Propaganda as poetry
Posted on January 10th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala (Courtesy The Island)

(This is The Mask of Anarchy continued from January 6, 2018)

‘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.’ (lines 151-155)

Shelley composed ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ with the explicit and express purpose of communicating a powerful political message to the working Men of England that would rouse them to ‘Rise like Lions’ in the manner suggested in the lines quoted above. The new title under which I am here presenting to the reader the second or the concluding part of my essay on ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ is intended as a tribute to the poet, in spite of the well known negative connotations of the word ‘propaganda’. It is true that the term usually refers to biased, misleading information designed to promote a political or other viewpoint whose inherent badness or hollowness requires such distortion of the truth for its existence. Shelley’s reformist ideas are based on democracy, egalitarianism, peace, humanity, and justice. The method he advocates for the workers to achieve freedom from slavery is nonviolent resistance. But the implicit insistence that they envisage no failure means that Shelley’s nonviolence should not be equated with blind pacifism (a sort of peace at any cost).  Awakened lions are not known for pacifism. Shelley’s message has this ambiguity. But there is no attempt at misleading his principal target audience, the workers of the early 19th century England. On the contrary, he is determined to bring them awareness  of their own enslaved state, and to persuade them to free themselves from it through peaceful nonviolent democratic means using their vast numerical superiority over the minority ruling elite  : ‘Ye are many – they are few’.

The speech is delivered by an indistinct, rather airy, flitting ‘Shape’, which appears to be a persona for the poet himself. The ‘I’ found at the beginning of the poem (‘I lay asleep in Italy’)seems to have dissolved into the voice of this Shape. Where does the Shape originate in the dream narrative?

The ‘maniac maid’  or Hope lay in the street before the horse’s feet patiently expecting ‘Murder, Fraud and Anarchy’ (lines 98-101). Then ‘a mist, a light, an image’ arose between Hope and her foes, growing into ‘a Shape arrayed in mail’ (line 110). The Shape fled past over ‘the prostrate multitude’ (line 126).  Its momentary presence revived the maiden Hope. Though the Shape was insubstantial and very quickly vanished into ‘empty air’, it was something powerful that registered on the ‘heads of men’ (that is, it was something intellectual), and ‘Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.’. ….. The Shape’s soft fleeting touch gives rise to ‘Thoughts’ in the same manner that the spring brings forth flowers, ‘As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken’ (line 122).

And the prostrate multitude

Looked — and ankle-deep in blood,

Hope, that maiden most serene,

Was walking with a quiet mien: (lines 126-129)

When this happened, Anarchy died along with the murderers thronged behind him (as described in the following lines).

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. (lines 130-134)

The death of Anarchy and his murderous companions would have marked a happy conclusion to a story that started in despair. But then a moment of reflection tells us that Shelley is still dreaming, and he hasn’t finished relating what he sees and hears while dreaming. Though he has passed the nightmare part of the dream narrative, he implies that he has much more to say. To Shelley a dream-delivered closure in the theatre of his sub-conscious mind to a   problem in the real world that he so passionately feels about is of no use. If he was satisfied with that, then he could not be the politically engaged authentic Shelley that we usually come across in his poetry. So lines 135 – 146 announce: These words of joy and fear arose” as if the ‘indignant Earth – Which gave the Sons of England birth’ …… ‘had turned every drop of blood’ that had ‘bedewed her face’

To an accent unwithstood” –

As if her heart had cried out aloud:

Men of England, heirs of Glory”, (lines 145-147)

The words of joy and fear ‘arose’, not ‘were spoken’; no speaker is given.  (The Shape that we identify as the persona through which Shelley himself speaks is an indeterminate presence.) This is similar to the earlier phrase Thoughts sprung….”.  The ‘indignant Earth’ of England (Mother England) is not the speaker either, for it is only ‘As if’ she cried them out. The words of joy and fear which apparently spontaneously arose constitute a long political harangue. It accounts for more than half of the poem, from line 147 to the end of the 372-line poem. The voice or the idiom or the verbal mechanism that the poet is searching for, by which to rouse the ordinary working men of England (the previously ‘adoring’, ‘prostrate’ benighted, benumbed ‘multitude’) to Rise like Lions” should be found, if at all, in this latter part of the poem.

‘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.’ (lines 151-155)

The same lines are repeated at the end of the poem. (They are printed at the top as an epigraph to this essay.) The rest of the poem embodies material that infuses these memorable lines with special potency.

