Masque of anarchy, or mask of anarchy? ‘Ghastly masquerade’ [line 28] or murder wearing ‘a mask like Castlereagh’ [line 6]? The answer is: both. Shelley used both titles in manuscripts and when referring to the poem in letters to friends. I'll come back to this point in a bit.
He wrote the poem in 1819, out of the heat of his wrath and revulsion on hearing the news (resident in Italy though he was) of the Peterloo massacre: 91 stanzas of savage indignation, English's most famous work of political invective capped, as if by magic, in its last five lines, with one of the most genuinely stirring calls to revolution ever put into Engish. Shelley sent it to his friend Leigh Hunt to publish in his paper, the Examiner. Hunt, however bottled it. In the preface to the eventually-published first edition (title page at the head of this post) he wrote, mimsily enough, we might think:
This Poem was written by Mr. Shelley on occasion of the bloodshed at Manchester, in the year 1819. I was editor of the Examiner at that time, and it was sent to me to be inserted or not in that journal, as I thought fit. I did not insert it, because I thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.I don't mean to be too hard on Hunt. He had personal reason to know how disproportionate and oppressive the authorities were liable to be where criticism was concerned. A sycophantic report in the press in 1813 describing the Prince Regent as ‘an Adonis in loveliness’ had provoked him: he had used the Examiner to scoff that this ‘“exciter of desire”—this “Adonis in loveliness”’ was ‘in reality a corpulent man of fifty!’
The result of this was that Hunt spent two years in a cell at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Surrey, convicted of seditious libel. Had ‘Masque of Anarchy’ been published in 1819, when it was written, something similar would surely have followed; not for Shelley as author, since he was safely beyond Home Secretary Sidmouth's jurisdiction (in Italy), but likely for Hunt as publisher. So the world had to wait until 1832, two years after the death of Fat George, before it could read the incendiary words:
As I lay asleep in ItalyPaul Foot notes that as these ‘three English despots, Castlereagh, Eldon and Sidmouth’ glide past him masked as Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy ‘Castlereagh is feeding seven bloodhounds with human hearts. These are Britain’s seven allies, whom Castlereagh appeased at the Congress of Vienna after Waterloo by agreeing not to press for the abolition of slavery.’ The seven is also apocalyptic, of course; since St John's Revelation is full of mystic sevens, seven-headed beasts, seven seals, seven phials and so on. I have to admit, mind you, that the detail with the millstones has always bothered me: not that tears might swell and petrify into millstones—for Shelley's text-world is a satiric phantasmagoria in which such transformations are perfectly viable—but that children, even starving beggar children, might mistake such huge wheels of rock for valuable gems. I'm over-reading, I know; straying into pedantry. The larger point is that things are not what they seem in England in 1819: these men pretend (wear the mask) of compassion, justice and so on, but actually they are cruelty, violence and death. Their masquerade (‘a party or assembly of people wearing masks, and amusing themselves with dancing, conversation, or other diversions’) is for their own, rather than for our, pleasure. Or rather, it is for our distraction and their power, which isn't quite the same thing.
There came a voice from over the Sea
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him.
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like 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. [1-29]
Last came Anarchy: he rodeThe nudge towards St John's Revelation encourages us, perhaps, to see the “I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!” as a version of the celebrated “666”, with each of the three faux-idendities, each mask, standing in some sense for a six. (Was Shelley perhaps thinking of, let's say, Deus sum, rexque et lex ...? That phrase has 3 x 6 = 18 letters). The God-king-law is the antichrist, the an-archos; atheist republican Shelley was pitching for a diametrically opposed figure than this as his prophesised saviour: not God-king-law but secular-republican-community.
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!” [30-37]
What of Anarchy? It's a word with a complex semantic field. In classical Greek it generally meant ‘without leadership’: ἀναρχία, an (privative) + ἀρχός, archos, “first, chief, leader”. Since the problem Shelley's poem identifies is not a lack of leaders, but on the contrary a superfluity of bad, tyrannical leaders, this might look odd. Euripides' Hecuba [line 605] uses the word to mean mutiny (specifically, a naval mutiny, ναυτῐκή ἀναρχία); so perhaps we can take it that Shelley sees in Castlereagh and the rest a terrible kind of non-authority, a usurpation of proper (revolutionary) leadership by figures of chaotic savagery. And as every schoolchild knows, the Greek ᾰ̓- (ἀν before vowels) had two radically different functions. It might be what the grammarians called ‘the alpha privativum’, used to give words a sense opposite to the word (or stem) to which the prefix is attached; but it might equally be the ‘alpha intensivum’, used to strengthen the force of compounds. Adding an an- might be to negate or intensify the word to which it is prefixed; so anarchy might be a lack of proper authority, or it might be the intensification of (bad) authority. More: ὁ ἀρχός, ho archos, though it primarily means the leader, the ruler, the chief, had a secondary, unclean sense: ‘the rectum; the anus’. Anarchy as Big Anus? I don't think it impossible Shelley had this in mind when he wrote his satire on the shitty government of his day. Although it's more likely, I have to admit, that he was playing the more obvious game with the privative/intensitive ἀν-, and that his Anarchy is both a catastrophic lawlessness and a Big Leader, or Tyrant.
With a pace stately and fast,‘Wine of desolation’ is a striking coinage. This passage, and much of the poem, takes its inspiratoin from Isaiah 24. The new wine mourneth:
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.
And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.
Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof. The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the Lord hath spoken this word. The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.The ‘masque’ seems popular with the people; not only do children crowd to catch Eldon's deadly tears, but ‘the adoring multitude’ throng around them. But wait a minute:
Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left. The new wine mourneth, the vine languisheth, all the merryhearted do sigh. They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it.
