Shelley and the Peterloo Massacre

On the 202nd anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, Sally Minogue looks at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic responses to it.

Rulers, who neither see, nor feel, nor know,

But leech-like to their fainting country cling,

Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, –

A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field, –


Thus Shelley in ‘England in 1819’. Doesn’t sound like 202 years ago, does it? To read Shelley at this moment is to feel the fiery heat of his righteous anger, to hear a modern voice speaking directly to our current moment, and sounding more clearly than any living poetic voice I have heard raised recently. Forget for the moment the Shelley of inflated metaphors (‘Ode to the West Wind’, 401)), romanticised notions of death (‘Adonais’, 505-522), interminable verse plays (Prometheus Unbound, 225-308). In particular, forget Matthew Arnold’s Shelley, ‘a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’ – a damaging characterisation that has stuck, perhaps because of its own Shelleyan beauty of language. F. R. Leavis repeated much the same damning charge, if in different language:

Shelley’s poetry offers feeling divorced from thought – offers it as something opposed to thought. Along with this characteristic goes Shelley’s notable inability to grasp anything –

(Leavis’ emphasis)

Yet nothing could be further from the truth when we read ‘England in 1819’. We feel we are being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and told to look, and look hard – ‘ a people … stabbed in the untilled field’, ‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know’. Plenty of grasping there.

This sonnet – and the fury emitting from the contained form is part of what gives it its power – was a direct response to the cataclysmic events in Manchester in August 1819 which came to be popularly known as the Peterloo Massacre. Bruce Woodcock’s excellent Introduction to the Wordsworth Edition of Shelley gives a clear and concise account of the 1819 context. In brief, the government of Lord Liverpool had repressed even mild movements for franchise reform, using the strategic placing of local standing armies and the suspension of Habeas Corpus, as well as draconian laws against sedition, to create an atmosphere of threat to any opposition. The middle-class leaders of the movement for reform, themselves somewhat fearful of more radical insurrection, organised a peaceful mass gathering on the large expanse of St Peter’s Fields on the edge of Manchester, on August 16th 1819, suing for greater freedom of print publication and a limited extension of the vote. Over 60,000 people turned up, including many families. Yet what was clearly understood by participants as a day of listening to speeches, and peaceful protest, was interpreted by local magistrates as insurrectionary. The Yeomanry (a sort of local militia) charged the crowd on horseback, and then the 15th Hussars (a cavalry regiment of the regular British Army), followed, cutting through the crowds with bared sabres. According to official figures, at least 11 were killed and 421 injured. Although both government and monarchy supported the action, its shocking effect was such that it is seen as contributing to the eventual reforms of 1832. It remains as a bloody image of the use of excessive violence by a government to suppress its own people. The term Peterloo ironically combined the name of the St Peter’s Field site, where the cavalry was deployed against fellow English people, with the 1815 victory at Waterloo; the 15th Hussars had been involved in both.

Shelley’s longer poetic response to Peterloo, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, whilst full of abstract personification at one level, is as specific as his sonnet in its direct frame of reference:

I met Murder on the way –

He had a mask like Castlereagh


Shelley names names; but when he doesn’t, the attack is even more devastating. All the forces of government are embodied in one figure, Anarchy, who ‘rode / On a white horse splashed with blood’. Anarchy becomes the power unleashed by an unthinking, uncaring, self-serving government:

And Anarchy, the Skeleton,

Bowed and grinned to everyone,

As well as if his education

Had cost ten millions to the nation.

So he sent his slaves before

To seize upon the Bank and Tower,

And was proceeding with intent

To meet his pensioned Parliament.



The historical specifics give the poem its sense of attack; the powerful abstractions give it the ability to apply to any historical moment where rottenness is at the heart of government.