The speaker addresses the ‘prostrate multitude’. He asks them the most important question. ‘What is Freedom?’ (l. 156).  But he doesn’t expect them to answer that question, because he knows that they have no idea about freedom. So he  approaches the question  through its opposite, slavery, which they can describe

…………..too well —

For its very name has grown

To an echo of your own. (lines 157-159)

We, the readers, could find an allusion here to slavery practiced in Europe and North America at that time. Just as the word ‘slavery’ echoes the name of its well known victims the Africans, it has grown to echo the name of the working men of England. They have been reduced to the state of the tools of their trades:  Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade, for the ‘defence and nourishment’ of the tyrannical , oppressive rulers. The workers will be treated like this until a point comes when they are strong and

……………… feel revenge

Fiercely thirsting to exchange

Blood for blood — and wrong for wrong — (lines 193-195)

But the speaker admonishes them in line 196: Do not thus when ye are strong.” (i.e., Do not think of taking revenge or of resorting to violence, when you have become strong through enhanced awareness and unity). He advocates only non-violent  resistance. Yet again, the speaker says that even forest-dwelling savages, birds and beasts in the wild and domestic animals have food to eat and somewhere to rest, except Englishmen! Even those jungle men or wild animals would not endure deprivation, without resistance, unlike you (as suggested in lines 197-204). These are words hardly likely to promote nonviolence!

This is Slavery — savage men,

Or wild beasts within a den

Would endure not as ye do —

But such ills they never knew. (lines 205-208)

In spite of his advocacy of non-violent resistance a moment ago, this sort of language could provoke violence among the oppressed workers.

Then, in the next section of his speech the speaker asks the question to Freedom itself: ‘What art thou Freedom?’ The slaves cannot answer the question from their ‘living graves’; the tyrants would flee at this demand, as they would be compelled to do if the workers who currently show the ignorance and passivity of a ‘slave in soul’ were to articulate what freedom actually is; at present they cannot do that though they are familiar with slavery through experience. In an apostrophe to Freedom, the speaker (who must be the poet himself) launches into a long series of instances where freedom manifests itself.

Thou art clothes, and fire, and food

For the trampled multitude —

No — in countries that are free

Such starvation cannot be

As in England now we see”. (lines 221-225)

To the rich you are a check on their oppression of the poor (trampled multitude). You are Justice – your righteous laws are not sold for gold as they are in England. You are Wisdom. ‘Freemen never dream’ that

All those who think those things untrue

Of which Priests make much ado” (lines 236-237)

will be damned for ever!

Science, Poetry, and Thought are Freedom’s lamps, the speaker continues. Let deeds, not words, express your (i.e., Freedom’s) loveliness. Then the speech makes a practical proposal: Let there be a great Assembly ‘On some spot of English ground’ attended by people from ‘the haunts of daily life’ and even from the ‘palaces’,

Ye who suffer woes untold,

Or to feel or to behold

Your Lost country bought and sold

With a price of blood and gold” (lines 291-294)

Such a gathering is for the purpose of making a solemn declaration ‘with measured words’ that  ye (i.e., the working men of England) are free ‘as God has made ye’. ‘Let your strong and simple words be keen to wound as sharpened swords, and wide as targes (small shields) to protect you’. But all this must be within the law.

It sounds as if the speaker fears that he would be mistaken to be an advocate of violence. Even if the tyrants should violate the old laws of England, ‘the blood will rest on them, not on you’;

(you, i.e., the working men of England, should let them)

Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew –

What they like, that let them do.


With folded arms and steady eyes,


Look upon them as they slay.” (lines 342…..347)


Then the ‘tyrants’ will be ashamed of themselves:

‘And the bold, true warriors

Who have hugged Danger in wars

Will turn to those who would be free,

Ashamed of such base company.’ (lines 356-359)


Men of England will need great courage and forbearance to abide by Shelley’s admonition. But he is confident that

‘….. these words shall then become

Like Oppression’s thundered doom

Ringing through each heart and brain,

Heard again — again — again —‘ (lines 364-367)

‘These words’ here may be interpreted as referring to lines 151-155, which are repeated at the conclusion of the poem:

‘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.’ (lines 368-372)

Shelley was writing two hundred years ago. But his refined rational voice against oppression of different kinds – political, economic, religious – resonates with meaning for many nations in the world even today.

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