Poetry selections for the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre
A colored engraving that depicts the Peterloo Massacre, a military suppression of a demonstration in Manchester, England by cavalry charge on August 16, 1819. | Manchester Library

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lifetime was defined by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and severe political repression in England and elsewhere in Europe. In contrast to other European countries, the power of the bourgeoisie in England had been consolidated in their own revolutionary period in the 17th century. Therefore, the ruling class in England had little sympathy for revolutionary France as it could potentially rouse the growing working classes, so far effectively suppressed.

The more violent the revolution in France became, the more alarmed the English bourgeoisie grew. Jacobinism was a threat to the ruling class—in England the bourgeoisie, not, as elsewhere, the aristocracy. So, while in every other European state the deadly line was drawn between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, in England this confrontation took place between the bourgeoisie and the radicalized lower and working classes.

These times of both great political hope, ignited by the French Revolution, and unprecedented social unrest among the dispossessed, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, produced radical leaders who came under attack and were imprisoned by the government in a campaign of repression and violence. Prime Minister William Pitt unleashed a crusade of “white terror” and throughout the 1790s held treason trials, suspended habeas corpus, issued a Proclamation against Sedition, passed the Treason and Sedition Act, the Unlawful Oath Act, and banned Corresponding Societies. However, the government attempt at silencing protest only led to further strife and the increase in rebellion, including nonconformist religions and atheism.

Until Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle at Waterloo in 1815, Britain was involved in a prolonged state of war. The first result of the peace was a severe political and economic crisis. A new, more political quality enters the riots and protests: The 1817 “Gagging Acts” (Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) served to further suppress radical agitation and publications.

The political unrest of 1817 and the government’s silencing tactics culminated in the Peterloo Massacre near Manchester on August 16, 1819. It arose from a large public meeting of tens of thousands of working women and men demanding reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester. The yeomanry attacked, injuring over four hundred and killing eleven.

Shelley had left England for Italy in March of 1818 for what was in effect political emigration. The news of the massacre only reached him on September 6. He set to work almost immediately, writing the 91 stanzas of The Mask of Anarchy in just a few days. It is rightly considered one of the greatest political protest poems written in English.

It is on the 200th anniversary of these events this month, that we consider Shelley’s magnificent poem and the effect it had on two other poets, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Kinsella.

The Mask of Anarchy opens with a gruesome parade of the government’s key players: Murder (Castlereagh—Foreign Secretary), Fraud (Eldon—Lord Chancellor), Hypocrisy (Sidmouth—Home Secretary), and other Destructions (various bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies):

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 them 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—
“I am God, and King, and Law!”

The poem continues, outlining Anarchy as the true ruler of England. On his rampage, he comes across Hope, looking like Despair, and Time running out:

… 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!”

Hope then lies down before the horse’s feet, in an act of passive resistance, and a vapor-like shape appears that inspires the multitude with hope—and thought. The effect of this is announced in the next stanza, Anarchy, the ghastly birth,/Lay dead upon the earth. There follow two stanzas, that are indelibly written into English socialist awareness:

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.

Next, Shelley asks: What is Freedom?—ye can tell/That which slavery is, too well.

He then goes on to outline in a savage and empathic way the condition of the working class in England and how they are killed at whim: And at length when ye complain/With a murmur weak and vain/’Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew/Ride over your wives and you—/Blood is on the grass like dew. This is an allusion to the protests over the recent years.

Shelley then, before giving his own view of what Freedom means, concludes:

This is Slavery—savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do—
But such ills they never knew.

The attributes of Freedom Shelley outlines are: food, clothing, heating, true justice for all (ne’er for gold), wisdom, peace, and love. Freedom is guided by science, poetry and thought, spirit, patience, gentleness.

Shelley’s understanding of the fundamental clash between the propertied class in power and the working class led Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, to conclude in Shelley and Socialism: “More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that to-day tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery.”

Shelley goes on to say that the working people, the oppressed, should meet the tyrants calmly, thereby shaming them. The poem, however, ends on a note not of passivity, but of action, returning to the stanza in the middle:

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 Mask of Anarchy has become not only an early part of the canon of socialist English working-class literature; it is a fast part of the international socialist literary heritage. A famous example of this is Bertolt Brecht’s 1947 poem The Anachronistic Procession, or Freedom and Democracy.

