Shelley wrote The mask of Anarchy in 12 days as a protest against the `Peterloo Massacre` on the 16th of August 1819, when tens of thousands of ordinary folk gathered in St Peter`s Fields near Manchester to demand parliamentary reform, but were unceremoniously charged by sabre wielding cavalry which cut them down where they stood like sheaves of wheat. The result of such protest was not immediate reform but more severe political and social repression by a government which represented the ruling elite rather than the populus at large, and so had a vested interest in severely limiting the vote.
Shelley wrote the Mask of Anarchy in the form of a popular ballad, which is a device associated with love songs today rather than political agitation and protest. There is no middle way, as it vehemently displays the `rightness` of the people`s cause, and the total `wrongness` of the government`s, and deliberately sets out to convince us of this in colourful and graphic terms. Everything is black and white and given as the absolute, incontestable truth, and is unashamedly biased. It`s wrong to judge someone from another place, time and circumstance so far removed from our own; values and attitudes change, but Matthew Arnold criticised Shelley for not being able to step outside of himself and take a more measured view of events. If this is a fault, then it was one of the things which made Shelley such a great and impassioned poet; granted, he shot from the lip, but the immediacy of emotion was what he was all about. The Mask of Anarchy has been described as the greatest piece of political protest in the English language, and I wouldn`t argue with that.
It is awash with biblical references and is written in a way that everyone – be they beggar or titled aristocrat – can understand. There is anger, passion, revulsion, and contempt for those who wished to trample down the rights of the common man and keep him in the gutter in order to preserve their privileged lifestyle at all costs. A king had once lost his head for such an attitude, and yet, the ruling classes still hadn`t learned the lesson that they had to, sooner or later, release the people from their yolk of servitude, or they would rise up and take what was rightfully theirs. Shelley, great poet that he was, wrote from the heart………..“of oppression`s thundered doom/ Ringing through each heart and brain………Rising like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number..”, shaking free of their chains and wiping the sleep from their eyes. I think we can forgive a slight glitch in his personality, even if it did ere on the side of bias, when he wrote such words of sublime and electrifying beauty.