The Masque of Anarchy

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1832 first edition, printed by Bradbury and Evans, Edward Moxon, London.
1842 title page, with added poems "Queen Liberty" and "Song-To the Men of England", J. Watson, London.

The Masque of Anarchy (or The Mask of Anarchy) is a British political poem written in 1819 (see 1819 in poetry) by Percy Bysshe Shelley following the Peterloo Massacre of that year. In his call for freedom, it is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance.

The poem was not published during Shelley's lifetime and did not appear in print until 1832 (see 1832 in poetry), when published by Edward Moxon in London with a preface by Leigh Hunt.[1] Shelley had sent the manuscript in 1819 for publication in The Examiner. Leigh Hunt withheld it from publication because he "thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse." The epigraph on the cover of the first edition is from The Revolt of Islam (1818): "Hope is strong; Justice and Truth their winged child have found."

Use of Masque and Mask is discussed by Morton Paley;[2] Shelley used Mask in the manuscript but the first edition uses Masque in the title.


Written on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester 1819, Shelley begins his poem with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time "God, and King, and Law" – and he then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action: "Let a great assembly be, of the fearless, of the free". The crowd at this gathering is met by armed soldiers, but the protesters do not raise an arm against their assailants:

"Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
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:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
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!"[3]

Shelley elaborates on the psychological consequences of violence met with pacifism. The guilty soldiers he says, will return shamefully to society, where "blood thus shed will speak / In hot blushes on their cheek". Women will point out the murderers on the streets, their former friends will shun them, and honourable soldiers will turn away from those responsible for the massacre, "ashamed of such base company". A version was taken up by Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha.[4] Gandhi's passive resistance was influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action.[5] It is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley's Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.[4][6]

The poem mentions several members of Lord Liverpool's government by name: the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, who appears as a mask worn by Murder, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, whose guise is taken by Hypocrisy, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, whose ermine gown is worn by Fraud. Led by Anarchy, a skeleton with a crown, they try to take over England, but are slain by a mysterious armoured figure who arises from a mist. The maiden Hope, revived, then calls to the people of England:

"Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another!
What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own
Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words, that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.
The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty!
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!"[7]

Literary criticism

Political authors and campaigners such as Richard Holmes and Paul Foot, among others, describe it as "the greatest political poem ever written in English".[8][9] In his book An Encyclopedia of Pacifism, Aldous Huxley noted the poem's exhortation to the English to resist assault without fighting back, stating "The Method of resistance inculcated in by Shelley in The Mask of Anarchy (sic) is the method of non-violence".[10]

Author, educator, and activist Howard Zinn refers to the poem in A People's History of the United States. In a subsequent interview, he underscored the power of the poem, suggesting: "What a remarkable affirmation of the power of people who seem to have no power. Ye are many, they are few. It has always seemed to me that poetry, music, literature, contribute very special power."[11] In particular, Zinn uses Mask of Anarchy as an example of literature that members of the American labour movement would read to other workers to inform and educate them.


  1. Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860634-6
  2. Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry
  3. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1847), The works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 234–5.
  4. 4.0 4.1
  5. Thomas Weber, "Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor," Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28–29.
  6. Thomas Weber, "Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor," Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 28.
  7. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1847), 232–5.
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  • Paley, Morton D. "Apocapolitics: Allusion and Structure in Shelley's Mask of Anarchy." Huntington Library Quarterly, 54 (1991): 91–109.
  • Scrivener, Michael. Radical Shelley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.
  • Hendrix, Richard. "The Necessity of Response: How Shelley's Radical Poetry Works." Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 27, (1978), pp. 45–69.
  • Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. NY: Vintage Books, 1963.
  • Franta, Andrew. "Shelley and the Poetics of Political Indirection." Poetics Today, Volume 22, Number 4, Winter 2001, pp. 765–793.
  • Edwards, Thomas R. Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes. NY: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • Frosch, Thomas. "Passive Resistance in Shelley: A Psychological View." Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 98.3 (1999): 373–95.
  • Forman, H. Buxton. Shelley, 'Peterloo' and 'The Mask of Anarchy'. London: Richard Clay & Sons, 1887.
  • Vargo, Lisa. "Unmasking Shelley's Mask of Anarchy." English Studies in Canada, 13.1 (1987): 49–64.
  • Peterfreund, Stuart. "Teaching Shelley's Anatomy of Anarchy." Hall, Spencer (ed.). Approaches to Teaching Shelley's Poetry. New York: MLA, 1990. 90–92.
  • Jones, Steven E. "Shelley's Satire of Succession and Brecht's Anatomy of Regression: 'The Mask of Anarchy' and Der anachronistische Zug oder Freiheit und Democracy." Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World. Eds. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 193–200.
  • Jones. Steven E. Shelley's Satire: Violence and Exhortation. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1994.
  • Scrivener, Michael Henry. "Reviewed work(s): Shelley's Satire: Violence and Exhortation by Steven E. Jones." Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 35, No. 3, Green Romanticism (Fall, 1996), pp. 471–473.
  • Crampton, Daniel Nicholas. "Shelley's Political Optimism: 'The Mask of Anarchy' to Hellas." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1973.
  • Keach, William. "Rise Like Lions? Shelley and the Revolutionary Left." International Socialism, 75, July 1997.
  • Kuiken, Kir. "Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ and the Problem of Modern Sovereignty." Literature Compass, Volume 8, Issue 2, pages 95–106, February 2011.
  • Stauffer, Andrew M. "Celestial Temper: Shelley and the Masks of Anger." Keats-Shelley Journal. Vol. 49, (2000), pp. 138–161.
  • Cross, Ashley J. "What a World we Make the Oppressor and the Oppressed": George Cruikshank, Percy Shelley, and the Gendering of Revolution in 1819." ELH, Volume 71, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 167–207.
  • Dick, Alex J. "The Ghost of Gold: Forgery Trials and the Standard of Value in Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy." European Romantic Review, Volume 18, Number 3, July 2007, pp. 381–400.
  • Allen, Austin. "Shelley in Egypt: How a British Poem Inspired the Arab Spring." bigthink, 5 July 2011.

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