'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:
|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,
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.
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,
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
It grew – a shape arrayed in mail
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,
“Rise like lions after slumber,
“What is freedom? Ye can tell
“Tis to work and have such pay
“And at length when ye complain
“Asses, swine, have litter spread,
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.
Works bearing upon the above theme:-
Shelley’s “Queen Mab”