'Shelley, the Revolutionist' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 19 April 1918, page 2

Fitzgerald noted:

Vigilant’s second full article on Shelley….Greater, more confident admiration than ever:

“Shelley was the greatest intellectual leader of Labor that the world has known” – NOT Marx, etc.
And: -- “Shelley was the World’s Greatest Questioner.”

Deliberate, personal verdicts: acknowledging that Shelley’s greatness is not universally recognised, that he is even called mad. Again suggesting that Shelley’s “gentle but fiery, intense nature” had a unique appeal to Vigilant and could have offered not only identification with his own nature, but a model. [1]


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Shelley, the Revolutionist by Vigilant

The sailors of Ulysses, tired with their endless journeyings, ventured one day upon the Isle of Circe. The enchantress lured them into her halls and gave them to drink wine which changed them into her ‘halls’. Ulysses himself would have met a similar fate, but was stopped on his way by Hermes, who gave him a sprig of the Moly-flower, and thanks to its virtues he was able to drain the cup of Circe with impunity.

These are days of enchanted isles; still many a young Ulysses of Labor, sage in counsel, is tempted by the Circe-cup held out-stretched by the hand of Respectability, and yielding is changed to a four-footed beast. Well were it then that we should inhale deeply the perfume of the literary Moly-flowers planted in our Sacred Groves by the Prophet-Poets of Revolt.

Shelley was the greatest intellectual leader of Labor that the world has known. Neither his greatness nor his leadership is universally recognised. Too many are content to echo the “mad Shelley” of his contemporaries; to talk learnedly of the close connection between genius and madness; but if Shelley’s genius were madness, so much the worse for sanity.

Shelley died young – at the age of 29 years – but into his comparatively short span he crowded an untold amount of work. His earliest poems were written at the age of 15, and “Queen Mab,” his first long poem, at the age of 18. It ante-dates the Communist Manifesto by a generation (having been written over a century ago), yet Shelley’s note on his phrase “Statesmen boast of wealth” might well stand to-day as a classic statement of Socialist philosophy. He says:-

There is no real wealth but the Labor of Man. Were the mountains of gold and the valleys of silver, the world would not be one grain of corn the richer; no one comfort would be added to the human race. ...A speculator takes pride to himself as the promoter of his country’s prosperity, who employs a number of hands in the manufacture of articles avowedly destitute of use or subservient only to the unhallowed cravings of luxury and ostentation... Who does not see that this is a remedy which aggravates, whilst it palliates, the countless diseases of society? The poor are set to labor – for what? Not the food for which them famish: nor the blankets for want of which their babes are frozen by the cold of their wretched hovels: nor those comforts of civilisation without which civilised man is far more miserable than the meanest savage; oppressed as he is by all its insidious evils; within the daily and taunting prospect of its innumerable benefits, assiduously exhibited before him. No; for the pride of power, for the miserable isolation of pride, for the false pleasures of the hundredth party of society.

From the same poem are taken the rather better known lines on War:-

“War is the statesman’s game, the priest’s delight.
The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade:
And, to those royal murderers, whose mean thrones
Are bought by crimes of treachery and gore,
The bread they eat, the staff on which they lean.”

In a single “Bookshelf” article, or even in several articles, we could not hope to do justice to Shelley’s works.

  Even with the aspect that most concerns us – his place amongst revolutionists – we must be content to pick and choose haphazardly. The respectable literary commentators are never tired of representing “Queen Mab” as the fruit of Shelley’s wild youth. Now, although Shelley himself said something of the sort, he referred rather to the presentation of his ideas than to the ideas themselves. At any rate, let those who would read into his remarks a recantation console themselves by turning to the “Mask of Anarchy,” written in 1819, not three years before the author’s death.

“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!’”

If they prefer this to “Queen Mab,” we can hardly regret the exchange! Mark again the recurrence of the same criticism of capitalist society that characterised the work of his boyhood, when he writes:-

“What is Freedom? – ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well-
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

‘Tis to work and get such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell.”

Shelley was the World’s Greatest Questioner. He thundered challenge at the gates of every established belief stripped the rags of respectability from every institution, sacred or profane; took up the gauntlet on behalf of the oppressed in every land, Greece, Spain, Ireland, and not forgetting his native England (which Byron, his contemporary and fellow exile, did).

Other men of rebel breed have battled against single wrongs; but Shelley was the knight-errant amongst rebels, and challenged to mortal combat the whole legion of the world’s woes.

Every Cause that he championed is the richer for his aid. In “the Mask of Anarchy” Labor has a priceless document. “The Revolt of Islam” not only anticipated by over half a century the modern feminist movement, but its mighty query, “Can man be free if woman be a slave?” – which is both question and answer – strikes nearer the heart of the subject than most subsequent writers have succeeded in doing, even with so great an example to follow. Shelley spoke with the tongues of men and of angels, and of love none ever had more to give than he.

[The best editions of Shelley’s Works is published by the Oxford University Press. It contains, so far as is known, every line he wrote, including his own notes, and also those of Mrs. Shelley. Many other editions omit the notes, the whole of “Queen Mab,” and the names of political personages in “The Mask of Anarchy.”]


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36