'The Masque of Anarchy' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 8 June 1917, page 6

Vigilant describes Percy Bysshe Shelley as having a “gentle but fiery, intense nature”. Fitzgerald asks:

Would Curtin…have recognised that as a description of himself?’ [1]


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The Masque of Anarchy by Vigilant

Percy Bysahe Shelly was born in 1792. He had, therefore, barely attained his majority (in a purely legal sense, for Shelley was as much a man at the age of 16 (as on the day of his premature death in 1822, - he was drowned off the Italian coast), when the Napoleonic wars gave place to a peace reeking with poverty, wretchedness, and reaction.

The British Government, the least Tory in Europe at the time, met popular demands for reform with iniquitous coercion laws – the Libel Laws and Anti-Trade Union Acts.

Meanwhile the people were not without expression, of a sort. Even before the wars came to an end the “Luddites” – the I.W.W. of that period – had been responsible for machine-breaking riots. They used to say, when a machine was thrown out of gear, that Peter Ludd (a certain North Country village idiot) had done it, just as our orthodox I.W.W. team of to-day talks darkly and mysteriously of “The Bob Cat,” and the “Wooden Shoe”. But more intelligent efforts, which later were to come to fruition in two present-day institutions – Trade Unionism and Labor-in-Politics – made their appearance when the people began to find “very little consolation in the glory won in distant battlefields” (I quote from a much used school history of England). Secret trade unions continued to exist, despite repressive laws, and, on the other hand, an agitation for political reform – the germ of Chartism – sprang up.

In August 1819, a gathering of 20,000 working people assembled in Manchester to listen to “Orator” Hunt. The meeting was to have been entirely constitutional in character, and the workers brought their wives and babes as hostages for their good behaviour. The meeting had but fairly started when a regiment of cavalry charged down upon it, trampling and killing men, women and children. The magistrates who ordered the massacre – The Battle of Peterloo is its working class name – were exonerated by the Government – not even with the excuse that they were mad, as in the recent case of Skeffington'’ assassin.

This was the news that reached Shelly at Leghorn, in Italy, at a time when his gentle but fiery, intense nature was cruelly wounded by the loss of his children. The villainy of it all stung him to the quick, and the hot thoughts gushed from his heart in his great prophecy to the workers – The Masque of Anarchy.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in her notes to her husband’s poem (appearing in her own edition of Shelly’s complete works) says, “He was writing the Cenci when the news of the Manchester massacre reached us. It roused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion. The great truth that the many, if accordant, and resolute, could control the few – made him long to teach his injured countrymen how to resist.”

Anarchy is masked by law and the symbols of law. In the title “The Masque of Anarchy,” we recognise another version of the Socialist slogan “Government is a conspiracy of the Ruling Class.”

“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;
In his hand a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw –
I am King and God and Law.”

What a picture of Australia today! Press censorship, mob rule, virtual suspension of habeas corpus, tampering with mails and telegraphs, intimidation of the ballot, immunity for fraudulent contractors, and the river for working class champions – all under the name of “King and God and Law.” But in the midst of Anarchy’s progress – a pause.

“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:

  Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horse’s 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 vapour of the Vale

It grew – a shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was like the light on sunny rain

The dazzled multitude hardly see what takes place, until the angelic form has vanished, when they behold Hope walking erect, ankle deep in Blood, and Anarchy lying, “dead earth upon the earth,” Then follow the best known and most quoted quatrains of the poem – the address of Hope to the people – [?] poetry, and a glorious war song for Labor:-

“Men of England, Heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurselings 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.

“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 have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs as in a cell
For the tyrant’s use to dwell

“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

“Asses, swine, have litter spread,
And with fitting food are fed.
All things have a home but one.
Thou, O Englishman, hast none!”

Bitter words, is truth but none too bitter to describe the condition of the workers. In the fearful years that followed the Napoleonic wars. We begin to realise the sting of the new current phrase, “Peace may break out any moment.”

Though “The Masque of Anarchy does not display the more wonderful complexities of thought existing in most of Shelley’s work, it is none the less typical of its author. It is addressed to the men of England, in their own tongue, and in a literary form capable of appreciation by all in whom the call of Freedom finds an echo. Other poets there are who have written in Labor’s cause. Other fine poems of revolt there are. But “The Masque of Anarchy” stands like a “lone monolith beneath the stars” as the mightiest gift of Poetry to Labor.

- “Vigilant”

Works bearing upon the above theme:-

Shelley’s “Queen Mab”
Lowell’s poems.
“Shelley, Godwin, and their Circle” by H. N. Bralleford, MA (Home University Library)
Kingsley’s “Alton Locke”
George Elliot’s “Felix Holt”
This is not meant as an exhaustive list, but merely as a few hints mainly to set the beginner on the right track.


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