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ISR Issue 46, MarchApril 2006
Reprint from the socialist tradition
Shelley: Trumpet of Prophecy
By PAUL FOOT
Pioneering investigative journalist, captivating speaker, and committed Marxist, Paul Foot was one of the greatest popularizers of socialist ideas in Britain until his death in 2004. Alternately moving, funny, and eloquent, Foot had a knack for bringing historical figures and events to life. I still remember his speeches about Shelley (the first political meeting I ever attended) and Toussaint L’Ouverture, two of the best speeches I have ever heard to this day. He was able to make the life of a romantic poet somehow make you want to go out and fight for a better world. Paul Foot was also author of a number of books: Red Shelley, Why You Should Be a Socialist, Immigration and Race in British Politics, and several others. This article first appeared in International Socialism 79, June 1975. Thanks to Einde O’Callaghan of the Die Roten Web site (www.marxists.de) for the transcript of this article.
I HAVE come to Shelley far too late, and for that I blame my accursed education. I still have the small dark blue textbook, Shelley, by Richard Hughes, which was forced down my throat at school.
There is no suggestion in the volume that Shelley had any ideas whatever. He was interested, apparently, in skylarks, clouds, west winds, Apollo, Pan, and Arethusa.
At University College, Oxford, on the way to the football changing rooms, I would pass each week a ridiculous monument to Shelley, a great dome-shaped sepulcher in which lies a smooth-limbed, angelic young man, carried by sea lions. His limbs are naked, perfect white, his expression is heavenly, and his genitals have been painted out (once, I think, even broken off) by civilized young gentlemen celebrating the rare successes of University College Boat Club. An embarrassed typewritten note by the monument states that Shelley was a student of University College in 1810. I recall a senior don telling me at some boring dinner: “Shelley, poor fellow. He was drowned while at college.” In fact, he was expelled in his second term for writing The Necessity of Atheism, the first attack on the Christian religion ever published in English.
In my last year at school, we were obliged to buy the new Penguin edition of Shelley, edited by a Tory lady of letters, Isobel Quigly. Her introduction told us: “There was about Shelley a nobility of spirit, a height of purpose, a kind of fine-grainedness that is a quality of birth and cannot be grown to.” Miss Quigly detected someone from her own class. She went on:
He was in spirit the most essentially romantic of the poets of his age, and his faults were all faults of an overabundant and undisciplined imagination. No poet better repays cutting; no great poet was ever less worth reading in his entirety.So Miss Quigly set about cutting with a will. She castrated Shelley far more effectively than did the rowing oafs of University College, Oxford. Every single expression of radical or revolutionary opinion is cut out of the poems which follow. Poems, like Queen Mab, whose main purpose was political, are cut to a couple of “lyrical” stanzas. This censorship has been going on for more than 130 years: Every school generation is taught to read Shelley, as Quigly suggested, for his “lyric poetry.”
Ever since the 1840s, distinguished bourgeois critics have united in declaring Shelley one of the greatest English lyric poets. They could not ignore his genius, so they claimed his “fine-grainedness” for their class.
In the same breath, they forgot about, distorted, or censored his ideas.
These critics were formed not only to rewrite Shelley’s poetry, but also to forget about what happened to him when he was alive. The endless stream of Shelley biographies written from about 1870 onwards made light of the most significant feature of the poet’s short life: his persecution by the authorities, political, legal, and literary. In 1812, when still a lad of nineteen, he was hounded out of Devon by the Home Office for writing a “seditious” pamphlet about Ireland. Had he not left Devon when he did, he would almost certainly have been prosecuted (as was one man who put up Shelley’s posters—and was sent to prison for six months).
Fleeing from Devon, he settled in Wales, and worked as an agent on a reservoir scheme. This was a time of growing working-class agitation, especially in Wales. Despite the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, small strikes were constantly breaking out—even on the reservoir. Shelley became so friendly with the workers, and such an ardent advocate of their cause, that the local Tory landowner, Captain Pilfold, hired a gunman to assassinate him. The gunman missed, twice, but Shelley had to leave home again.
