Political Poems: 'The Masque of Anarchy' by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Seamus Perry and Mark Ford

Shelley’s angry, violent poem was written in direct response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819, in which a demonstration in favour of parliamentary reform was attacked by local yeomanry, leaving 18 people dead and hundreds injured. The ‘masque’ it describes begins with a procession of abstract figures – Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy – embodied in members of the government, before eventually unfolding into a vision of England freed from the tyranny and anarchy of its institutions. As Mark and Seamus discuss in this episode, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, with its incoherence and inconsistencies, amounts to perhaps the purest expression in verse both of Shelley’s political indignation and his belief that, with the right way of thinking, such chains of oppression can be shaken off ‘like dew’.

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