British poets and the French Revolution. Part Four: Shelley - A Great Revolutionary Democrat

Unlike Byron, who was adopted by the British establishment after his death, Shelley (1792-1822) was always an outcast. This is no accident. He was undoubtedly the most consistently revolutionary of all English writers. From his earliest years he defended the most advanced revolutionary-democratic views, including militant atheism and republicanism, but also socialism. It is no accident that the name of Shelley was kept alive by the working class when it was out of favour with the "respectable" reading public in England. Indeed, the latter met the news of his death with complete indifference.

"Byron and Shelley are read almost exclusively by the lower classes; no 'respectable' person could have the works of the latter on his desk without coming into the most terrible disrepute." (Engels Letters from London, In Marx and Engels On Art and Literature, p. 162)

"The workers also have in their hands cheap editions of the writings of Thomas Paine and Shelley." (ibid., p. 163).

Unlike Byron, who was adopted by the British establishment after his death, Shelley (1792-1822) was always an outcast. This is no accident. He was undoubtedly the most consistently revolutionary of all English writers. From his earliest years he defended the most advanced revolutionary-democratic views, including militant atheism and republicanism, but also socialism. It is no accident that the name of Shelley was kept alive by the working class when it was out of favour with the "respectable" reading public in England. Indeed, the latter met the news of his death with complete indifference.

"He died," wrote his wife Mary, "and the world showed no outward sign." The cold indifference of the English middle class towards a great poet was not accidental. Whereas Byron's rebellion could be written off as the expression of aristocratic eccentricity or extravagance, this was an altogether more serious type of revolt. They sensed that here was a serious enemy of all they stood for. Shelley hated injustice with a passion that never deserted him to the end of his tragically short life. The poetry of Shelley is impregnated with the spirit of revolutionary democracy:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
'Tis to work, and have such pay,
As just keeps life, from day to day,
In your limbs as in a cell
For the tyrants' use to dwell.

The young Shelley, expelled from Eton for propagating atheism, embraced the French Revolution with a passionate enthusiasm. In the Introduction to his long poem The Revolt of Islam he writes:

"The French Revolution may be considered as one of those manifestations of a general state of feeling among civilised mankind produced by a defect of correspondence between the knowledge existing in society and the improvement or gradual abolition of political institutions. The year 1788 may be assumed as the epoch of one of the most important crises produced by this feeling. The sympathies connected with that event extended to every bosom. The most generous and amiable natures were those which participated the most extensively in these sympathies. But such a degree of unmingled good was expected as it was impossible to realise.

"If the Revolution had been in every respect prosperous, then misrule and superstition would lose half their claims to our abhorrence, as fetters which the captive can unlock with the slightest motion of his fingers, and which do not eat with poisonous rust into the soul. The revulsion occasioned by the atrocities of the demagogues, and the re-establishment of successive tyrannies in France, was terrible, and felt in the remotest corner of the civilised world. Could they listen to the plea of reason who had groaned under the calamities of a social state according to the provisions of which one man riots in luxury whilst another famishes for want of bread? Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing and independent?" (Shelley, Poetical Works, p. 32.)

Shelley was always conscious of the suffering of the working people that surrounded him. Mary Shelley wrote in a note to The Revolt of Islam:

"With all this wealth of Nature which, either in the form of gentlemen's parks or soil dedicated to agriculture, flourishes around, Marlow was inhabited (I hope it is altered now) by a very poor population. The women are lace-makers, and lose their health by sedentary labour, for which they were very ill paid. The Poor-laws ground to the dust not only the paupers, but those who had risen just above that state, and were obliged to pay poor-rates. The changes produced by peace following a long war, and a bad harvest, brought with them the most heart-rending evils to the poor. Shelley afforded what alleviation he could. In the winter, while bringing out his poem, he had a severe attack of ophthalmis, caught while visiting the poor cottages. I mention these things -for this minute and active sympathy with his fellow-creatures gives a thousandfold interest to his speculations, and stamps with reality his pleadings for the human race." (Shelley, Poetical Works, p. 157.)

His The Revolt of Islam at first sight seems to belong to the Romantic genre of the exotic. But in fact it is only a cover for the defence of revolution in general. Shelley writes in the Preface:

"I have chosen a story of human passion in its most universal character, diversified with moving and romantic adventures, and appealing, in contempt of all artificial opinions and institutions, to the common sympathies of the human breast." (p. 32). He further characterises it as an expression of "impatience of 'all the oppressions which are done under the sun'." And he plainly states its objective to be "the awakening of an immense nation from their slavery and degradation; the bloodless dethronement of their oppressors, and the unveiling of the religious frauds by which they had been deluded into submission." (ibid.) It goes without saying that the "immense Nation" he has in mind is not the Arabs, but the English.

