The Mask of Anarchy (Excerpt)
~~ Percy Bysshe Shelley ~~
“As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way —
He had a mask like Castlereagh —
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew.
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocricy
On a crocodile rode by.
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw —
`I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!`
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
And let panic, who outspeeds
The career of armed steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.
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 which 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 slay
Till their rage has died 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 on the street.
And the bold, true warriors
Who have hugged Danger in wars
Would turn to those who would be free,
Ashamed of such base company.
And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
A volcano heard afar.
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
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.”
On 16th August 1819, 60,000 Mancunians driven by poverty, hunger and disaffection in an oppressive political and social system, gathered on St Peter`s Field to campaign for parliamentary reform. They came for peaceful protest; carrying picnics and attired in their Sunday best for a good day out. Unfortunately, local magistrates sent in the local militia cavalry, who promptly piled into the crowd with drawn sabres, hacking, maiming, and killing in a grim, macabre example of the State`s paranoia and fear.
15 peaceful protesters were left dead, and hundreds more severely injured as their blood seeped into the soil of “England`s green and pleasant land.”
On hearing of the massacre, Shelley immediately put pen to paper to purge his soul of the shocking violence against an unarmed, and peaceful crowd.
The Mask of Anarchy is rightfully regarded as the greatest political poem in British history; it`s 91 verses overflow with brilliant invective and bile as he slashes and burns his way through the English language to cast vituperative scorn upon the heads of those craven, and cowardly men responsible for the moral outrage of Peterloo.
Shelley is perhaps better known nowadays as a Romantic poet rather than a revolutionary: the truth was that Shelley was deeply subversive and critical of an established order which clung on to it`s corrupt political power by all means at it`s disreputable disposal.
The Peterloo Massacre is a touchstone in British politics, and the subsequent outrage was instrumental in channeling peoples intellectual resources into the eventual formation of the trade union movement and the reform of parliamentary democracy.
The Mask of Anarchy is still as relevant today as the day it was written: there is a continuous tug-of-war between those who exercise power and those who struggle to control and curtail that power for the mutual benefit of all of the people. Political, social and corporate corruption exists and thrives even now, almost 200 hundred years after the events at Peterloo; those self same forces of self-interest still seek to maintain, extend and strengthen themselves at the expense of those weaker, and poorer than they are.
Shelley may have been writing about an event which occurred in 1819, but history has a disconcerting habit of repeating itself if we forget the lessons of the past; that`s why Shelley remains an important and essential writer, and his words of genius proves that the Devil doesn`t have all the best tunes.