When Shelley’s first wife committed suicide, he was refused custody of his two children by the Lord Chancellor, Eldon, who felt that nice upper-class children should not be handed over to a man of Shelley’s “dangerous” political views.
Worst of all, however, was the treatment of his writing. Few of the Shelley worshippers of the last century or this have bothered to explain how it was that the “greatest lyric poet in English history” had the utmost difficulty in getting anything published during his lifetime. Prometheus Unbound sold about twenty copies. The original edition of Queen Mab didn’t sell any. The string of political poems in which Shelley wrote about the massacre of trade unionists and their families at Peterloo in 1819, were not published—for fear of prosecution for seditious libel.
During all his life, this “greatest of English lyric poets” made precisely £40 from his writing—and that from a trashy novel he wrote when he was still at school!
In 1818, Shelley’s longest poem, “The Revolt of Islam,” was reviewed in the High Tory Quarterly by John Coleridge, who had been Shelley’s prefect at Eton.
A section of the review gives a fair picture of what the literary establishment, which later adopted him, thought of Shelley at the time:
Mr. Shelley would abrogate our laws.... He would abolish the rights of property.... He would overthrow the constitution.... He would pull down our churches, level our Establishment, and burn our bibles. Marriage he cannot endure.... Finally as the basis of the whole scheme, he would have us renounce our belief in religion.For this, Coleridge hoped, Shelley would sink “like lead to the bottom of the ocean.” When Shelley was drowned, in the Gulf of Spezia three years later, the Courier, as respectable in its time as the Daily Telegraph is today, trumpeted: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned. Now he knows whether there is a God or no.”
The reviewers hated him because of his political opinions—just as reviewers and English teachers of later years came to adore him in spite of his political opinions. While Shelley was alive, his work was censored in total by the authorities. When he was dead, the censorship persisted, selectively, but no less insidiously.
The only part of the preface to his poem “Hellas” which deals with the prospects for an English revolution was cut out in all the editions of his poetry for seventy-one years. The most comprehensive statement of his political position—a 100-page book entitled The Philosophical View of Reform—was suppressed for 100 years. Even when it was produced—in 1920—it was circulated privately to devotees of the Shelley Society.
Now, at last, a glorious book1 has been published which tells something like the true story. Shelley, it makes plain, was neither a fiend nor a saint. He was, indeed, perhaps the finest poet ever to write in English. But he was also, inseparably, a relentless enemy of all irresponsible authority, especially the irresponsible authority which derives from wealth and exploitation. He was an atheist and a republican. He sided on every occasion with the masses when they rose against their oppressors: not just when the middle classes rose against feudal monsters in Mexico, Greece, or Spain—but also when workers and trade unionists rose against what Shelley called “the pelting wretches of the new aristocracy”—the bourgeoisie. The most casual reading of Shelley makes one thing plain: the genius of his poetry is inextricably entwined with his revolutionary convictions.
When he was nineteen, Shelley wrote the most overtly revolutionary of all his long poems: Queen Mab. He published 250 copies at his own expense, and circulated about seventy. (The investigator got hold of a copy ten years later and described it, predictably, as “an execrable publication” which would produce “unmingled horror and disgust” among all decent readers.)
In 1821, Shelley’s last year, a radical publisher called William Clark started selling pirate editions of Queen Mab on street bookstalls. Clark was duly prosecuted by the Society for the Prosecution of Vice—led by the Mary Whitehouses of that time—and was forced to take the book off the stalls. The courageous publisher, Richard Carlile, immediately published another edition, and another. Three months after Shelley’s death, there were four cheap editions of Queen Mab circulating in the streets of London, Manchester, and Birmingham—many of them bought by small working-class societies or illegal trade unions, and read out loud at workers’ meetings.
Carlile went on publishing Queen Mab, even when he was sent to prison for “sedition.”
