Shelley in a Revolutionary World

James Connolly (1868-1916), "fighting and hoping".
James Connolly (1868-1916), "fighting and hoping".

(First published by The Real Percy Shelley)


There’s something in the Romanticism of Percy Shelley that seems always on the verge of breaking down the gate-posts of history and gusting into our world. The archival shackles in which the academic humanities prefer to keep their spectral versifiers and yawping hobgoblins enclosed seem especially frangible and ill-suited to the reluctant baronet’s “sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.” Shelley is present in our efforts to meet and counteract the predicaments of our moment (from the mendacious mis-rule of government elites to the devastation of natural habitats for profit) in a way that Wordsworth, scrummily in awe of Nature and his own perception of it, is not – or at least, not so fluently.


Shelley’s writings are world-spanning in their scope of interest, and yet also vividly individual – expressing an apparently instinctive disdain for established mores alongside a faith (shared by few of his contemporaries with equal intensity) in the power of downtrodden communities to shape a common future. “Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap”, he urged, “Find wealth—let no imposter heap: / Weave robes—let not the idle wear: / Forge arms—in your defence to bear.” His work is subversive, and multiplicitous: often notable not so much for its resemblance to that of his immediate fellows and forebears, than for its ease of access to revolutionary fervours, past and future. Shelley prefigured radicals, and listened to the crowd.


Relentless, clear-eyed, valuably capable of both rebel joy and analytical despair, Rosa Luxemburg’s life shares something of this same quality, flashing across our human skies like a burning comet-trail of light and fire. Her incisive political praxis – with its insistence on mass, proletarian democracy over the self-sustaining party committee as the necessary engine of social change – was grounded in what can be described, without piety or exaggeration, as a dynamic sense of oneness with the world about her. In late 1917, incarcerated for her agitation and opposition to the First World War, she wrote to Sonia Liebknecht of the activity in the prison yard, including the arrival of a cart-load of supplies, dragged by a team of buffaloes. “They are black, and have large, soft eyes”, she told her friend, in a passage worth quoting at length: 


[They] are war trophies from Romania [....] Unsparingly exploited, yoked to heavy loads, they are soon worked to death. The other day a lorry came laden with sacks, so overladen indeed that the buffaloes were unable to drag it across the threshold of the gate. The soldier-driver, a brute of a fellow, belaboured the poor beasts so savagely with the butt end of his whip [….] At length the buffaloes succeeded in drawing the load over the obstacle, but one of them was bleeding. You know their hide is proverbial for its thickness and toughness, but it had been torn. While the lorry was being unloaded, the beasts, which were utterly exhausted, stood perfectly still. The one that was bleeding had an expression on its black face and in its soft black eyes like that of a weeping child – one that has been severely thrashed and does not know why, nor how to escape from the torment of ill-treatment. I stood in front of the team; the beast looked at me: the tears welled from my own eyes [....] Far distant, lost for ever, were the green, lush meadows of Romania. How different there the light of the sun, the breath of the wind; how different there the song of the birds and the melodious call of the herdsman. Instead, the hideous street, the foetid stable, the rank hay mingled with mouldy straw, the strange and terrible men – blow upon blow, and blood running from gaping wounds. Poor wretch, I am as powerless, as dumb, as yourself; I am at one with you in my pain, my weakness, and my longing.


There’s arguably more poetry in this single letter by Red Rosa than many writers manage in an entire lifetime (of course, Shelley himself believed that the “distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error”). The passage also sheds light on her socialism, so feared and demonised by the state that eventually killed her, as one expression of what was evidently a passionate, deep-rooted love for life and the living, akin, perhaps, to that force described so memorably by Shelley: “a powerful attraction towards all we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when [we] seek to awaken in all things [a] community with what we experience within ourselves.”


Certainly, the Shelleyan spirit (or perhaps, that quickening world-spirit to which Shelley proved himself so attuned) was pulsingly alive in Red Rosa’s time. Across the United States, troubadours and labour organisers associated with the International Workers of the World – founded in 1905 by such agitational luminaries as “Big Bill” (William) Haywood and “Mother” (Mary Harris) Jones – shook the foundations of American capitalism with their militant, often carnivalesque strikes and free-speech campaigns, earning them and others vicious reprisals in the form of state-sanctioned murders, beatings, and deportations. “There is but one bargain that the IWW will make with the employing class”, said one member, “complete surrender of all control of industry to the organized workers.” The world over, from Mexico to Russia, peasant and industrial populations mounted daring, sometimes epoch-changing attempts to seize control of the means of subsistence and production, in incendiary movements sparked and fuelled, in many cases, by the self-activity of women. James Connolly, later executed for his role in Dublin’s “Easter Rising” against British imperialism in 1916, expressed the revolutionary promise of these disparate global insurgencies concisely, in his rebuttal to placid reformists and capitalist overlords alike: 


Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek

Our programme to retouch,

And will insist, whene’er they speak

That we demand too much.

’Tis passing strange, yet I declare

Such statements give me mirth,

For our demands most moderate are,

We only want the earth.


Connolly in fact drew on Shelley’s work repeatedly for inspiration in the ferment of radical politics into which he plunged his time and energy. “The freedom of the worker is freedom to sell himself into slavery to the class which controls his supply of food”, he wrote in one essay, “he is free as the wayside traveller is free of clothes after highwaymen have robbed and stripped him”, amplifying the thunderous music of this perception with a quote from the forerunning English agitator:


What is Freedom? Ye can tell

That which slavery is too well,

For its very name has grown

To an echo of your own.

’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.