O'er fields and towns, from sea to sea,The abruptness of this transition from adoring multitude to terror-sickened, panic-stricken mass is quite hard to parse, I think. Are we to take it that the multitude were previously fooled by the masks, but that at some point on the approach to London the mask slips? But, surely, this is to miss the larger point. What Shelley is talking about here, decades before Marx and Engels began to theorise the term, is ideology: the false consciousness of ordinary people, distracted by pageant and tradition from their own oppression; or the more complex Althusserian sense of a people called-forth by processions like this, aware on some level of the violence and injustice of it, and yet complicit.
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.
And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.
At any rate; Anarchy assembles various bloodthirst goons and henchmen, sends them off to seize ‘the Bank and Tower’ and himself proceeds ‘with intent/To meet his pensioned Parliament.’ Then, a moment of solitary passive resistance:
When one fled past, a maniac maid,Proverbially it is Truth, not Hope, who is the daughter of Time. Indeed veritas filia temporis is such a commonplace that perhaps Shelley is here inviting us to see Hope, as he conceives it, as a synonym for Truth, and vice versa.
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 gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!
“He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me—
Misery, oh, Misery!”
Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses' feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy. [86-101]
When between her and her foesThis frankly gaseous saviour, although it accumulates a degree of grandeur as its manifestations scales, seems a little impalpable, at least in terms of the likelihood of a vapour managing actually to defeat the forces of evil. It does manages it, though; which leads to the first iteration of the poem's great refrain:
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak, and frail
Like the vapour of a vale:
Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky,
It grew—a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper's scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.
On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning's, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.
With step as soft as wind it passed
O'er the heads of men—so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked,—but all was empty air.
As flowers beneath May's footstep waken,
As stars from Night's loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where'er that step did fall.
And the prostrate multitude
Looked—and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:
And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind. [102-34]
A rushing light of clouds and splendour,It is stirring stuff, who can deny it; although it is also a touch masculinist and patriotic. But just on the level of rhetoric, of poetics, the gorgeous positioning of that unspooling polysyllabic unvanquishable adds tremendous force and momentum to the sentiment, as if rendering it implacable by sheer force of prosody. The sleep that has fallen on the proletariat loops us back round to the very first line of the poem, Shelley's own Bunyan-like slumber and the allegorical fable that it engendered. These hideous monsters, like the great cloud saviour that defeated them, resolves back into the cloudy moisture from which they were made, and become the dew of a bright new dawn.
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt—and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose
As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother's throe
Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood,—
As if her heart had cried aloud:
“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 fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.” [139-55]
More than half the poem remains. Over the course of this, Shelley revisits the main movement of this first third. Mother Earth asks:
“What is Freedom?—ye can tellI've always assumed this is a small piece of interlinguistic punning on the poet's part, since in Italy (where the poet is asleep as the poem begins) slaves is schiavi which sounds, just a bit, like a schieli-echo of Shelley. This might strike you as a stretch, however.
That which slavery is, too well—
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own
“Birds find rest, in narrow nestConsider the lilies, and so forth. So what about Freedom? Shelley's take on this concept is solidly materialistic:
When weary of their wingèd quest;
Beasts find fare, in woody lair
When storm and snow are in the air,
“Asses, swine, have litter spread
And with fitting food are fed;
All things have a home but one—
Thou, Oh, Englishman, hast none!
“This is Slavery—savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do—
But such ills they never knew. [197-208]
“What art thou Freedom? O! could slavesI like the poem opens its definition of freedom withe practicalities, only afterwards moving on to ‘Justice’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Peace’, ‘Love’, ‘Science, Poetry, and Thought’, ‘Spirit, Patience, Gentleness’ and the like. Then the specific allusion to Peterloo:
Answer from their living graves
This demand—tyrants would flee
Like a dream's dim imagery:
“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. [213-25]
“Let a great Assembly beThe subjunctive ‘let’ is doing quite a lot of work here; and Shelley runs the risk, when he moves on to ‘Let the charged artillery drive’ and ‘Let the fixèd bayonet/Gleam with sharp desire to wet/Its bright point in English blood’ as if he is urging on the massacre, in order to create the martyrs necessary to stoke-up revolutionary outrage. Presumably that's not what he's doing, but the lines are arguably running uncomfortably close to a kind of complicity in the murder of its protesters here. It's traditional among critics to call this an anticipation of Gandhian passive resistance, although the starburst, almost firework imagery Shelley deploys has a more garishly ugly quality to it than that, I feel:
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.
“Let the blue sky overhead,
The green earth on which ye tread,
All that must eternal be
Witness the solemnity. [262-]
“Let the horsemen's scimitarsThen again, if at times the poem trespasses on sheer naivety it might be because the whole ghastly congeries of crimes-against-humanity that characterises the twentieth-century was still to come, and the remarkable ability of such criminals simply to shrug-off their crimes was not so evident as it was to become:
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war. [315-22]
“With folded arms and steady eyes,And little fear, and less surprise,Still, there's always that superb stanza, repeated at the poem's end. It really doesn't get much better than this:
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.
“Then they will return with shameTo the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek. [344-51]
“And these words shall then becomeIf this entails another seeming contradiction within the poem—for lions, after all, are hardly known for practising passive resistance—then I suppose that's also ideology, although of a different, authorial kind. The blindness of insight. Ideology, after all, is both a masque, a procession that calls to us (Althusser's interpellation) to join in, not to be the awkward non-participant, to take the predetermined steps and sing the old songs; and also a kind of mask, a false face presented to the world, and which the world presents to us. Shelley's gaseous revolutionary giant is as much a product of ideology as Castlereagh's murderous visage.
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
“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.” [364-72]