Monday, February 6, 2017

The Garden of Verse: The Greatest Political Poem, Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy"

     On August 16, 1819, a public meeting of England's vast new industrial working class, then seeking more representation in Parliament -- and, perhaps, the vote for a few members of their own class -- that drew about 60,000 men, women and children to a site near Manchester was violently broken up by an attack of armed soldiers on horseback.
            A sword-blow and trampling massacre of participants took a disputed number of lives -- the official total 11, the unofficial five times higher -- including a little girl trampled to death.
            Living in Italy, driven from England for his radical views -- chief among them being his atheism, a punishable crime under English law -- the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley received the news by mail, "and the torrent of my indignation has not yet done boiling in my veins," he wrote to his publisher in London. 
            (My source for quotes and background information is "Shelley: The Pursuit" by Richard Holmes.)
            There was nothing liberal, democratic, civil libertarian or progressive about the government of England 200 years ago. Thirty years into its current Constitutional government and still adhering (as least as of the moment in 2017) to the protections of its hallowed First Amendment freedoms, the United States did not prosecute aetheists or make a habit of breaking up public meetings by government critics. American democracy was far from complete: only property-owning white males could vote, and half the country premitted slavery. But this country lacked a monarch or a social class system that enshrined certain people on the basis of birth alone with important rights and powers not shared by others.
            I can't really make a case for a connection between the situation faced by powerless working people in the early decades of the industrial revolution and the current political crisis in the United States brought on by the election of a "so-called president" who manages to meld everything that is wrong with our society, and much that always has been (such as racism), into one bloated, arrogant, narcissistic, ignorant personage...
            .... except to express my admiration over a great poet's ability to turn his "torrent of indignation" in great art.
            Nevertheless see this excerpt from Chris Hedges' recent discussion of the "moral monsters" of our own day:
            "Bannon and his followers on the 'alt-right,' self-declared intellectuals, ferret out facts and formulas that buttress their peculiar worldview and discard truths that contradict their messianic delusions. They mouth a few clichés and quote a few philosophers to justify bigotry, chauvinism and governmental repression. It is propaganda masquerading as ideology. These pseudo-intellectuals are singularly incurious. They are linguistically, culturally and historically illiterate about the Muslim world, and about most other foreign cultures, yet blithely write off one-fifth of the world’s population—Muslims—as irredeemable. ...The inability of white supremacists like Trump and Bannon to recognize the humanity of others springs from their spiritual impoverishment. They mistake bigotry for honesty and ignorance for innocence. They cannot separate fantasy from reality. Such people are, as author James Baldwin said, 'moral monsters.'"
            Shelley knew about moral monsters too. 
            The poet's response to the massacre, which took place at a site called St. Peter's Field (shortened by the vernacular to Peterloo), was the poem his impeccably informed biographer Richard Holmes calls "the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English."
            It's centered, Holmes writes, on "the most important single image Shelley took from the newspapers... that of the unarmed mother, whose child was trampled to death as the Yeomanry first charged."
            Many of Shelley's long poems, in a short life, are ambitious works based on classical mythological themes, such as "Prometheus Unbound," that presuppose the classical education of someone from his own upper-class background, or at least enough familiarity with 'great books' to recognize the names in their titles.  
            In "Anarchy" nothing of the sort. Again, from Holmes: "He found himself writing immediately in the colloquial ballad stanzas he had not used since 1812.... The lines were terse, flexible, rapid, based on the simple four-stress verse of the broadsheets, sometimes end-stopping, sometimes running on unchecked for a whole stanza, using a bewildering variety of full rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, the curous minor-key of half-assonance, and sudden bursts of burtal, merciless alliteration. ... the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into a unity at a single demand."
            An armed minion of the state trampling a child in a heartless, indifferent assault on a mass protest for social justice symbolized for Shelley the evil of a system that financed the idle life of the rich by an oppressed class who lacked rights and power -- and sometimes enough to eat.
            He turns the facts on the ground into a poem that mimics the style and apparatus of a medieval allegory. The "Mask" -- a word also rendered as 'masque' and 'masquerade' -- was a theatrical entertainment in which costumes and facial masks suggested mythical characters, moral states, or other generalities of the human condition. At the Elizabeth and Stuart courts, for instance, the "masques" were the presentations of a court officer known as "master of the revels." Shelley's heavily moralistic figures (in the stanzas below), such as Murder and Fraud, suggest characters in Medieval Morality Plays, in which Vice and Virtue and Everyman, among others, frequently appeared. The proper names in the poem's opening stanzas (Castlereagh, Eldon) are chief ministers in the English "government" who approved the militia's behavior and arrested various protest leaders on charges of sedition. 
            Also, for the record, the word "anarchy" here means a brutal chaos of unleashed passions. Shelley's classically based use of the term has nothing to do with the political philosophy called "anarchism," a product of the latter 19th century which argued for the dissolution of government as the answer to the injustices of power. In Shelley's poem "anarchy" is unleashed by power on the the powerless.
            The poem begins with an imagined poetic journey:
I met Murder on the way--
He had a mask like Castlereagh--
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,                                                       
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,                                  
Had their brains knocked out by them.

