The Mask of Anarchy
Posted on January 6th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

THE MASK OF ANARCHY. WRITTEN ON THE OCCASION OF THE MASSACRE AT MANCHESTER” was composed by Percy Bysshe Shelley during his sojourn in Florence in Italy on hearing about an unprovoked attack by a group of militia cavalrymen on a peaceful and orderly protest rally attended by some 60,000 workers at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, England on August 16, 1819; the unnecessary militia action (which involved the mounted soldiers slashing indiscriminately at the protestors with their sabres) had left more than four hundred injured (including about a hundred women and girls) and eleven dead according to legally established claims. To reassure the authorities about their peaceful intentions, the workers had brought their children along with them. In spite of the gravity of the issues they were protesting against and the seriousness of their demands for reform of government policies that affected them as workers, they were in a festive mood as they marched to the venue of the meeting from various places such as Stockport, Oldham, and Ashton. They were holding their union banners and playing band music.  This was meant to show that they were not an unruly mob. The scheduled highlight of the day was an address by Henry Hunt, the popular public speaker of the time who spoke on behalf of workers.

The conservative rulers often accused the leaders of the reform movement of conspiring to introduce into England the ‘Anarchy’ that, they claimed, had resulted from the Revolution of 1789 in France. They usually assumed reformers to be anarchists. Therefore it was not surprising that the local magistrates were dismayed by the phenomenon of the growing peacefulness and orderliness of  labour demonstrations of the kind they saw at Peter’s Field. The nervous magistrates decided to have Henry Hunt and a few of the organizers of the rally arrested. Hardly had Henry Hunt started delivering his speech from the chair before the troops ordered there  rode into the crowd who, naturally, panicked when this totally unexpected intrusion took place. The soldiers also panicked for, as it later transpired, they were from an untrained militia unit and so were unprepared to meet such a chaotic situation. The mayhem took place during this operation.

The harrowing incident that occurred at St Peter’s Field that day, came to be variously described. It was called the Manchester Massacre, the Battle of Peterloo, the Peterloo Massacre, and different variations of these.  The coinage Peterloo was a taunting allusion to the much touted British victory over French forces commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte near Waterloo in the present-day Belgium on June 18, 1815, that is, four years before the government-led violence on its own citizens in Manchester that we are talking about here. The victorious side in the Battle of Waterloo was commanded by the Duke of Wellington.  The militia atrocities committed at Peter’s Field exposed the inherent indiscipline and hypocrisy of the British government that characteristically relied on militarism in perpetuating the English monarchy.

The poem’s title The Mask of Anarchy” is interestingly appropriate. In the original title the word ‘Mask’ was spelt ‘Masque’. A court masque was a form of dramatic entertainment borrowed from Italy;  it was actually a play in verse with  music and dancing, and singing and acting performed in court circles in England. The court masque was particularly popular in the 16th and the early 17th century.  Shelley was writing a few years before the end of the first quarter of the 19th century. The word masque is the short form of ‘masquerade’.  A masque usually hired professional actors for the speaking and singing parts. Often courtiers, even the royals, took part in these performances as masquers/masqueraders, who did not have to speak or sing. A masquerade involves hiding the identity of the actor or person wearing the mask. By invoking the literary-dramatic conventions of the court masque Shelley means to expose the masked anarchy that was the English throne of his time. So, there is a play on the word ‘mask’: it refers both to the historical court masque with associations of masked entertainment among the high and mighty, and to the more ordinary mask, which is a face covering used for protection (as by doctors wearing surgical masks), or for entertainment (as by children at a carnival), or for the concealment of the identity of the perpetrator during a criminal activity (as by bank robbers). The last mentioned use of a mask is relevant to Shelley’s poem.

