The Radical Writings of P. B. Shelley
(i) ‘This ghastly masquerade’ * – Enlightenment, Revolution and Reaction.
Central to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley were the momentous philosophical and political writings of the two centuries previous to his birth. The political and constitutional debate of Shelley’s lifetime had its roots in the tradition of those earlier European philosophers and social theorists.
During the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European scholars had begun to rediscover the science and philosophy of the ancient world. One philosophy to emerge from this ‘Renaissance’ was humanism, which emphasised the primacy of humanity within the universe, and the importance of a benevolent and harmonious society. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679,) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626,) challenged traditional scholasticism, with its basis in theological debate. Works such as Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), stressed the responsibility for social welfare amongst European monarchs.
During the Eighteenth Century, Renaissance humanism inspired a new generation of social theorists. These new philosophers and scientists extended the Renaissance aspiration for progress and social harmony, to question the epistemological truths of Christianity, and the conventional wisdom of classical philosophy and science.
This period was heralded as ‘the Enlightenment’, since the attainment of truth and knowledge, through logic, rather than dogma, had become the primary aim of the scholar.
British philosophers such as John Locke (1632-1704,) and French philosophes, such as Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778,) used the ’empirical’ method of Rene Descartes (1596-1650,) to demonstrate the injustices of traditional hierarchical society, and the necessity of a new ‘social contract’ between government and people.
The American Revolution of 1776, and establishment of the first French National Assembly of 1789, both demonstrate the influence of the reconstructive political theories of the Enlightenment.
Inspired by the revolutions in America and France, British reformers, like John Wilkes (1727-1797,) fought hard for a representative parliament and other civil rights present in the new republics. The growth of political unions, or ‘Corresponding societies,’ (1.) amongst the middle classes of London demonstrated popular sympathy for social and parliamentary reform.
*. P.B.Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.342, (The Masque of Anarchy, verse VII.)
1. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.53 1.
However, for many supporters of reform in Britain, the French Revolution failed as a model for social reconstruction. The rise to prominence of extremists such as Maximillian Robespierre (1758-1794,) and increasing influence of mob violence on French politics seemed to discredit the Revolution.
Perhaps most shocking for British liberals, was the execution of the Bourbon royal family during 1792-3, and the militarist ascendency of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821,) who proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1804.
In Britain, the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806,) responded harshly to the events in France, with the suspension of Habeas Corpus (*) in 1794, and arrest of many ‘Corresponding Society’ leaders.
In April, 1792, the situation for liberal writers and politicians became worse, when French patriots routed an Austrian invasion at Valmy. Anxious to halt the spread of revolution to other parts of Europe, the British government joined the ‘coalition’ against republican France, thus beginning a military and ideological war that would last until 1815.
Reaction to the events in France was felt throughout Britain and America. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) supported the principle of revolution, and advocated a new British constitution, whilst Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), upheld traditional monarchical order as the most stable model of government. The Rights of Man became a best-seller, with an estimated 200,000 copies sold. 2.
In Red Shelley, Paul Foot describes popular support for Paine’s work:
‘The sceptical journalist William Hazlitt wrote at the time that The Rights of Man was so popular, that the government was obliged to suspend the constitution and go to war to counteract the effect of its popularity.’ 3.
Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, influenced leading American statesmen, such as
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Paine himself fought with the revolutionaries in the American War of Independence.
In the course of his career, Paine served as an American Congressman, and as a deputy in the French republican parliament.
*. The right to public trial following arrest.
2. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.61
3. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.20
During Shelley’s lifetime (1792-1822,) the British people often seemed at the Brink of revolution. The poor living and working conditions resulting from the Industrial Revolution, lack of political representation and absence of any standard welfare system generated a legacy of bitterness amongst the urban poor.
In response to increasing hardship, particularly due to the 1815 ‘Corn laws’ (*), many popular demonstrations were held across Britain for cheaper bread, and the general improvement of living conditions.
The Tory government of Lord Liverpool (1812-1827) was particularly hostile to popular protest, as seen in the Manchester ‘Peterloo massacre’ of 1819, when mounted soldiers charged peaceful demonstrators, killing eleven people. 4.
In response to repressive government legislation and policy, numerous revolutionary societies were formed, all illegal under the ‘Combination Acts.’ Attempts were made, such as the 1820 ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’, to assassinate members of Liverpool’s cabinet.
The government of Robert Jenkinson (Lord Liverpool),
passed less social and political reforms than any other
Nineteenth century administration.
Liverpool’s government was marked by its reaction, and entrenchment in the political ethics of the previous century.
The government’s fear of revolution amongst the common people was seen in the presence of 138,000 infantrymen in London during 1794-1822, and in the use of 1000 cavalrymen to break the Lancashire insurrection of 1812. 5.
In fear of the spread of revolutionary and republican literature, Lord Liverpool’s administration censored the popular press. Many liberal publishers and journalists, such as Leigh Hunt (1784-1859,) and Richard Carlisle (1790-1843,) were imprisoned without trial for criticising government policies.
Paul Foot describes government abuse of the libel laws in his book Red Shelley:
‘At no other period has the criminal libel law been used with such abandon.’ 6.
It was during this dynamic period of social and political upheaval that Shelley lived most of his adult life, in an age of fierce reaction to the emergence of republicanism in France and America.
*. An embargo on the import of cheap foreign corn.
4. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.81
5. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.36
6. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.19
For Shelley, the political tolerance of the previous centuries, that had allowed British statesmen like Sir. Francis Bacon and the French philosophes to contemplate reform in the centres of European learning and influence, must have seemed remote from the reality of censorship and judicial abuse in Lord Liverpool’s Britain. Paul Foot comments on this historical regression in his book, Red Shelley:
‘In the twelve years of Shelley’s adult life (1810-22), Britain had its worst government ever. …it was all the more apparent and degenerative when considered against the Enlightenment that preceded it.’ 7.
(ii.) ‘Why should I believe all this?’ * – Shelley’s early life and works.
As the son of the Whig M.P., Sir. Timothy Shelley, Shelley was exposed from an early age to the liberal, and sometimes republican politics of the Whig party. It was Sir. Timothy’s patron, the Duke of Norfolk who in 1793, toasted ‘the Majesty of the people,’ rather than the majesty of the King. 8.
From an early age, Shelley had begun to question the sanctity of the established church, and the ethical validity of the monarchy. Shelley’s early interest in constitutional reconstruction, and the French and American revolutions, is seen in his first poetry collection of 1810. This anthology was published under the name ‘Margaret Nicholson’, a radical who attempted to assassinate king George III in 1786.
The poems all contain criticism against the ‘smooth faced tyrants’, of court and parliament whom Shelley blamed for the economic hardship of the British people. In Feelings of a Republican on the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Shelley laments the dictatorship of Napoleon and suppression of the French Convention:
‘To think that a most unambitious slave,
Like thou, should dance and revel on the grave of liberty.’ 9.
