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The Masque of Anarchy

By: Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Masque of Anarchy (or The Mask of Anarchy) is a British political poem written in 1819 (see 1819 in poetry) by Percy Bysshe Shelley following the Peterloo Massacre of that year. In his call for freedom, it is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance.

Shelley begins his poem, written on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester 1819, with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time, "God, and King, and Law" – and then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action: "Let a great assembly be, of the fearless, of the free". The crowd at this gathering is met by armed soldiers, but the protesters do not raise an arm against their assailants:

"Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

 

And if then the tyrants dare,

Let them ride among you there;

Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;

What they like, that let them do.

 

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:

 

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!"

Shelley elaborates on the psychological consequences of violence met with pacifism. The guilty soldiers, he says, will return shamefully to society, where "blood thus shed will speak / In hot blushes on their cheek". Women will point out the murderers on the streets, their former friends will shun them, and honourable soldiers will turn away from those responsible for the massacre, "ashamed of such base company". A version was taken up by Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha. Gandhi's passive resistance was influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action. It is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.

The poem mentions several members of Lord Liverpool's government by name: the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, who appears as a mask worn by Murder, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, whose guise is taken by Hypocrisy, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, whose ermine gown is worn by Fraud. Led by Anarchy, a skeleton with a crown, they try to take over England, but are slain by a mysterious armoured figure who arises from a mist. The maiden Hope, revived, then calls to the people of England:

"Men of England, heirs of Glory,

Heroes of unwritten story,

Nurslings of one mighty Mother,

Hopes of her, and one another!

 

What is Freedom? Ye can tell

That which Slavery is too well,

For its very name has grown

To an echo of your own

 

Let a vast assembly be,

And with great solemnity

Declare with measured words, that ye

Are, as God has made ye, free.

 

The old laws of England—they

Whose reverend heads with age are grey,

Children of a wiser day;

And whose solemn voice must be

Thine own echo—Liberty!

 

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!"

 

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

English

Published In

1832

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Shelley's work was not widely read in his lifetime outside a small circle of friends, poets and critics. Most of his poetry, drama and fiction was published in editions of 250 copies which generally s...

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