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Sonnet: England in 1819 -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Poem #592) Sonnet: England in 1819
 An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king, --
 Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
 Through public scorn, -- mud from a muddy spring, --
 Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
 But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
 Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, --
 A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field, --
 An army, which liberticide and prey
 Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield, --
 Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
 Religion Christless, Godless -- a book sealed;
 A Senate, -- Time's worst statute unrepealed, --
 Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
 Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
A nicely vitriolic sonnet - Shelley seems to have warmed to his theme and
produced an uncharacteristically[1] good poem. The tirade is delivered with
a sure touch, verging on the heavy-handed, but never going overboard, and
ending with a very appropriate image - indeed, one that blends the twin
messages of decay and hope almost perfectly.

In form, this is a Shakespearean sonnet (12+2 rather than 8+6), though the
rhyme scheme doesn't follow that of either the traditional Shakespearean or
the Spenserean sonnet.

[1] strictly IMHO, I hasten to add, but I do not in general care for


Well, it looks like matters still hadn't improved since Wordsworth's "London
1802" <g>. England in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars was apparently a
hotbed of discontent:

  The end of the long wars against Napoleon did not usher in a period of
  peace and contentment. Although both agricultural and industrial
  production had greatly, if unevenly, increased during the wars, the total
  national debt had nearly quadrupled since 1793. Of the total annual public
  revenue after 1815, more than half had to be employed to pay interest on
  this debt. Furthermore, the abolition of Pitt's income tax in 1816 meant
  that the debt burden fell on consumers--many of them with low incomes--and
  on industrialists. The archaic and regressive nature of the national
  taxation system, along with a mounting scale of locally levied poor-law
  rates, which fell heavily on middle-income groups, provoked widespread
  anxiety and criticism.

        -- EB

The king in the opening line was George III.


For a biography and assessment see the notes on Ozymandias: poem #22

Some more annotations:

Another annotated version, in hypertext:

[The above site seems to have been developed as a teaching aid - the
hyperlinked pages are highly interesting]

More on the Peterloo massacre:

And Wordsworth's London 1802 can be found at poem #128


56 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ira Cooper said...

I do not know if this is the proper way to comment, but it is a pity, since
in my opinion, George III was possibly the finest man to hold the British

Abraham Thomas said...

In response to Ira Cooper's comment:

The tragedy of George III's reign was that he was ill-suited (some would say
incompetent), both physically and mentally, to handle the not-inconsiderable
problems that faced British polity at the turn of the 18th century; at the
same time, his conscience would not permit him to avoid addressing them.
Although the earlier part of his reign did indeed see a vast refinement of
the concept of the constitutional monarchy, it's difficult to disagree with
Shelley's 1819 description of him as "an old, mad, blind, despised, and
dying king".

Of course, Shelley's political opinions should always be taken with a grain
of salt... still, the overall complaint is, I think, valid.


PS. Britannica has more, of course.

Bob Strauss said...

This poem, which (I believe) got Shelley kicked out of England, is a nice contrast to "Hail to thee blithe spirit".
A very inconsistent poet.

Bob Strauss Cataloger
Hunter Library Western Carolina U.
Class home page: [broken link]
Personal home page: [broken link]
Phone :

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