During 1810, his first year at University College, Oxford, Shelley wrote to the liberal publisher and journalist Leigh Hunt, congratulating him on his recent acquittal from charges of seditious libel by the Government. In the letter, Shelley outlines his vision of a republican society, which would orchestrate national protest against repressive government policy:
‘The ultimate intention of my aim is to form a methodical society which should become organised so as to resist the coalition of the enemies of liberty…’ 10.
7. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.19
*. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.335
8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.34
9. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B.Shelley, p.288
10. Kenneth Neill Cameron (Ed.), Percy Bysshe Shelley – Selected Poetry and Prose, p.19
Shelley’s expulsion form Oxford in 1811, for publishing his critique on religion, The Necessity of Atheism, effectively ended his political career, and hopes of becoming a radical M.P. under the patronage of the Whigs. Dejected by both his friends and family, Shelley fled to London, where he hoped to participate in the liberal literary circle of Leigh Hunt.
Shelley’s declaration of atheism was not so much a philosophical resolution, as a fundamental rejection of conventional religious and social order. It was during this early period of intellectual rebellion, that Shelley became committed to constitutional and social reform. Kenneth N. Cameron comments on Shelley’s early rebellion:
‘Shortly thereafter he was precipitated upon the career of struggle against social injustice which he continued in one form or another throughout his short life…’ 11.
(iii) Argument: Shelley the Radical.
In assessing the extent to which Percy Bysshe Shelley supported the movement for reform in Britain, through his literary works and involvement in physical protest, it may be worth considering how the term ‘Radical’ has been interpreted since the Eighteenth Century.
In defining the term ‘radical’ we might consider the aims and ideological values adopted by writers, politicians and others identified by historians and contemporary sources as radicals.
To begin with, radicalism never constituted a particular ideological creed, nor a structured political organisation. The term ‘radical’, from the Latin radex or ‘root’ (12,) became a common term during the 1780s to describe philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau, who advocated fundamental changes to society. Throughout the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, the term ‘radical’ was primarily applied to any advocate of reform who sought to alter the balance of power between the ruling class and commons.
The revolutionary writer and statesman Thomas Paine (1737-1809), and the Irish patriot, Wolf Tone, (1763-1798,) were both called radicals, but so was the leading philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858,) who improved the lives of industrial workers at his New Lanark model village. 13.
Other radicals, such as William Cobbet (1763-1835,) and Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773-1835,) organised mass demonstrations amongst the industrial poor of Manchester and London for improved living and working conditions.
Others cited as radicals included liberal journalists, such as Richard Carlisle, who flouted Lord Liverpool’s ‘gagging’ laws to criticise government corruption and injustice.
Another group often described as radicals, included social theorists such as William Godwin (1736-1856), and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1852). Godwin’s Political Justice (1793,) attacked government censorship, and advocated rights to personal liberty and behavioural freedom. 14.
11. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley – Selected Poetry and Prose, p.Viii
12. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.81
13. Peter Lane, British History 1760-1914, p.81
14. P. Marshall, ed., The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, p.158-169
William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was one of the first British radical philosophers. A former non-conformist minister, Godwin opposed revolution as a means to reform, and cautioned Shelley against ‘preparing a scene of blood.’
Like Rousseau, Godwin’s philosophy asserts personal liberty and behavioural freedom, above the rule of government.
Despite their differing methods and particular concerns, these ‘Radicals’ all possessed a similar basic aim: the emergence of a just and egalitarian society.
The basis of this study, will therefore be, to determine haw far Shelley’s life and works comply with this broad definition of ‘radicalism.’ In particular, I will assess Shelly’s social and political views, on issues such as electoral suffrage, social welfare, and how far he advocated a meritocratic and egalitarian society. More interestingly, I will attempt to demonstrate Shelley’s thoughts on capitalism and its influence on society during the Industrial Revolution, the period in which Shelley was born and lived.
‘The Mirror of Futurity’ *
Shelley’s theory of art in A Defence of Poetry.
(i.) – ‘The Aeolian Lyre’ – Empathy and genius in the poetic imagination.
Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, was written in February 1821, shortly after a pamphlet by Thomas Love Peacock on the inadequacy of poetry as an instrument for debate. Shelley’s reply attempts to demonstrate the vital role of poetry in communicating political ideas, and also the wider nature of poetry as a source of human innovation and wisdom.
Central to Shelley’s theory of poetry, is the function of the imagination. For Shelley, the imagination is an artistic and creative force within the human psyche, distinct from the faculties of reason and logic.
Like Sir. Philip Sidney, the Romantics defended the creative faculty of Genius, or Imagination (1,) as opposed to classical and Renaissance concepts of Mimesis (2.)
In mimetical theory, the art-object is merely a repetition or copy of some universal model or concept. Thus a portrait in sculpture or paint, is simply the reproduction of a conceptual entity, i.e. the human form. For the Romantics, however, artistic activity does not merely depend upon mimetic repetition, but on original and innovative thought.
For Shelley, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1732-1834), and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the process of artistic creativity depends upon two mental faculties: reason and imagination. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley defines reason as the ‘instrument’ of creative thought, the faculty that allow us to observe and experience our environment. The imagination, however, is a faculty of association and interpretation, of opinion and judgement. Shelley asserts that imagination is the vital part of consciousness:
‘Reason is to the imagination, as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance…’ 3.
*. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
1. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.230
2. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosiphy, p.569
3. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
Shelley’s metaphor or analogy for the relationship between reason and the imagination, is his ‘Aeolian lyre,’ a harp that would play as the wind made contact with its delicate strings:
‘Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alterations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre…’ 4.
Shelley suggests that mankind interprets or transforms the chaos of experience through an innate desire for harmony within the human psyche. Shelley’s concept of ‘internal rhythm,’ bears striking similarity to modern understanding on the role of rhythm in human
psychology (5). Harmony is inherent to the human psyche:
‘…there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in a lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony…’ 6.
This internal desire, for harmony of mind and environment is the basis of the imagination. Imagination is the creative faculty within man that strives for harmony. Art itself is a creative expression of the imagination, which makes actual, either through aural or visual art, the harmony of imaginative thought.
Human civilisation itself has its origins in imaginative thought. Shelley uses the term ‘poetry’ to define any cultural activity which contributes to the evolution of social harmony within civilisation:
‘…poetry is connate with the origin of man.’ 7.
Shelley argues that human society is itself an expression of our internal desire for harmony and the ideal. Language, dance, and pictorial art in primitive societies, all express our inner desire for social harmony:
‘…language, gesture, and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony.’ 8.
Similarly, social ethics and morality also reflect this desire for concord and order within the human psyche. Empathy for fellow men, and a shared social conscience is simply another manifestation of the imagination, and our internal desire for external harmony:
‘The social sympathies… begin to develop themselves from the moment that two human beings co-exist. Equality, unity… become the principles to which the social being is determined to action.’ 9.
4. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
5. D. Morris, The Naked Ape, p.95
6. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
7. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.225
8. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.226
9. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.226
Poetic thought gives rise to social ethics, morality and empathy, which are the bases of social order. Shelley asserts that:
‘…poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and music… they are the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society…’ 10.
(ii) ‘The Principle of Self’ – Shelley’s critique of poetic virtue in the modern age.
One fundamental aspect of Shelley’s theory on poetic thought, is the relationship between virtue and the imagination. For Shelley, poetic thought, sometimes called imagination, or genius, is the basis of social ethics. This is due to the human inclination for social concord, stemming from our innate desire for inner psychological harmony.
Shelley identifies key social ethics which have influenced the course of human history, these include: truth, morality and the ideal. The imagination expresses these ethics, through culture and the arts. Thus, the literature of Homer is poetic, because he portrays ideal virtue in the characters of Achilles, Hector and Ulysses:
‘…the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to their depths in these immortal creations.’ 11.
Alongside the necessity to convey an ideal vision of society, Shelley suggests that truth to reality is also essential to the expression of poetic thought. By expressing realism in art and culture, the poet imparts significance and a fresh outlook on the everyday world:
‘Poetry lifts the hidden veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.’ 12.
Alongside truth and the ideal, morality is fundamental to poetic virtue. Shelley identifies the concept of ‘love’ as the basis of morality. For Shelley, empathy for others is the most important moral virtue:
‘The great secret of morals is love… A man, to be greatly good, must… put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own… ‘ 13.
10. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228
11. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228
12. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.233
13. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.234
Shelley stresses the humanistic concept of ‘agapè’ (*), or love for mankind. In his essay, In defence of Shelley, Manfred Wojcik suggests that the concept of love is central to Shelley’s works:
The humanistic concept of love is the cornerstone of Shelley’ moral and aesthetic views, it is the determinant factor of the essential quality of his poetry…’ 14.
What interests Shelley most about the expression of poetic thought, in the arts or any other aspect of human culture, is not the lyrical, or aesthetic appeal of language, rhythm or form, but the ideas conveyed by art. Shelley condemns the arts of his own age, suggesting that recent poets have failed to appreciate the role of the poet as innovator, and champion of social ethics. Although he acknowledges their importance, Shelley questions the epistemological approach of Enlightenment philosophers. Despite the advent of liberal political philosophy, mankind is still enslaved beneath injustice and inequality. Shelley comments:
‘The exertions of Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau… are entitled to the gratitude of mankind. Yet it is easy to calculate the degree of moral and intellectual improvement.. had they never lived…’ 15.
For Shelley, the role of historians, statesmen and poets are the same. Their task is to maintain the moral conscience of society. Dantë Alighieri (1265-1321), and John Milton (1608-1764), are both praised by Shelley, as great reformers and moralists. For Shelley, the most important aspect of their works, was not their epistemological method, but their vision as moral teachers and social innovators.
Dantë’s celebration of love in Vitae Nuova (1294), and Paradiso (1321), becomes a spiritual creed, most obviously concerning Dantë’s love for Beatrice. However, Dantë’s identification of love as the ‘Supreme Cause’ (16) suggests his identification of humanistic love as the true godhead, rather than the sentient entity of tradition:
‘Dantë was the first awakener of entranced Europe…. his works are a perpetual hymn of everlasting love…’ 17.
Similarly, Milton challenged established religion and social order in Europe, through his republican politics during the English Civil War (1642-1651,) and through his revisionist interpretation of the Christian creation story, in Paradise Lost (1666). For Shelley, Milton’s ‘Satan’ is a symbol of human aspiration for liberty and equality. Satan’s rebellion seems to symbolises the rise of oppressed humanity against the tyranny and injustice of monarchical Europe. Shelley comments:
‘Milton’s Devil as a moral being, is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity…’ 18.
*. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosiphy, p.16
14. R.B. Woodings, Shelley, p.272
15. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.238
16. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.244
17. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.244
18. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.247 10.
Shelley considers that modern statesmen and scholars have neglected moral and social concerns. Instead, scholars now pursue the ethic of ‘Utility,’ (19.) or economic progress.
Despite praising the social concerns of the Utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham, Shelley suggests that their social ideal: a contented working class, falls far short of his vision for the new age. For Shelley, Utilitarianism allows the growth of exploitative industry, inequality and deprivation in society:
‘…let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not… exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want.’ 20.
Most lacking in the ‘principles of the imagination,’ or poetic virtue, are the ruling classes. Shelley accuses the government of protecting their own vested interests, at the expense of social justice:
‘The rich have become richer, and the poor poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between… anarchy and despotism.’ 21.
For Shelley, poetic virtue in the modern world has declined. This decline has accompanied the rise of despotism, and marginalisation of idealistic debate, as seen in the works of Milton and Dantë. The poetic virtue of idealism and morality has been replaced by the moribund capitalism of the modern world. Shelley describes this new virtue as:
‘…the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.’ 22.
(iii) ‘Legislators of the world’ – Political ethics and the imagination.
For Shelley, any individual who endorses poetic virtue merits the title of poet. Accordingly, many of the ancient historians merit poetic virtue, because of their independence of mind, and willingness to judge history without prejudice or bias:
‘a composition may be poetical, without the composition as a whole being a poem. …thus, all the great historians, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy were poets…’ 23.
19. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.247
20. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.247-248
21. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.248.
22. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.249.
23. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
Shelley believes that great spiritual leaders were essentially poets, because they sought to instil the poetic virtues of empathy and humanistic love in humanity.
Shelley describes the moral nature of the poet:
‘…inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and true… .’ 24.
Historians, religious leaders, poets and statesmen are all essentially recognised
as poets. Examples include Jesus Christ, Plato, Sir. Francis Bacon and Dantë. These individuals not only taught moral virtue, but also exposed the injustice of their times. Shelley believes that the desire to improve society is attributable to poetic virtue:
‘All the authors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poets as they are inventors… and contain in themselves the …echo of the eternal music.’ 25.
Poets are not only social and ethical reformers, but also visionaries, whose idealism is the driving force behind their lives and work. The poet imagines the possibilities of the present, and asserts that those possibilities can become reality:
‘… For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is… but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of the latest time.’ 26.
Shelley’s final message is that poetic thought is both natural and connate with man’s social and intellectual evolution. Poets not only institute social and cultural change, but reflect the changing attitudes and mood of society. Poetic thought is not a philosophical or epistemological method, but a state of mind, a set of moral attitudes towards fellow humanity.
Poets do not need to follow any particular creed or doctrine in attaining moral truth, but simply need to follow their moral instinct as teachers and legislators. Shelley suggests that:
‘…the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ 27.
24. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
25. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
26. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.228.
27. D.J. Enright and E. De Chickera, ed., English Critical Texts, p.255.
‘This thorny wilderness.’ *
Aspirations for reform in Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy.
(i.) ‘Behold where grandeur frowned!’ – Transience and immutability in cosmic order.
Perhaps the most explicit of Shelley’s longer political poems, are Queen Mab (1812), and The Masque of Anarchy (1819).
