Percy Bysshe Shelley: romanticism and revolution

3 August 2021
James Plested

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment, wrote, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars”. Few people have personified this more than Percy Bysshe Shelley. Born in 1792, Shelley died in a boating accident in Italy in 1822. His all-too-short adult life coincided with a particularly dark time in British and European history. By the first years of the nineteenth century, the great hopes for change aroused by the French revolution of 1789 had all but been extinguished, and a new period of reaction had set in.

Amid the gloom of those years—a time of war, of obscene inequality and of the savage violence of a ruling class desperate to defend its privileges from any (real or perceived) threat from below—Shelley gave voice to a new spirit of resistance that was then just emerging but which, in the following decades, would shake Europe to its core. His rage against injustice and revolutionary ardour burned with an intensity perhaps unmatched in the history of art.

To understand how brightly Shelley’s star shone, it’s instructive to situate him in relation to the shattered hopes, and increasingly conservative political leanings, of romantic poets of the previous generation, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his autobiographical poem “The Prelude”, recounting the enthusiasm that he and others felt at the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789, Wordsworth wrote:

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

For a few short years it seemed as if anything was possible. Wordsworth wrote of “human nature seeming born again”. Coleridge, in his 1798 poem “France: an ode”, wrote:

When France in wrath her giant-limbs upreared,
And with that oath, which smote air, earth, and sea,
Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free,
Bear witness for me, how I hoped and feared!

As Coleridge’s friend and fellow radical John Thelwall later put it, Coleridge was “a decided Leveller—abusing the democrats for their hypocritical moderatism, in pretending to be willing to give people equality of privileges and rank, while, at the same time, they would refuse them all that the others could be valuable for—equality of property—or rather abolition of all property”.

Unfortunately, conditions in Britain at the time were far from conducive to the realisation of their hopes. The period in which a space opened for the expression of radical ideas proved fleeting. One reason for this was the success of the wave of repression unleashed by the British government. Those suspected of Jacobin sympathies were hounded by the authorities, and many of the leading figures were arrested and prosecuted for treason. Wordsworth and Coleridge themselves were under almost constant surveillance by government spies. In this context, their enthusiasms had to be expressed mainly within a small circle of their friends.

If the climate of reaction at home wasn’t enough, their hopes were delivered another blow by developments in France. The terror came in 1793, followed by the Thermidorian reaction that led, ultimately, to the dictatorship of Napoleon. France and Britain were from then at war almost continuously. In 1799, Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth, complaining about those who “in consequence of the complete failure of the French revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophies”.

The two of them, however, were soon to follow the same path. In his poetry, Wordsworth grew more and more conventional—all daffodils and lonely wanderings—and in his politics moved in the direction of outright reaction. As the “mature” Wordsworth saw it, “The people [are] already powerful far beyond the increase of their information and their improvement in morals”. In a letter to a friend in the early 1800s, Coleridge complained similarly: “Without religious joys and religious terrors, nothing can be expected from the inferior classes in society”.

The blissful hopes of the 1790s were, in the 1800s, plunged into darkness. The war against Napoleonic France bled Britain dry. In 1811, there were 640,000 in the armed forces out of a population of only 12 million (the equivalent, in Australia today, would be an army of more than 1.3 million). From the poor, ever greater exertions and sacrifices were demanded in the name of “King and country”. In addition to the burden of furnishing the human material for the army, there was the heavy taxation imposed to fund the war. Wages, particularly of agricultural workers, were held at starvation levels.

When the war finally ended in 1816, things barely improved. Thousands starved as employment opportunities completely dried up. Those lucky enough to have work may not have starved, but the combination of poverty wages and brutal conditions meant life was barely worth living. The life expectancy of workers in industrial centres like Manchester plunged to as low as seventeen.

Meanwhile, the everyday life of the ruling class was basically just one long party. In G.M. Trevelyan’s History of England, we read that “the upper class throve on enhanced rents, and paid too small a proportion in wages”. “Never again”, Trevelyan writes, “was a country house life more thriving or jovial, with its fox hunting, shooting and leisure in spacious and well-stocked libraries. Never was sporting life more attractive”.

No wonder that there were also flickers of resistance. In 1811-16, the Luddite rebellion emerged—in which small but highly organised groups of workers went around smashing machinery, the introduction of which threatened livelihoods in areas previously dominated by craft-based production.

There was also a growing demand for reform to parliamentary representation, which at the time was basically limited to the ruling class. In August 1819, there was a protest of up to 80,000 workers on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, demanding the vote. The response of the authorities was to unleash the bloody “Peterloo” massacre, in which fifteen people were killed and up to 700 injured.

This extreme violence was only the tip of the iceberg. The working class lived under constant threat of harsh repression for infringements against “law and order”. The death penalty was applied for minor of offences. Tens of thousands were deported to the colonies. Those daring to speak out against the government faced lengthy jail terms.

Shelley had only contempt for those, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, who gave up hope at this time. He wrote that “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 wilful exaggeration of its own despair”.

Shelley was born into wealth. His father was a liberal reformer and Whig parliamentarian, and he hoped and expected that his eldest son would follow in his footsteps. But Percy had other ideas. When sent to the prestigious private school Eton, he refused to engage in the practice of “fagging”, which involved younger boys acting as slaves for the seniors. He was persecuted and marginalised, but this only increased his hatred for the barbaric rituals and trappings of what the ruling class regarded as a proper education.