Though written a few days after the Peterloo Massacre on August 16, 1819, The Mask of Anarchy” was first published in 1832, edited with a preface by Leigh Hunt, Shelley’s friend. This was ten years after the poet’s death in 1822, nearly a month before his 30th birthday. There was a reason for this delay in publishing the poem. Shelley was passionately anti-establishmentarian. He detested all forms of oppression against the common people. He had deep sympathy for them and wanted to relieve their suffering by securing them justice.  Though he became less impetuous as he passed his early youth, he always remained a republican and a democrat. Mrs Mary Shelley wrote about her late husband: He looked on all human beings as inheriting an equal right to possess the dearest privileges of our nature; the necessaries of life when fairly earned by labour, and intellectual instruction. His hatred of any despotism that looked upon the people as not to be consulted, or protected from want and ignorance, was intense ……………………… ……..the news of the Manchester Massacre …………..  roused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion. The great truth that the many, if accordant and resolute, could control the few, as was shown some years after, made him long to teach his injured countrymen how to resist. Inspired by these feelings, he wrote the Mask of Anarchy  ……….”.

After composing the poem, Shelley sent it to his friend Leigh Hunt, to be published in the Examiner, which the latter edited. But, Mrs Shelley says that Leigh Hunt did not insert it in that publication, and that he explained why, in his preface to the poem that he printed, about ten years later, in 1832, where he wrote:

I did not insert it …………………………………… because I 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.”

Mrs Shelley’s comments suggest why her husband’s readership was more underground than aboveground during his lifetime.

(The source for the text of the poem from which I have quoted in this essay and Mrs Shelley’s comments printed above is:

Wasn’t it William Blake, Shelley’s senior contemporary and fellow Romantic, who wrote Poetry Fetter’d, Fetters the Human Race”? Blake held that too strict observance of rules regarding rhythm, rhyme etc. prescribed in conventional verse forms imprisons the poets and circumscribes their power of thinking and creative expression. Shelley belonged to the second generation of Romantic poets, who in common reflected a strong absorption with liberty (the state of being free from imprisonment) and freedom (the right or power to think, believe, speak, and work in liberty). The Romantic poets’ idea of the conscious and unconscious ranges of the human mind’s creativity that they called imagination included this element of liberty and freedom. For them freedom in poetry was allied with freedom in politics. They were inspired by, among other things, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 to protest against all forms of oppression and to seek freedom from them. In the Mask of Anarchy, Shelley adopts a mixture of stylistic elements from the popular ballad (folk art) and formal rhetorical devices of the court masque (court art) to give expression to his thematic concern with protest and hope of freedom.

The poem consists of a dream narrative. Its opening lines, it seems to me, reflect a tinge of guilt or embarrassment on the part of the poet (that he had to be away from those innocent protestors in their hour of distress):

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.

Apart from the physical distance between him and them at the moment (for Shelley was visiting in a foreign country then), there was a gulf of at least two kinds separating them: he was of a patrician or aristocratic family background as opposed to the common people of the plebeian classes; and with his education and culture and their lack of it, he and the workers moved in different intellectual spheres. The culturally refined, socially privileged, educationally superior Shelley on the one side and the unsophisticated, ill educated, and dispossessed workers on the other. But intellectually and temperamentally (i.e. considering his native rebelliousness, his compassionate, caring attitude towards the downtrodden masses, his keen sense of justice, his impatience with authoritarianism, etc) his mind was well attuned to pick up, as it were, the cries of pain and anger that rose from St Peter’s Field that day. It was this ‘voice’ of the workers  that led him ‘To walk in the visions of Poesy’. But the poet has no voice of his own. He is asleep. He walks or somnambulizes ‘in the visions of Poesy’, in search of a strong enough voice to inspire the ‘Men of England’ to awaken themselves to the oppression, exploitation, and injustice that they are being subjected to by the monarchist government and to face up to it and eliminate those evils. He must achieve his political end as a poet (i.e., that of inspiring the common suffering people with his thoughts so they Rise like Lions after slumber” and shake off their chains of bondage).

Shelley faces a problem in achieving this. His audience is not uniform. He has readers of his own social and intellectual order; but he primarily wants to be accessible to the less highbrow, more numerous class of readers (workers) whose cause Shelley wants to champion.  This is why, as pointed out above, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ adopts the traditional ballad style, and also draws upon elements of conventional Poesy associated with the court, which usually has nothing to do with the sordid realities of the real world, the very thing that Shelley is here concerned with.  Shelley’s strategy is meant both to educate the common people about their own deplorable situation under the existing scheme of things, and to confront his social and intellectual peers with that bitter truth which should disturb their cultured minds.

