A response to Peterloo: Shelly’s The Masque of Anarchy

published by Edward Moxon, first edition, 1832
published by Edward Moxon, first edition, 1832

Reporting and personal correspondence about the events of 16th August 1819 in Manchester led Percy Bysshe Shelley to write the poem “The Masque of Anarchy,” which some have called “the greatest political poem ever written in English” (from Holmes, 2003). In his book An Encyclopedia of Pacifism, Aldous Huxley describes the poem’s call to resist assault without fighting back, as “the method of non-violence,” one of the first such calls in English and perhaps an influence on protest organizers who came later, including Gandhi (from Huxley, 1937). [Warm up by listening to a reading of the poem on YouTube or audio by Alan Cox via British Library]

Shelley finished the poem in less than three weeks in 1819 and sent it to his friend Leigh Hunt, publisher of The Examiner, but Hunt did not immediately publish it, saying he “thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse” (from Shelley, 1832). The poem was first published in 1832, the same year some of the political reforms Peterloo’s protesters sought were finally enacted. Here are a few stanzas; what do you think?

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

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.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw—

[63 stanzas between]
[Mother Earth speaks the following lines]

‘Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold –

‘Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free –

‘Be your strong and simple words
Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
And wide as targes let them be,
With their shade to cover ye.

‘Let the tyrants pour around
With a quick and startling sound,
Like the loosening of a sea,
Troops of armed emblazonry.

Let the charged artillery drive
Till the dead air seems alive
With the clash of clanging wheels,
And the tramp of horses’ heels.

‘Let the fixèd bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood
Looking keen as one for food.

‘Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

‘Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

‘And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

‘Let the laws of your own land,
Good or ill, between ye stand
Hand to hand, and foot to foot,
Arbiters of the dispute,

‘The old laws of England – they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo – Liberty !

‘On those who first should violate
Such sacred heralds in their state
Rest the blood that must ensue,
And it will not rest on you.

‘And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, –
What they like, that let them do.

‘With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away. [passed]

‘Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

‘Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand –
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

‘And the bold, true warriors
Who have hugged Danger in wars
Will turn to those who would be free,
Ashamed of such base company.

‘And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again – again – again -‘

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.’

 Find the full poem at http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/distress/masque.htm (also has links for some of the less-known historical references).

Text in book-style: http://www.archive.org/stream/masqueanarchyap00huntgoog#page/n8/mode/2up

YouTube reading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vc7Al2HbIPQ

Audio at British Llibrary: http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/poetryperformance/shelley/poem3/shelley3.html  [BL also has a page of audio, “Percy Bysshe Shelley read by Dominic West and Alan Cox”]


Aldous Huxley, “Shelley” in An Encyclopedia of Pacifism, London. Chatto and Windus, in association with the Peace Pledge Union, 1937 (pp. 93–94).

Richard Holmes Shelley: The Pursuit. New York Review of Books. (2003 (1st ed. 1974)) p. 532. ISBN 1-59017-037-7. https://www.epub.pub/book/shelley-the-pursuit-by-holmes-richard

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1832). The Masque of Anarchy: A Poem, London. Edward Moxon. The above quote by Leigh Hunt is from the first page of the preface, page v. http://www.archive.org/stream/masqueanarchyap00huntgoog#page/n8/mode/2up

[First published 19 Feb 2014, links updated August 2017]

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