Shelley’s Impossible Revolution:
Representations of Revolution in “The Mask of Anarchy” and The Cenci
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major British poets during a time of civil and political unrest. In his 1819 poem, “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley advocates for a peaceful revolution, based on principles of science, poetry and justice. But his play, The Cenci, seems to subvert this idea, illustrating that chances of any revolution are bleak in the face of tyranny. The hyperbolic and mythological language and imagery used in “The Mask of Anarchy,” along with the tragic and unfair ending of The Cenci, suggest that Shelley’s ideals of true revolution only exist in theory, since they fail miserably when put into practice in The Cenci. In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley portrays the English ruling powers negatively, drawing attention to how members of government create and support a political system he labels anarchical. Shelley wrote “The Mask of Anarchy” in 1819 in response to the Battle of Peterloo, during which English military authorities charged into a large crowd of protesters, killing and wounding many civilians. “The Mask of Anarchy,” which Shelley presents as a dream, is an allegory for the dangers of using violence to fight violence. He begins by personifying Murder, Fraud, and Hypocrisy, who are all lead by the personification of Anarchy. Seven dogs accompany Murder: “All were fat; and well they might / Be in admirable plight, / For one by one, and two by two, / He tossed the human hearts to chew” (l. 9-12). He labels Murder as the Viscount Castlereagh, British Foreign Secretary. Murder’s seven dogs represent the seven nations who had recently signed an alliance that preserved slavery (p. 316). A tearful Fraud follows Murder and his dogs: “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” (l. 16-21). Shelley labels Fraud as Baron Eldon, who was the Lord Chancellor responsible for refusing Shelley the custody of his children after their mother had committed suicide (p. 317). After Fraud, Hypocrisy comes “[c]lothed with the Bible, as with light, / And the shadows of the night” (l. 22-23). Hypocrisy is called Viscount Sidmouth, who was England’s Home Secretary (p. 317). Scads of other “Destructions” disguised as “Bishops, lawyers, peers or spies” follow Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy (l. 29). The last to enter is Anarchy, whom Shelley equates with “Death in the Apocalypse” (l. 33). Anarchy arbitrarily asserts himself as the ruling power, God, King and Law. The multitude surrounding Anarchy each wave a bloody sword, signifying the violence and death that have brought Anarchy to power. While the poem does call for a revolution, Shelley warns potential English revolutionaries of the outcome of a revolution that is founded on bloodshed. He points out that all systems of power, including revolutionary ones, are in danger of becoming oppressive, especially when those ruling powers come to be by violent means. Shelley suggests that unless a revolution is brought about peacefully, the new regime will become as tyrannical and overbearing as the previous oppressors, effectively nullifying the revolution. Once Anarchy appears in the poem, he and his vast multitude ravage the countryside. Anarchy’s ruling power becomes legitimized as the crowd in London bow to him at the promise of provision: “The hired murderers, who did sing / Thou art God, and Law, and King. / We have waited, weak and lone / For thy coming, Mighty One! / Our Purses are empty / our swords are cold, / Give us glory, and blood, and gold” (60-65). Shelley’s imagery shows that a crowd that is desperate for change is likely to replace one tyrannical ruling power for another. This may perhaps be a nod to The French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” when the successful revolutionaries...
Cited: Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Donald H. Reiman, and Neil Fraistat. "The Cenci." Shelley 's Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2002. 316-25. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Donald H. Reiman, and Neil Fraistat. "The Mask of Anarchy." Shelley 's Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2002. 316-25. Print.
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