Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, allegorising contemporary politicians as personifications of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Contrasted to these is Hope, ‘But she looked more like Despair’. Hope delivers an anatomy of Freedom (incorporating Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love) and calls on the English to rise up against Oppression’s slavery. Jeremy Corbyn quoted from this poem during his final speech of the June 2017 election campaign. His quotation is loaded with ironies and symbols.
One irony has become horribly apparent in the last two days since the avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. Governments tend not to commit massacres against their people these days, but the process of oppression and killing is more subtle: through cutting services, cutting regulations, incentivising landlord profits. These policies led directly (according to all informed reports) to the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. The political ideology of division and social cleansing is the hidden successor to overt state violence.
The Peterloo Massacre (in which yeomanry charged at a crowd of peaceful advocates for parliamentary reform) inspired the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper which in its current form actively opposed Corbyn’s leadership until a few days before the June 2017 election. (For an informed comment on this particular irony, see this blog)
Shelley’s poem had been circling Corbyn’s campaign for a while, activating the mutual resonance between the campaign slogan “For the many, not the few” and the lines which close the poem (repeated from stanza 38) “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.”
The reading by Corbyn, addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Union Chapel in Islington on the eve of the election, amplified through a booming PA system, is not intrinsically beautiful, but in the context, as his audience joins in the final line, and following an impassioned speech of stridently optimistic rhetoric, Corbyn’s performance is deeply moving. (At 29’46” here.)
Corbyn introduces the poem with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft, resident of Newington Green, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The connection Corbyn draws is political, befitting the occasion, but prefaced with the simple remark ‘you should never be afraid to say you love poetry’. This is perhaps in response to accusations from the philistine press of the sort that he would be better singing the national anthem or demonising immigrants than accepting a booking for an evening’s discussion with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall.
There is also something implicit in this invocation of the traditions of English Romanticism. Beyond the immediate political exhortation and the Romantic contemporary context of Peterloo, the French Revolution, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on, there exists idealism, transcendence and living mythology. Symbolist critic G. Wilson Knight, commenting on Shelley’s Queen Mab, wrote, ‘The agonies of history with their paradisal goal ahead are seen in panorama, time being laid out flat beneath the Fairy’s dome’ (The Starlit Dome, 185). The temporal and the eternal meet in a panoptic symbol of communal responsibility. Corbyn’s Shelley is a vision of transcendent possibility in the political present.