The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died 200 years ago this month, wasn’t a dreamer who created a world of literary beauty in order to escape from society. He was a revolutionary who wrote to spark the imaginations of the people and encourage them to rise up against the monarchy, church, state and exploiters.
Shelley was born in 1792. His father Sir Timothy Shelley was a baronet, and he had an assured future as a respected member of the landed gentry. But Shelley chose a different path. His world was overshadowed by two revolutions—the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
For Shelley’s generation, the French Revolution symbolised both the possibility of remaking the world and the dangers inherent in any such attempt. And the emerging Industrial Revolution was both destructive and creative. It destroyed ways of living and sucked men, women and children into factories and mines, but also created powerful forces of collective resistance.
Shelley always hated the hierarchical and vicious institutions which trained young men to assume power over others. He loathed Eton College, where he was bullied, and was expelled from Oxford when he published his first major work The Necessity of Atheism.
Nor did he accept the arranged marriages then common to people of his class. In 1810, he ran away with Harriet Westbrook, and the teenagers were cut off by both families. Harriet’s sister Eliza came to live with them, first in Ireland, where Shelley embraced the cause of Catholic emancipation, and then in Wales.
Shelley spent the rest of his life trying to create communal ways of living with small groups of lovers, friends and relatives, with varying degrees of success.
In Wales, Shelley began writing his first radical poem, Queen Mab, which established many of the overarching themes of his poetry. It includes the celebration of energy and resistance to tyranny, and domination of machines:
Nature rejects the monarch, not the man;
The subject, not the citizen…
… and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame
A mechanized automaton.
In 1811, Shelley wrote The Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. It was dedicated to a victim of British colonialism, Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who was imprisoned for seditious libel when he called out Viscount Castlereagh for torturing Irish rebels.
In the Poetical Essay, Shelley directed his fury not only against morally bankrupt kings. But also against the systems of power that kept them on their thrones, the sycophants of the church and the court. Shelley described the bankruptcy and corruption of Regency England (1811-1820), in language which speaks powerfully to the disgust of those living through the last days of Boris Johnson’s court:
Shall rank corruption pass unheeded by,
Shall flattery’s voice ascend the wearied sky;
And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?
Is public virtue dead? – is courage gone?”
Shelley made a precarious living as a writer and surrounded himself with radicals, republicans and reformers. They demanded the abolition of slavery, a free press, Irish freedom and both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
In the summer of 1814, Shelley left his first wife Harriet, who was pregnant with their second child, to live with Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who Shelley greatly admired. The couple ran away to France with Claire Claremont, Mary’s stepsister. Godwin the radical responded in the same way as Sir Timothy the baronet, and disowned them.
Mary and Shelley’s relationship was founded on a shared intellectual and political outlook. Mary’s intellectual and literary strength was visible in the hugely popular novel Frankenstein, which she wrote when she was 19 years-old.
In November 1816 Harriet Shelley died by suicide. Left alone with two small children, she was forced to return to the family home she had tried so hard to escape. Two years after their relationship ended, Harriet was pregnant by a new lover when she walked into the Serpentine Lake in London.
Harriet was a political woman who raised a public subscription for the families of 15 Luddites—working class weavers who rebelled in 1811-12—hanged a York prison. There is no doubt that Shelley patronised and undervalued Harriet. Her life was destroyed by a society in which women were forced to be dependent on men, divorce was banned, and brutal double standards were imposed on women’s sexuality. Shelley and Mary got married to help them apply for custody of Harriet and Shelley’s children, but were rejected because of his atheism.
Shelley did not write for to win acclaim from the literary establishment. He wrote for working class people who read and listened to his poetry to feed their weary souls and to challenge those in power. His work was suppressed by the authorities, through direct censorship or by imprisoning radical publishers for sedition. As a result, much of Shelley’s work was published only after his death. Why, then, was Shelley’s poetry so dangerous?
