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The Masque of Anarchy (extract) -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

We don't often run two consecutive poems by the same poet, but after my
commentary yestarday, Amulya was moved to offer this in
defense of Shelley:
(Poem #1605) The Masque of Anarchy (extract)

 "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 fall'n on you.


 "What is Freedom? Ye can tell
 That which Slavery is too well,
 For its very name has grown
 To an echo of your own.


 "'Tis to work, and have such pay,
 As just keeps life from day to day
 In your limbs, as in a cell
 For the tyrants' use to dwell:


 "So that ye for them are made,
 Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade;
 With or without your own will, bent
 To their defense and nourishment.


 "'Tis to see your children weak
 With their mothers pine and peak;
 When the winter winds are bleak:
 They are dying whilst I speak.


 "'Tis to hunger for such diet,
 As the rich man in his riot
 Casts to the fat dogs that lie
 Surfeiting beneath his eye.


 "'Tis to let the Ghost of Gold
 Take from toil a thousand fold,
 More than e'er its substance could
 In the tyrannies of old:


 "Paper coin--that forgery
 Of the title deeds, which ye
 Hold to something of the worth
 Of the inheritance of Earth.



 "'Tis to be a slave in Soul,
 And to bold no strong controul.
 Over your own wills, but be
 All that others make of ye.


 "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.


 "Then it is to feel revenge,
 Fiercely thirsting to exchange
 Blood for blood-and wrong for wrong:


 "Birds find rest in narrow nest,
 When-weary of the winged quest;
 Beasts find fare in woody lair,
 When storm and snow are in the air.

 E 2


 "Asses, swine, have litter spread,
 And with fitting food are fed;
 All things have a home but one:
 Thou, oh Englishman, hast none!


 "This is Slavery-savage men,
 Or wild beasts within a den,
 Would endure not as ye do:
 But such ills they never knew.


 "What art thou, Freedom? Oh! could Slaves
 Answer from their living graves
 This demand, tyrants would flee
 Like a dream's dim imagery.


 Thou art not, as impostors say,
 A shadow soon to pass away,
 A superstition, and a name
 Echoing from the eaves of Fame.


 "For the labourer thou art bread,
 And a comely table spread,
 From his daily labour come,
 In a neat and happy home.


 "Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
 For the trampled multitude:
 NO-in countries that are free
 Stich starvation cannot be,
 As in England now we see.


 "To the rich thou art. a check;
 When his foot is on the neck
 Of his victim; thou dost make
 That he treads upon a snake.


 "Thou art Justice--ne'er for gold
 May thy righteous laws be sold,
 As laws are in England:--thou
 Sheild'st alike the high and low.

 "Thou art Wisdom-Freedom never
 Dreams that God will damn for ever
 All who think those things untrue,
 Of which priests make such ado


 "Thou art Peace-never by thee
 Would blood and treasure wasted be,
 As tyrants wasted them, when all
 Leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul,


 "What if English toil and blood
 Was poured forth-, even as a flood!
 It availed,--oh Liberty!
 To dim --- but not extinguish thee.


 "Thou art Love--the rich have kist
 Thy feet, and like him following Christ,
 Give their substance to the free,
 And through the rough world follow thee.


 "Oh turn their wealth to arms, and make
 War for thy beloved sake,
 On wealth and war and fraud: whence they
 Drew the power which is their prey.


 "Science, and Poetry, and Thought,
 Are thy lamps; they make the lot
 Of the dwellers in a cot
 So serene, they curse it not.


 "Spirit, Patience, Gentleness,
 All that can adorn and bless,
 Art thou: let deeds, not words, express
 Thine exceeding loveliness.


 "Let a great assembly be
 Of the fearless, of the free,
 On some spot of English ground,
 Where the plains stretch wide around.


 "Let the blue sky overhead,
 The green earth, on which ye tread,
 All that must eternal be,
 Witness the solemnity.