These poems do not express any particular political or philosophical system, nor any definite opinion on how reform might be achieved, but instead convey, through their constant attack on contemporary social and political order, the poet’s anger and disgust at social injustice.
Queen Mab was largely written in 1812, the year following Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford, and The Masque of Anarchy was written in 1819, during Shelley’s last visit to southern Italy. Between them, the poems span a considerable period of Shelley’s short adult life, and reflect Shelley’s opinions at the beginning and end of his literary career. The style of the two poems are very different. Queen Mab is obviously intended for an educated, upper-class audience, with its use of complex Platonic imagery, and elaborate narrative style. The Masque of Anarchy, however, is more direct, relying less on metaphor and allegory, and more on explicit reference to contemporary individuals and events.
The Masque of Anarchy, seems to demonstrate Shelley’s stylistic movement from an approach deeply rooted in traditional lyrical verse, to a more experimental, and in many ways more popularly understood poetic form.
Stephen C. Behrendt suggests that many of Shelley’s later poems are aimed at a wider audience than those of his youth, and that Shelley deliberately used simpler language, and the popular ballad form to popularise his political ideas:
‘These poems illustrate Shelley’s penetrating understanding of economic and social issues… they exploit the rhetorical features of working class radicalism…’ 1.
In the earlier poem, Queen Mab, Shelley constantly refers to a major theme throughout his works: the contrasting nature of transient and immutable morality.
*. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
1. Michael O’ Neill, ed., Shelley, p.128
The Fairy Queen, Mab, summons the spirit of a young girl, Isanthe to her ‘celestial temple’. Isanthe seems to symbolise poetic virtue in the human spirit; her innocence and moral purity is an ideal of humanistic virtue, as opposed to the defined morality of a society trapped by the indoctrination of creed and convention. Shelley’s ‘icy chains of custom’ (2.) seem to resemble Blake’s ‘mind forged manacles’ (3) of psychological oppression.
Mab describes Isanthe’s moral innocence:
‘Soul of Isanthe! Thou,
Judged alone worthy of the envied
That waits the good and the sincere…
Those who have…
Vanquished earth’s pride and meanness,
The icy chains of custom…’ 4.
The Fairy Queen, Mab is the spirit of humanity’s conscience. Like Shelley’s definition of the poet, she passes the innovative and creative faculty of genius from one generation to the next:
‘In the unfailing consciences of men…
The future…’ 5.
Mab is not influenced by tradition, or custom. She preserves only the virtue of poetic thought,
‘I gather not the sting
Which retributive memory implants…’ 6.
Mab counsels Isanthe on the value of poetic virtue. Without the life-giving power of virtue, the universe is merely a lifeless shell:
‘But, were it virtues only mead, to
In a celestial palace…
Of changeless nature would be
Unfulfilled. ‘ 7.
2. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
3. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, p.47 (London, Verse 2.)
4. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
5. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
6. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.3-4 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.)
7. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.5-6 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
Isanthe is shown the true nature of the Universe; empathetic thought and the morality of humanistic love is itself the fabric of natural order:
‘…the passions, prejudices, interests,
That sway the meanest being
In the great chain of nature.’ 8.
Mab demonstrates how the poetic virtue of social harmony is connate with man’s internal nature. Mab herself symbolises human nature, illustrating how humanity’s desire for liberty and freedom transcends the ages, and is inevitably victorious over injustice and oppression.
Mab shows Isanthe the ruins of fallen civilisations:
‘Behold! where grandeur
What now remains? – the memory
Of senselessness and shame…’ 9.
Shelley is convinced that humanity is presently in an age of despotism and injustice, but that society will embrace poetic virtue, and aspire to reconstruct the oppressive institutions of contemporary Europe.
In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley explicitly condemns the reactionary government of Lord Liverpool. Written shortly after the ‘Peterloo Massacre,’ of 1819, the poem exposes the injustice and brutality of government policy and attitude.
Liverpool is himself ‘Anarchy’, mounted on a bloody horse, suggesting government responsibility for the brutal repression of popular protest after 1812:
‘Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse splashed with blood…’ 10.
Shelley believed that government censure of political freedom, and abuse of authority would instil society with the energy and vision to influence social reform. In Queen Mab, the Fairy Queen tells Isanthe, that despotism, and the subjugation of the human spirit is incompatible with natural law:
‘Nature rejects the monarch, not the
The subject, not the citizen…’ 11.
8. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.6 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
9. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.6 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
10. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B.Shelley, p.342 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse VIII.)
11. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.11 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
Mab informs us that tyranny is transient, since human nature must inevitably overcome oppression. The civilisations of antiquity were powerful, but fell due to a discontented servile class, and the oligarch’s desire for conquest. Shelley identifies modern Britain with the Macedonian, Egyptian and Roman empires, believing that British tyranny will also be overthrown.
Mab anticipates the next awakening of man’s imagination, when the immutable virtues of empathy and social justice will overcome the transient oppression of contemporary Britain:
‘…the gorgeous throne
Shall stand unnoticed in the regal hall
Fast falling to decay…’ 12.
(ii.) ‘Rapine, madness, treachery and wrong’ – Shelley’s reflexive warning to the new age.
Like Blake, Shelley often seems to address a future, as well as a contemporary audience. To realise their ideal, these poets often describe the injustice of the present as if it occurred in the past. When Blake addresses the ‘children of the future age,’ (13,) he is making a comparison between the injustice of his own time, and his ‘indignant’, assertion of a better society for the future. Shelley is also an ‘indignant’ visionary and social idealist.
When Queen Mab describes the injustices of Britain, she does so as ‘a warning for the future,’ (14.):
The past, and thence I will essay to glean
a warning for the future… ‘ 15.
Mab lists the injustices and evils of modern Britain, suggesting that the cause of discontent and oppression is hierarchical social order itself. The landed aristocracy, who largely controlled parliament and regional administration, are described as selfish exploiters of the poor:
– the drones of the community;
On the mechanic’s labour… ‘ 16.
12. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
13. William Blake, The Works of William Blake, p. 84 (A Little Girl Lost, Verse 1.)
14. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.8 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
15. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.8 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
16. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
The brutal repression of popular protest by Lord Liverpool’s administration is described in The Masque of Anarchy. The military supression of the Irish revolutionaries is suggested in Shelley’s damning condemnation of the ‘murder(er)’ Viscount Castlereagh. Similarly, the oppressive ‘Corn Laws’ are criticised in the representation of Lord Eldon, the chancellor, as ‘Fraud.’
Like Paine, Shelley believes that autocratic government arose out of violence and oppression. For Paine, kings have no legal authority, since they, ‘…arose out of a conquest, and not out of society.’ (17.) In Queen Mab, Mab asks:
‘Whence thinkest thou, kings and
parasites arose?’ 18.