Brecht, who follows Shelley’s ballad form of four-beat lines, describes in his poem a procession through the ruins of Western Germany after the war. A ragged procession carries two old boards, one bearing the faded inscription “freedom,” the other “democracy”: At the head a featherbrain. He is followed by Two in monkish garb from under which emerges a jack-boot. They hold up a flag with the swastika’s hooks removed. And there are others: Company directors from the arms industry, teachers, doctors, academics, “de-Nazified” Nazis in high offices, “stormtrooper” editors, a judge exonerating all of “Hitlerism,” and many more.

Then the faceless trust directors
Those men’s patrons and protectors:
Pray, for our arms industry
Freedom and Democracy

Keeping step, next march the teachers
Toadying, brain-corrupting creatures
For the right to educate
Boys to butchery and hate.

Then the medical advisers
Hitler’s slaves, mankind’s despisers
Asking, might they now select
A few Reds to vivisect.

Three grim dons, whose reputation
Rests on mass extermination….

Next our whitewashed Nazi friends
On whom the new State depends:
Body lice, whose pet preserve is
In the higher civil service.

As the procession reaches the “Capital of the Movement” (Munich), six figures emerge from the “Brown House.” They are: oppression, leprosy, fraud, stupidity, murder, and robbery.

Each of these six grisly figures
Firmly based, with ready triggers
Says that there has got to be
Freedom and Democracy.


…great rats
Leave the rubble in their masses
Join the column as it passes
Squeaking “Freedom!”as they flee
“Freedom and Democracy!”

Brecht’s succinct and apparently detached voice is similar to Shelley’s. Like Shelley, this results in vicious satire. However, Brecht targets the essentially unchanged society in the West of Germany, then under Western Allied control. He takes from Shelley the form and the idea of a procession of the perpetrators of inhumanity. While in Shelley’s poem, these represent government and power, Brecht shows how both the ordinary and the powerful Nazis of a few short years ago are not only whitewashing themselves, they have retained, thinly disguised, their posts of influence. De-Nazification is shown to be a meaningless façade in this part of Germany. Now their chant has changed to a deceptive and hollow cry for U.S.-style “Freedom and Democracy.”

Brecht offers no call to the German people that may be compared to Shelley’s “Men of England” verses. His insight into the merely cosmetic changes in the Western Allies’ part of Germany was remarkable in 1947 and its truth was borne out in the years that followed. It has lost absolutely none of its validity over 70 years later, as Germany is involved in wars once again, and the fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is gaining in influence and power at a fast and frightening pace.

Finally, a further famous echo of The Mask of Anarchy is Thomas Kinsella’s A Butcher’s Dozen. Kinsella’s poem, again in four-beat line ballad form, is about another British massacre, in this sense closer to the events of Peterloo. In the city of Derry in Northern Ireland, on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, 13 people died as Britain’s soldiers shot randomly unarmed civilians on a civil rights demonstration; one person died later of his injuries.

Like Shelley, Kinsella uses an “I” who revisits the scene of murder:

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
Jesus pity!—on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.

A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.

Instead of encountering the perpetrators, this speaker comes across the victims, who speak. These victims expose their attackers, who, as in Shelley’s poem, represent the British repressive state:

A harsher stirred, and spoke in scorn:
“The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practice greed,
And act in ignorant fury—then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where’s the law that can’t be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We’d be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way….

Another ghost stood forth, and wet
Dead lips that had not spoken yet:
“My curse on the cunning and the bland,
On gentlemen who loot a land
They do not care to understand;
Who keep the natives on their paws
With ready lash and rotten laws;
Then if the beasts erupt in rage
Give them a slightly larger cage
And, in scorn and fear combined,
Turn them against their own kind.

Like Shelley, Kinsella offers a solution, albeit a different one—British withdrawal from Ireland:

If England would but clear the air
And brood at home on her disgrace….

This is not an appeal to rise “like lions” against the oppressor. Rather, the speaker in this poem hopes that some kind of peace and reconciliation among those living in Ireland after British withdrawal might be achieved.

The Mask of Anarchy was not published until 1832, not during Shelley’s lifetime. Shelley drowned at the age of 29, in 1822, when his sailing boat was surprised by a storm. Leigh Hunt, editor of the radical newspaper The Examiner, to whom Shelley had sent the manuscript for publication in September 1819, justly feared persecution by the state. He recognized the poem’s inflammatory nature that it has kept to this day. Since its publication, lines from The Mask of Anarchy continue to accompany and inspire people on their road to freedom.

To view a short clip of Jeremy Corbyn reciting Shelley’s lyrics, see here.

*Castlereagh had come from Ireland, where he was notorious for his bloody suppression of the United Irishmen.

Jenny Farrell is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism: Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017.


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.