Thursday, 3 November 2016

Shelley- the Peoples’ Poet


Shelley- the Peoples’ Poet

Shelley more than any other Romantic poet understood the importance of the power of words to improve the lot of human beings – and he believed passionately that he had a duty to educate, agitate and organise  for that end.

It must be so- I will arise and awaken

The multitude, and like a sulphurous hill,

Which on a sudden from its own snows has shaken

The swoon of ages, it shall burst and fill

The world with cleansing fire: it must, it will-

It may not be restrained! – (Islam, 11 xiv)

This stemmed from a love of human beings. In his preface to “Alistor” he declares this love.

“Those who do not love their fellow-beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave…. They are morally dead.” – and in “A Defence of Poetry” he writes  “A man to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others ; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”

By being able to imagine standing in another’s shoes , particularly those of the exploited and oppressed, the poet could identify with those others, engage in a struggle against all oppression and exploitation and use words as weapons to end that oppression.

For Lord Byron his resistance was personal – the poetry of someone motivated not by love of his fellow man but anger at a wounded hurt pride at his own class. Not for no reason did Marx declare famously:

‘the real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love and rejoice that Byron died at thirty six, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at twenty nine, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advance guard of socialism”

In poems, letters and prose essays alike Shelley attacked “all those who enjoy the profit of the labour of others, as compared with those who exercise this labour.” In the Prose essay “ A Philosophical Review of Reform” he opposes both the landed aristocracy and “ those sections of Capitalists too whose interests were more or less bound up with the landed interests – bankers , stock-jobbers, fund holder etc.”

In addition to “The Mask of Anarchy”- his famous poem about the massacre at Peterloo in Spa fields- he also wrote to Leigh Hunt by letter at the time at the beginning of the blasphemous trial of Richard Carlisle for publishing the work of Tom Paine.

“First we hear that a troop of the enraged master manufacturers are let loose with sharpened swords upon a multitude of their starving dependents and in spite of the remonstrance’s of the regular troops that they ride over them and massacre without distinction of sex or age , and cut off women’s’ breast and dash the heads of infants against the stones”.

In the “Assassins” he attacks “the respectable man- the smooth, smiling, polished villain, whom all the city honours; whose very trade is lies and murder; who buys his daily bread with blood and tears of men “ . This is the period following the French Revolution, a Revolution Shelley uniquely amongst the Romantic poets never turns his back on. Here he is on the role of the Constitutional Monarchy:

“The power which has increased therefore is the power of the rich. The name and office of King is merely the mask of this power, and is a kind of stalking horse used to conceal these “catchers of men”, whilst they lay their nets. Monarchy is only the string which ties the robber’s bundle.” -a perceptive, wise comment that sadly is as relevant now as it was two hundred years ago!

In the same prose essay “A Philosophical View of Reform” (an essay suppressed for 100 years) he makes comments on the terrible effects of the Industrial Revolution- poverty, growing inequality, the contradiction between the tremendous productive power of the Industrial Revolution and its terrible effects on the working – class and poor:

“Population increased, a greater number of hands were employed in the labours of agriculture and commerce, towns arose where villages had been, and the proportion borne by those whose labour produced the materials of subsistence and enjoyment to those who claim for themselves a superfluity of these materials began to increase indefinitely” – “–“Discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam”.

He goes on to attack Malthus for blaming sexual intercourse by the poor for population growth. He has “ the hardened insolence to propose as a remedy that the poor should be compelled …to abstain from sexual intercourse, while the rich are to be permitted to add as many mouths to consume the products of the labour of the poor as they please”!

He condemns the “sordid lust of self” the “grovelling hope of interest and gold” in Queen Mab- everything including human life is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold in the market place -the Industrial worker is the modern day slave:

 

Yon squalid form,

Leaner than fleshless misery, that wastes

A sunless life in the unwholesome mine,

Drags out in labour a protracted death. (Queen Mab, 1`111 112-15)

In “The Mask of Anarchy” he contrasts wage-slavery with freedom thirty years before “The Communist Manifesto “

'What is Freedom? - ye can tell
That which is slavery is, too well -
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.'

Shelley was also clear that this oppression was shored up and defended by the Capitalist State. And that bourgeois freedoms were insufficient to end this system The consequences are poverty, misery, moral degradation, crime and alienation

 

'
What are thou Freedom? O! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand - tyrants would flee
Like a dream's dim imagery:'
'Thou art not, as imposters say,
A shadow soon to pass away,
A superstition, and a name
Echoing from the cave of Fame.'
'For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.'
'Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude -
No - in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.'

 

And a State that would use force when inevitable resistance materialised against wage –slavery.

But Shelley was optimistic that the working class would end this system:

XXV

    'This is the Winter of the world; and here

     We die, even as the winds of Autumn fade,

     Expiring in the frore and foggy air.

     Behold! Spring comes, though we must pass who made

     The promise of its birth,--even as the shade

     Which from our death, as from a mountain, flings

     The future, a broad sunrise; thus arrayed

     As with the plumes of overshadowing wings,

   From its dark gulf of chains Earth like an eagle springs. (Islam.1X XXV)

 
And “the future is contained within the present, as the plant within the seed” (In Defence of poetry p 28)

 
Shelley was clear that capitalism would only come through to an end through a “Social Act”.

 
Shelley’s enemies deal with him by misinterpretation him or censoring him. His work was too uncompromising and of a high standard to either ignore or do anything else .Bourgeois critics emphasises his poems about skylarks clouds west winds etc. But within the working class he was loved and the effect of hundreds of pirated editions of Queen Mab on the growing trade union and Chartist movement cannot be underestimated.

Prometheus Unbound is a play that represents a vision of the future without tyrants. It is Shelley's response to a French revolution gone wrong and perhaps the piece of work that best reveals his politics , values and ideals. He states his intentions in the Preface:

"My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness."

Shelley speaks in the epilogue through Demogorgon to champion free will and hope in the face of oppression.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
Shelley was a  Fighter ,Activist ,Poet and Revolutionary and his work deserves to be read, studied and used in the struggle for the Freedom he so cherished.
For a more detailed examination of Shelley’s work read the essay on Shelley by Paul Foot

Shelley: The Trumpet of a Prophecy


Jacqueline Mulhallen, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto 2015), xiv, 170pp. There is a review of this new book on Shelley here:


Best biography – Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes.

Reviews and Discussion of this biography here:

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Bright Star Trailer (HD)




Keats  was an active participant in the debates of Leigh Hunt’s radical intellectual circle, which included William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Hamilton Reynolds, and William Godwin, among others. For more on Keats

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Keats