Shelley's Revolutionary Year

The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, 1819, was the spark for one of the most creatively incendiary periods of Percy Shelley's life.
The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, 1819, was the spark for one of the most creatively incendiary periods of Percy Shelley's life.

(A review of Shelley's Revolutionary Year, edited by Paul O'Brien, first published in Irish Marxist Review and The Real Percy Shelley)


In the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which over seven hundred unarmed civilian demonstrators were injured, eleven killed, by cavalry sent by local magistrates to disperse the crowd, Percy Shelley’s impulse was to mourn the “people starved and stabbed in the untilled field”. Comparing “England” to an “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king”, Shelley excoriated those actual “Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / But leech-like to their fainting country cling” - sucking the blood, like Marx’s later “vampire” capitalists, of the working people whose labour they both demanded and disdained. Later, Shelley addressed the survivors themselves, and in terms that connected the oppression they suffered as a group with the work they performed and the distribution of wealth that resulted: 


     Men of England, wherefore plough 

     For the lords who lay ye low?

     Wherefore weave with toil and care 

     The rich robes your tyrants wear?


     Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save, 

     From the cradle to the grave 

     Those ungrateful drones who would 

     Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?


Peterloo had unleashed the poet into something close to a class analysis of his society, governed increasingly by force under Lord Liverpool’s Tory administration. 


The event stands in history as an emblematic and explosive manifestation of the abhorrence of establishment elites for the democratic rights of a subjugated majority; it was a singular atrocity, but also an omen, in which “the painted veil” of social relations was momentarily lifted, revealing the violence beneath. Indeed, as Paul O’Brien notes, versions of “Peterloo” have “been played out on many occasions in the past two hundred years”, including on “Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972” and in “the battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike in 1984.” In this respect, the massacre may be understood as holding out to us today that same question which Shelley was clear in answering in 1819: which side are you on? As this selection of the poet’s writings from that year makes plain, the brutality of the Peterloo attack and the pervasiveness of the subsequent cover-up was in fact a catalyst for one of the most productive and incendiary creative periods of his life – and as such serves to foreground the political impetus of a figure too often portrayed as an imaginative if overly earnest dreamer, or the prodigal literary son of the (ultimately reactionary) William Wordsworth. This book serves as a corrective to both of these interpretations. 


Born in 1792 into a minor aristocratic family, expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet on atheism, obsessed with French revolutionary discourse and the relatively recent rebellions in Ireland, Shelley burned bright and died young (in a boating accident in 1822): he is known today, after decades of critical near-invisibility, as one of the most gifted English poets of the nineteenth century. He was also the most radical. 


If Shelley’s instinct in life was to resist all forms of entrenched authority (religious and political), his distinction as a Romantic was to crystallise this rebellion into an often heart-quickening poetry and an incisive style of prose argumentation that together – and despite the occasional limitations of his perspective – sought without fail to kindle and keep alive the revolutionary promise of his times. As Paul Foot helpfully summarises, “Shelley’s enormous talents were used not to butter up the rulers of society”, as has been the case of many other prominent writers, then and now, “but to attack those rulers from every vantage point.” If Shelley sometimes vacillated on questions that later socialists have held dear  questions of universal suffrage, the roles of capital and private property in society, or the validity (and methods) of revolutionary insurrection over political reform  his concern was always to unmask the structures of power that dominated his society. He set out to find in nature, in the upsurge of democratic and nationalist movements across Europe, and in the individuality of his own sensations, the stirrings of a world-transforming change, both spiritual and material. In this sense, the Shelley of mystical visions, celebrated by W. B. Yeats, and the Shelley of inspired insight and radical action, beloved of Karl and Eleanor Marx, among many others, were inseparably the same  as this book valuably reminds us. 



For all his sweeping intuition as to the spiritual unity of the universe (“The One remains, the Many change and pass”), Shelley was incapable of imagining the world without also recognising the social antagonisms of human society as such. What is slavery, he declares:


     ‘Tis to work and have such pay

     As just keeps life from day to day 

     In your limbs, as in a cell 

     For the tyrants’ use to dwell, 


     So that ye for them are made 

     Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade, 

     With or without your own will bent 

     To their defence and nourishment. 


     ‘Tis to see your children weak, 

     With their mothers pine and peak, 

     When the winter winds are bleak, –  

     They are dying whilst I speak.


Shelley’s hatred for the institutions and privileges of his own class, his insistent recognition of the vicious force with which these last were defended, could also at times shapeshift into a sense of personal isolation and despondency  a feeling all “Me”, as he once wrote, “who am as a nerve o’er which do creep / The else unfelt oppressions of the earth”. More often, however, Shelley presented a vision of the earth in motion, in which the turning seasons and the all-too-palpable pains of social oppression could both be galvanised “to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe”  a vision in which the “sneer of cold command” of ruling elites was by its very nature vulnerable to these “boundless”, surging forces of transformation the poet discerned. Amid all the destruction of his times  from the bloody final acts of the French revolution, to the unfettered butchery of the Napoleonic and Peninsular wars, to the savage repression enforced against Irish and domestic populations  Shelley had an uncanny ability to draw the outlines of a new society, urging rebels the world over “To defy Power, which seems omnipotent; / To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. As in this passage, there are moments in the sweep and rush of Shelley’s writing that seem the very distillation of revolutionary struggle. 


Of course, in re-claiming the work from a politically anemic and largely conservative literary tradition, there is always the risk of heroising the poet into another kind of myth –  of erecting an image of radical purity in place of the much messier reality that was Shelley’s life and personality. Here, for instance, the furious compassion and searing political fire of “Ballad of a Starving Mother” is praised by the editors (and quite rightly, too), and yet the powerful and even callous solipsism that at times defined Shelley’s own marital relationships, first with Harriet Westbrook and then with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, goes unmentioned. Such qualities were erratic, and were perhaps intensified by Shelley’s youth; and yet it is surely difficult not to perceive Shelley’s sometimes extreme self-absorption at the emotional and physical expense of the women around him as a reflex of his status as a man of many entitlements in an intensely gender-divided society – a society of which, as we have seen, Shelley was an outspoken critic. Such biographical complexity is lacking from the portrait of the poet we receive in this volume, which seems a loss: partly because socialists deserve a fuller picture of the past and the literary figures whom they are encouraged to quote, and partly because a socialism sanitised of human contradiction will surely fail to live up to its name. This would be a final defeat, for us and for Shelley, the poet who dedicated his work to the winds and “Wild Spirit” of renewal, “Destroyer and preserver” both – and who met, in the “Autumn” of world history in which he lived, the vista of “Pestilence-stricken multitudes” with his own enduring challenge: “Be through my lips to unawakened earth // The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Ciarán O'Rourke (First published in the irish marxist review, Vol 8 No 25) // January 2020