The Mask of Anarchy

Alan Cox 

  The Mask of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

  performed by Alan Cox

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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 the 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 -


With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,


And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.


And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.


O'er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.


And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.


For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
'Thou art God, and Law, and King.


'We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.'


Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud
Whispering - 'Thou art Law and God.' -


Then all cried with one accord,
'Thou art King, and God and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!'


And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.


For he knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.


So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament


When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:


'My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!


‘He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me -
Misery, oh, Misery!'


Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses' feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.


When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak and frail
Like the vapour of a vale:


Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky


It grew - a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper's scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.


On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning's, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.


With step as soft as wind it passed,
O'er the heads of men - so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked, - but all was empty air.


As flowers beneath May's footstep waken,
As stars from Night's loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where'er that step did fall.


And the prostrate multitude
Looked - and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:


And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.


A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose


As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother's throe


Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood, -
As if her heart had cried aloud:


'Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;


'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.’

Interpretation by Aviva Dautch

'The Mask of Anarchy' is an ethical conundrum. It was inspired by the 'Peterloo Massacre' on the 16th August 1819. Tens of thousands of protestors gathered in St. Peter’s Fields near Manchester to demand parliamentary reform but were charged by the sabre-wielding cavalry. Several died, hundreds were injured, and the immediate result was not reform but an increasing crack-down by the government. Shelley’s response was to write a ballad, now more often associated with love songs.

While I admire the skill and spirit of the poem and I am, in principle, definitely on the same side as the poem’s narrator, there is something about it that makes me slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps it is that the poet seems as certain of his own ‘rightness’ as of the ‘wrongness’ of those he’s condemning and 'The Mask of Anarchy' deliberately sets out to convince others of this. All is black and white, ‘Misery’ or ‘Hope’. There is a place for this in the rhetoric of power, but when writing my own political poems (and they’re the hardest thing to write) I tend to try and untangle the complications of a situation rather than elide them; to highlight doubts and uncertainties rather than proclaim truths; to self-reflexively be aware of my own biases and limitations. This could be a product of the time of writing, of gender, of the difference in situation between us. But Matthew Arnold condemned Shelley for an inability to step outside himself, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Arnold was right.

Aviva Dautch is an emerging poet whose work has been published in magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA, including Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Agenda: Broadsheet 10, The Long Poem and Poetica.  She also works as a freelance museum educator and teaches creative writing and English Language and Literature workshops at the British Library.