Category Archives: fine arts

Wallace Stevens’ idea of order

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
     from Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West." 

Anchored fishing boats at night will send luminous streaks across the water to point directly at you, the viewer. They seem to partition the sea in an ordered way that gives you the central place. By doing so, they make the dark sea more attractive: organized, deepened, enchanted. Although you are not hallucinating or succumbing to egoism, your impression is misleading, for anyone else will see the streaks pointing at them. From the sky, the sea would not appear partitioned at all, although it must seem that way to you.

George Eliot uses a comparable metaphor:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …

Eliot, Middlemarch, part 3, chap. 27

Eliot is concerned about moral egoism. I think Stevens’ main interest is the subjectivity of any order that we impose on nature. If we push such skepticism far, nature vanishes entirely and all we have is our description. But the boats really are at anchor off Key West.

This image from the end of the poem might offer some hints about how to read the earlier portions. It seems that the narrator is by the sea with his friend, Ramon Fernandez, and they have heard a “she” singing. Stevens said he invented the name of his friend, but he later acknowledged that he might have suppressed the memory of the real literary critic, who was not actually his friend, and who might have been too keen to impose order. (The real Fernandez was a communist at the time Stevens wrote this poem, on his way to becoming a fascist collaborator.)

As for the “she,” this is a pronoun without any concrete noun. She has no name and is not called a woman or anything else specific. She has a complex relationship with the sea: she may be describing it, or communicating the sound it makes, or creating it with her song; or she may have been invented by the narrator as a metaphor for the experience.

The narrator explores each of those hypotheses:

  • [the ocean’s] mimic motion /  Made constant cry … [The sea is singing.]
  • Even if what she sang was what she heard … / it was she and not the sea we heard. / For she was the maker of the song she sang. [She is singing.]
  • If it was only the dark voice of the sea / That rose … / But it was more than that, /
    More even than her voice, and ours …
    [It is more than she who is singing.]

Perhaps this section–about the moment of a subtropical sunset–offers a synthesis to follow the various theses and antitheses:

        It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

One can read the poem very literally and imagine that Wallace Stevens, a man from the mainland, and his friend, a man with a Spanish surname, have seen a woman striding along the beach and singing about the sea. But her song has the very special power of making the whole world. Even though the narrator insists that “she was the maker of the song she sang,” her song is coterminous with the object of her singing–the sea–which suggests that she is not different from it but another way of naming it.

At this point, the literal reading collapses–much as a naive interpretation of the streaks of light collapses when you realize that they are not really pointing at you. The poem does not give us direct access to a real moment in the past when a woman, two men, and some boats were visible at Key West. The poem is the object that we see, and it has a writer and some readers.

Under the title of the poem is the name “Wallace Stevens,” which stands for an actual man, married to a woman, who became famous for writing words. It’s reasonable to begin with the assumption that the narrator who tells us, “She sang …” is this man, and that he either really heard her singing or made her up from scratch, thus functioning as her artistic creator.

It’s then reasonable to place the poem in a very long tradition of men writing about women who are their muses, objects of love, creatures of their art, and/or metaphors for abstractions, such as nature. The politics of this tradition is problematic, since the poet with the he-pronouns typically controls the “she” of his verse.* He certainly gets credit for the words that attach to his name. Stevens either maintains this tradition or possibly subverts it, depending on what you think of the phrases “mastered” and “maker’s rage for order” near the end.

I don’t disagree with using gender to analyze the poem, but I think it also asks us to question our metaphysics. Why are we so sure that the narrator is Wallace Stevens, the poet with the he-pronouns? Couldn’t she be speaking, or the ocean, or the reader?

In one recorded dialogue with a student, Basho instructed, “The problem with most poems is that they are either subjective or objective.” “Don’t you mean too subjective or too objective?” his student asked. Basho answered, simply, “No.” 

Jane Hirshfeld, The Heart of Haiku

The moment of sunset is neither day nor night. Stevens’ poem is neither objective nor subjective but right on that edge. Basho avoids tipping either way by means of imagism. His poems do not mean; they are. Stevens attempts it in a very different way–by arguing explicitly about the nature of his own verse in ways that skillfully undermine any fixed conclusion about who is saying what about what.

*For a good reading along these lines, see Brooke Baeten, “Whose Spirit Is This?”: Musings on the Woman Singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’ The Wallace Stevens Journal 24.1 (2000): 24-36. See also: nostalgia for now; homage to Basho; a poem should; and the tree and the rock.