Richard Holmes writes: “The number is not certain but between 1823 and 1841, it has been reckoned, fourteen or more separate editions were published.” The effect on the rising trade-union movement and especially on the Chartists’ rebellion was electric.2 Hundreds of thousands of workers were brought to socialist and radical ideas by this extraordinary poem. In an essay on Shelley, written in 1892, George Bernard Shaw wrote:
Some time ago, Mr. H.S. Salt, in the course of a lecture on Shelley, mentioned, on the authority of Mrs. Marx Aveling, who had it from her father, Karl Marx, that Shelley had inspired a good deal of that huge badly-managed popular effort called the Chartist Movement. An old Chartist who was present and who seemed at first much surprised by this statement rose to confess that now he came to think of it (apparently for the first time) it was through reading Shelley that he got the ideas that led him to join the Chartists.What the gentlemen of letters censored was dug out and reprinted by the working-class movement.
A little further inquiry elicited that Queen Mab was known as the Chartists’ bible, and Mr. Buxton Forman’s collection of small, cheap copies, blackened with the finger-marks of many heavy-banded trades, are the proof that Shelley became a power—a power that is still growing.
Read Queen Mab and you will see why. Remember that it was written in 1812, in the middle of the Napoleonic wars when the whole British ruling class was terrified by the French Revolution. The extent of misery in the growing British working class was indescribable. In order to suppress the trade unions, and to enforce the Combination Acts, the Tory government moved troops into all of Britain’s industrial cities. The Luddites, who had organized to protect their jobs by smashing the machinery, were remorselessly butchered on the scaffold. Production and the war were kept going by prolonged and unremitting terror.
In Queen Mab, the spirit of a young girl is wafted into the stratosphere by a Fairy Queen, who shows her the world, distorted and corrupted by wars and exploitation. The Spirit shrinks in horror at the inevitability of it all. Queen Mab replies:
I see thee shrink,The poem is about those kings, priests, and statesmen. Here are the priests:
wert thou human else.
I see a shade of doubt and horror fleet
Across thy stainless features: yet fear not;
This is no unconnected misery,
Nor stands uncaused and irretrievable.
Man’s evil nature, that apology,
Which kings who rule and cowards who crouch, set up
For their unnumbered crimes, sheds not the blood
Which desolates the discord-wasted land.
Kings, priests and statesmen blast the human flower...
Then grave and hoary-headed hypocrites,The wealth of kings was not merely horrible in itself. It derived from the poverty of others who did the work. In his notes to Queen Mab, Shelley wrote:
Without a hope, a passion or a love
Who, through a life of luxury and lies,
Have crept by flattery to the seats of power,
Support the system whence their honors flow.
They have three words—well tyrants know their use,
Well pay them for the loan with usury
Torn from a bleeding world—God, Hell and Heaven:
A vengeful, pitiless and Almighty fiend,
Whose mercy is a nickname for the rage
Of tameless tigers hungering for blood;
Hell, a red gulf of everlasting fire,
Where poisonous and undying worms prolong
Eternal misery to those hapless slaves
Whose life has been a penance for its crimes;
And Heaven, a meed for those who dare belie
Their human nature, quake, believe and cringe
Before the mockeries of earthly power.
The poor are set to labor—for what? Not the food for which they famish; not the blankets for want of which their babes are frozen by the cold of their miserable hovels; not those comforts of civilization without which civilized man is far more miserable than the meanest savage—no: for the pride of power, for the miserable isolation of pride, for the false pleasures of one hundredth part of society.The law, especially the Conspiracy Law, upholds all this, so the law is wrong. “The laws which support this system are the result of a conspiracy of the few against the many—who are obliged to purchase this pre-eminence by the loss of all real comfort.”
Employments are lucrative in inverse ratio to their usefulness. The jeweller, the toyman, the actor gains fame and wealth by the exercise of his useless and ridiculous art; whilst the cultivator of the earth, he without whom society must cease to exist, struggles through contempt and penury, and perishes by that famine which, but for his unceasing exertions, would annihilate the rest of mankind.
Queen Mab, which has been scorned for 150 years, is a marvelous poem for socialists. It is full of hatred for exploitation and exploiters, full of hope and faith in the ability of the exploited to create a new society. How did Shelley, born into the aristocracy and educated at an expensive prep school, at Eton and (briefly) at Oxford come to write it?
