety-two stanzas that comprise it. The majority of these stanzas are in quatrain, written in seven metrical feet; there are, however,eight stanzas comprised of five lines each. Upon closer inspection, and taken individually, each of the quatrains is set with a rhyme scheme of AABB; Shelley does break this rhyme scheme with seven stanzas where all four lines rhyme:
‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak
When the winter winds are bleak, --
They are dying whilst I speak. (lines 168-71)
These breaks in the rhyme help to differentiate between main themes in the poem, while the eight stanzas of five lines act, almost, as a refrain. Also on the subject of rhyme, in stanza forty-nine Shelley employs a clever use of internal rhyme combined with the end rhyme; it is almost as if Shelley is toying with his reader while not actually speaking down to him. Shelley also employs the idea of topos throughout the entirety of The Mask of Anarchy. Through the repetition of ideas such as “Law/Lawyers” and “Priests” and “Kings” – as well as the repetition of phrases like “Thou art God, and Law, and King!” and “Ye are many, they are few” – Shelley draws attention to the central tenets he wishes the reader to heed.
The most frequently used structural devices Shelley chooses to employ are personification, symbolism, and allusion. Shelley's employment of these, however, is interesting – especially in the case of personification. The ideas of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy almost supersede the personalities of those they represent (Franta, 778), and in doing so, Shelley sets up a timeless verse which can be read and applied by any reader. However, not all of the symbols he chooses to use are as inter-changeable. Some of the symbols become archaisms over time; many modern readers wouldn’t recognize the use of “Morning” in line 114 to symbolize the planet Venus. Likewise, line 151 reads “Rise, like Lions after slumber” (Longman, 788): the Lion has long been used as the symbol for Great Britain, yet another symbol many modern readers might overlook. It is in Shelley’s employment of allusion which allows The Mask of Anarchy to both be relevant to its own time period, as well as to transcend time and become accessible to readers throughout the ages. Contemporaries of Shelley would understand who Castlereagh, Eldon, and Sidmouth were; in lines ninety through ninety-four, the allusion to George III and his disease would not have been lost. All of these, however, are references modern readers wouldn’t be able to comprehend without the use of editorial footnotes. On the other hand, Shelley does utilize Biblical allusions that transmit easier to future generations. Lines thirty through thirty-seven liken the guise of Anarchy to that of Death, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse:
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips
Like Death in the Apocalypse. (785)
Employing a deeper analysis to the text, readers and critics alike will note that Shelley is using the poetic voice to highlight a system he sees as flawed in its placement of “select few over the many”; an opinion, one might argue, Shelley has the foresight to see as a continuum. Andrew Frantan describes it best when he writes “As Shelley sees it, poetry is a process defined as much by its transmission from one generation to the next as the immediate circumstances that govern its production and reception” (766). As stated above, The Mask of Anarchy is an occasional poem, yet being such, it should not be dismissed as a writer’s outpouring of anger over the situation. The fact that Shelley didn’t publish the poem until thirteen years after the event shows a bit of foresight Shelley had as to the reception of the piece, and thus ensuring its longevity.
Shelley’s Place in History
It is clear what inspires the writing of The Mask of Anarchy, Shelley tells his readers in the subtitle of the piece that it was “Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester.” Yet, readers might ask themselves what caused this event to transpire in the first place. To fully understand Peterloo, and the outrage it caused, a full survey of the age needs to be considered. This was a time of turmoil, not simply in Great Britain, but all over the Western Hemisphere.
The late-eighteenth century, as with most of the Enlightenment, was a time of exploration into what it meant to be. Consequently, when people began to question what it means to exist, they also start to ask why their stations are what they are. Therefore, beginning as early as 1776, readers begin to see the political changes that would lead to the formation of the Romantic era. It was in 1776 Thomas Paine wrote his treatise Common Sense which would help the framers of the United States of America draft The Declaration of Independence. A short thirteen years and ten days later, The Bastille fell in France. Citizens all over Europe and in the Anglo-Saxon colonies would begin to start questioning their rights as citizens. This is ultimately what leads to the Peterloo incident.
