Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary

This review was first published on Sceptical Scot.

In an age ever more obsessed with the importance of crafting effective political ‘stories’ and ‘narratives’, Jacqueline Mulhallen’s Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is a timely review of the life and work of a poet writing 200 years ago acutely aware of the vital role the imagination plays in extending the horizons of political possibility.

Like Paul Foot’s Red Shelley, the last major treatment of Shelley’s political career (which first appeared some 35 years ago), Mulhallen’s short, sharp little book is a useful corrective to the popular image of a figure whose profound contribution to radical politics remains under appreciated.

Though still acknowledged as one of the Romantic movement’s finest poets Shelley is today better known for his colourful life and the brilliant circle in which he moved than his own work. He was a close associate of Lord Byron, and his second wife Mary, daughter of the political essayists William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and author of the classic Gothic horror Frankenstein, is now perhaps more widely read than Shelley himself.

Estranged from the aristocratic circles in which he had been brought up, Shelley lived a nomadic life perpetually on the run from his debtors, uprooting his young family multiple times as they moved across Europe. Ever in the shadow of tragedy self-inflicted or otherwise – his first wife committed suicide and two of his children died in infancy – he nevertheless produced a ceaseless flow of poems, plays and essays before his brief, incandescent career ended with a quintessentially Romantic death at the age of just 29, drowned after a sudden storm sank his boat in the Bay of Lerici in 1822.

But during his lifetime Shelley’s reputation and notoriety derived less from the sensational details of his life than from his work as a radical political poet, theorist and activist. Though still known today primarily as a lyric poet, he wrote many openly political poems, several satirical plays and important political treatises. The intended audience for much of his work was the fast-growing autodidactic workers’ movement of the early 19th century rather than a narrow literary elite.

Shelley’s work might best be understood as the pursuit of a synthesis of the ideals of beauty and justice: he thought poetry should have a political dimension, and that politics needed the inspiration of poetry.

An Enlightenment radical

As an eldest son of the landed gentry Shelley was intended for a life at the heart of the establishment: educated at Eton and Oxford he was due to inherit his father’s estate and seat in Parliament. But he positioned himself at the radical edge of British politics from an early age, participating in the anti-slavery movement and identifying with the Whigs under the leadership of Charles James Fox. He developed Jacobin sympathies as he read Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine and other leading Enlightenment political thinkers, and studied the American Declaration of Independence and the 1793 French Constitution.

The extent of Shelley’s radicalism became apparent when he was sent down from Oxford for his first significant publication, The Necessity of Atheism, which went beyond conventional Enlightenment scepticism by seeking to undermine not just traditional Christian faith but also residual Deist belief in a benevolent Creator.

Shelley’s public shaming as an unbeliever threatened his succession to his father’s estate and closed his path to a Parliament that required loyalty to the Church of England. Throwing off any vestigial constraints imposed by the expectations of his class Shelley embarked on a precarious career as an itinerant writer, soon establishing himself as a prominent figure amongst radical intellectuals campaigning for the transformation of Britain’s corrupt police state through the introduction of free and fair elections, fixed term Parliaments, universal suffrage, and freedom of the press, religious affiliation and public assembly.

But he went well beyond most of his fellow reformers in regarding democratic reform as a necessary but insufficient condition for the still more radical objective of addressing deep-seated economic inequalities. For Shelley, universal suffrage was a gateway rather than an end in itself. He argued for an egalitarian Republic through ‘the abolition of, for instance, monarchy and aristocracy, and the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution, including the parks and chases of the rich’.

‘Essentially a revolutionist’

The outlines of Shelley’s proto-socialist vision were already clear in his early poem Queen Mab, written when he was just 21, which soon embedded itself in the English radical canon, coming to be known as ‘the Chartists’ Bible’. He followed it with a series of other overtly political works including The Revolt of Islam and The Cenci, but Mulhallen highlights his 1819 essay A Philosophical View of Reform as perhaps the most comprehensive statement of his political position. Though little read today Shelley’s treatise retains its capacity to challenge nearly 200 years on, combining a powerful vision of a classless society still far from realisation today with a sober analysis of the concrete steps by which radical change can be achieved.

Written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which a peaceful workers’ gathering in Manchester was broken up by violent militia, the essay considers whether the new society can be enacted gradually through cumulative Parliamentary legislation, or can only be won by revolution.

Shelley favoured incremental reform through peaceful means. He admired techniques of non-violent resistance pioneered by the Quakers, and feared that an armed uprising would be met by a bloody counter-revolution and the establishment of a new tyranny, as he believed Napolean had imposed upon France and, earlier, Cromwell upon England.

Shelley attempted to work out a cautious, almost Fabian path towards universal suffrage: the franchise should be gradually extended, first through a property qualification, then through the granting of the vote to women, then to all.

It is better that we gain what we demand by a process of negotiation which would occupy 20 years than to risk civil war.

Shelley’s speculations here prefigure the essential dilemmas of radical left political strategy during the later 19th and early 20th centuries: whether far-reaching change can be achieved by means of existing legislative channels or only after their overthrow; and, if it is indeed achieved, how it can be secured against counter-revolution.

Though he hoped for a ‘bloodless revolution’ he feared insurrection would indeed be necessary to overturn the existing order: ‘[S]o dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then nor now nor ever left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood’. In England, at least, subsequent history proved Parliament was capable of delivering significant reform, but at a pace Shelley would have thought intolerable: the universal suffrage he hoped might take no more than 20 years was not won till 1928.

