Sunday Pages: "The Masque of Anarchy"
A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Two centuries ago, in the north of England, some sixty thousand people gathered in the town square to demand greater representation in Parliament. George III, whose tyrannical yoke the American colonists had thrown off a few decades earlier, was old and infirm. Napoleon was in exile at St. Helena—a more remote Mar-a-Lago, but without the killer omelet station. The four years since Waterloo had brought post-war recession, chronic unemployment, crop failure due to the so-called Year Without a Summer, and a woefully inadequate response by the aristocrats who made up the British government. People were pissed off.
In 1819, just one in ten men (and zero in ten women) had the right to vote. In the industrial centers of the North, the percentage was even smaller. So the Manchester Patriotic Union organized a rally at that city’s St. Peter’s Field to demand parliamentary reform, and arranged for the activist and orator Henry Hunt to speak.
The British had already witnessed revolutions in the American colonies and in France, and the spectacle of so many angry peasants at a “manhood suffrage” rally scared local magistrates out of their wigs. Long story short, the cops charged into the crowd, roughing up some peaceful protestors, including a child who later died (some things never change), before arresting Hunt. Then the British equivalent of the National Guard arrived, sabres drawn, to break the thing up. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured in the melee. A local newspaper dubbed it the “Peterloo Massacre,” a sardonic portmanteau of the scene of the crime and “Waterloo.”
The bloody crackdown sparked even more outrage at the more reactionary members of the British government, particularly Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; Eldon, the Lord High Chancellor; and the DeSantis-like Home Secretary, Sidmouth. Peterloo became a catalyst for change, in a way it probably would not have, had the proto-fascists just let Hunt do his thing.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was living in Italy at the time, as poets do. When he heard the news, “the torrent of [his] indignation” compelled him to write one of his most famous poems, “The Masque of Anarchy.” He fired off a copy to England, but his friend and publisher, Leigh Hunt, feared that printing the poem would result in Shelley’s arrest, as the aforementioned Sidmouth was persecuting writers for political speech that didn’t support the government and the mad king. The poem was not published until the 1830s.
I was reminded of “The Masque of Anarchy” this week, when I came across a photo I took six years ago. Some literary soul had scrawled the last stanza on the bathroom wall—or, rather, the bathroom diaper-changing station. I went back and re-read the poem in its entirety, and found it almost eerily relevant to the current moment.
“The Masque of Anarchy” is long, but it’s broken up into 38 short, numbered chunks for easy consumption. One might even argue that Shelley gave us the first-ever Twitter thread. In his poetical vision, the personifications of Murder, Fraud, and Hypocrisy (played by the aforementioned right-wingers Castlereagh, Eldon, and Sidmouth) are led into a Peterloo-like fray by Anarchy. But Shelley doesn’t mean “Anarchy” in the modern, Emma-Goldman-and-I-are-gonna-whack-that-no-good-greedy-plutocrat-Frick kind of way. It’s less specific than that.
In 1819, anarchist—from an-, no, and arch, ruler—was not yet the political term it would become in the latter half of the nineteenth century. While the idea of no central leader had been around forever, the French politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first to style himself an anarchist, decades later. When Shelley speaks of “Anarchy,” he means it in the literal, lunatics-running-the-asylum sense. His villain is the embodiment of disorder, of chaos, of No One in Charge, of the abdication of the rule of law to murderers, frauds, and hypocrites—basically, the MAGA of 1819.
Anarchy, in short, is lack.
Like most Twitter threads, the poem could stand to be a bit shorter. If you find your attention drifting in the middle, just scroll down to the last two stanzas, which are the most important:
The Masque of Anarchy
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
Written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester
As I lay asleep in Italy,
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 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 Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to millstones 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!’
With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,
And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.
And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.
O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
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.
For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
‘Thou art God, and Law, and King.
‘We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’
Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud
Whispering—‘Thou art Law and God.’
Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God, and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’
And Anarchy, the skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.
For he knew the palaces
Of our kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.
So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament
When one fled past, 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 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.
When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak and frail
Like the vapor 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.
A rushing light of clouds and splendor,
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 turn’d 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.’
Reading the poem in 2022, it’s impossible not to recognize FPOTUS and his crooked cronies in the form of Anarchy, Murder, Fraud, and Hypocrisy. For the fourteenth stanza to scan—Of the triumph of Anarchy—the word “triumph” has to have one syllable, so: trump. Trump and his capos are indeed the heirs of Sidmouth and Eldon. The bishops and priests of the poem are the Evangelicals who equate Trump with Jesus. The murderers who follow Anarchy, meanwhile, may as well be drawn from the insurrectionist horde that besieged the Capitol 20 months ago. Stand back and stand by. Trump would turn on them in a heartbeat, of course, at the first whiff of trouble—just as Anarchy does here. Lack also indicates lack of honor, lack of expertise, lack of compassion, lack of kindness and human decency, lack of soul.
As I write this, women have taken to the streets in great—and hopefully unvanquishable—number in Iran, protesting the oppressive horrors of the medieval Khamenei regime.
In Russia, too, Yakut women have gathered in opposition to the forced conscription, to the failed invasion of Ukraine, and to the despotic twerp Putin. And here in the United States, it is women leading the charge against the forced-birth fascists who have taken over the Supreme Court and the Republican Party. Shelley foresaw this. In the poem, Hope, unlike the other personifications, is a woman.
Watching history unfold now, “The Masque of Anarchy” feels not only significant, but prescient. Anarchy and his comrades are powerful forces, as the poet makes clear, but they are defeated, in the end, by Hope—and by all of us.
They are few. We are many.
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Photo credit: Yours Truly. The bathroom at Bacchus, December 2016.