This essay, on the legacy of Percy Bysshe Shelley 200 years after his death, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 10 July 2022, under the headline “Long gone, but speaking clearly to our age – Shelley, the poet of moral and political corruption”.
“Shall rank corruption pass unheeded by,
Shall flattery’s voice ascend the wearied sky;
And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?
Is public virtue dead? – is courage gone?”
No, not a description of the moral void of contemporary Britain, but lines from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, an excoriation of the moral devastation wreaked in late Georgian Britain two centuries ago. It was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley and published anonymously in 1811, in support of the radical Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who had been imprisoned for seditious libel after accusing the Anglo-Irish politician Viscount Castlereagh of the torture and executions of Irish rebels challenging British rule.
Shelley’s poem was “lost” for nearly 200 years, before a single copy of the pamphlet was “rediscovered” in 2006, and a decade later bought by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, so finally it could be read by the public again. A poem that speaks to our age as much as it did to the Britain of two centuries ago.
Friday marked the bicentenary of Shelley’s death. He was drowned after his boat, carrying him home after visiting his friend and fellow poet Lord Byron in the Italian town of Livorno, capsized in a storm. He was a month short of his 30th birthday.
Wordsworth said of Shelley that he was “one of the best artists of us all; I mean in workmanship of style”. He is also one of our most significant political essayists, “the relentless enemy of all irresponsible authority, especially the irresponsible authority which derives from wealth and exploitation”, as Paul Foot, whose 1981 work Red Shelley helped restore the significance of Shelley’s political work, observed.
Shelley’s greatest gift was in the deftness with which he interwove the poetical and the political. Poetry had, for Shelley, of necessity to appropriate a political dimension. And politics required a poetical imagination. That was why, as Shelley put it in a celebrated line from his essay A Defence of Poetry, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Poetry did not stand aloof from the world but sought to engage with it and to transform it. We live in an age in which working-class politicians can be mocked for attending the opera. For Shelley, the measure of high culture lay in the degree to which it could spark the imaginations of ordinary people.
Born into landed aristocracy, educated at Eton and Oxford, Shelley seemed destined for a life at the heart of the British establishment. However, he was also born into an age of tumult, a maelstrom, both intellectual and political, unleashed by the French Revolution.That tumult helped Shelley find his voice. And Shelley, in turn, tried to give voice to it. He was, as his most insightful biographer Richard Holmes put it, like his poetry, not ethereal as literary tradition would have it, but “darker and more earthly”.
Shelley’s first significant work – The Necessity of Atheism – published in his first year at Oxford, led to his expulsion from the university and strained his relationship with his father to breaking point. He found his home instead on the radical edge of British politics, a crusader against moral and political corruption, a campaigner for republicanism and parliamentary reform, for equal rights and the abolition of slavery, for free speech and a free press, for Irish freedom and Catholic emancipation, for freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
His political ideals were often contradictory, his revolutionary spirit clashing with his Fabian instincts for gradual, non-violent change. Yet, unlike fellow Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley never abandoned his radicalism, his disdain of authority or his celebration of the voices of working people.
His personal life was tumultuous, too. He left his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, who later took her own life, to live with, and eventually marry, Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. He was forever trying to find refuge from debt collectors and eventually he and Mary left Britain to live in Italy. Mary Shelley would create, in Frankenstein, one of the great explorations of the contradictions of modernity and of what it was to be human.
Despised by the literary and political establishments, Shelley wrote for the working-class autodidacts for whom learning and culture were means both of elevating themselves and of challenging those in power. Fearful of the consequences, his work was suppressed by the authorities, either through direct censorship or through threatening publishers with the charge of sedition.
As a result, much of Shelley’s work was published only after his death. The Masque of Anarchy is perhaps the most famous political poem in the English language, written in furious anger after the Peterloo massacre of 1819, when at least 15 people were killed as cavalry charged into a crowd of around 60,000 who had gathered to demand parliamentary reform and an extension of suffrage. Shelley sent it to his friend, the radical editor and publisher Leigh Hunt. But Hunt did not publish it, for to do so would have been to invite immediate imprisonment for sedition. Not until 1832 was the poem, with its celebrated last stanza, finally published:
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.
In the decades that followed Shelley’s death, his poetry became an inspiration across generations and borders. Queen Mab became known as the Chartists’ Bible, read aloud at working-class meetings. The Suffragettes’ slogan, “Deeds, not words”, is taken from The Masque of Anarchy. And that final stanza has been on the lips of many who have “shaken their chains”, from striking Jewish garment workers in early 20th-century New York to protesters 80 years later in Tiananmen Square and a century later in Tahrir Square.
And most of all, perhaps, it is in his insistence that we question the claim to power of those in authority that we most need Shelley’s voice today. For, as he put it in Queen Mab:
Nature rejects the monarch, not the man;
The subject, not the citizen…
… and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame
A mechanized automaton.