Partly through intellectual conversion, through reading the radical literature of the French revolutionary era. Shelley’s favorite author at school was the ageing philosopher, William Godwin. Many of the ideas in Queen Mab, including the idea that all wealth stems from labor, are taken from Godwin’s book Political Justice, which was published in 1793. It cost three guineas. Asked whether the book should be prosecuted for sedition, the Prime Minister, Pitt, replied: “No book can be seditious at three guineas!”
Many of the ideas in Political Justice are revolutionary for their time, but Godwin was always careful to insist that any change in society could only come through men and women individually believing in it.
He believed in cooperative ownership in the abstract, on the blackboard. He was particularly keen to discourage any association of men and women who thought as he did. Godwin is the idol of latter-day liberals and anarchists, who think about a new, cooperative society, and do nothing to promote it.
Unlike Godwin, Shelley involved himself with the working people around him. Wherever he lived—in Keswick, Cumberland, in Dublin, in North Devon, and on the reservoir in Wales, he moved continuously among the working people, talking to them, learning from their experience and their aspirations. Richard Holmes tells how, in Wales, he would walk out at night and engage in long conversations with the reservoir workers who were forced to grow their own food by moonlight in order to stay alive. In Dublin in 1812, he spent much of his time talking to the workers.
After a few weeks in Dublin, he wrote Proposals For An Association, in which he argued for a political party devoted to Catholic emancipation. When William Godwin read the pamphlet, he almost had a fit. He wrote at once to Shelley, ordering him to forget these notions, to beware of violence, to sit back and “calmly to await the progress of truth.”
When Shelley wrote back politely refusing to wind up his association, Godwin replied, hysterically: “Shelley, you are preparing a scene of blood!”
There is a passage in Queen Mab which shows what Shelley felt about armchair revolutionaries. This is perhaps the only passage in the poem which does not take the lead from Godwin. Indeed, it is partly a satire of Godwin.
The man of ease, who, by his warm fireside,Shelley did not get that from reading Godwin—or from any other books for that matter.
To deeds of charitable intercourse
And bare fulfillment of the common laws
Of decency and prejudice, confines
The struggling nature of his human heart,
Is duped by their cold sophistry; he sheds
A passing tear perchance upon the wreck
Of earthly peace, when near his dwelling’s door
The frightful waves are driven—when his son
Is murdered by the tyrant, or religion
Drives his wife raving mad. But the poor man,
Whose life is misery, and fear and care;
Whom the morn wakens but to fruitless toil
Who ever hears his famished offspring scream;
Whom their pale mother’s uncomplaining gaze
For ever meets, and the proud rich man’s eye
Flashing command, and the heartbreaking scene
Of thousands like himself:—he little heeds
The rhetoric of tyranny. His hate
Is quenchless as his wrongs: he laughs to scorn
The vain and bitter mockery of words,
Feeling the horror of the tyrant’s deeds,
And unrestrained but by the arm of power,
That knows and dreads his enmity.
He got it from the workers and the starving peasantry of Cumberland, Dublin, Wales, and Devon. It is this belief in the unshakeable resolve of the exploited masses which makes Shelley’s political writing far more powerful than anything written by Godwin.
Yet the argument with Godwin persists, at different levels, through all Shelley’s political writing. On the one hand there is the understanding that the engine of tyranny is exploitation; on the other, the fear, deeply rooted in his class background, that the masses in revolt would generate violence and plunder; and that therefore the best way to proceed was by gradual reform.
It is idle to pretend, like Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx did in their lecture3 to the Shelley Society in 1885, that Shelley was the perfect scientific socialist.
There is a lot in Shelley’s political writing, if taken out of context, which puts him to the right of many other radical thinkers of the time. In 1817, for instance, he wrote a pamphlet A Proposal For Putting Reform to a Vote, in which he argued against universal suffrage. In his larger work, A Philosophical View of Reform, he argued again against the suffrage on the grounds that it would deliver up too much too soon:
A Republic, however just in its principle, and glorious in its object, would through the violence and sudden change which must attend it, incur a great risk of being as rapid in its decline as in its growth....This led to his advice to the masses to rely on passive disobedience when the army attacked them; and to resurrect “old laws” to ensure their liberties.
