"Percy Bysshe Shelley: 'England in 1819'"
A letter, a list, a sonnet, and the state of a nation.
One of English’s great, scornful, scorching political poems was premiered in an unassuming place: the postscript of a letter: “What a state England is in! But you will never write politics.” It was December 1819, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, then 27, was writing another pushily impassioned letter to Leigh Hunt, a poet, a radical, and the founding editor of the Examiner. Since 1818, Shelley and his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, had been restless expatriates in Italy, never in any one city for long. Dead by drowning three years later, he never revisited his home country and never quite escaped its orbit, gravitationally tugged back by England’s tumultuous politics. [emphasis added] However desperate for Hunt’s dispatches (“Why don’t you write to us?” the letter opens), Shelley, never afraid to speak his mind, thought his friend deserved a “scolding”: “I wish, then, that you would write a paper in the Examiner, on the actual state of the country, and what, under all the circumstances of the conflicting passions and interests of men, we are to expect. [emphasis added]” Surely Shelley meant wish wholeheartedly, but he was also setting up Hunt for a surprise present, which he introduced, with coy calm, in his postscript. “I send you a sonnet. I do not expect you to publish it, but you may show it to whom you please.” [emphasis added]
Poor Hunt. One moment he’s safe, skimming letter-ending pleasantries: “Affectionate love to and from all.” The next, he’s caught up in that scathing sonnet—two breathless, run-on sentences, running on rage, racing through reasons to despair about “the actual state” of England before veering, determinedly, toward a cautious optimism [emphasis added]. Shelley never gave this sonnet a definitive title, but since its posthumous publication in 1839, readers have known it as “England in 1819,” a fitting pinpointing of time and place. Two hundred years later, we still read “England in 1819” as an exemplar of a topical protest poem, casually referring to headline news and caustically voicing outrage at political incompetence and authoritarian violence. It remains unforgettable as a test case of how political poems can not only stick around but also transform over time. Give it a century, and messy present-tense urgencies cohere into rounded-off historical events; allusions and symbols that once seemed transparent call for platoons of explanatory footnotes. Once, as Shelley and Hunt knew, “England in 1819” was too revolutionary to publish. Today, it’s universally anthologized, an emboldening testament to yesterday’s radical politics and a model for present-day dissent and radical hope. [emphasis added]
What prompted “England in 1819”? The impetus was the so-called Peterloo Massacre, on August 16, 1819, in the industrializing city of Manchester: an armed cavalry, summoned by infuriated local magistrates, charged with sabers drawn into a crowd of 60,000 peaceful demonstrators, murdering at least 10 and wounding hundreds more. The sneering portmanteau Peterloo, coined in a local newspaper’s front-page headline, grafted the words Waterloo, where the British army defeated Napoleon in 1815, onto the site of the massacre, St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. The demonstration’s organizers—radical orators, groups supporting Parliamentary reform—were advocating for universal men’s suffrage and against the Corn Laws, which set tariffs on cheap foreign grain imports; what landowners saw as economic protection spelled scarcity, famine, and unemployment for England’s working-class farmers. [emphasis added]
When word of Peterloo reached Shelley, he found inspiration in indignation. Within weeks, he had drafted “The Masque of Anarchy,” a 372-line ballad that reenacts the massacre and offers the masses his pounding reassurances: “Ye are many—they are few!” [emphasis added] With the comparatively tinier “England in 1819,” Shelley at once exploded his sense of scale—mapping an entire nation’s woes, chronicling a year in atrocity—and miniaturized his playing field to the tautly rhymed square of the sonnet. And he builds his sonnet atop one of poetry’s most enduring structures, the list, perfect for accumulating a full cast of historical actors and expansively painting one moment with a mural’s sweeping fullness. [emphasis added]
Robert E. Belknap, the author of the book on the list, observes that many literary lists “may begin according to a specific principle, but they may show build, movement, or deviation as they progress” and may even “spiral into their own constellations of form for which there is no identifying label.” List poems make the reader do the connective work; [emphasis added] you must hypothesize what binds everything together, must riddle out, item by item, why the list must be arranged precisely this way. The first principle governing Shelley’s list could be a hierarchical ladder or maybe a bubbling-up disdain for England’s leaders [emphasis added]. The highest authority, George III, is introduced and dismissed all in one line, thundered in the key of D: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.” When Shelley wrote to Hunt, the 81-year-old monarch was indeed completely blind and dying, with only a month to live, and for years deemed insane; only despised is a matter of opinion, not fact, which could be why Shelley takes care to smuggle it in, bury it in the middle of the line. The polluted royal bloodline flows to princes who are more of the same, predictable “mud from a muddy spring,” deserving all the “public scorn” surrounding them. Rulers in general, unable or unwilling to “see,” “feel,” or “know,” seem less human than “leechlike,” oblivious to the damage they inflict on their “fainting country” and even their own bloodthirsty selves. Growing overfull, they can “drop” simply from their own engorged weight; no “blow” is necessary to bring them down [emphasis added].