Amanda Gorman rose to the occasion

Occasional poetry is verse written to be read or declaimed aloud: for instance, at a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, a coronation–or an inauguration.

Several genres won’t work for these purposes. For instance, the audience probably doesn’t have time for an epic or a ballad. Satire is not what the patron expects, at least not at a funeral or an inauguration.

Lyric verse is also problematic. Lyric poetry since the Romantic period has often aspired to authenticity: the author’s distinctive personality becomes concrete in words. But an occasion is not about the poet. If the poet’s sincere emotion happens to be completely aligned with the event, lyric can work. That can happen at a wedding or a funeral if the poet is a dear friend. But politics is less personal. How many poets are fully committed, to the bottom of their souls, to the presidency of Joseph R. Biden Jr.?

Another major direction has been irony and indirection. A lyric poem doesn’t plainly say what the author thinks; it demands intense interpretive work from the audience. But that won’t work for an occasion, especially a mass event dominated by speeches. The last thing we want at an inauguration is any text that is easy to misinterpret by careless or hostile listeners. Clarity is essential. Although lyric verse can be impressively clear about the concrete objects that it describes, it is rarely clear about the implications.

Some styles of lyric poetry do work well for occasional purposes. For example, in the era of Dryden and Pope, English lyric poetry did not usually aim for authenticity, originality, or ambiguity. Poetry was more often an art of elegant expression. Many poems stated conventional opinions, but with excellent use of formal properties that listeners were prepared to appreciate–clever rhymes and classical rhetorical devices.

Thus (Royall Sir,) to see you landed here
Was cause enough of triumph for a year:
Nor would your care those glorious joyes repeat
Till they at once might be sure and great...

Dryden, "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation" (1662)

According to Elliott Colla, “Occasional poetry remains … more central in non-Western traditions such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.” But in English, the neoclassicism of Dryden and Pope has been little admired. Some astute critics recognize its quality, but very few active poets aspire to write in that vein.

In fact, Romantic and modern lyric poetry is anti-occasional, in the sense that it is written by an autonomous individual for the private consumption of other private individuals, dispersed in time and place. When it seems occasional, it fails (except if that appearance is ironic.)

Most of the previous poems at US presidential inaugurations have dissatisfied me in one of two ways. Some have been genuine lyric poems that fell flat when delivered through a microphone to a mass audience. Robert Frost prepared a somewhat wry commentary in verse about occasional poetry but couldn’t see his text in the bright sunlight and declaimed a lyric instead. Others have essentially been speeches with irregular line breaks. But it is not clear why a poet is qualified to give a speech at a major political event. The poet is a formal craftsperson, not an expert on policy.

One exception was Maya Angelou, who spoke as a leading public intellectual as much as a poet. I thought her poem was basically a speech, albeit with more of a fictional narrative spine. In any case, she enriched the 1993 inauguration.

Amanda Gorman has the advantage of working in the tradition of spoken word poetry: verse written for public performance and usually drawing on oral genres, from folk stories to hip hop. Spoken word is occasional verse; it is written to be performed at events.

Gorman didn’t give a prose speech, because her words were carefully chosen for rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance:

This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power

She accentuated those formal properties in her performance. Indeed, her performance was much better than the words on the page, and that is intrinsic to the genre. (In contrast, T.S. Eliot does a poor job reciting his poems.)

Gorman wrote for the occasion–words that would be useful for Biden and Harris and for Americans of good will who were watching the event. She didn’t necessarily disclose all that she believes about the new administration or the country. (I have no basis to speculate about her full beliefs.) Nevertheless, she was authentic as a performer, much as Lady Gaga gave an authentic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” or Anya Taylor-Joy poured herself into the role of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Each of these people chose to support the event at which they starred.

This is not to doubt Gorman’s words, but to take them as “occasional” in the best sense of the word. What the nation needed on this occasion was to hear this particular person reassure us that:

Somehow we do it
 Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
 a nation that isn't broken
 but simply unfinished ...

revolutionary art without a revolution: remembering the eighties

When the 1980s began, I was a nerdy little white boy in middle school in the rapidly de-industrializing Rust Belt city of Syracuse, NY. When it ended, I was a grad. student in England, but I had lived in New Haven, London, Florence, and New York City. I was interested in classical music and the history of (European) philosophy and was pretty much the opposite of hip. However, I walked around with my eyes and ears open, and my friends were less nerdy than I. So I went in tow to venues like CBGB or Dingwalls. Much more often, I rode graffitied subway cars or watched breakdancers with boom boxes.

Two recent exhibitions have brought back the aesthetics of that period and helped me to understand it a bit better.