It is better that the people should be instructed in the whole truth; that they should see the clear grounds of their rights; the objects to which they ought to tend; and be impressed with the just persuasion that patience and reason and endurance are the means of a calm yet irresistible progress.
Yet, often even in the same works, Shelley’s longing for revolutionary change clashes openly with this condescending caution. Again and again, he calls openly for direct challenges to the law (especially to the law of criminal libel) and for “the oppressed to take furious vengeance on the oppressors.” [Letter in 1812.]
All politics in those years were dominated by the French Revolution. Like many other great poets of his time—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey—Shelley was an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution. One by one, however, the others abandoned the revolution, and denounced it. Shelley was appalled by the Napoleonic dictatorship—and wrote a poem on Napoleon’s death that started: “I hated thee, fallen tyrant.” But he never lost his enthusiasm for the ideas which had given rise to the revolution. His long poem, The Revolt of Islam, though it contains irritatingly few specific ideas about revolutionary politics, is clear on one matter above all else: that in spite of the disease, the terror, the dictatorship, the wars, the poverty, and the ruin which followed the revolution, the ideas of reason and progress which inspired it will triumph once again. In his preface to the poem he poured scorn on those who gave up their belief in revolutionary ideas because the revolution had been defeated, or had not gone according to plan. The passage could just as well have been written about the generations of disillusioned communists after losing the Russian Revolution:
On the first reverses of hope in the progress of French liberty, the sanguine eagerness for good overleaped the solution of these questions, and for a time extinguished itself in the unexpectedness of their result. Thus, many of the most ardent and tender-hearted of the worshippers of the public good have been morally ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes. Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the willful exaggeration of its own despair. This influence has tainted the literature of the age with the hopelessness of the minds from which it flows. Metaphysics and enquiries into moral and political science, have become little else than vain attempts to revive exploded superstitions or sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph. Our works of fiction and poetry have been overshadowed by the same infectious gloom. But mankind appears to me to be emerging from their trance.... In that belief I have composed the following poem.And so, even after the most frightful catalog of post-revolutionary tyranny, torture, famine, and disease, The Revolt of Islam remembers the ideas which started the revolution:
And, slowly, shall in memory ever burningFill this dark night of things with an eternal morning.
Alone of all the poets of his time, Shelley suppresses his own apprehensions about the French Revolution and concentrated instead on the coming triumph of the ideas which had unleashed it.
Soon after The Revolt of Islam was published, Shelley left England for Italy, where he spent the last four years of his life. All this time he was absorbed by political developments in Britain. In March 1819, he wrote his greatest poem, Prometheus Unbound, which the latter-day “lyricists” hail as a “classical tragic drama,” but which is, in fact, a poem about the English Revolution.
The Greek legend of Prometheus was taught to us budding Greek scholars (as I believe it is still taught today) as a moral tale about what happens to subversives when they dare to challenge the authority of God (or the headmaster, or the managing director). Prometheus dared to steal fire from the sun and to bring the benefits of science to mankind. This was intolerable to the king of the gods, Jupiter, for whom science was something from which only he (and other gods) should benefit.
So Prometheus was chained to a rock, tormented by the daily visits of a vulture who gnawed his liver.
To Shelley, Prometheus was a hero, representing the potential of man in revolt against repression.
His poem starts with a description of Prometheus’s torture against a background of darkness, disease, and tyranny. Asia, Prometheus’s wife, determines to release him and to overthrow Jupiter. She knows that there is only one power capable of doing that: the power of Demogorgon, the people-monster. She and her sister visit Demogorgon in his darkened cave, where she whips and lashes him with argument. Like all good agitators, she starts with the easy questions, playing on popular superstition and servility in order to challenge them.
