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.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.