Mab describes the suppression of the people’s desire for change, by the forces of religious and political indoctrination. The people are asked to oppose the forces of liberty in France, beneath the guise of patriotism:
Swells with unnatural pride of crime…
This infant arm becomes the bloodiest
Shelley identifies war with imperialism and the greed of tyrants. The acquisitional wars of the British Empire, in India and America are viewed by Shelley with scepticism. Patriotism and nationalism are just excuses for robbery and the enslavement of nations.
Mab suggests that war is simply a distraction, or past-time of the ruling classes:
‘War is the statesmen’s game, the
The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s
Shelley also criticises the government’s war against the British people.
In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley refers to the recent massacre at Manchester:
‘Over English Land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.’ 21.
17. Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, p.72
18. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.)
19. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.11 (Queen Mab, Verse 2.)
20. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.28 (Queen Mab, Verse 3.
21. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P.B.Shelley, p.342 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse X.)
Another major aspect of the poems, is Shelley’s critique on established religion.
Shelley suggests that conventional religion is simply a tool of the state. God himself is merely a superstition, an accessory to the legislative and ethical laws of society. Mab condemns the superstition of religion, as an instrument of repression on the social psyche:
‘Religion! But for thee prolific friend,
Who people’st earth with demons,
Hell with men,
And Heaven with slaves!’ 22.
Shelley ‘s religious views may have been influenced by the alternative spiritual movements to emerge from Revolutionary France, such as Theophilanthropy, (23,) and the ‘Cult of Reason,’ (24.) In opposition to conventional religious ethics, the fairy Mab suggests the spiritual significance of human nature and virtue:
‘O human spirit! Spur to thee the
Where virtue fixes universal peace,
…midst the ebb and flow of human things.’ 25.
Shelley’s critique of the present age is twofold. On one hand he condemns traditional institutions of power, and on the other he criticises the economic and mercantile institutions of society. In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley blames the fundamental existence of capitalism for the exploitation and abuse of society.
The industrialist is the aristocrat of the modern world, and the labourer has become as much a slave to the new order as the mediaeval villein:
‘Tis to work, and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs as in a cell
For the tyrant’s use to dwell…’ 26.
Shelley’s warning to the future is like Blake’s: an appeal to humanity to recognise it’s own apathy and degeneration. By exposing contemporary injustice, Shelley hopes society will awaken to the spirit of the age, and strive to overcome the oppression and indifference of traditional social order.
22. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.21 (Queen Mab, Verse 6.)
23. Robert Gould, The French Revolution, 1787-1797, Volume 5, P.36
24. Robert Gould, The French Revolution, 1787-1797, Volume 5, P.32-33
25. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.28 (Queen Mab, Verse 8.)
26. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.343 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse XL.)
(iii.) ‘Reason’s voice’ – Shelley’s aspirations for popular reaction against injustice.
Shelley predicts the popular spirit soon to engulf Europe in a second age of revolution.
Shelley never lived to see the revolutions in France, Austria, Italy and Germany during the 1840s, but the fact that they occurred bears testament to his insight into human nature and the intolerance of humanity to tyranny and injustice. In Queen Mab, Shelley predicts revolution and reconstruction in Europe:
…Now swells the intermingling din…
The ceaseless clangour, and the rush
Inebriate with rage… ‘ 27.
Shelley both predicts and asserts the need for dramatic social change. At times, The Masque of Anarchy, sounds almost like a call to arms. Despite Shelley’s ambiguity on methods of reform, he does seem attracted to the kind of popular protest and violence seen in revolutionary France:
‘Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep had fall’n on you!
Ye are many, they are few. ‘ 28
Shelley does therefore seem to accept the necessity of some social act in the process of reform, despite ambiguity over the exact form that it would take. What is clear, however, is Shelley’s recognition of the importance of ordinary people in ensuing the reform of parliament and society.
(iv.) ‘The secret of the future’ – Shelley’s prophetic vision of the new age.
Shelley considers the most important reform of the future, will be the ethics and attitudes of humanity itself. The ethical morality of established religion will be replaced by the primacy of humanistic love. Human and cosmic nature will instead be respected as divine. In Queen Mab, Isanthe hails the new spirit of moral order:
‘All things are recreated, and the flame
of consentaneous love inspires all
No storm deforms the breathing brow
of heaven…’ 29.
27. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.21 (Queen Mab, Verse 6.)
28. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.343 (The Masque of Anarchy, Verse XCII.)
29. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.30 (Queen Mab, Verse 7.)
We are not informed what would follow reform in The Masque of Anarchy, and Shelly is ambiguous when describing his future ‘paradise’ in Queen Mab, but he does suggests the ‘liberation’ of society, suggested through the metaphor of the natural world:
‘As flowers beneath May’s footsteps waken,
As stars from night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call…’ 30.
Mab suggests that human virtue alone can overcome tyranny and injustice. This is Mab’s ‘secret of the future,’ (31) humanity must realise it’s own moral nature to create the paradise of the new age:
‘Thine is the hand whose piety would
The thorny pillow of unhappy crime…
Thy footsteps in the path that thou
hast trod…’ 32.
Both poems demonstrate Shelley’s concern for the social ills of his time, and both respond in some way to those problems.
The poems demonstrate Shelley’s commitment to reform and the welfare of ordinary society, from the earliest stage, to the latter period of his career.
The poems, do however represent a changing outlook for Shelley. In Queen Mab, Shelley seems to address an upper class audience, appealing to their moral nature for a benevolent attitude to society. In The Masque of Anarchy, however, Shelley addresses the ordinary people, arousing their desire for change by emphasising the physical brutality of government policy.
Both poems are a warning to the contemporary ruling class, prophesying the calamity of revolution if reform is not achieved. However, the key difference between the poems, is Shelley’s unhesitating appeal to the people, and apparent support for popular protest in in The Masque of Anarchy.
Ultimately, however, the main concern of the poems, is perhaps Shelley’s appeal to society to recognise and respond to contemporary inequality and injustice. Above all, we are struck by the sheer horror of Shelley’s concrete imagery on the subject of destitution and poverty:
‘A sunless life in the unwholesome mine,
Drags out in labour a protracted death…
From all that genders misery and
Of earth this thorny wilderness…’ 33.
30. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.21 (Queen Mab, Verse 6.)
31. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.28 (Queen Mab, Verse 8.)
32. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.35 (Queen Mab, Verse 9.)
33. P. B. Shelley, The Works of P. B. Shelley, p.10 (Queen Mab, Verse 1.) 20.
‘Feelings of a Republican.’ *
Shelley’s polemic philosophy.
Throughout his works, Shelley exposes the injustice and abuse of power that results from an unrepresentative and unaccountable government. Paul Foot demonstrates the influence of Paine on Shelley’s politics:
‘Kings, he argued, had no right to govern. This idea – that representative government is the only justifiable government – came directly from Thomas Paine, whose works Shelley read while still at Eton, and revered all his life.’ 1.
Like Paine, Shelley responded bitterly to Edmund’s Burke’s defense of monarchial government, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790.) Burke’s Reflections, supported and encouraged the reaction of the British government, following the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars of 1792. 2.