Although almost twenty years had passed since the French Revolution, the memory of which seemed to have been buried by the restoration of the Bourbons on British and Prussian bayonets, Shelley's loyalty to the spirit of 1789-93 burns as brightly as ever, when he writes:

"The tranquility of successful patriotism, and the universal toleration and benevolence of true philanthropy; the treachery and barbarity of hired soldiers; vice not the object of punishment and hatred, but kindness and pity; the faithlessness of tyranny; the confederacy of the Rulers of the World, and the restoration of the expelled Dynasty by foreign arms; the massacre and extermination of the Patriots, and the victory of established power; the consequences of legitimate despotism, - civil war, famine, plague, superstition, and an utter extinction of the domestic affections; the judicial murder of the advocates of Liberty; the temporary triumph of oppression, that secure earnest of its final and inevitable fall; the transient nature of ignorance and error, and the eternity of genius and virtue." (Shelley, op. cit., p. 32.)

How far removed is the spirit of revolutionary optimism that shines through every line from the wretched fawning and prostration of the Wordsworths! Shelley understood very well that the defeat of the French Revolution marked an historic reversal, and also that such defeats do not occur without negative consequences. History's bills must never be left unpaid! But he regards the victory of reaction as temporary, and the ultimate success of the revolution as ultimately inevitable. As for those who have fled the field, he writes with a mixture of pity and contempt:

"Thus, many of the most ardent and tender-hearted of the worshippers of public good have been morally ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes. Hence gloom and melancholy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair. This influence has tainted the literature of the age with the hopelessness of the minds from which it flows.

"Metaphysics and inquiries into moral and political science, have now become little else than vain attempts to revive exploded superstitions, or sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus, calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph. Our works of fiction and poetry have been overshadowed by the same infectious gloom. But mankind appear to me to be emerging from their trance. I am aware, methinks, of a slow, gradual, silent change. In that belief, I have composed the following Poem." (Ibid., pp. 33-4.)

This passage is important because it shows better than anything else the dialectical relationship between the artist and society.

"Our works of fiction and poetry have been overshadowed by the same infectious gloom," writes Shelley.

These lines could have been written only yesterday. The destruction of what remained of the conquests of the October revolution has produced a psychological effect that is similar to the crushing of France by the coalition of Britain, Prussia and Russia. Marx speaks in the Communist Manifesto of the block of reactionary powers, of Metternich and the Tsar, of the Emperor of Prussia and the British Foreign Minister Castlereagh - all conspiring to exorcise the "Spectre of Communism". This they signally failed to do. Fifteen years after the battle of Waterloo, the Bourbons were overthrown by a revolution. Eighteen years after that, and only months after the Communist Manifesto was written, a new wave of revolutions swept through all the main capitals of Europe and even shook the British political Establishment into making fundamental reforms.

All this was only the distant music of the future for Shelley, who in the depths of reaction, displayed his defiance in a remarkable poem entitled The Mask of Anarchy. It was written as a protest after the notorious Peterloo massacre in Manchester, when the Duke of Wellington led the bloody suppression of unarmed demonstrators in Manchester.

"I met with Murder on the way-
He had a mask like Caslereagh-
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hound 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!' (Shelley, Poetical Works, pp. 338-9.)

When others abandoned the Revolution, Shelley did not desert the cause. Shelley, who remained firm in his revolutionary convictions, observed the wave of desertions with philosophical detachment:

"There is a reflux in the tide of human things," he wrote, "which bears the shipwrecked hopes of men into secure haven after the storms are past. Methinks, those who now live have survived an age of despair." (op. cit. p. 33).

Shelley married Mary Godwin after the death of his first wife. Mary, an extremely talented woman in her own right who is unfortunately only remembered today as the author of Frankenstein, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the fighter for woman's rights and William Godwin, the precursor of anarchism.

His tragic death at the age of only 30 during a storm in the Gulf of Spezia deprived the British working class of a genuine revolutionary who, had he lived, could have evolved in the direction of Communism, which is already implicit in his writings from the earliest period. In his juvenile Notes on Queen Mab he writes the following:

"There is no real wealth but the labour of man. Were the mountains of gold and the valleys of silver, the world would not be one grain of corn the richer; no one comfort would be added to the human race. In consequence of our consideration for the precious metals, one man is enabled to heap to himself luxuries at the expense of the necessaries of his neighbours; a system admirably fitted to produce all the varieties of disease and crime, which never fail to characterize the two extremes of opulence and penury […]

"The poor are set to labour, - for what? Not the food for which they famish; not for the blankets for the want of which their babes are frozen by the cold of their miserable hovels; not those comforts of civilization without which civilized man is far more miserable than the meanest savage; oppressed as he is by all its insidious evils, within the daily and taunting prospect of its innumerable benefits assiduously exhibited before him; - no, for the pride of power, for the false pleasures of the hundredth part of society."

This is an all-out assault on private property, which is also reflected in The Revolt of Islam:

"Man seeks for gold in mines, that he may weave
A lasting chain for his own slavery; -
In fear and restless care that he may live
He toils for others, who must ever be
The joyless thralls of like captivity;
He murders, for his chiefs delight is ruin;
He builds the altar, that its idol's fee
May be his own blood; he is pursuing -
O, blind and willing wretch! - his own obscure undoing." (Canto, XIV, p. 119)

Shelley did not confine himself to lamenting the oppression of the masses. He actively called on them to rise up against their oppressors and used his poetry to do it:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?...
Forge arms, - in your defence to bear. (ibid, p. 606)