Percy Bysshe Shelley’s passionate belief in liberty and equality developed from an early age. Privileged by birth, he was unhappy at Eton and expelled from Oxford in 1811 for the publication of a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. A series of complicated, unconventional relationships and associations with other flamboyant outsiders, such as Lord Byron, further ensured his reputation as one of the great Romantic writers of the age.
In 1819 he wrote 'The Mask of Anarchy' in response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which saw a number of protestors for parliamentary reform killed by charging cavalry.
The text of the poem here in the manuscript differs from the published text as it includes an additional stanza which Shelley crossed out prior to publication. It appears between stanzas 67 and 68 of the published edition and reads as follows:
From the cities where from caves,
Like the dead from putrid graves,
Troops of starvelings gliding come,
Living Tenants of a tomb.
The poem is written in the ballad tradition. Ballads in the early 19th century were verse narratives, often set to popular tunes, and typically sold on the streets as a cheap, disposable form of literature. They often focussed on tragedies, love affairs or scandals. By adopting this style, Shelley could be seen to be speaking with the voice of the common man.
Shelley called the poem ‘Mask of Anarchy’ in the manuscript itself, but in his letters and in the first edition it was spelled ‘Masque’. Either spelling could indicate a dramatic performance, but ‘Mask’ is a more ambiguous word, carrying overtones of fakery and deceit. The structure of the poem is loosely based around a sort of theatrical procession by the four horsemen of the apocalypse, characters from The Book of Revelation which appear here in secularized versions. The first three horsemen are explicitly named as members of Lord Liverpool’s government. Shelley casts Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons Lord Castlereagh in the role of murderer for defending the Government’s crackdown on radicalism in the wake of Peterloo. The Earl of Eldon (the Lord Chancellor) takes the role of Fraud, with Lord Sidmouth (the Home Secretary) acting as Hypocrisy. Anarchy is the last rider and is explicitly linked to the Biblical text:
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse…
[From Revelation: ‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was death, and Hell followed with him.’]
After the massacre, the government passed new legislation limiting free speech and the right to gather for peaceful demonstration. They also strengthened the Seditious Libels Act, resulting in publications such as the Manchester Observer being prosecuted and eventually shut down, and ensuring that Shelley’s poem could not be published until 1832, 10 years after his death.