In one sense, it is a gloomy fact that Shelley’s skewering of a corrupt regime can still seem so apt two hundred years later. That might make us think that nothing much changes in power relations, and that, in the famous Auden line, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. Yet in both of these excoriating poems, Shelley, in the face of his own apparent despair at the politics he describes, performs an extraordinary volte face. As we slide deeper and deeper into the mire of ‘England in 1819’, like a magician he pulls out ‘a glorious Phantom’ (liberty? Revolution?), which ‘may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.’ (407) The turn of the sonnet, here an actual volta or revolution of thought, comes only with the final couplet. We have gone from ‘An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king’ in the first line to glory and illumination in the last two. True, there’s a bit of hedging: ‘may’ is used rather than ‘shall’ or ‘will’, and ‘Phantom’ casts a doubt on whether the promised revolution in favour of liberty will be a reality. Nonetheless, it’s an unexpectedly uplifting finish to a dark poem. A similar turn comes in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, but as befits the longer, more developed poem, it is not a sudden magic trick on the part of the poet, but is argued for at length by the personified figure of Hope. When we first meet Hope, she is a ‘maniac maid’ who ‘looked more like Despair’. Almost subserviently, ‘she lay down in the street, / Right before the horses’ feet’. Yet from this act of mute opposition

…between her and her foes

A mist, a light, an image rose,

Small at first, and weak and frail,

Like the vapour of a vale


The mist grows into something as strong as chain mail but as evanescent as ‘empty air’. The implication is that hope depends on those who can sustain it; it waxes and wanes, but thrives on being shared.

In the end, this is the driving philosophy of all of Shelley’s political poems, and perhaps those that at first sight don’t seem political. Revolutionary might comes only through common purpose and inspiration. When Hope speaks, this is her (repeated) message:

‘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’. (392)

There is a whole other half of the poem to push this idea home. But the point here is that the idea is argued. This is not feeling divorced from or opposed to thought; it is feeling because of thought. And it is a rousing rallying cry, reminding us that though privilege rests with the few, unity and commonality are the shared power of the many.

The political context and impetus of these poems is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to make them great poems. In both cases, Shelley marries thought and feeling rather than splitting them, using formal features to underpin that marriage. A compact sonnet in the one case, a long poem made up of rhyming quatrains, varied into five lines for the all-important refrain, in the other – form is crucial here. But most important is Shelley’s poetic voice, which, in two very different kinds of poem, remains direct, almost conversational, first spitting with fury and, finally, offering hope.

We can hear this irresistibly passionate voice echoed in two recent performances of Shelley’s work speaking directly to the 21st century listener, both by women. Maxine Peake’s reading of ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, originally recorded for the 200th anniversary of Peterloo in 2019, was re-broadcast on August 1st this year, and is now available on BBC Sounds. That broadcast includes readings of the personal accounts from one of the leaders of the original gathering, Samuel Bamford, and his wife Jemima. These are very touching, as they describe the innocent, hopeful organisation of the gathering, to be so cruelly cut down. Peake’s voice is full of the political fervour she has herself demonstrated in her own life and practice, and she fully conveys Shelley’s same revolutionary belief, embodied in that brilliant line ‘Shake your chains to earth like dew’. A very different mode of expression comes from Marianne Faithfull, in a beautifully produced vinyl recording (an ‘end of lockdown’ present from a friend who knows me well!) ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is her reading of various Romantic poems – the title is drawn from Byron’s eponymous poem – in Faithfull’s inimitable throaty voice, with musical accompaniment. The record (white vinyl), its cover, and the whole production, are things of beauty. But the poem that is relevant here is Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ (p. 194 in the Wordsworth edition), with its harsh warning of the way the trappings of power and the hubris of tyranical leaders eventually, as all things, come to nothing but a ‘colossal wreck’. These recordings, made at the start of the pandemic, were interrupted in the middle by Faithfull’s herself contracting Covid and being in intensive care for three weeks. The reading of ‘Ozymandias’ was recorded after her recovery and is informed by that. In her own words: ‘it’s so wonderful, the pointlessness of worldly ambition and the monuments of power. Nothing remains. It’s happened before, and before and before, and will go on happening all the time’.