Asia: Who made the living world?At the end of a long speech and some more furious questions, Asia calls on Demogorgon to arise, unshackle Prometheus, and overturn Jupiter. In a sudden climax, he rises. Two chariots appear from the recesses of the cave. Richard Holmes explains what they represent:
Asia: Who made all
That it contains? Thought, passion, reason, will
Demogorgon: God, almighty God.
After a bit more of this, her tone switches:
Asia: And who made terror, madness, crime, remorse,
Which from the links of the great chain of things
To every thought within the mind of man
Sway and drag heavily—and each one rests
Under the load toward the pit of death:
Abandoned hope—and love that turns to hate;
And self-contempt, bitterer to drink than blood;
Pain whose unheeding and familiar speech
ls howling, and keen shrieks, day after day;
And Hell, or the sharp fear of Hell?
Demogorgon: He reigns.
Asia: Utter his name! A world, pining in pain,
Asks but his name: curses shall drag him down.
There are two chariots: the one that brings Demogorgon to Jupiter is undoubtedly terrible and violent: Jupiter, authoritarian government, is to be overwhelmed by massive force, and the process is to be like a volcanic eruption and an earthquake which ruins cities....This is the crux of Shelley’s revolutionary ideas. For all his caution when writing about universal suffrage or other reforms, he was an instinctive revolutionary. Perhaps the revolution will come slowly, peacefully, gradually—in gentleness and light. Or perhaps (more probably) it will come with violence and civil war. In either case it is to be celebrated. As Mary Shelley put it in an uncharacteristic flash of insight into her husband’s politics:
Yet there is a second chariot, with its “delicate strange tracery” and its gentle charioteer with “dove-like eyes of hope.” This is the chariot which carries Asia and Panthea back to Prometheus and it seems to indicate that political freedom transforms man’s own nature and substitutes an ethic of love for the ideology of revenge and destruction represented by Prometheus’ curse.
The end of Act II leaves both these possibilities open, historically. Revolution will come, but how it will come depends on man himself. There are always two chariots. In either case, it is inevitable and it is to be celebrated.
Shelley loved the people, and respected them as often more virtuous, as always more suffering, and therefore more deserving of sympathy than the great. He believed that a clash between the two classes of society was inevitable, and he eagerly ranged himself on the people’s side.As the news came through from England, so Shelley’s poetry during the year of repression—1819—became more and more openly political. Some poems were what he called “hate-songs,” shouts of rage and contempt for the men who ran the English government. There are the Lines Written During the Castlereagh Administration, which appeals to the foreign secretary:
Ay, Marry thy Ghastly WifeOr the Similes for Two Political Characters of 1819:
Let Fear and Disquiet and Strife
Spread thy couch in the chamber of life!
Marry Ruin Thou Tyrant! and Hell be Thy Guide
To the Bed of thy Bride.
Are ye, two vultures sick for battle,The sonnet England in 1819 starts with the line:
Two scorpions under one wet stone.
Two bloodless wolves whose dry throats rattle,
Two crows perched on the murrained cattle,
Two vipers tangled into one.
An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king.There is even a parody of the national anthem!
In August came the event which was to haunt Shelley for the rest of his life. More than a hundred thousand trade unionists and their families gathered in St. Peters Field near Manchester for a great carnival and meeting at which the main speaker was “Orator Hunt,” the reformer. The meeting was banned by the Manchester magistrates. On their instruction the yeomanry charged into the crowd hacking with their sabers. Eleven people were killed, and more than 400 injured. One of the dead was a small child who was cut down from its mother’s arms.
As soon as Shelley heard the news—he was living near Leghorn—he shut himself up in his attic for several days and wrote The Masque of Anarchy, rightly described by Richard Holmes as “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English.” It starts with a dreadful pageant in which the Tory Ministers Castlereagh, Eldon, and Sidmouth, dressed respectively as Murder, Fraud, and Hypocrisy, ride by, slaughtering “the adoring multitude” as they go.
Shelley parts company with the other poets of his age and since who have pretended to favor “freedom” and other fine words, as long as they remain words. He gives a simple definition of freedom.
