Once again, the poet takes eight stanzas to call upon the people on England to understand and do something about their state of oppression. People plow for the sake of the lords, who are like drone bees that do no work but live off of the work of others. The people of England are doing the real work—but, the poet asks, are they gaining any benefit from this system? They are not enjoying the fruits of their labor, and the tyrants are taking their wealth and very lives without giving them the recompense they deserve. The call is to sow their own seed, weave their own robes, and forge their own arms in their own defense. Otherwise, the people are merely digging their own graves.
The speaker is speaking directly to the men of England in what today we recognize as Marxist tones: the people of England are a vast proletariat. This is another revolution song, a lyric poem that could even be set to music. The structure of four-line stanzas rhyming aabb does give the poem a songlike lyric character. This simple structure and rhyme scheme is less intellectual and more accessible to uneducated people. The diction is less difficult than usual, and the bee metaphor is easy to understand.
The tone of the speaker is condescending, almost daring his readers to rise up to his challenging call to action. Thematically, Shelley wants the rest of England to see the country they way he sees it: a tyrannical, imbalanced usurper of the people’s power, where the rich reap all the fruits of the poor’s hard labor. The bee metaphor reduces both rulers and ruled to animals—insects—all are bees.
The poet asks: Where is your sting, men of England? Why do you perform all this labor just so that tyrant rulers can reap the benefits? The nation’s upper class are “stingless drones” (bees that do not work), yet they exert undue power over the laboring classes. Shelley’s opening condescending tone turns into all-out pompousness as he insults the workers by accusing them of being too cowardly to rise up in arms: “shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells,” he says, understanding that revolution can be hard and bloody but daring the Englishmen to do what they need to do to get what they deserve from their own labor. The alternative is that a worker will “trace your grave, and build your tomb,” and are the people really so dumb and blind as to fail to recognize this fate? The last two stanzas are a warning to the men of England that if they do not change their ways and their country, they are digging their own graves and will never experience the joys of equality and liberty.
Stanza four suggests that the people are not paying attention to their situation. Not only do they put up with engaging in hard labor to appease the rich, but they also do not understand that they are reaping meager benefits from their own employment. Stanza six, hidden in the middle of the poem, is where the poet changes from the inquisitive to the suggestive, no longer asking questions, but encouraging the people to retain the fruits of their own labor in preparation for fighting back. The call is for a kind of tax strike whereby the people keep working but only for themselves.
This radical and pretentious approach is Shelley’s way of daring his countrymen to act more like the French, who were capable of starting a revolution. Shelley leaves it to other poems to explain the principles on which the revolution and the new order should be based, but here the key principle is that people deserve to get the full benefits of their work.