‘Ozymandias’ was one of the last poems Shelley wrote in England. From March 1817 onwards, he lived in Italy, where ‘England in 1819’ and ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ were written. He had pretty much exiled himself, following a pattern of rebellion that began with his planting an explosive device in his family home’s chimney, set to explode as he departed for Eton (and it did!). That pattern continued with his being expelled from University College, Oxford, aged 19, for the publication of his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. As they say, respect. But in 1819, should he have been back in England, engaging more closely with the politics about which he felt so strongly? If he had, he might have overcome editor Leigh Hunt’s conservatism, and ensured the publication of these two poetic shell-bursts (neither of which came to public view until well after his death). But likewise, he might have been imprisoned for sedition.

Shelley was genuinely European in spirit, and the revolutionary fervour with which he was infected sprang from a European movement (the same movement which was so feared by the establishment in Britain, a fear which impelled the decisions behind Peterloo). He was simply more at home in Italy than in the defensive, repressive climate of England. Nonetheless, there’s an irony about his issuing revolutionary home thoughts from abroad with no risk to his own person. A more serious caveat might be that his espousal of the ideals of liberty had disastrous consequences for those nearest to him, notably the women (or perhaps I should say girls, as they were very young) he loved, and the children he fathered. The trail of distress Shelley left in his wake is itself distressing to read about. No excuse to say they were all at it – Byron was, but Keats wasn’t.

But then Shelley’s own fate is distressing, his death at sea accidental, and in that sense unnecessary. His extraordinarily precocious talent, which has left us with a remarkable body of work of both poetry and prose, 660 pages even in Wordsworth’s Selected edition, was cut short in 1822 when he was not yet thirty, some eighteen months after Keats’ death at only twenty-five. Byron would die two years later, at the almost grand old age of thirty-six. We have come to mythicise these early deaths as somehow beautiful, in part through poems such as Shelley’s fine elegy on Keats’ death, ‘Adonais’. But surely if Shelley had cast the same cold but passionate eye on Keats’ death as he did on the Peterloo deaths, he would have seen it more clearly as a blank loss rather than a poetic inspiration.

The final pages of the Wordsworth edition of Shelley are devoted to his prose work, The Defence of Poetry, and I urge readers to sample it. Here again we see Shelley’s optimism undimmed. He believes in the power of poetry; furthermore he can tell us why:

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. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination. (642)

These are political thoughts just as much as those in the poems discussed: it behoves us as humans to enlarge our imaginations, to step into the shoes of others, and from time to time to forget ourselves. Another lesson to our rulers.

At the same time, Shelley offers a pre-emptive defence to my earlier charges against him in regard to failing as a human being:

Let us assume that Homer was a drunkard, that Virgil was a flatterer, that Horace was a coward, that Tasso was a madman, that Lord Bacon was a peculator, that Raphael was a libertine, that Spenser was a poet laureate. … Their errors have been weighed and have been found to have been dust in the balance. (658)

A good poet, it seems, is forgiven all, provided he passes the test of time. Shelley has certainly done that, and if for nothing else we should laud him for his stubborn belief in the power and importance of poetry. For him, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. (660)

I’m going to end, though, not on that splendid claim, but on some words from Ogden Nash, one of my Mum’s favourite poets. The poem is entitled ‘You and Me and P. B. Shelley’, and it is about the general cussedness of things, such as make life difficult:

Someone once described Shelley as a beautiful and ineffective angel beating his luminous wings against the void in vain,

Which is certainly describing with might and main,

But probably means we are all brothers under our pelts,

And Shelley went around pulling doors marked PUSH and pushing doors marked PULL just like everybody else.

Image: The Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester 16 August 1819; a coloured print published by Richard Carlile.

Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Quotation from Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, Second Series, 1888

Quotation from F. R. Leavis, ‘“Thought” and Emotional Quality’, Scrutiny, 1945

‘You and Me and P. B. Shelley’, Ogden Nash, Collected Verse from 1929 On, J. M. Dent, 1952, pp. 279-280

‘She Walks in Beauty’, Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis, Panta Rei/BMG, 2021