What art thou, freedom? Oh, could slavesThe horror of Peterloo—as the massacre came to be known—hangs over many of Shelley’s later poems. In December 1819, he finished Peter Bell The Third, a satire on Wordsworth. The poem shows how Peter was slowly seduced from his revolutionary ideas by the pressures of society, until he was writing drivel like any old Bernard Levin in the Times:
Answer from their living graves
This demand, tyrants would flee
Like a dream’s dim imagery.
Thou art not, as imposters say,
A shadow soon to pass away
A superstition and a name
Echoing from the cave of fame.
For the laborer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labor come
To a neat and happy home.
Thou art clothes and fire and food,
For the trampled multitude
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.
For he now raved enormous follyThe same savage satire is directed against the Tory government in Swellfoot the Tyrant, a joke play in which the king and his ministers are hunted down by their pig-people.
Of baptisms, Sunday schools and graves
’Twould make George Colman melancholy
To have heard him, like a male Molly,
Chanting those stupid staves.
Yet the Reviews, which heaped abuse
On Peter while he wrote for freedom
As soon as in his song they spy,
The folly that spells tyranny
Praise him, for those who feed ‘em.
Then Peter wrote odes to the Devil
In one of which he meekly said:
“May Carnage and Slaughter
Thy niece and thy daughter
May Rapine and famine
Thy gorge ever cramming
Glut thee with living and dead!
“May death and damnation,
Flit up from Hell with pure intent.
Slash them at Manchester
Glasgow, Leeds and Chester
Drench all with blood front Avon to Trent!”
Shelley’s censors have done their best to suppress all these poems. In the standard anthologies there is no Masque of Anarchy, no Peter Bell, no Swellfoot, no Men of England, none of the shorter political poems of 1819. To compensate for this awful void, the biographers and Shelley-lovers concocted another myth: that the most powerful influence on Shelley was an ethereal, almost divine quality called “love.” Extracts were hacked out of context to prove that Shelley was guided by the “love” that every brave Victorian gentleman felt for his passive, obsequious, and domestic wife.
But “love,” Shelley wrote in the notes to Queen Mab, “withers under constraint. Its very essence is liberty. It is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy or fear. It is there most pure, perfect and unlimited where its votaries live in confidence, equality and unreserve.”
For Shelley, love was bound up with the battle for women’s rights, in which he was even more dedicated a crusader than his mother-in-law, Mary Wollstonecraft. In all his revolutionary poems, the revolutionary leaders are women: Cynthia in The Revolt of Islam; Asia in Prometheus; Queen Mab; Iona in Swellfoot. All are champions not only of the common people, but also of the rights of their sex:
Can man be free if woman be a slave?It followed that chastity and marriage were a lot of nonsense.
Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air
To the corruption of a closed grave?
Can they whose mates are beasts condemned to bear
Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish dare
To trample their oppressors? In their home,
Among their babes, thou knowst a curse would wear
The shape of woman—hoary crime would come
Behind and Fraud rebuild Religion’s tottering dome.
Chastity is a monkish and evangelical superstition, a greater foe to natural temperance even than unintellectual sensuality; it strikes at the root of all domestic happiness, and consigns more than half the human race to misery.… A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.Prostitution was “the legitimate offspring of marriage”: Shelley was no prude. There is a thumping organ in Alastor—and another, more prolonged “deep and speechless swoon of joy” in The Revolt of Islam—to prove it. But he had nothing but contempt for “unintellectual sensuality,” for “annihilating all genuine passion, and debasing that to a selfish feeling which is the excess of generosity and devotedness.” He was for love, sex, women’s liberation; against chastity, prostitution, promiscuity.
Needless to say, these ideas goaded Shelley’s Christian contemporaries to paroxysms of indignation. The same ruling class pretended to deplore the morals of Lord Byron and his harem in Venice. In fact, Byron’s orgies were the source of almost uninterrupted titillation at coming-out balls; they helped to make an enormous fortune out of Byron’s poems. High society worshipped marriage, subsidized prostitution, and tolerated promiscuity. Free love of the type which Shelley advocated “undermined the fabric of their national life” and was on no account to be mentioned, let alone published.