He was, nevertheless, a prodigious reader and a talented scholar. In 1810, he was accepted to study at Oxford. Once again though, he took little time to scandalise. In 1811, he printed a pamphlet called On the necessity of atheismsending copies to his friends as well as to all the heads of the Oxford colleges. This was, it’s said, the first defence of atheism ever published in English.

The authorities weren’t amused. Shelley was expelled. From that point on, he was an outlaw from polite society. The establishment hated him, and his family all but cut him off. Upon his death from drowning in Italy in 1822, an obituary in a respectable English newspaper began: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, is dead. Now he knows whether there is a god or no”.

More than previous romantics, Shelley located the source of tyranny and oppression in the economic dynamics of society and the exploitation of workers. In “Address to the people on the death of Princess Charlotte”, he wrote: “Many and various are the mischiefs flowing from oppression, but this is the representative of them all; namely, that one man is forced to labour for another”.

In A philosophical view of reform, he went further, giving an account of exploitation that prefigures the work of Karl Marx. “For fourteen hours’ labour, they receive ... the price of seven”, he wrote. “They eat less bread, wear worse clothes, are more ignorant, immoral, miserable and desperate. This then is 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.”

This sense of the exploitation and alienation suffered by workers under the emerging system of capitalism is at the heart of much of his poetry. “Queen Mab” is the earliest, and perhaps the most strident, of Shelley’s longer works. There we read:

The harmony and happiness of man
Yields to the wealth of nations; that which lifts
His nature to the heaven of its pride,
Is bartered for the poison of his soul;
The weight that drags to earth his towering hopes,
Blighting all prospect but of selfish gain,
Withering all passion but of slavish fear,
Extinguishing all free and generous love
Of enterprise and daring…

And simply: “Many faint with toil, that few may know the cares and woe of sloth”. Shelley’s sense of what human liberation might look like is similarly grounded in an understanding of the conditions facing workers and the poor. In “The Mask of Anarchy”, Shelley asked directly, “What art thou, freedom?” and answered:

For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In 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.

In the notes to “Queen Mab”, Shelley put plainly his desire for equality. “That state of human society”, he wrote, “which approaches nearer to an equal partition of its benefits and evils should ... be preferred”. All of this comes together in his poem “To the men of England”. Here he lays out the reality of exploitation, before moving on to the possibility of liberation:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?
The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.
Sow seed,—but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth,—let no imposter heap;
Weave robes,—let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear.

Following Shelley’s death, the poem became something of an anthem of the British workers’ movement. Generations of radical workers knew it by heart. Shelley was also among the earliest figures of the political and literary elite to give serious thought to the oppression of women. In this he was no doubt influenced by fellow writer Mary Wollstonecraft (later more commonly known as Mary Shelley)—who he married in 1816—whose mother, also named Mary Wollstonecraft, is regarded as one of the world’s first feminist philosophers and activists. In Shelley’s 1818 poem “The revolt of Islam”, he presents the condition of women as a barrier to the liberation of all:

Can man be free if woman be a slave?
Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air,
To the corruption of a closèd grave!
Can they, whose mates are beasts condemned to bear
Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare
To trample their oppressors?

It’s no accident that the role of leading radicals and revolutionaries in his work, such as Cyntha in “The revolt of Islam”, is frequently played by women. As Shelley saw it, there could be no successful revolution without women playing an active part.

Love was another of Shelley’s favourite topics. And here, on the more personal level of human relationships, he saw the same need for women to throw off the stultifying reality of oppression. In a note to “Queen Mab” he wrote: “Love withers under constraint. Its very essence is liberty: it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, nor fear; it is there most pure, perfect, and unlimited, where its votaries live in confidence, equality and unreserve”.

One of the interesting footnotes to Shelley’s life is that the determination of the establishment to prevent the publication of his works actually contributed to their gaining a wide audience in the working class. To the extent that works like “Queen Mab” and “The Mask of Anarchy” could be published at all, it was in cheap, underground editions sold on the streets. Friedrich Engels commented on this in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England. “Shelley, the genius, the prophet”, he wrote. “Shelley and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the working class; the bourgeoisie owns only castrated editions, family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today”.

Later, a highly censored and distorted version of Shelley took its place in the mainstream literary canon. In the late nineteenth century, this version of Shelleystripped entirely of the radical, political contentbecame something of a fad among the rich. In these circles, the continuing popularity of Shelley among workers was a source of significant disquiet. A speech by one A.G. Ross, made to the Shelley Society in April 1887, typifies the sentiment:

“No one can contest the right of anyone, even though he may be a mere sans culotte who runs about with a red rag, to quote Shelley when or where he pleases; but when the blatant and cruel socialism of the street endeavours to use the lofty and sublime socialism of the study for its own base purpose it is time that with no uncertain sound all real lovers of the latter should disavow any sympathy with the former.”

Remembering the real, uncompromisingly radical and revolutionary Shelleythe “Shelley of the street”, in Ross’s termsis more urgent today than ever. As our world is flung from one crisis to the next, there will come a time when the existing order will once again be shaken by revolt. And in those moments, when the ruling class will use every means at its disposal to cling to power, we should call to mind the incendiary final stanza of “The Mask of Anarchy”, perhaps the most famous of all Shelley’s lines, in which, in response to the Peterloo massacre, he called on England’s workers:

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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