After these three increasingly grotesque caricatures, Shelley turns, pityingly, to the commoners those slimy rulers subjugate and the army that brutalized them [emphasis added]:
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 . . .
Which “people”? Shelley stays suggestively vague. The people “stabbed” in Manchester or working people around the nation? Does that “field” refer only to St. Peter’s, or have all English fields been left “untilled” after the Corn Laws, its workers neglected, “starved”? Whoever they are, Shelley can envisage no earthly authority to defend them, not with bloodsuckers drooping down from one line and an ambushing “army” in the next. Far from protecting England’s ideals and workers, the army commits “liberticide” (the killing of liberty) and debases humans into hunted-down “prey.” Cutting both ways as a proverbial “two-edged sword,” this weaponized army even threatens England’s own rulers, whose overreliance on repressive martial force leaves them vulnerable to a coup d’état [emphasis added].
Shelley caps his list with three crisp lines, three last items lifting his rhetoric to higher, seething registers, each hazarding an answer to a disheartened question: what governs England now? [emphasis added]
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
To Shelley, England’s “laws” look “Golden”—meaning garish, superficial, inspiring idolatry—or else oozingly “sanguine” [emphasis added] (from the Latin for blood, so “blood-red, bloody, ruddy with confidence”). Self-perpetuating, golden laws will “tempt” further, sanguine laws commanding readers to “slay.” The next line might sound like a blanket statement against “Religion”—not beyond Shelley—but what vexes him here is less religion itself than its deceptive, hypocritical warping by the state, encapsulated in hollowed-out oxymorons: Christianity turned “Christless,” theology gone “Godless,” and a scripture book unread and still “sealed.” Shelley saves “worst” for last, condemning “A senate” that has enacted “Time’s worst statute, unrepealed.” [emphasis added] His airtight syntax leaves both his sense and his fury open to interpretation. Maybe he’s remembering some particular statute from 1819, or maybe he’s cursing the entire tyrannical legislature for failing to represent England’s people. Either way, you could construe his cramped phrase “Time’s worst” as short for “worst of all time,” an unprecedented low for England and for history.
“Time,” capital T, appears near the end of “England in 1819,” but it’s been ticking away all sonnet long. Ingeniously, for this list-poem, Shelley forgoes all simple, static nouns: every item is a motion, an upset, a downfall, some reason to bet on, or dread, imminent change. Time, in Shelley’s first six lines, proceeds invisibly as liquid “flow,” icky seepage: the “dying” king runs low on life; princes are “mud from a muddy spring”; rulers slurp up blood. The next six lines contrive states of disequilibrium, moments from collapse. No people “stabbed and starved,” Shelley supposes, will submit for long; a “two-edged” military will cut those wielding it. If society bends toward justice (a big if), then “Golden and sanguine laws” will be repealed, the books unsealed. Every item is a miniature (or monumental) clock Shelley winds up and lets run out. Listen long enough to that chattering cacophony, and the phrase “Time’s worst statute” starts to suggest a different, incontestable law: a physical law of entropy and decay, immune to any human repeal. In the long run, as the poet and scholar Susan Stewart reminds us, “Time’s worst statute, its inexorable law, is death.” [emphasis added]
As Shelley’s list reaches this rhetoric-straining crest, readers might expect his closing couplet to bring about some shattering change. And after 12 suspenseful lines teasing at least eight grammatical subjects (“King,” “Princes,” “Rulers,” “people,” “army,” “laws,” “Religion,” “senate”), readers might expect a predicate, a verb, springing this noun-loaded sonnet into action [emphasis added]. Shelley’s close meets both expectations partway. All the above nouns, line 13 affirms, “Are graves,” things of the past, failures put to rest. But Shelley surges ahead from that present-tense verb toward a prospective future: out of those graves “a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.” A phantom?—of what? Was anything in this gaunt, grisly sonnet remotely “glorious”? Most likely this is the Phantom of Liberty, back from the dead after being withheld from the “people” of one line, vanquished by the “liberticide” of the next. Sun-like, that Phantom could “illumine” (or illuminate) a country overcast with a political gloom that seems distressingly “tempestuous” but is, like any bad weather, only temporary.