All these ideas grew stronger in Shelley as he got older. Stephen Spender in an essay that he wrote in 1953, as he prepared to abandon a desiccated Stalinism for a respectable literary career, wrote that Shelley “abandoned his radical ideas” shortly before his death. This is nonsense. Karl Marx, who enjoyed Shelley almost as much as Shakespeare, understood it better. He wrote:
The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois. They grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.He was in the advanced guard of socialism for long after his death. All through the great agitations of the last century, through the battle to repeal the Combination Laws, through Chartism, through the early socialist activity of the 1880s and 1890s, hundreds of thousands of workers took courage and confidence from Shelley. The reason is not just because Shelley was an instinctive rebel who hated exploitation; but because he combined his revolutionary ideas in poetry.
What is the point of poetry? Is it not namby-pamby stuff, the plaything of middle-class education? Certainly, our education would like to reduce poetry to doggerel about trees and clouds and birds which you have to recite in front of the teacher and then forget as soon as possible.
That is one of the reasons why generation after generation of textbook editors have limited the “great poets” to meaningless meandering through glades. But poetry has another purpose, very dangerous to our educators. As Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry:
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods as this, there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.Why? Because great poems, like great songs, which are only poems set to music, are easily learned and remembered. The words linger in the memory over generations. And if the words carry revolutionary ideas, those ideas are communicated in poems far more thoroughly than in prose, in conversation or even in slogans.
We socialists have great difficulty in communication. However much we know and understand the political solutions to our social problems, the knowledge and understanding is useless unless we can communicate them. Trade union officialdom has constructed for itself a language of its own, a constipated gobbledygook, which protects it not so much from smooth-tongued employers as from its own rank and file. In the same way, many revolutionary socialists, after years of propaganda in the wilderness, have spun themselves a cocoon in which they and other sectarians can snuggle, safe from the oblivious outside world. Inside the cocoon, there is another language, a hideous, bastard language, unintelligible to the masses.
In the same way as the Russians insulted Lenin’s ideas on religion by mummifying his body, so these latter-day Trotskyists insult the clarity and power of Trotsky’s language by mummifying out-of-character and out-of-context sectarian phraseology. As a result, they communicate with nobody but themselves; argue with nobody but themselves; damage nobody but themselves.
We can enrich our language and our ability to communicate by reading great revolutionary poetry like that of Shelley.
All his life, Shelley was persecuted by the problem of communication. He was not, as his worshippers in later decades pretended, a “lyric” poet interested only in writing beautiful poetry. He was a man with revolutionary ideas, and he wanted to transmit them. His Ode to the West Wind was not a paean of praise to a wonder of nature, but a desperate appeal to the wind to:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universeShelley wanted the truth about repression and exploitation to go ringing through each heart and brain, so that each heart and brain would unite in action to end that repression and exploitation. So, particularly in his later poems, he concentrated all his mastery of language, all his genius with rhyme and rhythm into translating the ideas of the revolution to the masses.
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth
And, by the incantation of this verse
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words to all mankind.
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!
After 160 years he survives for us not as a lyric poet but as one of the most eloquent agitators of all time.
That is why we must read him, learn him, teach him to our children. He will help us to communicate our contempt for the corporate despotism under which we live and our faith in the revolutionary potential of the multitude:
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.
1 Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003).
2 Editor’s note: The Chartist rebellion was a working-class movement for social and political reform in England between 1838 and 1848 that demanded, among other things, full male suffrage without property qualifications. It got its name from the 1838 ten-point charter its adherents presented (with four million signatures) to parliament in 1839. Chartist leaders who threatened a general strike after parliament overwhelmingly rejected the charter were arrested, and twenty-four workers were killed when troops opened fire on a mass protest at the jail. Parliament rejected a second petition, which had three million workers’ signatures, in 1842, and the movement collapsed in 1848 after parliament rejected a third petition.
3 Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx Aveling, Shelley’s Socialism, (London: Journeyman Press, 1975).