Sunday, 4 August 2013

"Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth"

Joseph Severn, 1845, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound in Italy.
So today is the anniversary of the birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822). Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is regarded by critics as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. A radical in his poetry as well as his political and social views, Shelley did not achieve fame during his lifetime, but recognition for his poetry grew steadily following his death. Shelley was a key member of a close circle of visionary poets and writers that included Lord Byron; Leigh Hunt; Thomas Love Peacock; and his own second wife, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Like many I had read Shelley in terms of his romantic elements. However, all that changed when I read Paul Foot's biography, Red Shelley. Foot 's work gives a new view of Shelley. The core idea that Shelley has been misinterpreted since his work was first published, by conservative scholars who diluted or removed radical political messages - atheism, feminism, republicanism - because they offended, or opposed the idea of Shelley as the "ineffectual angel" of Romantic lyricism.
Early on in his life Shelley developed a contempt for the class society in which he found himself. His main teacher was William Godwin. Godwin spurned all revolutionary activity. He sought to change the world by changing people’s minds. Shelley worshipped Godwin, but could never agree with his appeals to passivity. He flung himself at once into revolutionary activity. At Oxford he wrote his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, which ridiculed all religion. He sent it to every bishop in Oxford demanding a debate and was expelled for his troubles.

Shelley’s first long poem, Queen Mab, is a ferocious and magnificent diatribe against the social order. In Ireland he wrote and attempted to circulate his Address to The Irish People, in which he argued for an Association to campaign for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform.
When three revolutionary workers were executed after the Pentridge uprising in Nottinghamshire in 1817, Shelley wrote a furious pamphlet scornfully comparing their unnoticed deaths to the public hysteria about the death of a young princess.
After his move to Italy in 1818 his best revolutionary poetry, especially the Ode to Liberty and Hellas, were written in tune with the European revolts of the time – in Spain, Naples and in Greece. But when there was not much happening, especially when the news from England was all bad, he wrote more and more lyric poetry. His political passions were never forsaken, but they were often buried deep in lyrical metaphor.

But the anger burned furiously, never far beneath the surface. Every so often it erupted like the volcanoes he was always writing about. The most extraordinary example of this is his poem about the massacre at PeterlooThe Mask of Anarchy. The demonstration in August 1819 in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, was at that time the biggest trade union gathering ever organised in Britain.

The ruling class was terrified. The yeomanry, a special police force consisting mainly of wealthy tradesmen, was sent to break up the crowd, slashing and stabbing with their swords as they went. Altogether 11 people died that day, and 150 more were seriously injured.

When news of this day’s work reached Shelley in Italy he was literally speechless with rage. He plunged into the little attic room he used at that time as a study. In five days he never appeared for conversation or recreation. He wrote the 92 verses of The Mask of Anarchy, without any doubt at all the finest poem of political protest ever written in our language. It has been quoted again and again in protests ever since. The Chartists revelled in it, and reprinted it. Gandhi quoted it when agitating among the South African Indians in the early part of this century. More recently it was translated and chanted during the students’ uprising at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.


‘And that slaughter to the nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
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.’

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