             The clear implication is the English government has no regard for the little children, or any other human beings of the lower classes, who have their "brains knocked out" by a tyrannical government's callous acts and systematic repressions.

            The "Mask of Anarchy" has 91 stanzas. In its last third, Shelley outlines, still in ballad-style metrical and rhymed verse, the path of massive nonviolent resistance to immoral authority that would in a later century be practiced by Gandhi in India and by the civil rights movement in the United States.
            Just face your armed oppressors bravely, the poet appears to say, and do not fight back. The movement created by this brave stance will grow and eventually succeed because a regime -- of any sort -- that uses force on nonviolent resistors eventually loses the support of its people. I would point out here the likelihood that some nonviolent resistors will lose their lives.
            Shelley's poem anticipated a violent response as well:
 With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

            What will happen as a result, he says, is those who participate in killing unarmed protestors will be shunned by the rest of society.
Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand--
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

            And ultimately the resistance of the oppressed to injustice will succeed. So Shelley in a final, brilliantly triumphant stanza concludes:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number--
Shake your chains to earth like dew               370
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.

            You win because the numbers are on your side. This was surely the case in India. It was the case in Iran, a country Americans tend to ignore given that its current government is no bargain, when demonstrators by the millions overthrew the Shah because his army would not fire on its own people.
            In India, of course, protestors were massacred at the Amritsar memorial in 1919. Yet Gandhi's movement (which, as I have just read, acknowledged the inspiration of this poem) ultimately succeeded in liberating his country from British rule.
            Civil Rights protestors were also beaten by white racists during the Civil Rights demonstrations (and some killed), not only in the South, but in places like Chicago, and also in Boston when black people faced racist taunts during the Boston school desegregation crisis. But the Civil Rights movement succeeded in changing the country, even if racism has clearly not disappeared from American society.
            What feels important about the example of "The Mask of Anarchy" to me -- in the present moment -- is that instances of extreme social injustice drive great poets (at least the best of them) mad with outrage. They are conductors of suffering.
            Outrageous abuses of authority such as the Peterloo massacre are lost to history after a century or two. Shelley's masterpiece of poetic response was lost to history for decades because nobody would publish it in 1819. No one had the courage to publish it then because the English government repressed dissent by prosecuting and jailing publishers, editors and authors responsible for printing criticisms of its policies, laws, and institutional injustices. In fairness, Shelley did not return to England to publish it under his own name and, probably, go to jail. He had left England, in part, to avoid that fate.
            While textbooks and university courses will routinely state that Shelley is regarded as one of England's "great" romantic poets, nobody much knows what he wrote beyond a few widely collected poems: "Ozymandias," with its useful moral that "fame is fleeting: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." Or the Skylark, a short elegant lyric. Or, maybe, if they took college course that included it, "Ode to the West Wind," a middle-length poem which reads and feels like that breath of fresh air the poem promises will arrive. Most of us have heard its famous line: "If winter is here, can spring be far behind?"
            But most of his greater, more ambitious works were written to challenge the fundamental injustices of his own society.
            The genius of poetic response to injustice is a powerful weapon for resisting tyranny and oppression. We can find inspiration in the act of opening our souls and imaginations to the great prophetic works of the past.