But Shelley remains openly doubtful that anyone, visionary poets included, could foretell a “glorious” future with any convincing clarity and certainty. No wonder his penultimate line places such overwhelming emphasis on such a measly word: may [emphasis added]. In today’s English, speakers use may for cases of possibility (may happen, may not), permission (May I come in?), and wary wishfulness (“May the Force be with you.”). Shelley’s climactic may teeters between all those uses, but his closing image of England’s cleared “day” holds out hope that political revolution is as inevitable (if unpredictable) as the revolving storms of the ever-changing weather. Readers might hear hope making Shelley’s voice crack even earlier. As his two sentences unfold, sluggish stresses (“old, mad, blind”) and meaty thwacks of alliteration (“blind,” “blood,” “blow”) erupt into this couplet’s gushing polysyllables (“glorious,” “illumine,” “tempestuous”) and accelerate into a whipped-around enjambment (“may”—may what?—“Burst”!).
To ready himself for that revolutionary day, Shelley revolutionizes the sonnet, shuffling together its two most prominent rhyme schemes: the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean (also known as the Italian sonnet and the English sonnet, respectively. The tradition-toppling Shelley, an Englishman in Italy, found neither national tradition worth preserving intact.) The Petrarchan scheme divvies its 14 lines into two: question and answer, elaborated point, and punchier counterpoint. An eight-line octave opens, followed by a six-line sestet; the g-force-inducing swerve between the two, a dizzying change of mind or heart, is called the turn. Flipping that scheme topsy-turvy, Shelley engineers a helter-skelter form suitable for his upside-down country. (Wouldn’t England look nicer, the form hints, if line 1’s “King” were toppled down and if the couplet’s “glorious Phantom” were raised on high?) Starting with a sestet (conventionally rhymed: ababab), Shelley turns prematurely, at line 7, right as he makes his astonished glance at England’s abused “people.” And he keeps reinventing through the octave (idiosyncratically rhymed: cdcdccdd). Borrowing and redoubling the curt close of the Shakespearean scheme—the rhymed couplet—Shelley clamps shut his hybrid sonnet with dogged determination and lines up the may of uncertainty with an arrival as refreshing, as reliably regular, as tomorrow’s new “day.”
Did that “day” come, historically speaking? It’s hard to say. It’s hard, counterintuitively enough, even to know when and where to situate Shelley’s sonnet. As the poet anticipated, Hunt knew better than to publish any poem indicting a mad, despised king in its opening salvo. “England in 1819” (by that title) was not published until the posthumous Poetical Works (1839), edited by Mary Shelley. Shelley’s radical passion, Mary acknowledged in her preface, “must be difficult of comprehension to the younger generation rising around, since they cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” [emphasis added] In two decades, apparently, unprintable became unmemorable. And today, two centuries later—as social media feeds filled with global demonstrations, the state’s self-justifying violence, Brexit negotiations, and landmark elections—“England in 1819” could sound unnervingly current, as if Shelley’s “tempestuous day” had cycled back around, if it ever even cleared up at all. emphasis added]
Ezra Pound, modernism’s old, mad, all-caps-crazed king, pronounced in his ABC of Reading (1934) that “Literature is news that STAYS news.” As with many Poundian provocations, readers may be tempted to reply, “No, it’s not.” Countless issues, local and global, vie for attention, but no one I know currently applies glitter-glue to an Instagrammable poster designed to protest the Corn Laws [note* see EU banning grain imports from Ukraine] . My most vivid images of George III stem not from Romantic poetry, not even from my high-school history textbook, but from the musical Hamilton, which recasts Shelley’s despised British monarch as a mad dandy insult comic, trilling revenge fantasies over chipper accompaniment, chirping with antiquated harpsichord.
But what’s new or news is not simply the topical, the just-breaking, the time-bound particular. Shelley’s flurry of feelings about the news—past regrets, present fears, future longings—remains recognizable two centuries later, as does his sonnet’s scrupulous structuring of the news into adroit editorial form. We may not be alone in our overburdened sense that current events keep piling up, ramming into one another or rhyming according to some barely perceptive order; we’re certainly not alone in our determination to find reasons to keep going, to uncover phantoms of eventual glory haunting the “graves,” fresh wounds, and enduring traumas of the present “day.” Shelley acknowledges that today’s woes and wishes will recur tomorrow and that nothing, not even England in the annus horribilis of 1819, is ever singular. That’s why, perhaps, his list brings together indefinite, nothing-special articles (an old king, a people, an army) and plural nouns (rulers, laws, graves). Only in his final line does Shelley stake any claim to a personal pronoun, as he seizes, for himself and his fellow radicals, “our tempestuous day.” As Shelley bids farewell, the news that stays news is hope, that Phantom always about to burst, then and now, in England or elsewhere, come what may [emphasis added].
Originally Published: February 18th, 2020
Christopher Spaide is a critic, poet, teacher, and Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in Contemporary Literature, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. Spaide was a 2022–2023 writer in residence at the James Merrill House. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. Spaide is a reviewer...