Shelley’s essay was also remarkable for anticipating the significance of class as a political category, observing the capacity of dominant social groups to impose economic systems in which the majority work for the interests of a few.

In 1819 Britain laboured under an ‘austerity’ economics imposed to service a national debt incurred by ‘two liberticide wars’ against France and America, wars sponsored by a governing class Shelley identified as a ‘twin aristocracy’ in which the traditional landed gentry was joined by a network of ‘stock jobbers, usurers, directors, government pensions, country bankers: a set of pelting wretches who think of any commerce with their species as a means not an end’. Shelley argued the rich should pay the national debt as it is a ‘debt contracted by the privileged classes towards one portion of themselves [though] the interest is chiefly paid by those who had no hand in the borrowing’.

Although he died too early to be identified even with the Utopian socialists of the 1830s, let alone as a Marxist, Shelley’s grasp of the dynamics of class was recognised by later radicals, including Marx and Engels. For Marx ‘he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism’.

Politics and poetry, poetry and politics

In addition to the reform essay Shelley’s response to Peterloo encompassed some of his finest political poetry, including England in 1819 and The Masque of Anarchy, perhaps still the best known lyric in the English radical tradition, its nightmare imagery of a blood soaked ruling class rampaging through the people of Britain inspired by first hand accounts of the yeomen who charged the Manchester crowds. The poem was written to engage the great mass of workers who would never have the opportunity to read his Philosophical View.

The Masque remains a favourite rhetorical resource for campaigners, two centuries later. The poem’s final stanza –

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.

– was chanted by the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989, and was the prologue to the 2014 Iraq war documentary We Are Many. Its final line was adapted by Poll Tax protestors in 1990 and also by the Occupy movement.

Mulhallen shows that a radical thread runs through nearly all of Shelley’s work, including poems that have traditionally been interpreted as apolitical meditations on classic Romantic themes such as love, beauty, suffering and death. The much anthologised lyrics Ode to the West Wind and Ozymandias, for example, can be read simply as wistful reflections on the mysterious springs of poetic inspiration or the inevitable erosion of human endeavour by time. But the wind that blows through the Ode symbolised the spirit of revolutionary change Shelley hoped was sweeping through Europe, and he intended his readers to recognise the rulers of their own day in Ozymandias’s ‘sneer of cold command’.

Shelley’s holistic view of poetry and politics is made clear by two other major works highlighted by Mulhallen: his long allegorical poem Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, and A Defence of Poetry, left incomplete on his death.

Alastor is a classic Romantic quest poem, dense with rich imagery of mountainous landscapes, dark forested glades and the exotic Orient, recalling Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or Byron’s Childe Harold. A poet devoted to nature and learning wanders through Africa and Asia drawn on by the spectre of a woman who, beckoning him forth with eyes of stars, personifies his concept of ideal beauty. But the poet’s lonely odyssey in pursuit of a ghostly abstraction leads only to early death. Seduced by a solipsistic love of nature and philosophy, Alastor cuts himself off from wider human society, and so finds himself imprisoned by the worship of his own subjectivity, his death symbolising the withering of the solitary artist’s creative powers.

Shelley wrote Alastor to guard against his own inclination to drift free of human community in a Platonic ideal world, and as counterweight to rival ideals of the role of the artist, notably William Wordsworth’s manifesto The Excursion which argued that the proper field of poetry was the artist’s subjective response to nature.

Whereas Alastor argues that poetry should engage with the concerns of the wider human community, A Defence of Poetry maintains that effective political action needs the insight of poetic vision. It too is a response to an another work, in this case Thomas Peacock’s essay The Four Ages of Poetry, which suggests that artists serious about social justice would be better employed taking up more pragmatic disciplines like economics or political economy.

Shelley agrees that hard-headed analysis, robust theoretical systems and pragmatic organisational skills are essential for developing practical programmes capable of implementation, but insists on the fundamental importance of the poetic imagination for keeping eyes set on a common horizon. Poetry, which Shelley uses as a shorthand term to refer to all artistic enterprise, ‘enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it’. The capacity of poets to bring forth shimmering images of some future society makes them the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

He argues that successful struggles for political liberation are often accompanied by a flourishing of the arts, including the turbulent era in which he lived:

‘our own will be a memorable age in intellectual achievements, and we live among such philosophers and poets as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last struggle for civil and religious liberty [the English Civil War].’

A Defence of Poetry retains its relevance for progressives today trying to develop a compelling alternative to a world order serving the interests of financial capital that seems incapable of distributing wealth fairly or addressing the threat of environmental ruin. Like today’s left Shelley wanted economic systems and technological progress to work for human freedom, and condemned utilitarian frameworks that trap so many in perpetual alienation and insecurity. Unless guided by imaginative sympathy, economic and technological advance can imprison rather than liberate:

From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam?

There are many other dimensions to Shelley’s life and work Mulhallen’s little book can’t and doesn’t attempt to cover. Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit remains the most comprehensive document of his troubled life and kaleidoscopic range of interests. And Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley captures something of the essence of Shelley the dreamer, adrift on turbulent seas of the imagination.

But Mullhallen’s study is a valuable reminder of the binding thread that runs through Shelley’s work: the importance of the imagination as an agent of human freedom.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is published by Pluto Press.