Often termed the greatest political poem of its age, Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy was written in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and in 2020 it is just a bit beyond the 200th anniversary of the work, and far more topically relevant now.
On 16 August 1819 in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, 50,000-60,000 working class people gathered to listen to pro-democracy speakers, Henry Hunt, Richard Carlile, and others. The military arrived, the crowd resisted, and in the skirmish 18 people died with hundreds injured.
The Mask of Anarchy captured the tumultuous times, the plundering of the nation and the loss of rights, freedom and dignity. Shelley underlines the key requirements of a decent life: wages, food, clothing, shelter, dignity, throughout the poem.
Returns to Limelight
The poem returned to the limelight when Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour leader, quoted its rousing last lines at his Islington speech of 7 June 2017:
‘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.’
Corbyn said: ‘You should never be afraid of saying you like poetry’. Critics, and Corbyn, focus on Shelley’ critique of capitalism (see Paul Foot in Internationalist Socialist Review, March-April 2006). Michael Demson notes that Shelley’s poem was part of the literature curriculum at Workers’ University, the educational division of the International Ladies’ Garments Workers’ Union, in New York City in the early 20th century, again indicating its role in inspiring protest.
In the graphic novel, Masks of Anarchy: The History of a Radical Poem, from Percy Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire, with drawings by Summer McClinton (2013), Demson-McClinton depict Pauline Newman reciting Shelley’s poem at the union meeting in New York.
Now to the Poem
Viscount Castlereagh, the notorious foreign secretary, in his personification as ‘Murder’, marches surrounded by seven bloodhounds, to whom he tosses human hearts. One hound is Fraud, and when Fraud cried his false tears, children playing at his feet had ‘their brains knocked out by them [his tears]’. The ‘ghastly masquerade’ consisted of an oligarchy of ‘Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies’. At the rear is Anarchy, who declares himself ‘God, and King, and Law’. Anarchy proceeded
With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.
Shelley takes the grand spectacle of a triumphal parade and inverts it into a ‘ghastly masquerade’. So, instead of the thronging admirers, we see crushed citizenry. The citizens who adored him, and possibly elected him to power, are being trampled underfeet. Castlereagh’s contingent is ‘drunk…of the wine of desolation’. The citizens quail:
And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.
Anarchy is assisted by ‘hired murderers’ who ask him for ‘glory, blood, and gold’. Anarchy is happy to oblige, for he had seized the Bank of England and the Tower of England and was now heading towards Parliament, says Shelley, so as to complete his conquest of the nation. The hired murderers are sent out to pillage and plunder. Lawyers and judges too, sadly, stand and acknowledge Anarchy as God.
In such a situation, Hope personified as a maid, looks increasingly like Despair. She prostrates before the horses of the ghastly masquerade, preparing for death/sacrifice. Then a vaporous ‘thing’, a Spirit, rises between her and the horses. An exhortation rings in the air, and sounds like a call to revolution, which makes up the remainder of the poem:
Rise like Lions after slumber…Ye are many – they are few.
What is Freedom? – ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well –
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
The exhortation meditates on poverty, hunger, suffering and unrelenting misery forced upon the people. When they lay asleep, assuming they were now secure under the regime, the regime tied them up in chains. Even though the ruled were many and the rulers fewer in number, the regime managed to dominate the citizens so effectively, that they even lost the voice to complain:
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.
The voice characterises the citizens’ lives as slavery:
`This is Slavery – savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do –
But such ills they never knew.
Even wild beasts and uncivilised barbarians would not endure such oppression, and the English people had accepted the yoke, mourns the Spirit, which then calls for a new England:
Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.
The ‘assembly’ is protest, demonstration, revolution but could also imply a new Parliament (often called ‘Assembly’) – Shelley is calling for a new government. The English ground is the public space, and Shelley’s poem prefigures ‘Occupy’, which was marked by a reclaiming of public space by the citizens, snatching it away, however temporarily, from both the government and corporates. The country has been sold to selfish and wealthy interests, as in Occupy’s time:
Behold, Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold
This is the linkage between business, the government and the latter’s many apparatuses such as the army/police, that enable crony capitalism and corporate nationalism. If gold is the regime’s profits, the blood is of the people. Such a tyrannical regime needs to be called out:
Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand –
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.