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw were a decade older than me and from further north in the Rustbelt (Michigan), but I recognize the world they grew up in. They collected doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher wasn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They imitated that material and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.* I got to see samples of their work in “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum).

Born 6-8 years later than Shaw and Kelley, but famous when he was very young, Jean-Michel Basquiat mashed up Gray’s Anatomy (the book), old master paintings, documents from Black history, graphic symbols, sci-fi, jazz album covers, expressionist and pop art, found objects, and graffiti to make his groundbreaking work, which is featured in the Boston MFA’s Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation.

Basquiat’s drawings and paintings are very striking, but it’s possible that the music videos steal the show. In Blondie’s Rapture (1981), which you can watch any time on YouTube, Basquiat is the DJ because Grandmaster Flash failed to show up for the filming. As Debbie Henry switches from punk to rap, she sings:

Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s high
DJ’s spinnin’ are savin’ my mind
Flash is fast, Flash is cool
Francois sez fas, Flashe’ no do

That Haitian creole must be for Basquiat. Henry was the first person to purchase one of Basquiat’s works. It was news to me how closely punk and rap were intertwined.

Six years before this video, New York City had narrowly averted municipal bankruptcy. The subway had the highest crime rate of any mass transit system in the world and suffered from severe maintenance problems. A big part of the reason that graffiti artists could live in squats in lower Manhattan and paint whole trains was the economic crisis of the city. Meanwhile, the US auto industry that had sustained both urban Michigan and my Upstate New York hometown was shedding jobs. Between 1978 and 1982, 43% of automotive jobs (about half a million positions) were lost. No wonder Henry sings:

You go out at night, eatin’ cars
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too
Mercury’s and Subaru’s
And you don’t stop, you keep on eatin’ cars

“Rapture” was filmed in the deep recession year of 1981, when the Dow was down along with the rest of the economy. But as the decade progressed, markets rebounded and the culture celebrated finance—more, I would say, than industry or small business. It was the decade of Wall Street. And Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park is just 2.4 miles from Tomkins Square Park, the center of the bohemia portrayed in “Rapture.”

Basquiat’s art is explicitly anti-capitalist. I assume that artists who covered whole subway cars with their work considered the government that owned those trains as basically illegitimate and proposed a different form of ownership. Yet Basquiat started to make a lot of money in Manhattan gallery shows. Several of his close associates also moved from the economic margin to the center of the economic universe. For instance, in 1983, Basquiat and his girlfriend Madonna lived together in the Venice, CA studio of the art dealer Larry Gagosian (later known as “Go-Go” for his business acumen). Madonna was a legitimate member of the same bohemia as Basquiat, but she was on her way to selling 300 million records as the Material Girl. Even “Rapture,” which depicts a bunch of East Villagers who wouldn’t have a lot of money in their pockets, was beamed into millions of suburban rec. rooms through MTV.

Race was another dynamic. In places like Syracuse, Black/white racial integration reached its historic high. The school district implemented an ambitious desegregation plan. The ratio of African Americans to whites in the city’s population was also more balanced than it is in today’s “hyper-segregated” metro area. Syracuse has lost 35% of its population since 1950 in a process of suburbanization and re-segregation that was just getting started in the ’80s. Kelley and Shaw were white, and their musical genre was punk, but you can observe them admiring their Black counterparts from close up. Basquiat became famous in a predominantly white world but remained socially very close to Black and Caribbean New Yorkers. There was money to be made packaging rap for white teenagers, and money to be made subverting Reagan’s America in art or music.

A hostile critic would charge the ’80s bohemians with hypocrisy or even nihilism. (Those trains didn’t belong to them; most citizens preferred a subway without graffiti.) But I see pathos. This was revolutionary art without a revolution, an expression of left radicalism at a time when the deep cultural movement was rightward.

*this paragraph is self-plagiarized from Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence.

Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin

Both the Mishna (Sanhedrin, 4) and the Quran (5:32) advise that to kill one person is like killing all human beings.* The Mishna says that God created humanity in the form of one original person to remind us of that fact. It means that when Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell’s head chopped off on July 28, 1540, Henry destroyed a whole world.

Hilary Mantel proves this fundamental moral truth by richly imagining the inner life of the Tudor politician in the three volumes of her Wolf Hall trilogy. The main character (almost always called “he,” without a name), progresses through time and interacts with other people like an ordinary fictional protagonist, but often the narration traces his mind as it jumps to the past or envisions possible futures. Much of the trilogy is devoted to daydreams.

