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The Mask of Anarchy


The Mask of Anarchy, as its subtitle announces, was "Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester" in St. Peter's Field on 16 August 1819. The event, popularly known as the Peterloo Massacre, occurred when mounted local militia mistakenly charged a crowd of men, women, and children, who were peaceably campaigning for Parliamentary reform, and incited a riot. A number of people lost their lives and a good many more were seriously injured as a result of the viole 111e47b nce that ensued. Having taken up residence in Italy by this time, Shelley did not learn of this terrible event until he received copies of the Examiner for 22 and 29 of August from Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) on 5 September. Shelley's response to the news was almost immediate. He completed The Mask of Anarchy before the end of the month and dispatched a copy to Leigh Hunt for publication, on 23 September, in his radical periodical, the Examiner. In light of revolutionary fervour in England and increased legal restrictions on the radical press, Hunt deferred publication until 1832, the year in which the Great Reform Bill was passed.

Shelley's final version of The Mask of Anarchy comprised ninety-one stanzas, written in tetrameter couplets and triplets with each stanza consisting of either four or five lines. The 'Mask' of Shelley's title alludes to both the concealed deceits of corrupt authority and the medieval concept of a processional triumph or masquerade. Conforming to the conventions of visionary dream poetry, The Mask of Anarchy opens with a sleeping narrator, whose reverie gives way to "the visions of poesy" (4) and an encounter with "a ghastly masquerade" (27). This dire procession is Shelley's depiction of Lord Liverpool's ministry as a series of grotesque and vitriolic caricatures:

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 cloak he drew [...]

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell. (1-17)

Shelley presents each of these allegorical figures as pointedly correlating with either political statesmen or events in England. It is no accident that Shelley aligns Lord Chancellor Eldon with Fraud and Viscount Castlereagh with Murder. Foreign Secretary since 1812, Castlereagh (1769-1822) had a long-standing reputation, earned in Ireland, the Napoleonic Wars, and at home, as a warmonger and political oppressor among radicals. Eldon's capacity for hypocrisy, on the other hand, can be gauged from his notorious reputation for public displays of weeping and his many heartless rulings in the Chancery court (he had ruled against Shelley's bid for custody of his children in favour of Harriet). Even the "seven bloodhounds" find their counterpart in the other seven nations (Austria, France, Russia, Prussia, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) that along with Britain agreed to defer the abolition of slavery.

This triumph of motley grotesques are accompanied, in the vanguard, by a personification of Anarchy which draws on the iconography of Death on the Pale Horse by Benjamin West (1738-1820) and apocalyptic language found in Revelations (Ch: 6: v. 8):

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!" (29-36)

By aligning the chaotic figure of Anarchy with those who would defend the state against parliamentary reform, revolution, and anarchists, Shelley demonstrates that the social and political order of monarchy is only preserved through anarchic actions, like the lawless slaughter of innocents at the Peterloo Massacre. Paradoxically, such methodical spilling of blood in defence of God, King, and Law incites anarchy in those seeking reform and provides them with a template for their own future anarchic conduct. Simultaneously, Shelley's skeletal figure of Anarchy is prized by the "ghastly masquerade" (27) and venerated by "the adoring multitude" (41) as he tramples them "to a mire of blood" (31) under the hooves of his mount.

During the course of Shelley's ballad, Anarchy's progress is unexpectedly prevented with the appearance of Hope, "a maniac maid" (86), who bars his way:

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 a vapour of a vale [...]

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. (97-112)

Foreshadowing the "glorious phantom" (13) of Shelley's sonnet, "England 1819", the coalescent "Shape arrayed in mail" renders Anarchy "dead earth upon the earth" (131). Anarchy's demise prepares the ground for Hope to address the throng, she contrasts illusion of liberty with genuine political empowerment and regards parliamentary reform as vital to the downtrodden and disenfranchised as are the necessities of sustenance, clothing, warmth and decent shelter:

"Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude -
No - in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England we now see." (221-25)

Hope next turns her attention to matters of judicial reform, intellectual and religious tolerance and financial assistance for the poverty stricken. Before concluding, Hope issues a resounding challenge to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised to rise up en masse against their oppressors, encountering violence with a widespread display of public passivity:

"With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

"Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek." (344-51)

The Mask of Anarchy's final stanzas return to the poem's point of departure - the specific "slaughter" (359) of the Peterloo Massacre - which now acts as a clarion call to all those who are oppressed to:

"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." (366-71)

Similar concerns reoccur in Shelley's further investigation and exposition of political and spiritual revolution in his extensive lyric drama, Prometheus Unbound. Hostility, oppression and evil, Shelley powerfully asserts and passionately believes, can be overcome by means of passive protest, unbridled love, and magnanimity of spirit on a societal and, eventually, universal level.


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