Most people who quote Shelley’s famous lines from The Mask of Anarchy, although they will know that the poem was written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, will probably not realise that it was not published that year – not, in fact, until 1832, the year of the First Reform Bill.
By that time, Shelley had been dead for ten years.
He had mailed the ninety-one stanzas of the poem on 23 September 1819, to his London publisher, Leigh Hunt, for inclusion in his periodical The Examiner. But Hunt did not publish it. Why?
Shelley’s biographer Richard Holmes has pointed out that ‘the absolutely explicit attack and power of [his] poem would have struck home with unique impact … it spoke to the people in the street, not merely to the reviewer or the politician.’
And therein lay the source of the trouble.
Sir Francis Burdett had recently been prosecuted for seditious libel, and convicted, on the grounds that his open letter ‘To the Electors of Westminster’ had been ‘an appeal to the passions of the lower orders of the people … not … to inform those who can correct abuses’. His letter, a jury judged, was aimed at the working classes; it was only allowable if addressed to the elite.
Sir Francis was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and a fine of £3,000. During that year, there were seventy-five prosecutions, either for seditious or blasphemous libel; the longest prison term meted out was five years.
Shelley’s poem was explicitly aimed at the working classes. It was also explicitly critical of the government:
“I met Murder on the Way
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds 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 millstones 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.”
Castlereagh was Foreign Secretary. Eldon was Lord Chancellor. Murder and Fraud as senior Government Ministers!
Worse was to come:
“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’”
The British Government as the outriders of Anarchy! Unequivocally seditious!
And then: the words of the maiden, Hope:
‘“ The old laws of England – they
Whose reverend heads with age are gray,
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.’”
The blood of those who have fallen, or those who may yet fall, is on the heads of members of the Government – the laws of England are against them.
And then, the peroration:
‘“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.”’
This was an unequivocal call to the working class.
No wonder, then, that Hunt realised that to publish this poem would mean his prosecution as the publisher. He had already been imprisoned for similar offences ten years before. He was also aware of the fear of ‘the mob’ that filtered down from the elite to the middle classes.
The irony is that, in more sober moods, Shelley would have agreed with him. Earlier that summer of 1819, he had written to his friend Thomas Love Peacock: ‘… the change should commence among the higher orders, or anarchy will only be the last flash before despotism. I wonder and tremble.’
But on the news of Peterloo, “the torrent of my indignation [was] boiling in my veins”. It would continue to do so for the rest of his life.
Perhaps if The Mask had been published, some of Shelley’s other works – arrivals in Hunt’s office the same year – Julian and Maddalo (unpublished during Shelley’s lifetime), Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci – would have had a greater impact. They did not.
Yet, later in the same year, he would write one of his most famous poems, the Ode to the West Wind, in which he calls for the wind to make him ‘the trumpet of a prophecy!’ He had already blown that trumpet, but The Mask of Anarchy, its first blast, would remain unread.
One work of Shelley’s did appear in British print during 1819: his Declaration of the Rights of Man, which he had written in 1812, when he was twenty. Here are some extracts:
‘Government has no rights; it is a delegation from several individuals for the purpose of securing their own. It is therefore just only so far as it exists by their consent, useful only so far as it operates to their well being.
‘All have a right to an equal share in the benefits and burdens of Government. Any disabilities for opinion imply, by their existence, barefaced tyranny on the side of Government, ignorant slavishness on the side of the governed.
‘A man has a right to unrestricted liberty of discussion. Falsehood is a scorpion that will sting itself to death.
‘No man has a right to be respected for any other possessions but those of virtue and talents. Titles are tinsel, power a corruptor, glory a bubble, and excessive wealth a libel on its possessor.
‘No man has a right to monopolize more than he can enjoy; what the rich give to the poor whilst millions are starving, is not a perfect favor, but an imperfect right.’
‘Awake! – arise! – or be for ever fallen.’
The thirty-one Rights were published by The Republican on 24 December 1819. The editor, Richard Carlile, did not know that these were Shelley’s words.
But Carlile was a Radical. He would have published them anyway.
And would have published The Mask as well. But Shelley did not know it.
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