Cromwell is an unlikely candidate to be liked–a shrewd and sometimes ruthless political actor, a Protestant fundamentalist (in our terms), and a royalist. He’s also poorly documented. Most people have seen him as the villain or–at best–the cipher who killed Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. His portrait by Hans Holbein makes him seem private and distant. He is literally set further away than Holbein’s other subjects.

I’m guessing that is why Mantel chose him: to exercise her genius for sympathetic imagination. She must invent most of his past and his inner life, presenting a whole subjective world that would otherwise be opaque. We care for Cromwell not because we agree with him or have behaved like him, but because we can see a whole world through his eyes.

Mantel’s imagination is extraordinary, whether she is conjuring ordinary physical things like plums and footstools or spinning stories around the documented facts. Just for example, Elizabeth Seymour is sure she has been chosen to marry Thomas Cromwell. But he has invited her to marry his son. They talk at cross-purposes for a whole conversation until the awkward misunderstanding dawns on both of them. Who but Mantel would have thought to insert that twist?

In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explores a distinction between a story and a novel. A story is succinct, vivid, subject to many interpretations, meant to be remembered in full and retold to others. It is a communal object, recited orally to a group of people who enjoy each other’s company as they listen and speak in turn.

In contrast, a novel is profoundly individual, a silent communication from one author to one reader at a time. It provides so much detail and interpretation that the reader’s creativity is constrained by the author’s intentions; and it’s too long and carefully constructed to be paraphrased, let alone memorized and retold. Although novels have diverse subjects, the classic topic is one person’s inner life as he or she progresses toward a conclusion; and the clearest conclusion is death. Don Quixote is the “first great book of the genre.”

The novel arises once words can be mass produced for private consumption. It is a capitalist object, meant for a market. It also arises when people become truly afraid of death–not just of dying, but of observing and talking about death. “Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one.” But in the bourgeois 19th century, “the general consciousness the thought of death … declined in omnipresence and vividness.” The novel fills a gap by allowing us to imagine the death of an individual who is safely fictional as a way of contemplating our own mortality.

In a story, the hero is admirable beyond realism but hard to imagine from the inside. In a novel, the protagonist is flawed, and the more you read, the more flaws you see. Don Quixote “teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and do not contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom.” Yet we identify with the protagonist because her or his life functions like ours. Any life is a vast array of experiences, memories, and hopes, banal in their totality but unique in their details. A novel consoles us by implying that our life, too, is worthy. Benjamin says:

To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

A life is coherent because the present person has memories of her or his own past. Each of us has a unique collection of memories, and we are sufficiently attached to it that we are sad to think it will vanish with our deaths. We vainly counter that fate with monuments and memoirs and by boring children with our recollections. But a novel allows us to see someone else’s memories as a permanent object:

“No one,” Pascal once said, “dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.” Surely it is the same with memories too—although these do not always find an heir. The novelist takes charge of this bequest, and seldom without profound melancholy. …

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

Benjamin means to criticize the novel and lament the decline of the story. But his real target is capitalism, and the novel gets caught in the crossfire. Certainly, he understands what an achievement a novel is. And none seems to fit his theory better than Mantel’s trilogy.

Particularly as Cromwell approaches his end, he seems obsessive about cataloging his past, as if he could leave it as a coherent legacy. He thinks:

All your life you tramp the empty road with the wind at your back. You are hungry and your spirit is perturbed as you journey on into the gloom. But when you get to your destination the doorkeeper knows you. A torch goes before you as you cross the court. Inside there is a fire and a flask of wine, there is a candle and beside the candle your book. You pick it up and find your place is marked. You sit down by the fire, open it, and begin your story. You read on, into the night.

This scene of reading is exactly how Benjamin understands the novel, in general. It is a private experience of taking stock of a life to persuade oneself that it has meaning, even though each of us is but one among billions and fated to vanish.

Benjamin would probably emphasize that Thomas Cromwell was an early bourgeois, building a commercial commonwealth at the expense of the aristocracy and the clergy. Mantel describes foreign and court politics more than domestic policy, but the novel probably conveys–and it is plausibly true–that Cromwell revolutionized English society along bourgeois lines. That would make him a perfect choice for the protagonist of a Benjamin-style novel.

Benjamin doesn’t mention that Quixote is about two men, not one. So is the Wolf Hall trilogy. Cromwell tells Henry:

“What would I want with the Emperor, were he the emperor of all the world? Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”

Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light. He says, “You know, Crumb, I may from time to time reprove you. I may belittle you. I may even speak roughly.”

He bows.