With the power struggle happening between the classes, Shelley very well may have realized that reception of his work might not have been as warm as he would have liked it. Knowing this, and knowing the power of verse over prose, he then selects the poem to speak on his behalf. Shelley was well aware of how the setting for publication affected the message. Franta relates this by stating:
Moreover if poetry’s longevity – the sense in which poems outlive
both their authors and their first readers – might initially look like a
way of conveying political messages to future readers (for whom
they would be obsolete), it is better understood as a way of
imaginatively occupying a future unbound by the terms of
present conflicts. (ibid., 766-7)
I think Shelley carefully chose the form of poetry, as well as waiting thirteen years to publish it, specifically because of the situation Franta writes about; had The Mask of Anarchy been immediately published, prints would have been pulled and both Shelley and his publisher would have faced strict fines and possibly imprisonment.
Regardless of when or how Shelley chose to publish the poem, he does not lighten his critique of the social system one bit. As stated above, Shelley takes on not only three lords, but the King of England, himself. It is, however, Parliament who suffers Shelley’s wrath the most. One of the harshest indictments comes in stanzas twenty and twenty-one:
For [Anarchy] knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his;
His thesceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.
So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament. (786)
Here is Shelley, blatantly decreeing that the members of Parliament are all corrupt and up for sale to the highest bidder. Earlier in the piece, Shelley challenges and satirizes the idea of inheritable titles. In lines forty-four and forty-five when he pens “Waving each a bloody sword,/For the service of their Lord” (785) Shelley draws attention to the word “lord” by capitalizing it. Modern readers might view this as a shot fired over the bow of religion, and while that may also be true, it appears to be expressly aimed at the idea of the title of Lord and the House of Lords.
Yet built into the structure of the poem is the common refrain “You are many, they are few.” This is Shelley’s call to the public to take back the control of their lives. The irony is that Shelley could never have foreseen the Occupy Wall Street movement, and yet this is almost exactly what he’s arguing for. This would illustrate Frantan’s point of “In Shelley’s eyes, that is, poems not only become the objects of future readings but vehicles that enable future readings of present conflicts” (767). Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement would probably find inspiration from Shelley’s stanza thirty-eight:
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, but they are few. (788)
Shelley the Romantic
It is all well and good to understand Shelley’s place in history, as well as his poetic structure. However, to understand either, readers must look at P.B. Shelley as a Romantic. While it is true that the place in history informs what it means to be a Romantic, there are certain ideals and tenets central to the movement one must understand.
One of the first tenets of Romanticism is the eschewal of conventional forms of religion in favor of a more pantheistic view of the world. This is best illustrated by Shelley’s use of personification in stanzas fifty-eight to sixty-five. Shelley personifies most of the qualities one associates with God, in the English people fighting for their rights: Justice, Wisdom, Peace, Love, Science, Poetry, Thought, Spirit, and Patience. In having the English commoners embody each of these traits, Shelley is illustrating the idea that God can be found in every creature and living being. By making the members of Parliament embody those evils commonly associated with the devil – Murder, Hypocrisy, Fraud, and Destruction – Shelley is encouraging the common-folk to shed off that which hinders them from being holy, and casts a light upon those members of Parliament in which the future generations will make judgment calls. Frantan illustrates this in this way: “In a different sense it amounts to a rather general way of cursing the present by making the future loom over it as a disapproving presence” (774-5). Modern readers then cast judgment upon those in Parliament based upon their current political situation. This is an interesting combination of the religious with the political and how individuals demonize others.
While Shelley doesn’t use as many references to nature as, say, Coleridge or Wordsworth, the idea of getting back to Nature, and that Nature will always stand, are well-represented in the stanzas of The Mask of Anarchy. In stanza sixty-seven Shelley writes:
Let the blue sky overhead,
The green earth on which ye tread,
All that must eternal be,
Witness the solemnity. (791)
While earlier in stanza forty-nine, he uses illustration of birds finding rest and beasts finding fodder. All these go to show that there is power in the Natural, not the artificial environments that people tend to make for themselves.
Oftentimes, art in any form isn’t the best way to convey a political message; it may be censored, misconstrued, or simply lost. However, if the piece survives, it then becomes the job of future generations to determine the validity and integrity of the piece. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy is such a piece which warrants such consideration. When viewed from a structural, historical, and literary context, critics can see how this piece has lasting integrity. As well as being written about a tragic political event of its time, The Mask also illuminates some of the wrongs in the modern political system as well. Bearing this in mind, readers find that The Mask of Anarchy is truly a political statement of timeless quality.
Frantan, Andrew. “Shelley and the Poetics of Political Indirection.”Poetics Today 22.4 (2001): 765-793. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Mask of Anarchy.”The Longman Anthology of British Literature.Vol. 2A. Ed., Damrosch, et al. Boston: Longman, 2010. 783-793. Print.