In spite of his passionate involvement with their cause, Shelley cannot identify with the demonstrators. He can never pose as one of them. He never once uses an inclusive ‘We’. It is always ‘ye’, though his advice to them has no element of patronizing at all.

‘Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,


Ye are many, they are few.

He doesn’t say We are many, they are few.”

In his dream walk, the poet encounters a masquerade of the evils that characterized the government of the day. The first evil he meets is Murder, who wears a mask like Castlereagh. Now this was a very important person in the government. Robert Stewart, or Viscount Castlereagh, was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1812 to 1822. In that position, he managed the coalition of six countries that defeated Napoleon Bonaparte of France in 1815. This Shelleyan ‘murderer’ Castereagh was connected to our country also, because it was he who ‘purchased’ Ceylon from the Dutch (on behalf of the British empire) in 1796. Castlereagh was a deadly opponent of freedom and reform, though he was hailed as a hero by the English government. The seven blood-hounds that followed him were fat. Not surprising, considering that Castlereagh fed them with human hearts that he drew out from his wide cloak!

Next came Fraud, who, like Eldon, was in an ermined gown. The Earl of Eldon (whose armorial motto was ‘Let Honour be without Stain’) shed copious tears, for he wept well; his tears fell like mill-stones; children played  with them, thinking they were gems, round his feet, but ‘Had their brains knocked out by them’! (Shelley learned that even children got injured in the attack on the rally.)Fraud was followed by Hypocrisy, ‘clothed with the Bible’ and Hypocrisy came riding on a crocodile. He was like Sidmouth . Henry Addington or 1st Viscount Sidmouth was Home Secretary 1812-1822. More Destructions followed in this masquerade disguised as Bishops, lawyers, peers or spies.

Last came Anarchy on a white horse splashed with blood. He wore a crown on his head, and grasped a scepter. On his brow was seen this mark: ‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’ Anarchy passed over the English land

‘Trampling to a mire of blood

The adoring multitude.’

The ‘adoring multitude’ are the ignorant uneducated masses who don’t understand who their enemies are! The hired murderers are the soldiers. They (the soldiers) pray to Anarchy:

‘Thou art God, and Law, and King’, and they demand ‘glory, blood, and gold’! Lawyers and Priests whisper the same  formula: Thou art Law and God’.

They all cried with one accord

‘Thou art King, and God, and Lord.’

They all worshiped Anarchy as if he were God. Anarchy the Skeleton bowed and grinned to everyone. He knew the Palaces of our (English) Kings and their emblems of sovereignty –  crown, scepter and globe were rightly his. So he sent his slaves to London town to seize upon its Bank and Tower, and he was proceeding to meet his pensioned Parliament, when one, ‘a maniac maid’ fled. Her name was Hope, and she looked more like Despair! She cries: ‘Misery, oh, Misery’! Hope was almost extinct. She lay down on the street before the horse’s feet waiting for ‘Murder, Fraud and Anarchy’. (Anarchy was riding on a white horse.)

To be continued

One Response to “The Mask of Anarchy”

  1. Nimal Says:

    We mustn’t go back in history which is awful, cruel and dark in all countries and Sri Lanka was no better.
    Sadly we seem to go back to our primitive ways where I was sad to see our PM(RW) dancing at my Eldest brother’s grand daughter’s wedding last night(6th of Jan) at their home in mount Lavinia.
    If not for the very busy business life in London(end of the year etc) my wife and I would have gone in there and done a bit of rock and roll.Sadly one of my good musical friends,one Annersly. Peterz died suddenly on the 2nd where he would gone there uninvited and led the music scene.
    Our social events have none of the old flaire and the RW would have been coached to dance to modern rock and roll or jive,but sadly his dancing was rather questionable and shocking.Hope he could learn form us a thing or two to boost the country’s image. But it’s difficult when we are immersed with the Ammde hogg wash.

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