Shelley’s familiarity with the works of Paine, Godwin and the widely censored republican press of Hazlitt and Carlisle, are demonstrated in Shelley’s political essays and pamphlets. In Proposal for an Association (1812), Shelley proposes a new British constitution. Like Locke and Rousseau, Shelley asserts the need for a social contract between government and people. Shelley suggests that the primary function of government is to serve its citizens:
‘Government can have no rights, it is a delegation for the purpose of securing them to others…’ 3.
The exploitation of common labour, and inequality within society is perhaps Shelley’s most central theme. In his journal, Shelley suggests that national wealth is based ultimately on human labour, an observation central to the later economic theories of Marx.
*. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.288-289, (Feelings of a Republican on the fall of Bonaparte.)
1. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.53-54
2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p.180
3. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.54.
The wealth of the nation does not lie in the material possessions of the ruling classes, but in the toil and energy of the ordinary people. Shelley writes:
‘There is no real wealth but the labour of man. Were the mountains of gold and the valleys of silver, the world would not be one grain of corn richer… ‘ 4.
Shelley’s views on reform and social reconstruction are most clearly explained in his pamphlet, A philosophical view of reform (1820.) Shelley asserts necessary reforms, including the abolition of the monarchy and aristocracy, the dissolution of the standing army in Britain, the abolition of tithes (a tax levied by the Anglican Church,) and ban on sinecures (service to the King that carried no actual work).
Shelley also demands the disestablishment of the Anglican church, entailing emancipation for dissenters and Catholics from occupational restrictions, and the reintroduction of habeas corpus (guarantee of trial by jury,) into the British legal system.
Also condemned are the sprawling industrial towns of northern Britain, unplanned and poorly maintained.
Cities such as Manchester and Liverpool were home to some of the worst living and working conditions in Europe, with child labour and unchecked work practices resulting in widespread exploitation and deprivation. Shelley writes:
‘This is then the condition of the lowest and largest class, from whose labour the whole materials of life are wrought, of which the others are only the receivers or the consumers.’ 5.
Anticipating Chartism in the 1830s, and the electoral reform of 1832, Shelley demands universal electoral suffrage, and constituencies in every district or town. ‘Rotten boroughs’ and other corrupt electoral practices must be abolished:
‘I do not understand why those reasoners who propose… an immediate appeal to universal suffrage, because it is that which it is an injustice to withhold…’ 6
One of Shelley’s most interesting suggestions, is a communal division of agricultural land amongst the working classes:
‘Every peasant’s cottage, surrounded with its garden, a little paradise of comfort, with every convenience desirable in civilised life…’ 7.
4. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.87.
5. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley,Selected Poetry and Prose p.17
6. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley,Selected Poetry and Prose, p.18
7. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, p.18
Shelley clearly anticipates the ethics of the Christian socialists. In 1885, Elanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, described Shelley as a founder of socialism:
‘We claim him.. His thinking stood firmly in the tradition of the soldiers in Cromwell’s army who were fighting for a world where people lived in equality and peace… ‘ 8.
Shelley has often been described as a ‘leveller,’ (9,) an adherent of John Lilbourne (1614-57) and his republican faction in the Commonwealth parliament of 1647-1649. The levellers supported republicanism, and campaigned for the introduction of a democratic electoral system.
Central to Shelley’s political philosophy is the reform of the state, and the introduction of a new social contract between government and people. Like Locke and Paine, Shelley argues that government should represent the largest section of society, and serve their interests, rather than those of the ruling classes.
Secondly, the economic structure of society itself must change. For Shelley, capitalism itself is a destructive force, and must be kept in check. Economic change would mainly be achieved, as seen in A Philosophical View of Reform, by the redistribution of agricultural land from the great landowners of Britain, to the working classes.
By giving the people the fruits of their own labour, Shelley hoped to end the dependence of the workforce on exploitative industry. Similarly, by allowing the common people to elect their own political representatives, they would ensure that parliament worked only for their interests and welfare.
Shelley’s views, combining aspects of modern socialism and democracy, are demonstrated in a note written in his journal, under the title of Reform:
‘Call it reform or revolution, as you will, a change must take place… one of the consequences which will be the wresting of political power from the depositories of it. A sentiment prevails in the nation.. that they have been guilty of enormous malversations…’ 10.
8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.96
9. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.96
10. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, p.18
‘A rod to scourge us into slaves.’ *
Shelley’s critique on religion.
In March, 1811, Shelley and his friend Hogg were expelled from Oxford for publishing their pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. As a consequence of the pamphlet, Shelly became estranged from his family and friends.
Shelley’s father, upon whose financial assistance he depended, withheld Shelley’s allowance, and demanded that the young man recant his atheism. However, despite this opposition, Shelley felt compelled to maintain his atheistic views.
For Shelley, atheism was fundamental to everything he believed in. In Red Shelley, Paul Foot identifies Shelley’s early atheism as an epistemological statement, a rejection of the revealed truths and wisdom of the established church:
‘As Shelley explained in letters to his father, his atheism was not a passing fancy or an undergraduate prank, it was essential to everything he believed in. ‘ 1.
Like Spinzoa, D’ Holbach and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Shelley distinguishes between the dogmatic truths of religion, as opposed to the empirical truths of reason and logic. For Shelley, established religion is a tool of the governing class, used to repress and control society. Religion endorses the divine authority of hierarchical order, and imposes mental servitude on society through the morality of social obedience.
In his pamphlet On the revival of literature, Shelley explains how religious indoctrination represses poetic thought and the imagination:
‘Superstition, of whatever kind, whether earthly or divine, has hitherto been the weight which clogged man to earth, and prevented his genius from soaring aloft… ‘ 2.
In A refutation of Deism (1814), Shelley does not simply reject Christian spirituality, but the very concept of divinity itself. Like Plato, Shelley presents his argument in the form of a dialogue between two philosophers. Theosophus, a deist endorses the ‘causality’ of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) (*), asserting the logic of an ultimate cause for creation. Eusebes, a Christian, suggests that using similar empirical reasoning, we must paradoxically explain the creation of the creator.
*. A.S.B. Glover, Shelley, p.252 (Laon and Cythna.)
1. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.62
2. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.68
*. Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p.188
Shelley therefore discredits the notion of divine moral order, and concludes with the rational suggestion that the universe has always existed:
‘It is easier to believe that the Universe has existed for all eternity, that to conceive an eternal being, capable of creating it. ‘ 3.
Shelley argued that deism allowed for the fundamental structure of hierarchical social order. The agnostics may have challenged the epistemological supremacy of religious teachings, but they often endorsed hierarchical society as elemental to natural law:
‘To devise the word God, that you may express the universal system… can answer no good purpose…’ 4.