The ruling class of Shelley’s day rightly feared revolt from below. The Napoleonic Wars had consumed the lives of tens of thousands of young English men, lost to disease, famine and military incompetence.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 did not bring the promised prosperity—rather, it brought an impossible burden of taxes, mass unemployment and starvation. The debauched and notoriously self-indulgent King George IV partied while his subjects starved.
Politicians such as Lord Eldon, Viscount Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth presided over a system of repressive laws, networks of spies and the use of torture.
But there was the Luddite Rebellion of 1812, the Pentridge Uprising of 1817 and the agitation of the reform movement that ended in 1819 Peterloo Massacre. They all demonstrated that revolt was constantly threatening to erupt like one of the volcanoes in Shelley’s poetry—and it was these voices of revolt which rang out in his writings.
The Revolt of Islam (1817) is a poem about the huge potential unleashed by the French Revolution and its subsequent failure to permanently transform society. It’s about how new worlds are not dreamt up by poets and visionaries, but born out of the resistance of the poor and agitation of revolutionaries like the poem’s Cythna. And it is a poem which gives women agency in the revolutionary process, containing the famous lines, “Can man be free, if woman be a slave?”
Ozymandias, written over Christmas 1817, is a bitter satire on the pretensions of kings and emperors who believe they can rule for ever. It was directed in particular at Napoleon, a product of the French Revolution who turned Emperor and warmonger:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In A Song—Men of England, (1819) Paul Foot—author of Red Shelley—identifies the poet’s growing understanding that wealth and poverty were interdependent. That the rich were rich because of the labour of the poor and that the poor must rise up in armed revolt. The poem was considered to be so dangerous, it was not published until 1839, 20 years after Shelley wrote it.
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?
Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.
Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—
In hall ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.
With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.
The Masque of Anarchy, perhaps the most famous political poem in the English language, was written in response to the Peterloo Massacre. At least 18 people were killed when the yeoman cavalry charged into a crowd of around 60,000 who had gathered on St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demand political reform.
Even Shelley’s friend, the radical publisher Leigh Hunt, dare not publish it. This brilliantly furious and defiant poem was not published until ten years after Shelley’s death. It ripped into Eldon, Castlereagh and Sidmouth:
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, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.
By the end of the poem, the people have been roused to resistance to this ghastly masquerade by a young woman called Hope. The last two stanzas are among the most powerful calls to action ever written:
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.
Shelley drowned in July 1822, just one month short of his 30th birthday. The boat carrying him home from a visit to Lord Byron capsized in a storm off the coast of northern Italy. Unlike Ozymandias, he did leave a legacy. It’s one based on inspirational poems which explored how to overcome despair, defeat and isolation and retain hope in the possibility of revolutionary change.
Shelley’s legacy is, of course, contested. The Shelley industry which developed at the end of the 19th century adored his lyrical poems and ruthlessly purged his political works. However, radicals and reformers have always understood that art and politics were interdependent in Shelley’s work.
Queen Mab became known as the Chartists’ Bible during the working class movement’s fight for democratic rights in the 1830s and 40s. In 1892, Eleanor Marx published a lecture on Shelley, where she recalled that the Chartists, her father Karl Marx and Frederick Engels all worshipped Shelley.
The Suffragettes’ slogan, “Deeds, not words,” is taken from The Masque of Anarchy. US labour activist Pauline Newman read The Masque of Anarchy to the young, Jewish women textile workers who met to organise their strikes in 1911. It was read aloud by protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
Shelley’s poetry has endured because of its unsurpassed artistry, interweaving the poetical and the political. He wrote when the working class was just emerging as a political force, when revolution meant street barricades rather than mass strikes.
But his words of defiance, his celebration of revolt and his visions of new worlds based on liberty, sexual freedom and equality still resonate with us. Today, we are still fighting to hold the elites to account, to resist repression and exploitation and to fight for a better world—and we still need Shelley.
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