Percy Shelley: Poems

The Mask Of Anarchy: Note

Though Shelley's first eager desire to excite his countrymen to resist

openly the oppressions existent during 'the good old times' had faded

with early youth, still his warmest sympathies were for the people. He

was a republican, and loved a democracy. He looked on all human beings

as inheriting an equal right to possess the dearest privileges of our

nature; the necessaries of life when fairly earned by labour, and

intellectual instruction. His hatred of any despotism that looked upon

the people as not to be consulted, or protected from want and

ignorance, was intense. He was residing near Leghorn, at Villa

Valsovano, writing "The Cenci", when the news of the Manchester

Massacre reached us; it roused in him violent emotions of indignation

and compassion. The great truth that the many, if accordant and

resolute, could control the few, as was shown some years after, made

him long to teach his injured countrymen how to resist. Inspired by

these feelings, he wrote the "Mask of Anarchy", which he sent to his

friend Leigh Hunt, to be inserted in the Examiner, of which he was

then the Editor.

'I did not insert it,' Leigh Hunt writes in his valuable and

interesting preface to this poem, when he printed it in 1832, 'because

I thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently

discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the

spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.' Days of outrage

have passed away, and with them the exasperation that would cause such

an appeal to the many to be injurious. Without being aware of them,

they at one time acted on his suggestions, and gained the day. But

they rose when human life was respected by the Minister in power; such

was not the case during the Administration which excited Shelley's


The poem was written for the people, and is therefore in a more

popular tone than usual: portions strike as abrupt and unpolished, but

many stanzas are all his own. I heard him repeat, and admired, those


'My Father Time is old and gray,'

before I knew to what poem they were to belong. But the most touching

passage is that which describes the blessed effects of liberty; it

might make a patriot of any man whose heart was not wholly closed

against his humbler fellow-creatures.