In 1989 students stood in front of tanks and they chanted
Shelley’s as they demonstrated
Against the autocratic and murderous cult
Of the Chinese god, Chairman Mao.1
(‘Ye are many they are few’)
And in 2011 as anti-capitalist risings worldwide
Denounced the idols of Mammon,
Crowds again quoted from Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’
On both their banners and in meetings.
“Rise like lions from your slumber
Ye are many, they are few.”
Showing that, despite Oxford’s attempts to silence it,
That godless anarchist voice is still heard.
In 1812, having shaken off all Oxford’s dust,
Shelley’s in London building sky lanterns:
Fire balloons with under-carriages filled with poems –
Poems to protest England’s presence in Ireland.
The King had given his son a party at Carlton House,
The Prince Regent’s Ball, costing £120,000
For follies such as fake streams “encased in banks of silver”
And brimful with goldfish
The length of a banqueting table, two hundred foot long.
“What think you of the bubbling brooks and mossy banks at Carlton House?” Shelley asked
then he listed all the “disgusting splendours”
That had so offended him.
While Lancashire’s mill-workers were starving –
He poured his fury into a fifty-line poem
Tossing copies of it through the windows of carriages
That were driving up to Carlton House.2
And then more were cradled in the wire undercarriages
Of his miniature hot-air balloons.
So a poem floated down from the sky above:
“Tremble, Kings despised of man
Traitors to your country,” and it warned readers
Of the envenomed rule of the rich:
“The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
Sow seed – but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth – let no imposter heap.”
These lanterns “laden with knowledge”, as Shelley put it,
Would fly a thousand feet in the air
Then, burning out, the poems tumbled down
Scattering across England to change it –
To change a colonial system where “many faint with toil
That few may know the cares and woes of sloth.”
Tennyson said Shelley gave the world “another heart and new pulses”
And Clough that he “made wings for others to fly on”.
Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, remembered her father
Saying: “The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this:
Those who understand them and love them,
Rejoice that Byron died at thirty-six
Because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois.”
“They grieve that Shelley died at twenty-nine,” Marx continued,
“Because he was essentially a revolutionist,
And he would always have been one of the advanced guard of Socialism.”3
Not forgetting that Shelley’s defiance
Would also claim him for revolutionary anarchism,
Summed up by, ‘No masters. No gods’
Or, as Shelley put it, “Kings, priests and statesmen
Blast the human flower,
Even in its tender bud; their influence darts like sudden poison,
Through the bloodless veins of desolate society.”
The civil disobedience of Thoreau was fuelled by Shelley
As was Gandhi’s pacifism; Gandhi read Shelley to vast assemblies.4
“Anybody can press a button and blow up a ship. Anybody can use an atom bomb. /Anybody can pick up a big whip, and whip you. Anybody can stick a knife into you./ Anybody can pull a trigger. But where’s the man with the character, as can take a punch on the nose and keep his temper, keep control of himself?”
The anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba
Sing this in their song, ‘After Shelley’5
Then Chumbawamba chant Shelley’s words:
“The seed you sow, another reaps;
The wealth you find, another keeps.”
Off the coast of Viareggio, Shelley’s boat, the Ariel, sank
And Shelley drowned. He was cremated on the beach.
But his heart wouldn’t burn, and Mary Shelley would carry it
In a silken shroud for the rest of her life –
A heart that had said no ‘will of God’ excuses
The discrepancy between rich and poor,
Maintained by monarchy and by its “gilded flies”
And by its standing armies that serve the system –
Which Shelley thought could be turned upside down by “poesy”,
By its inspiration and its sense;
And by what smug Oxford claims to have traded in for centuries –
The transformative power of the mind.
At University College spoilt students have poured red paint
On Shelley’s prostrate marble figure;
Others have chipped off his genitalia as they rejoiced,
“We’ve got Shelley’s balls” –
Braying in their stupor as if they’ve thought that something subversive
Might rise up and shatter their world,
And as if they could thus ensure that their atrophied hierarchies,
Class-bound and unfair, could stay as they were –
Deaf to a voice imploring the wind to scatter his words
Like sparks on an unawakened earth,
To “touch the world with living flame” and to trumpet a prophecy
That would serve to quicken a new birth.
A voice that habitually extolled “the Spirit of Love,
The harmonized intelligence of infinite Creation”
A voice that insisted that this was not to be confused with a God
Whose joyless priests once rebuked Shelley for wearing “loud pantaloons”.
“He died” Shelley’s wife wrote, “and the world showed no outward sign”
But the world’s indifference was no accident:
The middle classes sensed an enemy of all that they stood for:
One who hated injustice with a passion that never left him.
Shelley yearned for “the awakening of an immense nation”
(He meant England), “from their slavery and degradation;
The bloodless dethronement of their oppressors, and the unveiling of the religious frauds
By which they had been deluded into submission.”25
On Shelley’s grave in Rome an inscription
Assures the reader, “Nothing of him
That doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
And as you look at it, and you become more aware
Of Shelley’s richness and strangeness,
You’re assured that his avowed atheism
Never affected the power of his spirit.
20 Timothy Morton, The Cambridge companion to Shelley, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 40
21 Richard Holmes, Shelley: the Pursuit, London: Quartet, 1976, p. 73
22 Shelley and Socialism,” by Edward and Eleanor Marx-Aveling, To-Day, April 1888, pp. 103-116
23 Thomas Weber, ‘Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor,’ It is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.” Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28.
24 itten by Kate Rusby and Chumbawamba from ‘Readymades And Then Some’released on Mutt records, 2002
25 There is no real wealth but the labour of man. Were the mountains of gold and the valleys of silver, the world would not be one grain of corn the richer, no one comfort would be added to the human race (from Shelley, ‘Notes on Queen Mab’)
And when you read the two words at the top,
‘Cor cordium’, and a friend with some Latin
Translates them (“They mean ‘heart of hearts’”),
Shelley’s spirit can quicken the pulse.
Written during the bicentenary of Shelley’s expulsion – an Oxford martyr, but to atheism.
“Byron and Shelley are read almost exclusively by the lower classes; no ‘respectable’ person could have the works of the latter on his desk without coming into the most terrible disrepute.”
(Engels ‘Letters from London’, In Marx and Engels On Art and Literature, p. 162)
“The workers also have in their hands cheap editions of the writings of Thomas Paine and Shelley.”
(ibid., p. 163).
With grateful acknowledgments to Nigel Allen; Adrian Arbib; Iphgenia Baal; Roy Hutchins; Sophie Huxley; Andy Leighton; Warren Leming; Thorunn Lonsdale; Martin Maw; Niall McDevitt; Eddie Mizzi;, Alice Nutter; Boff Whalley; China Williams; Lily Williams; Martin Wilkinson and Zoe Young.
Cover design Peter Rozycki