One of Connolly’s most powerful legacies today is his belief in the necessity of a world free of landlordism, bossery, and royalty; his dream of a nation ruled and embodied by a risen people. Addressing himself to “tenant farmers”, “wage workers”, and “to every one of the toiling millions upon whose misery the outwardly-splendid fabric of our modern civilisation is reared”, Connolly declared himself on the side of the Irish masses, with an eloquence that still resounds:


[The] Republic I would wish our fellow-countrymen to set before them as their ideal should be of such a character that the mere mention of its name would at all times serve as a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land, at all times holding forth promise of freedom and plenteousness as the reward of their efforts on its behalf… a rallying point for the disaffected, a haven for the oppressed, a point of departure for the Socialist, enthusiastic in the cause of human freedom.


If Connolly had a gift for synthesising the various strains of domestic disquiet and worldly revolt, casting distinctively Irish hopes in the language of propulsive, proletarian internationalism, he also wrote and spoke with poetic fire, carrying a Shelleyan rhetoric of visionary illumination and material change into the modern day. After all, for Shelley, likewise, Ireland had stood as“the isle on whose green shores I have desired to see the standard of liberty erected, a flag of fire, a beacon at which the world shall light the torch of Freedom!”


Importantly, and as is true of his work in general, Shelley was not concocting a mysticism of social betterment here: his political utopianism stemmed from a full-blooded apprehension of very real, if temporarily buried, revolutionary currents in his time. When he wrote these lines, he was conscious of the Irish insurrections against colonial hegemony that had been crushed in 1798 and 1803, among other global rebellions, having in fact befriended more than a few former members of the underground organisations, the United Irish Men and Women, on his sojourn to Dublin after being expelled from Oxford in 1811. If Shelley conceived of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, a great part and purpose of this role lay, for him, in the capacity to perceive and express the radical aspirations of the toiling “many” (in Ireland and farther afield).


“The Masque of Anarchy”, of course, (the source of that ringing recognition, “ye are many – they are few”) has itself been riffed and iterated, adopted and embraced, at innumerable moments in the human story: by the garment workers striking for better pay in New York in 1909, for example, as well as the so-called Corbynistas, who briefly swept Britain’s electoral sphere with a message of social democratic empowerment in 2017. In a clear affirmation of Shelley’s astuteness of political portraiture (of “Murder” with “a mask like Castlereagh”) and perennially lucid understanding of power and its abuse in the modern world, the poem also served as a kind of originary prototype for Thomas Kinsella’s visceral accusation of empire, “Butcher’s Dozen”. 


The latter was composed in the aftermath of the British army’s killing of fourteen Northern Irish civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972, an atrocity that echoed in chilling detail the act of violent class warfare against peaceful demonstrators denounced by Shelley in 1819, the Peterloo Massacre. “I went with Anger at my heel / Through Bogside of the bitter zeal”, Kinsella writes, in anger and sorrow, “a murder smell that stung and stained” still lingering in the streets. Echoing Shelley’s verse, the poem unfurls with a slow burn of fury, as the imagined ghosts of victims speak:


The thing is rapidly arranged:

Where's the law that can't be changed?

The news is out. The troops were kind.

Impartial justice has to find

We'd be alive and well today

If we had let them have their way.

Yet England, even as you lie,

You give the facts that you deny.

Spread the lie with all your power

– All that's left; it's turning sour.

Friend and stranger, bride and brother,

Son and sister, father, mother,

All not blinded by your smoke,

Photographers who caught your stroke,

The priests that blessed our bodies, spoke

And wagged our blood in the world's face.

The truth will out, to your disgrace….


Revisiting Kinsella’s pained, compulsive lines today, almost fifty years after the bloodshed of their occasion, is in many ways a sobering experience. Since then, populations from Fallujah to Gaza have suffered the arrogance and brutality of imperialist violence on an even larger scale, while in Derry, as the veteran campaigner, Eamonn McCann, has noted, the Saville report (into the events known as “Bloody Sunday”) “cleared the dead and wounded” of wrongdoing, “and this was rightly welcomed,” but “stopped short of admitting the truth about the role of the most senior soldiers” in the butchery, including General M. Jackson, since knighted for his services to the Crown. As is partly true of “The Masque of Anarchy”, Kinsella’s political elegy aches and quivers with the burden of its own music:


I stood like a ghost. My fingers strayed

Along the fatal barricade.

The gentle rainfall drifting down

Over Colmcille's town

Could not refresh, only distil

In silent grief from hill to hill.


There is a grim knowledge, powerfully affirmed, in Kinsella’s stance: that wherever the state and rule of law are most bloodthirsty in their assertion, refusing all redress, the people they would suppress from view nevertheless continue on, their words, their pain, their struggle living still, with a continuity through history (a “silent grief” moving “from hill to hill”), which the poet can honour, but not heal. 


There is also Shelleyan permanence to the rage of “Butcher’s Dozen”, a justice gleaming in its memorial process that is all the more compelling for its absence outside of the verse itself (a justice reached for, and only imperfectly held, within it). If nothing else, indeed, reading the poem throws into sharp relief Shelley’s will to witness and transform “the else unfelt oppressions of the earth”: the frequent cost and urgent necessity of this project. The “rushing light of clouds and splendour” and “sense awakening, yet tender” that Shelley envisioned as lifting humankind to a radical equality in class and nature are far from guaranteed, as Kinsella sees, and easily quenched. But beneath the silence of grief and seemingly irreparable dispossessions of our time, the music of the masses can be heard, stirring: for justice, for peace, for the earth reclaimed and won. We live entangled in the dialectic. “Ye are many – they are few.” 

Ciarán O'Rourke (first published by The Real Percy Shelley) // October 2020