The rulers should be shamed, indicted, says Shelley, they must not be allowed to walk the streets. The poem concludes with the fierce exhortation:
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…Ye are many – they are few.’
Aspirations of Wronged People
The poem captured the aspirations of a wronged people. The crowd had been mobilised, historians note, to inspire more people to join the protest against the unjust government: it was to be a grand spectacle of resistance, albeit peaceful. Ironically, the spectacle turns into another kind: of brutal reprisal by the state.
Shelley’s poem was a questioning of the forms of sovereignty that the state asserts, where the rulers assume a total and near-invincible, non-responsive sovereignty. Shelley is arguing, says Kir Kuiken, for a sovereignty that is contingent, grounded in social reality and not detached from it. That is, a sovereign or authority that becomes its own purpose and ignores the foundations of its very being – the foundations being the will of the people – turns into an illegitimate sovereignty. The Mask of Anarchy was a critique of a government that no longer addressed its people and instead had turned against it, savaging the workers, producing suffering and adding to the woes of an already weakened citizenry.
Achille Mbembe, philosopher and political scientist, has argued that occasionally the nation is devoted not to the production and preservation of life but to the production of death. Shelley documents not just death but the perpetual suffering to which the people are condemned by the very state whose task is to protect the people. It is not always death but a form of living death that the people experience: unemployment, increasing prices, hunger, acute poverty, the threat of dispossession, the organised violence of the state, and the systematic plunder of the country. The citizens, says Shelley, are terror-stricken at the ‘tempestuous cry/Of the triumph of Anarchy’. It is a ‘necropolitics’:
the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.
Mbembe also refers to suicides (the ‘mass suicide by slaves cornered by the slave catchers’) in such situations, arguing that in such worlds, death is a ‘space where freedom and negation operate’ so that ‘the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred’. When life makes little sense, suicide is an act of liberation, suggests Mbembe, following Paul Gilroy’s work.
The experience of ‘unfreedom’, as Mbembe terms it, is the experience of the citizen in the age of ‘necropolitics’ (the title of Mbembe’s essay). Shelley’s list of horrors perpetuated by the sovereign powers of England finds a perverse resonance – similar but not identical – in Mbembe’s inventory of the conditions of ‘unfreedom’:
To live under late modern occupation is to experience a permanent condition of “being in pain”: fortified structures, military posts, and roadblocks everywhere; buildings that bring back painful memories of humiliation, interrogations, and beatings; curfews that imprison hundreds of thousands in their cramped homes every night from dusk to day-break; soldiers patrolling the unlit streets, frightened by their own shadows; children blinded by rubber bullets; parents shamed and beaten in front of their families; soldiers urinating on fences, shooting at the rooftop water tanks just for fun, chanting loud offensive slogans, pounding on fragile tin doors to frighten the children, confiscating papers, or dumping garbage in the middle of a residential neighbourhood; border guards kicking over a vegetable stand or closing borders at whim; bones broken; shootings and fatalities—a certain kind of madness.
That is a frightening, and very contemporary, inventory indeed. Mbembe’s list captures the characteristics of a sinister state devoted to the production of the death of its own citizens, who are run over, trampled, hunted down, arrested and tortured in an exercise of its (the state’s) sovereignty. If, as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, the state has a monopoly on violence and does not concede this right to anyone else, Shelley’s image of state pageants that crush the populace underneath is a spectacle of sovereign power gone mad, drunk upon its own illusion of invincibility and self-perpetuating superiority.
Shelley’s poem, a call to protest in the face of overwhelming indifference – or rather cruelties – by the government, celebrates its 200th anniversary in an era of uncontrolled oppression and the rise of the necropolitical state. The Mask of Anarchy exhorts the people to watch their governments, to monitor its necropolitics, to protest. It is not just a poem: it is a manifesto.
Inspiration to Rise
- Always a political poet, Shelley in The Mask of Anarchy called for public protests, stopping short of nothing but an overthrow of a tyrannical British monarchy and Parliament
- Returns to limelight when UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn quoted its rousing last lines at the end of his campaign speech
- Highlights that it is not always death but a form of living death that people experience: unemployment, increasing prices, hunger, poverty, threat of dispossession, organised violence of state
- Looks forward to ‘Occupy’, by a reclaiming of public space by the public, snatching it away, from both government and corporates
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)