Featured Poem: The Mask of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

This week’s Featured Poem is the choice of Alexis McNay, Get Into Reading Wirral Project Worker, who highlights the connections between classic poetry and politically flavoured pop (they’re much closer than you might first think…)

I heard on the radio the other day that as the revolution continues in Egypt – though it will not now be televised – the activists, mostly young idealists, have adopted a new slogan which translates as ‘if you will not allow us to dream, we will not allow you to sleep’. I was inspired by this language, the simple eloquence with recourse to menace, the voice of a people who, indeed, while hoping, are prepared to die fighting for what they believe is their right. Coupled with recent events across the region, and particularly in Syria, these words made me reflect again upon the paucity of beauty in our own political discourse generally, and particularly in the uprisings that spread from London last summer. Where was the slogan to encapsulate all that anger? Issues of media representation aside, our ‘riots’ were predominantly – literally – a ‘free-for-all’, and of course if language comes out of feeling it was a lack of sentience worth elaborating that led to the storming of the FootLocker. With all their legitimate reasons for anger and action, our youth’s clarion call was, it seems, ‘i will av dem Nikes!’

If our riots lacked culture, they certainly reflected it, and we are all implicated. It may be trite to say, but music video, celebrity ‘culture’, the glut of property and food programming, the marketing of self via social networking media – when everything is about consumption and the material, the soul is left poorer. Bling bling, we’re dead.

These reflections – and this lengthy preamble – lead me to the lines below. When I first read them, I was unaware that they are excerpted from The Mask of Anarchy. I had only the dimmest awareness of the poet. I was 13 and devoured them along with the other sleeve and liner notes on The Jam’s ‘Sound Affects’ album. I remember looking at this toff name, ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’, and wondering at the connection with Paul Weller, my working class hero from Woking. Weller had a suspicion if not antagonism toward intelligentsia – even students – based on the assumption that education was a privilege of the rich. Yet here were Shelley’s words. There’s a converse awkwardness inherent in Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy; here’s a floppy-haired well-to-do lamenting the plight of England’s working class from his bed in Italy. What united Weller and Shelley in the early 1980s was the impulse to ‘declare with measured words’ their indignation with political circumstances – and a concern for the collective over the individual. There’s a shared sensibility, too, though Weller’s romantic discontent manifests most forcefully in lyrics where gritty concrete vignettes of suburbia subvert more romantic/nostalgic imagery, as in That’s Entertainment’s ‘a hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac / Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away’. Situation and mood suggest personal/political malaise in the later A Town Called Malice, too; ‘Rows and rows of disused milk floats stand dying in the dairy yard / And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts’. These words, and others from bands such as The Specials, were my initiation into the relationship between politics and language. They are part of me. I remember and cherish them. The association with Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy lasted, too, reminding me that there was some relevance in my studying for a Renaissance and Romantic Literature MA while seething at the Iraq war.

It’s perhaps not Shelley’s finest poem, written as a piece of rhetoric to galvanise, but it’s heartfelt and stirring. Sad that part of the legacy of the ‘Men of England’ tone has been to be appropriated by television advertising in the marketing of beers and Sky Sports coverage. The Jam and The Specials – the people I looked up to and who were saying something that I valued – were available in the mainstream, Number 1 acts, when that meant something. I wonder what there is in our current popular culture to compare, to inspire more than ‘aspiration’ in its now often impoverished usage, a hankering for trainers, gadgets and the middle-class. What are the recent lyrics that have inspired you?

Below is far from the whole of The Mask of Anarchy. It’s the bit reproduced on the back of Sound Affects. Weller, like a good GIR member, has settled upon and reprinted the bits that most meant something to him.

from The Mask of Anarchy

“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.

“Let a vast assembly be,
and with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God 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!

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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