. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.
(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)
At the end of the previous post I noted that Holmes, in his biography, points forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.
At the same time as all this, a subtler thread begins to run more saliently through the pattern of his thoughts concerning violent revolution (page 350). He saw that revolution ‘could overreach itself’ and easily replicate the model of the French Revolution, where anarchy gave way to military dictatorship. This was the seedbed for his maturing perspective that asked the question (page 382-83) ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’ He was coming to realise that fundamental changes in society could only result from ‘the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.’ Women as well, I would now add of course.
It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.
In terms of Shelley’s poetry Holmes next focuses at length on Prometheus Unbound. His comments suggest that I need to look more carefully at this poem also. Most particularly one comment (page 491) struck a chord:
There is a sense in which the whole action is metaphysical rather than physical, and in which the setting of the drama is not so much the universe at large but the dome of a single human skull.
Through this medium he examines psychological, political or modern scientific meanings (page 492). I am still feeling that Shelley has regressed to the stylistically overwrought. I will have a closer look at some point, but at present I feel more attracted to Holmes’s analysis of the poem’s significance than to the language of the poem itself as he quotes it. For instance, Holmes claims (page 504) that Shelley is arguing for love as a force which ‘forms the unity of mind which Shelley believed could alone produce the great scientist, the artist, the doctor, the architect and the law-giver. The divided nature is healed.’ Even Holmes finds the third act a disappointing failure.
We can also skate over The Cenci, his next long poetical expedition, another drama that fails to deliver. He aimed (page 516) to make the events of the play be ‘as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.’ Holmes’s verdict (page 525) is that ‘the coarse melodrama of Shelley’s stage writing is painfully evident, and from a literary point of view The Cenci remains almost entirely a pastiche of Shakespearean and Jacobean drama.’
The Mask of Anarchy, on the other hand, pulled me in immediately. Reading this now serves to remind us both of the madness our own country has had to travel through to reach this point of relative sanity, and also of how close we always have been to terror of some kind. That we now stare uncomprehendingly at the Middle East, as though we could never commit such atrocities, shows a dangerous blindness to our own history and our own potential.
The trigger for The Mask of Anarchy was what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. A demonstration was organised to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.
The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to this outrage. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):
His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.
He quotes the main opening lines. They are so powerful it is worth sharing them all here, I feel.
I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
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.
Clothed with the Bible as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
It is revealing of even the more recent situations under which this poem has been printed or published that my own pre-1961 copy (see picture above), and the version I consulted on the web, have the following censored rendering of one stanza, a chilling echo of the conditions under which the poem was originally composed:
Clothed with the * * as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like * * * next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.
The poem introduces the sinister figure of Anarchy.
Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
Holmes unpacks the exact implications of this figure in the narrative of the poem (page 534):
Shelley meant that Anarchy, a savage god outside any human law, is already the idol of the government’s train; he could easily become the leader of the people too.
Hope is what holds him in check. As a result Anarchy is thwarted.
Perhaps the most important insight of all is introduced after that. The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. She exhorts them (page 536):
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.
Apart from caution concerning the obvious dangers of publishing so radical a work at such a sensitive time, another reason Leigh Hunt decided against publication appeared to be (page 540) that ‘Shelley’s belief in passive resistance was incompatible at that time with massive democratic demonstrations.’ Shelley’s decision to exile himself in Italy did not help, and this was not only work of his that went unpublished at this time.
What impresses me so much about this poem, which I have come now to regard as one of his greatest, is not just how much it anticipates the protest songs I grew to love in my early twenties, but also how Shelley’s horror at what happens does not cause him to descend into dissonance and obscurity. It also sheds powerful light on what Shelley meant by the idea of the ‘phantom’ in the sonnet I quoted earlier in this sequence.
What troubles me a lot about the art of our times is that the horrors we have witnessed have led art too often to capitulate to the chaos and produce a form of music, poetry, painting, drama, film and so on that is ugly and ultimately meaningless.
Take for example, Vaughn Williams, a composer whose early works I love. To do justice to the horrors of the Second World War, he introduced what I experience as an all-encompassing dissonance into his later symphonies that ultimately repels me from the experience of listening to them. He provides no perspective on the darkness.
Even King Lear, for all the madness and cruelty it contains, has moments of deep compassion and great elegiac beauty; also a sense of the order that needs to be reinstated frames the action.
It seems to me that the greatest art weighs the dark side of the human predicament against the light that is also inherent in our nature. When a work of art succumbs completely to the darkness it betrays its purpose: it is not then enough to say that something positive is implicit in using a medium to convey this darkness symbolically, that this creativity in itself preserves the balance. When any kind of structure and harmony has been completely replaced by discord and disorder, we have simply made a literal representation of one aspect of reality and implied that this is all there is. This may be fine for a number of short lyrics in a collection of lyrics, where the despair and chaos of some lyrics is counterpointed by other more positive poems. Longer or larger works of art such as novels, plays, symphonies and such need to contain elements of both dark and light.
Shelley manages to avoid the trap I describe without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man. Great art – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being.
This makes me feel that Ludwig Tuman’s resistance to some kind of glib reductionism, such as either the artist must be perfect for the art to be great or all great artists are broken souls, is absolutely justified.
In the final post of this sequence I hope to explore briefly some of Shelley’s late poetry and try to draw some tentative conclusions before looking at possible models in the final post.
 John Scott, Baron Eldon, Lord Chancellor. He had on 27 March 1817 deprived Shelley of access to his two children by Harriet Westbrook, so this was a personal score he was settling rather than one directly related to Peterloo.
 Henry Addington, created Viscount Sidmouth in 1805, and Home Secretary in 1819. He applauded the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons.