This sonnet provides a kind of journalistic report on the state of England in 1819. King George III was “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying,” with his son ruling England because George III was unable to do so. The people are “starved and stabbed,” while the army and the laws simultaneously exert power and hurt the people. The Christian leaders are “Christless.” Yet, maybe some new, calm light will arise from the best of old England.
Another example of Shelley’s devotion to liberty and equality and his radical denouncement of tyranny and power, The sonnet “England in 1819” directly attacks the King and his successor, his son. The current King has gone mad in old age and is hated by the people of England. The problem is, under the current system the only thing to replace him with, when he dies, is a continuing monarchy under the King’s son, who is not expected to improve matters for England. Shelley accuses the monarchy of having no true human emotion, relying on the labor of the country’s poor to provide for the ruling class, at least until the common people are killed for no reason by their own army, which they live to provide for and serve.
The speaker thus has no faith left in the leading institutions in England; he condemns the army, the law, religion, and the senate. The speaker goes into detail over the troubles in England: the madness and blindness of the King; the muddied genetic line that includes the Prince; the ignorance of the nation’s “Rulers”; and the tired and hungry masses. Shelley also alludes again to the Peterloo Massacre (see “The Mask of Anarchy”), calling the people “stabbed in an untilled field.”
His disgust with the state of the nation is deepened with his use of imagery and metaphor (“dregs,” “muddy,” “leeches,” “blood,” “sanguine”). The ruling classes are figured as blood-sucking leeches who are mainly parasites on the people. The army is needed, yet it has turned against the people; similarly the laws are a “two-edged” sword, and even the religion of the rulers is “Christless” and a tool of oppression instead of its opposite.
Still, as Shelley often does, the poet ends in optimism. The last two lines optimistically yearn for revolution. Despite all of these corrupt establishments throughout the land, there is a chance the people will rise up and a revolution of illumination (signifying reason) will calm the anarchic tempests of the ruling class. The “glorious Phantom” of line 13 is, we know from other poems, something like the recovery of reason and understanding, the basis for a revolution that will revitalize the best old traditions and institutions of England on a new basis of rationality and appreciation for nature.
This sonnet uses an ababab rhyme scheme in the first six lines, followed by cdcdccdd in the final octet. There is no clear break between the two parts of the poem, however, for the whole poem is a single sentence. There is not even a break between the pessimistic first 12 and a half lines and the final optimistic one and a half lines. It is one complete thought about the state of England in 1819. If there is to be revolution, it will occur later; the phantom of enlightenment has not yet arrived among the people.