 "From the corners uttermost
 Of the bounds of English coast;
 From every but, village, and town,
 Where those who live and suffer, moan
 For others' misery and their own:


 "From the workhouse and the prison,
 Where pale as corpses newly risen,
 Women, children, young, and old,
 Groan for pain, and weep for cold;


 "From the haunts of daily life,
 Where is waged the daily strife
 With common wants and common cares,
 Which sow the human heart with tares;


 "Lastly, from the palaces,
 Where the murmur of distress
 Echoes, like the distant sound
 Of a wind alive around;


 "Those prison-halls of wealth and fashion,
 Where some few feel such compassion
 For those who groan, and toil, and wait,
 As must make their brethren pale;


 "Ye who suffer woes untold,
 Or to feel, or to behold
 Your lost country bought and sold
 With a price of blood and gold;


 "Let a vast assembly be,
 And with great solemnity
 Declare with measured words, that ye
 Are, as God has made ye, free!


 "Be your strong and simple words
 Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
 And wide as targes let them be,
 With their shade to cover ye.


 Let the tyrants pour around
 With a quick and startling sound,
 Like the loosening of a sea,
 Troops of armed emblazonry.


 "Let the charged artillery drive,
 Till the dead air seems alive
 With the clash of clanging wheels,
 And the tramp of horses' heels.


 "Let the fixed bayonet
 Gleam with sharp desire to wet
 Its bright point in English blood,
 Looking keen as one for food.



 "Let the horsemen's scimitars
 Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
 Thirsting to eclipse their burning
 In a sea of death and mourning.


 "Stand ye calm and resolute,
 Like a forest close and mute,
 With folded arms, and looks which are
 Weapons of an unvanquished war.


 "And let Panic, who outspeeds
 The career of armed steeds,
 Pass, a disregarded shade,
 Thro' your phalanx indismay'd.

 [The next three stanzas are italicised]


 "Let the laws of your own land,
 Good or ill, between ye stand,
 Hand to hand, and foot to foot,
 Arbiters of the dispute.


 "The old laws of England--they
 Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
 Children of a wiser day;
 And whose solemn voice must be
 Thine own echo--Liberty!


 "On those who first should violate
 Such sacred heralds in their state,
 Rest the blood that must ensue,
 And it will not rest on you.


 "And if then the tyrants dare,
 Let them ride among you there;
 Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew;
 What they like, that let them do.


 "With folded arms and steady eyes,
 And little fear and less surprise,
 Look upon them as they stay
 Till their rage hasdied away:


 "Then they will return with shame,
 To the place from which they came,
 And the blood thus shed will speak
 In hot blushes on their cheek,


 "Every woman in the land
 Will point at them as they stand
 They will hardly dare to greet
 Their acquaintance in the street:


 "And the bold, true warriors,
 Who have hugged Danger in wars,
 Will turn to those who would be free
 Ashamed of such base company:


 "And that slaughter to the nation
 Shall steam up like inspiration,
 Eloquent, oracular,
 A volcano heard afar:


 "And these words shall then become
 Like Oppressions thundered doom,
 Ringing through each heart and brain,
 Heard again--again--again.


 Rise like lions after slumber
 In unvanquishable NUMBER!
 Shake your chains to earth, like dew
 Which in sleep had fall'n on you:

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
This is an extract from The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley's
response to the Peterloo massacre of English workers.  Just offering the
obvious balance to the fey Shelley stuff so far [1] - because I think it's
rather unfair to a poet who (along with Blake), exemplified the defiant,
incendiary spirit of the Romantics.  A poet who 'erred on the side of the
profane'[2] , an aristocrat who dreamt of a day when people would be 'equal,
unclassed, tribeless, and nationless' [3], a writer who saw art as a hammer
to legislate change.  As Richard Holmes writes, Shelley possessed 'a sense
of greater design, an acute feeling for the historical moment and an
overwhelming consciousness of his duty as an artist...' Hard finding a poem
of comparable moral weight (Pablo Neruda's The People?).

I agree that his work is extremely erratic, like many other writers whose
reach exceeds their grasp.  He's produced some highly sappy,
self-dramatizing stuff... 'I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!'[4] .

But sometimes he is the poetic equivalent of lightning.

        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.

Is that not truly tremendous?


[1] In Matthew Arnold's withering, and ass-backwards assessment - 'a
    beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous
    wings in vain'.
[2] Borrowing Rushdie's wonderful phrase
[3] From Prometheus Unbound.
[4] A bit of fine frenzy from Ode To The West Wind


The entire poem is available, complete with historical notes, at
  [broken link]

27 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Anonymous said...

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