Despite his condemnation of the established church, Shelley laid great emphasis on the secular teachings of Christ. The presentation of Christ as a social innovator is a reoccurring theme throughout Shelley’s poetry and prose works. In a letter to his friend, Lord Ellenborough, Shelley describes how Christ’s life and teachings have been incorporated into religious superstition, as an accessory to social order:
‘Jesus Christ was crucified because he attempted to supersede the ritual of Moses with regulations more moral and humane… the divinity of Jesus became a dogma, which to dispute was death… ‘ 5.
Shelley rejected religious qualifications, and the suppression of non-Anglicans in government and education. In his Address to the Irish People (1812), Shelley demands the emancipation of Catholics and dissenters from legal and educational restrictions.
Shelley understood the link between religion and the establishment. Dissent or non-conformity was seen by the rulers of society as a threat to the authority of established beliefs and social ethics. In his Address, Shelley comments that:
‘….the Protestants trust the reins of earthly government only to the hands of their own sect…’ 6.
Shelley’s alternative to the mortality and superstition of the church is seen in his discussion on the human spirit in Queen Mab (1811). Although he discredits divine order and the validity of the spirit, Shelley does believe in the ‘conscience of the ages’: humanity’s desire for liberty and social harmony. Mab symbolises the innate desire in man for freedom and social justice, since she passes those aspirations from one generation to the next.
3. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, 216
4. Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poetry and Prose, 217
5. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.61
6. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.63
Ultimately, Shelley believes that man should venerate his own nature and moral virtue, rather than the dogma of social and religious morality. When the maid, Isanthe despairs that God might not exist, Mab suggests that human nature itself is god-like:
‘There is no God!…
The exterminable spirit it contains
Is nature’s only God.’ 7.
7. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p. 24, (Queen Mab, Verse 7.)
‘Can man be free is woman is a slave?’ * Shelley’s feminism.
The Enlightenment had seen several exponents for the emancipation of women, from traditional legal, educational and social restrictions. One of the French Philosophes, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794,) (1.) suggested that women should be granted electoral suffrage and the same legal rights as men in the new French Republic:
‘He who votes against the rights of another, whatever his religion, colour or sex, abjures his own…’ 2.
Another exponent of women’s rights during Shelley’s lifetime, was the philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836), whose Political Justice (1793), attacks the institution of marriage, partly on the grounds that women are denied rights of property or financial independence as dependants on their husbands:
‘…marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties…’ 3.
Another influential writer whom Shelley read whilst at Eton, was Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797,) whose Vindication of the rights of Women (1792), influenced Shelley throughout his adult life. Wollstonecraft’s key aspiration for women is economic and legal independence:
‘It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent form man…’ 4.
*. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.76 (Queen Mab, Canto II, Verse XLIII.)
1. Robert Gould, The French Revolution, Part 1, p.5-10
2. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.3
3. Peter Marshall, ed., The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin, p. 83 (From Political Justice, Book VIII, Chapter 6.)
4. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.102
The works of Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of William Godwin and mother of Shelley’s second wife, Mary Godwin, were perhaps the first and most important feminist influence on Shelley.
Wollstonecraft died giving birth to her daughter
Mary in 1797.
The feminist influence of Godwin, and his partner, Mary Wollstonecraft, is seen throughout Shelley’s poems. Perhaps the most explicit critique of contemporary patriarchal society is seen in Shelley’s poem, Rosalind and Helen (1818). Rosalind’s husband abuses and terrifies the family:
‘..if they heard
…his footstep, the suspended word
died on my lips: we all grew pale:
The babe at my bosom hushed with fear
as if it thought it heard its father near;
And my two wild boys would near my knee
cling, cowed and cowering fearfully.’ 5.
In his essay, Even Love is Sold, Shelley discusses the contemporary inequality of women. Like Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin, Shelley attacks the institution of marriage itself. Shelley suggests that women should not be required to take vows of obedience to their husbands:
‘The first principle is that love must be free, and depends upon freedom: love withers under constraint. Its very essence is liberty, it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy nor fear… ‘ 6.
Like Godwin, Shelley supports the rights of individuals to divorce, a virtually unheard of event in Nineteenth Century Britain. Shelley seems to endorse the right of both men and women to leave the matrimonial relationship:
‘A husband and wife ought to continue so long united as they love one another: any law which should bind them to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection would be a most intolerable tyranny.’ 7.
5. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.308, (Rosalind and Helen.)
6. Thomas Hutchinson,ed., Shelley: Poetical Works, p.806
7. Thomas Hutchinson,ed., Shelley: Poetical Works, p.806
Shelley constantly identifies the structure of contemporary society with social distress and repression. Women, alongside society as a whole, are suppressed by the social institutions, ethics and customs around them. In Red Shelley, Paul Foot comments:
‘The purpose of women… was to gratify men sexually – just as the purpose of the poor was to provide for the rich. Sex was reduced to a servant-master relationship, because society was organised on a master-servant basis.’ 8.
It is interesting, that throughout Shelley’s narrative works, women are often the main protagonists. In the longer poems, they often occupy the role of liberators, or champions of freedom against an oppressive tyrant. Despite their differing emphases, such as popular agitation in The Revolt of Islam (1817), and the rebellion of Greece against the Turkish emperor in Hellas (1821), all seem to carry some reference to the overthrow of a patriarchal, or male-dominated social order.
In Queen Mab, Isanthe and the fairy Mab survey the tyranny of human history, and predict the rise of a new society. Similarly, in Prometheus Unbound, the maid Asia encourages the slumbering ‘Demogorgon’, to overthrow the tyrant Jupiter.
In The Revolt of Islam, Cythna rouses the people against the tyranny of the king, she asserts her right to participate in the reconstruction of society:
‘She replied earnestly: – “It shall be mine,
This task, mine Laon!…”‘ 9.
The overthrow of the tyrant represents the liberation of both man and woman:
‘My brethren, we are free!
…man and woman,
their common bondage burst!.’ 10.
There is evidence from contemporary accounts, and from the writings of Mary Godwin, Shelley’s second wife, that Shelley did practice the feminist theories discussed in his works. Evidence of Shelley’s belief in female emancipation is seen in his encouragement and support of Mary Godwin’s literary career. Shelley was responsible for the publication of Frankenstein in 1818. Mary Godwin commented of Shelley’s encouragement in her journal that:
‘My husband was from the first very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage and enrol myself upon the page of fame. ‘ 11.
8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.115
9. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.75 (The Revolt of Islam, Canto II, Verse XXXVIII.)
10. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.102 (The Revolt of Islam, CantoV, Verse IV.)
11. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.83
In Red Shelley, Paul Foot identifies the considerable influence that women writers and reformers had on Shelley’s opinions and works:
‘It was not just Shelley’s own abilities, but the intelligence and emotions of Harriet Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Elizabeth Hitchener… which enabled Shelley so elquently to express the ideas of the Marquis de Condorcet and other feminist writers of the French Revolution.’ 12.
In 1912, the Women’s sufferage leader, Millicent Fawcett identified Sheley as an important early femininist:
‘The torch which was lighted by Mary Wollstonecraft was never afterwards extinguished… its light is seen in the poems of her son in law Shelley…’ 13.
12. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.150
13. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.135
We have seen that throughout his life, Shelley was committed to the reform of government and social attitudes. At the core of Shelley’s writings, from Queen Mab to The Revolt of Islam, lies a deep concern for the very real social deprivation and inequality of contemporary society. Whilst Shelley often fails to provide an explicit program for reform in his works, or any clear idea how reform might be achieved, we are always struck by Shelley’s fundamental appeal to the moral nature of society’s conscience. Manfred Wojcik describes Shelley’s concern for the poorest section of society:
‘He has in mind the fate of the largest and lowest class, the industrial workers, whose inhuman mode of existence is constantly urged upon him, and arouses his pity, sympathy, and wrath… ‘ 1.
Shelley’s commitment to reform never wavered throughout his life, but this commitment was often frustrated by an inability to communicate his ideas to the public, either because publishers, like Leigh Hunt, were afraid to contravene the seditious libel, and ‘gagging’ laws, or because Shelley’s literature was censored immediately following
The unwillingness of Lord Liverpool’s administration to implement social and electoral reform often moved Shelley to political activism amongst disaffected labourers and social agitators. Shelley’s comitment to reform is clearly seen in his involvement with popular protest, and journalistic support for contemporary social and political issues.
In 1812, Shelley distributed his pamphlet, An address to the Irish people, on the streets of Dublin, and in 1813, he raised money for the Tremadoc dam project in North Wales, to help build a new model community. Shelley’s address to the Tremadoc workers in February 1813 resulted in an assassination attempt by local gentry, who feared Shelley was inciting an insurrection. 3.
Many of Shelley’s later political poems, such as The Masque of Anarchy, and England 1819, seem to address the common people, rather than the educated upper classes. Their emotional tone, use of simple language and structure, made these poems particularly popular
amongst the Chartists of the 1830s.
1. R. B. Woodings, ed., Shelley, p.128
2. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.239.
3. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.208.
Shelley came to realise that reform required the support and influence of the common people, and that popular protest and perhaps violence was an inevitable requirement for social change. In The Revolt of Islam, Laon seems to echo Shelley’s desire to ‘waken’ the political conscience of the people:
‘I will arise and waken
the world with cleansing fire.’ 4.
In Red Shelley, Paul Foot suggests that Shelley’s commitment to reform transcended his education, upbringing and social class. Foot praises Shelley’s courage in declining from the privilege and wealth that reconciliation with family and class would have brought:
‘His revolutionary enthusiasm rose above his own background, above his self imposed isolation and the stunted aspirations of his own family and friends…’ 5.
Shelley’s commitment to reform, and to the ultimate will of the people was the most profound feature of Shelley’s life as a socialist and poet. Shelley’s commitment to social change, and dynamic, uncompromising attitude to reform, influenced contemporary reformers and radicals across Britain.
During his lifetime, Shelley’s works and ideas influenced a number of leading liberal journalists and printers, such as Leigh Hunt and Thomas Patterson. Many of these writers, such as Richard Carlisle, editor of The Republican, often published Shelley’s works under the threat of prosecution and imprisonment.
Shelley’s works were also well known to the most important radical movement in Nineteenth Century Britain: Chartism. The Chartist leader, Ernest Jones published Shelley’s poems in his magazine The labourer, and recited his works at the great Chartist rallies of the 1830s. 6.
In addition to the radical community, Shelley also influenced contemporary liberal reformers and politicians, including the liberal M.P. Francis Burdett, and the social reformer Robert Owen:
‘Owen was devoted to Shelley… his newspaper New Moral World of the late 1820s, bristles with Shelley quotations. ‘ 7.
In the decade following Shelley’s death, Mary Godwin published all of Shelley’s poems and prose works. Increased readership following the abolition of the ‘gagging acts’ in 1836, brought recognition of Shelley’s political and social ideas from leading Nineteenth Century social theorists, such as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Frederick Engels. 8.
4. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.71, (The Revolt of Islam, Canto II, verse XIV)
5. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.241
6. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.238
7. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.241
8. Paul Foot, Red Shelley, p.241 32.
What has made Shelley so popular as a philosopher and poet, was not perhaps so much his political ethics or philosophy, but his pragmatic, uncompromising critique of social injustice and inequality. Shelley was not simply a social theoretician, but a far sighted visionary, whose idealism transcended convention and the appalling deprivation of his times.
Shelley’s political philosophy anticipates the Christian Socialism of William Morris, and the politicisation of the working class, whose awakening as a literate and informed social group, is so aptly suggested in the ‘Demogorgon’, of Prometheus Unbound.
Shelley’s belief, that the humanity’s desire for freedom and liberty would inevitably overcome injustice, was proven in the years following Shelley’s death.
The popular protest and violence seen throughout Britain in the 1830s and ’40s brought the gradual reform of parliament, and much needed social legislation to improve the living and working conditions of ordinary society.
Ultimately, Shelley was an idealist, who challenged the prescribed attitudes and morality of a social psyche firmly entrenched in traditional hierarchial order.
Shelley was a radical in every respect of the word, a social innovator, teacher and prophet of the new age.
In his prophetic vision of the new age, Shelley sought, like the fairy ‘Mab,’ to instil the poetic virtues of empathy and social harmony in his audience. It is this educational role, above all else that dominates Shelley’s works.
Shelley’s ultimate appeal to the social conscience of all humanity, is suggested in Queen Mab, when the fairy queen counsells Isanthe to maintain her virtue in the face of tyranny and injustice:
‘Yet, human spirit! bravely hold thy
Let virtue teach thee firmly to pursue
The gradual paths of an aspiring
Though frosts may blight the freshness
of its bloom,
Yet spring’s awakening may woo the earth…’ 9.
9. P.B. Shelley, The Works of P.B. Shelley, p.34-35 (Queen Mab, verse IX.)
Page 1 – Introduction
Page 7 – Chapter 1,
‘The Mirror of Futurity,’ Shelley’s theory of art in A Defence of Poetry.
Page 13 – Chapter 2,
‘This thorny wilderness,’ Aspirations for reform in Queen Mab and
The Masque of Anarchy.
Page 21 – Chapter 3,
‘Feelings of a Republican,’ Shelley’s polemic philosophy.
Page 24 – Chapter 4,
‘A rod to scourge us into slaves,’ Shelley’s critique on religion.
Page 27 – Chapter 5,
‘Can man be free if woman is a slave?’ Shelley’s feminism.
Page 31 – Conclusion,
Page 35 – A Shelley Chronology.
Page 39 – Bibliography.
Page 41 – Picture credits.
Frontispiece. (Picture of Percy Bysshe Shelley.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
Figure 1. (Picture of Thomas Paine.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
Figure 2. (Picture of Lord Liverpool.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
Figure 3. (Picture of William Godwin.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.
Figure 4. (Picture of Mary Wollstonecraft.)
Internet resource from the Brown University educational page, U.S.A.