Ye are many—they are few Percy Bysshe Shelley and the struggle against tyranny

On 16 August 1819 tens of thousands of working men and women demonstrated at a place known as St Peter’s Field in Manchester, demanding reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The yeomanry and then hussars were ordered to attack, killing eighteen people and injuring more than four hundred. With the recent memory of the Battle of Waterloo, this slaughter went down in history as Peterloo.

Shelley reacted with one of the earliest works of socialist literature, his famous ballad “The Mask of Anarchy.” This month we mark the 200th anniversary of those events and of Shelley’s great poem.

Shelley’s lifetime was defined by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and severe political repression in England and elsewhere in Europe. In contrast to other European countries, the power of the bourgeoisie in England had been consolidated in their own revolutionary period in the seventeenth century. Therefore the ruling class in England had little sympathy for revolutionary France, as it could potentially rouse the growing working class, so far effectively suppressed.

Those times of both great political hope, ignited by the French Revolution, and unprecedented social unrest among the dispossessed, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, produced radical leaders who came under attack and were imprisoned by the government in a campaign of repression and violence.

The prime minister, William Pitt, unleashed a crusade of “White terror” and throughout the 1790s held treason trials, suspended habeas corpus, issued a Proclamation Against Sedition, passed the Treason and Sedition Act and the Unlawful Oath Act, and banned corresponding societies. However, the government’s attempt at silencing protest only led to further strife and an increase in rebellion, including nonconformist religions and atheism.

Until Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat at the Battle at Waterloo in 1815 Britain was in a prolonged state of war. The first result of the peace was a severe political and economic crisis. A new, more political quality enters the riots and protests, and the “Gagging Acts” of 1817 (Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) served to further suppress radical agitation and radical publications. The political unrest of 1817 and the government’s silencing tactics culminated in the Peterloo Massacre.

Shelley had left England for Italy in March 1818 in what was in effect political emigration. The news of the massacre reached him only on 6 September. He set to work almost immediately, writing the ninety-one stanzas of “The Mask of Anarchy” within a few days. It is now rightly considered one of the greatest political protest poems in English.

“The Mask of Anarchy” opens with a gruesome parade of the government’s principal actors: Murder (Castlereagh,* the foreign secretary), Fraud (Eldon, the lord chancellor), Hypocrisy (Sidmouth, the home secretary), and other Destructions (bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies).

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he look’d, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw—
“I am God, and King, and Law!”

The poem goes on to describe Anarchy as the true ruler of England. On his rampage he comes across Hope, looking like Despair, and Time running out:

. . . a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair;
And she cried out in the air:

“My father, Time, is weak and grey
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!”

Hope then lies down before the horses’ feet in an act of passive resistance, and a vapour-like shape appears that inspires the multitude with hope—and thought. The effect of this is announced in the next stanza: “And Anarchy, the ghastly birth, | Lay dead earth upon the earth.”

There follow two stanzas that are indelibly written into English socialist awareness:

Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty mother,
Hopes of her, and one another,

Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep had fall’n on you.

Next Shelley asks: “What is Freedom? Ye can tell | That which Slavery is too well . . .” He goes on to describe in a savage and empathic way the condition of the working class in England and how they are killed at a whim:

And at length when ye complain,
With a murmur weak and vain,
’Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew
Ride over your wives and you:—
Blood is on the grass like dew.

This is an allusion to the protests over the recent years. Then, before giving his own view of what freedom means, Shelley concludes:

This is Slavery—savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den,
Would endure not as ye do:
But such ills they never knew.

The attributes of freedom that Shelley describes are: food, clothing, heating, true justice for all (“ne’er for gold”), wisdom, peace, and love.

Freedom is guided by science, poetry and thought, spirit, patience, gentleness.

Shelley’s understanding of the fundamental clash between the propertied class in power and the working class led Eleanor Marx to conclude in her essay “Shelley and Socialism”: “More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that to-day tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery.”

Shelley goes on to say that the working people, the oppressed, should meet the tyrants calmly, thereby shaming them. The poem ends, however, on a note not of passivity but of action, returning to the stanza in the middle:

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.

*Robert Stewart, “Viscount Castlereagh,” when chief secretary for Ireland was infamous for his vicious role in suppressing the United Irishmen.