P. B. Shelley, "The Mask of Anarchy" (1819)

Shelley at Livorno, Villa Valsovano. Mary working on Mathilda. Left for Florence on Sept 30.


Participants had carefully rehearsed, were dressed in their Sunday best clothes, included women and children -- in order to show they were orderly and non-violent. Government fears of revolution had always been put in terms of chaos, anarchy, as in France; but the discipline of this group frightened them much more. One general in charge of troops at an earlier workers' parade said that such orderly behaviour among so many thousands of unemployed men was "not natural." And a magistrate who saw the "beautiful order" of the gathering on St. Peter's Fields said that "not until then did he become alarmed" (Pirie 66).

Cartoon (Holmes, facing p. 435). Text in upper right: "Down with 'em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! ---- & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you'll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty"

Shelley's response.

From letter to Ollier, September 6:

The same day that your letter came, came the news of the Manchester work, & the torrent of my indignation has not yet done boiling in my veins. I wait anxiously to hear how the Country will express its sense of this bloody murderous oppression of its destroyers. 'Something must be done . . . What yet I know not.' (Letters, II, 117)

From letter to Peacock, September 9:

Many thanks for your attention in sending the papers which contain the terrible and important news of Manchester. These are, as it were, the distant thunders of the terrible storm which is approaching. The tyrants here, as in the French Revolution, have first shed blood. May their execrable lessons not be learnt with equal docility! I still think there will be no coming to close quarters until financial affairs decidedly bring the oppressors and the oppressed together. (Letters, II, 119)

News from England in 1819, especially Peterloo, stirred Shelley into realizing that Prometheus was not an adequate response (Webb 89). See letter to Hunt, May 1 1820: "I wish to ask you if you know of any bookseller who would like to publish a little volume of popular songs wholly political, & destined to awaken & redirect the imagination of the reformers" (Letters II, 191).

Shelley's lack of influence, partly due to caution of his publishers: Webb says that "in 1819 alone there were seventy-five prosecutions for seditious or blasphemous libel" (109).

Reiman argues for both landed vs. monied aristocracy in Shelley's politics (his own family being the former); the latter are attacked in "Mask" (Reiman 594; 596).

Shelley distinguishes between two classes of poetry with different readers, exoteric, referring to "Mask" (Letters II, 152) and esoteric referring to "Epipsychidion" (Letters II, 263). Yet a certain crudeness, says Webb, in his writing down to the working class (Webb 93).

Meekness of non-resistance (cf. Prometheus, II, iii, 94, p. 246). "Mask" 340-47.

Webb's discussion of Sonnet, "England in 1819" (p. 326), problem of ending: "Since the possibility of evil crumbling from within as a result of its own corruption seems so remote, Shelley has recourse to a god in a machine, exactly as in The Mask of Anarchy." (Webb 107)

The poem an "anatomy", a variant of Menippean satire (Frye, Anatomy, 308-12): deals not with people as such, but with characteristics and attitudes: pedants, cranks, bigots, etc. (Peterfreund 90).

Medieval echo: "It may still be important to try to visualize the poem in terms of medieval iconography, for Shelley's political nightmares, both here and elsewhere, often shaded over into medieval gothic. When viewed in this context, Castlereagh, Eldon and Sidmouth wear the masks of modern politicians, whereas in reality they still belong to a medieval world of superstition and tyranny" (Sales 198).

Can poetry effect social reform? (Wolfson 726) [or be the trumpet of a prophecy; or unacknowledged legislation?] -- the frame of "Earth's" address (147 ff.), "As if their own indignant Earth," makes her address a "fantastic illusion," a "dreamy shimmer" (Wolfson 727).

And what is Anarchy? Roger Sales looks at Prometheus, III, iv, 40-45 (p. 265; note masks), and comments: "The old order is hollow to the core. The figure of Anarchy itself is a mask which covers up the hollow void, or black hole, at the centre of political life (Sales 200).

"Mask of Anarchy"

Mask =


1-4. dream vision, as if not his but the "voice" speaking

5-29. "although the law and order brigade pretend to be moving in to prevent terror and panic, they are in fact the very people who 'strike terror' in the hearts and minds of the population" (Sales 201); cf. line 55.

22. Bible: Church and State unity (29: Bishops)

30. Anarchy: cf. West, Death on a Pale Horse:

97. Maid Hope, more like Despair. Cf. Prometheus: "To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates" (IV.573-4; p. 286).

98-101. passivity of Maid. Cf. of poet: "Hymn," "Mont Blanc."

106 ff. spirit of Liberty appears.

120-1. Cf. shadow of intellectual beauty in "Hymn." Creates "thoughts" (125).

131-2. Anarchy is dead. Not really: otherwise speech of "Earth" that follows would be unnecessary.

139/146. As if Earth . . . "had cried aloud" -- hence author of lines 147 to end.

147 ff. Earth's address. As if completing the speech of Henry Hunt cut short at Peterloo (Webb 100); her definition of Freedom, and proposed course of action at the next Peterloo (call an assembly, etc.)

148. "unwritten story": i.e., of the working poor.

160-207. Defines "slavery" in English context.

193-6. Revenge forbidden.

210. words alone would defeat the tyants / or not: cf. 260.

216-261. Attributes of Freedom. Note: begins with bread, 217 (against Corn Laws: cf. Reiman, p. 590)

250-3. Making war justifiable after all?

262. Calls for national assembly, i.e., another Peterloo.

331. Old laws of England: probably pre-Norman, supposedly more democratic constitution.

Reiman and Wolfson in anthology.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit (1974).

Peterfreund, Stuart. "Teaching Shelley's Anatomy of Anarchy." Approaches to Teaching Shelley's Poetry. Ed. Spencer Hall (1990). 90-92

Pirie, David P. Shelley (1988)

Sales, Roger. English Literature in History 1780-1830: Pastoral and Politics (1983).

Webb, Timothy. Shelley: A Voice Not Understood (1977).

return to Shelleys course

Document prepared November 11th 2003