The 200th Anniversary of Peterloo and Shelley's Mask of Anarchy

Literature Faculty Blog

by Eric Eisner

The 200th Anniversary of Peterloo and Shelley's Mask of Anarchy
Peterloo Massacre (or Battle of Peterloo), Richard Carlile, 1819

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the “Peterloo Massacre,” a signal event in British history and in the history of labor and protest movements worldwide. On August 16, 1819, a vast crowd of men, women and children—by some estimates around 60,000 people—gathered in St. Peter’s Field, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Manchester, to hear speakers demand worker’s rights and a voice in Parliament. Economic distress and terrible working conditions in Manchester’s factories drove demands for change, but the focus of the rally was electoral reform: at the time, only a limited number of property-owning men could vote; the entire city of Manchester had not a single representative in the House of Commons. As the rally began, cavalry charged through the crowd, wielding newly sharpened swords, to arrest the speakers; in the ensuing panic, over a dozen people were killed and some 700 wounded, including women and children. The Manchester Observer named the bloody episode “Peter Loo,” riffing on the military triumph at the Battle of Waterloo. The violence shocked reformers, catalyzing calls for change, while others, including the Prince Regent, applauded the tough response to what they saw as dangerous insurrection. The tense drama leading up to the day and the experiences of participants on all sides are richly captured in British writer-director Mike Leigh’s excellent new film Peterloo, released in the States earlier this year (and now available for streaming).

In my courses on British poetry of this period, I introduce students to the events in Manchester as we read The Mask of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s extraordinary poem responding to the massacre. Living abroad in Italy when he got the news of the event, Shelley sent the poem off by mid-September to his friend Leigh Hunt in England, hoping to reach a wide audience via Hunt’s newspaper, The Examiner. In insistent rhyming tetrameter, the form of popular ballads, the poem offers a clear-eyed diagnosis of the interlocking systems of political oppression and economic exploitation workers faced, “unmasks” Britain’s rulers as agents of chaotic misrule, and frames an impassioned argument for non-violent resistance. “Let a vast assembly be,” a voice in the poem urges the beaten-down populace,


And with great solemnity

Declare with measured words that ye

Are, as God has made ye, free—


“Be your strong and simple words

Keen to wound as sharpened swords,     

And wide as targes [shields] let them be,

With their shade to cover ye. 


Shelley argues that, rather than returning the oppressor’s wrongs in revenge or even self-defense, the forcefulness of “measured” (carefully chosen, or poetic) words and the moral force of resolute, unmovable bodies will defeat even vicious state violence:  


“And if then the tyrants dare

Let them ride among you there,

Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,—

What they like, that let them do.


With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise

Look upon them as they slay

Till their rage has died away.


This is hard reading, so graphically is the violence rendered. Shelley’s philosophy of non-violence echoes in the thinking of later figures such as Gandhi (who quoted this poem) and contributes to the legacy influencing Martin Luther King, Jr. The poem foresees its memorable chorus "Ringing through each heart and brain / Heard again—again—again—" :


“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.”


And it has been heard again and again: chanted by the Chartists in England’s nineteenth-century worker’s rights movement, recited by labor organizers after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in early 20th-century New York, the refrain echoes in more recent times from Tiananmen Square to Occupy Wall Street to the 2017 Labour Party campaign in Britain, whose slogan was “We are many, they are few.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn read the stanza to a banner-waving sea of concert-goers at the Glastonbury Festival that year.

But The Mask of Anarchy didn’t have the immediate impact Shelley had imagined, since Hunt, perhaps fearing censorship or reprisal, withheld publication for more than a decade. When we discuss the poem in my courses, students are keen to think through its many contradictions. Denied the initial audience its author intended, the poem’s influence is nonetheless felt in contexts its author couldn’t have anticipated. Though written in the stanza and meter of popular ballads, the poem employs hard-to-follow dream-allegory and complex figurative language. Its bold call to put bodies on the line to stand up for justice is issued from the remove of Shelley’s Italian self-exile, and though it summons the people to wake up from “slumber,” the poem presents itself as a dream-vision that comes to Shelley in his sleep. When the people come together and act as one in the poem’s allegorical narrative, they are guided not by any leader or planning, but by words, feelings, and images that seem to materialize magically out of air, just as their non-violent resistance seems magically to disarm the forces ranged against them. We explore the poem as one provisional, sometimes contradictory answer to a set of difficult questions the reports of Peterloo rendered urgent for Shelley, questions still relevant today: questions about the tactics of movements for social and political change generally, and the social role and responsibility of poets specifically; questions about the kind of intervention poetry can or should make. Even as it seeks to draw lessons from Peterloo, or to make Peterloo into a lesson for readers, the poem on another level reflects on what historical events — and poems about historical events — have to teach us, and how that teaching “happens.”

In another poem we discuss, written that same autumn, Shelley links social revolution to seasonal cycles: his “Ode to the West Wind” famously closes by asking, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Shelley insists on hope even in times of despair or fear: just as winter gives way to spring, dark political moments can give way to a brighter future. But the question might not be simply a rhetorical one (and these days, climate change unsettles the predictability of seasonal cycles anyway): finding grounds for hope isn’t the same thing as being sure about the future, or knowing in advance what shape the future will take — which is an argument for involvement, not apathy. When Shelley predicts that the words of Mask of Anarchy will be “heard again—again—again—,“ he accurately forecasts the poem’s continued resonance in so many contexts. By the same token, the line, like those very echoes across time, remind us that the fight for a more just world has to be taken up “again—again—again—,” amid victories as well as defeats.