Jacqueline Mulhallen’s Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary, published by Pluto Press, skilfully portrays its subject as a radical voice of the dispossessed. Matthew Cookson reviews.
Artists are creatures of their time, and Jacqueline Mulhallen’s new political biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley captures this. Shelley was one of the second wave of Romantic poets in the 19th century who were inspired by the ideals of the 1789 French Revolution and rejected the exploitation and injustice of the new, industrialised society. Their poetry is a true expression and celebration of love, beauty and the human spirit.
Shelley went further than his peers Keats and Byron, explicitly satirising the government and calling for a radical transformation of society in poems such as ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and ‘The Revolt of Islam’. His writings have inspired generations of working class activists with their emphasis on mass movements overthrowing the oppression and hypocrisy of the ruling order.
This may be surprising, as Shelley was from an upper class background and his father, Sir Timothy, expected him to follow in his footsteps. However, Shelley had other ideas. From an early age he showed sympathy for the poverty of working people, often giving them his own money. His questioning spirit took on a more radical edge when he and Thomas Jefferson Hogg published ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, ‘one of the earliest pamphlets on the subject to have been published in England,’ when they were at Oxford University. This seditious act, in what considered itself a deeply Christian country, saw Shelley and his friend expelled from university.
Shelley now become more involved in radical politics, at a time when the right wing British government was at war with Napoleonic France and consequently stamping down on dissent at home. He wanted to form a political organisation, travelling to colonised Ireland in 1812 and writing and distributing ‘An Address to the Irish People’, which opposed the huge divide between rich and poor in society.
While he empathised with the poor, it was clear he was not one of them and his background did create a barrier to communication. Mulhallen documents a fascinating exchange Shelley had with a beggar in the Lake District, who told him that because he had been ‘injured’ by the rich and despite Shelley’s good intentions, ‘I have no security of it while you live in such a house as that, or wear such clothes as those’. But Shelley was now ostracised for the most part by his family and had rejected his background. He began to wear more simple clothes, live in less luxurious surroundings – although this was out of necessity – and was developing a new circle of like-minded people around himself.
His commitment to social justice displayed itself in his poetic work, such as ‘Queen Mab’, which contrasts the present suffering of humanity with a utopian vision of our future, and the aforementioned ‘The Revolt of Islam’. This narrative poem details a defeated revolutionary struggle, but leaves the reader with the feeling that the struggle for liberty will revive and continue until oppression is overthrown. It contains one of Shelley’s most famous lines, and evidence of his proto-feminism, spoken by the heroine Cythna: ‘Can man be free if woman be a slave?’ While there was a rising demand for reform, Shelley’s work faced censorship, and enjoyed only a small circulation, due to its subversive nature.
Like many other British artists, including Byron, Shelley and his second wife Mary decamped to Italy due to its environmental, economic and political climate at the end of the 1810s. Here Shelly continued to write politically charged poetry and drama, including ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, a coruscating response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Manchester. Shelley lays bare the hypocrisy of the government and calls for the people to continue to challenge its rule despite the violence deployed against them. It culminates with the famous verse:
‘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.’
These lines have echoed down the two centuries since they were written, inspiring countless people in many struggles against uncaring and oppressive power.
Tragically, Shelley died young, before the age of 30, in a storm off the coast of Viareggio in 1822, depriving literature and the progressive movement of a potent voice. However, as Mulhallen skilfully documents, his political and poetical works retain their power today. This book is an excellent study of Shelley’s life, political ideas and literary work. It is particularly strong on his dramas, many of which have been performed only rarely or not at all, including the satire of George IV, ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’. Consequently this part of his output has been traditionally under-analysed, though not by Mulhallen here and in her previous book, ‘Shelley’s Theatre’.
My one gripe would be that sometimes the sheer complexity of the political situation of 200 years ago can be a little overwhelming for the reader, especially one who knows little of the times, and the detail of the era could be explained in a little more depth to aid clarity of thought. However, this is a minor moan and anyone who wants to understand Shelley’s life and literature should make this book part of their studies, alongside Paul Foot’s ‘Red Shelley‘ and Paul O’Brien’s ‘Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland‘.
‘Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary’, by Jacqueline Mulhallen, is available now from Pluto Press for £11.99.