“It is for show,” Henry says. “So they think we are divided.”

As this passage suggests, Cromwell and Henry are mirror and light to each other. We can see their relationship either way, Cromwell reflecting the royal will or Henry shining because of Cromwell’s brilliance. Cromwell can also see himself as a combination of the mirror and the light. “The silver plate, reflecting himself to himself: the mirror and the light of all councillors that are in Christendom.”

As in the original master-slave dialectic, Henry needs Cromwell as much as vice-versa. Both are appealing in their respective ways, mixing needs and interests with a strong sense of responsibility. Each embodies his proper role–much like Archbishop Cranmer, who “does what is in him. It is all any man can do.”

It’s important that the trilogy is historical fiction. Mantel gives us access to an unfamiliar objective world along with an unfamiliar subjectivity. The implication is that a lifeworld can survive for five hundred years after the observer dies; maybe the same can happen to you or me. Yet the result feels fragile and precious, dependent on Cromwell’s survival as a character and Mantel’s art. That fragility charges the novel with suspense even though most readers will have a pretty good sense of how things must end. (Well, it’s how all things must end.)

Mantel has invented a diction to summon the world of her novel: 21st-century English that closely describes 16th-century England, with a dose of free indirect discourse (third-person narration that adopts some of the tone of the character being described). Clear anachronisms are rare and may be mistakes. “Why do we not, as the tennis players say, cut to the chase?” asks Ambassador Chapuys, using a phrase that originated in early Hollywood. Several characters refer wittily to the sentence, “Et in Arcadia ego,” which was coined ca. 1618. And Cromwell’s thought, “Florence made me … London unmade me,” suggests a reference to Purgatorio, V. 133, which only became famous after 1800. If these are flaws, they are tiny, and perhaps it’s best to think of the book as a loose translation of 16th century speech into modern English.

In sum, Mantel seeks to build something that is a terrible shame to end. That is exactly what we should say about any human life: even the life of a renaissance courtier who had many other people’s deaths on his conscience. In this sense, the novel is a moral achievement as well as a creative one.

*I ignore knotty questions about these two texts and how they relate. Most of the online commentary about them is sectarian and uncharitable toward other people’s faiths. Let’s assume that many Jews and many Moslems have read these passages in the way I am suggesting here.

See also: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies; history and fiction in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety; Calvino’s free hyper-indirect discourse; and Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life (with a digression on Benjamin and the importance of death in the novel). My own effort at a Tudor novel is The Anachronist. Finally, Clair Wills offers a much less favorable review in The New York Review. I don’t share her verdict, but she makes significant points.

Shelley: England in 1819

England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one sentence. Minus the adjectives and adjectival phrases, it says: “A king, princes, rulers, people, army, laws, religion, and senate are graves from which a phantom may burst to illumine our day.” (It’s interesting that one phantom will arise from all these separate graves.)

The “king” is George III, suffering by now from advanced dementia. He has seven surviving sons, which would be the narrowest definition of “princes.” But Shelley could mean a broader category–“princes” in the sense of the crowned heads of Europe. They are back on their thrones after Waterloo, erecting a system of reactionary absolutism that will last until 1830.

“Rulers” would mean the whole government, starting with the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who suspended civil liberties from 1817-19. The “people” are suffering from the Corn Laws (which prohibit importation of grain) and early industrialization. The “army” refers to the cavalry who charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform (the Peterloo massacre of August 16). The “senate” is parliament, although I don’t quite follow how that noun relates to “Time’s worst statute.” And the “Phantom” is something like liberty.

The situation is bad but unsustainable. The rulers may be evil, but they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The army wields a two-edged sword, liable to slice its own bearer. The people, however, seem passive: they think and do nothing in particular but are “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.” The Phantom may (or may not) burst forth; it’s not clear that the people can decide that.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen 10-syllable lines, rhymed, with a final couplet that answers the question posed by the rest of the poem: What will happen? However, the form is not strictly conventional. Shelley uses just four endings (-ing, -ow, -ield, and -ay) in an ABABAB CDCD CC scheme.

Christopher Spaide says that the poem was too radical to publish in 1819. By the time Mary Shelley included it in Shelley’s posthumous Poetical Works (1839), she thought it needed an explanation, since the “younger generation … cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” In other words, the sonnet went from revolutionary to quaint in 20 years–not because an actual revolution ensued in Britain, but because the political situation mellowed as reforms eased the crises of the day. No Phantom burst, but the laws arguably became less sanguine and the people less likely to be starved and stabbed.

See also Brecht, To Future Generations.