The speaker is sleeping in Italy when he is awoken by a voice from England who summons him back to his home nation to witness a massacre that has recently taken place. It was characterized by anarchic murder rather than a true spirit of revolution. He personifies Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, various Destructions, and Anarchy. Anarchy leads armed forces through England, scaring the population. Soon, the “seven bloodhounds” get to England, where they massacre the innocent public. They continue to butcher the innocent as they travel through the land, eventually reaching London, where the “dwellers,” who are by this time aware of the havoc these masked tyrants are running, are “panic-stricken” and attempt to run away.
Anarchy claims to be God, King, and Law, rejecting all traditional sources of authority and power. Some choose to follow him. As his forces proceed with their destruction, even Hope cries out in despair. Finally, however, a mist of hope emerges, carrying thoughts. This revives Hope and kills Anarchy. The land of England seems to speak to the English, asking them to rise and retake true freedom, since they really have been oppressed and should fight back. Instead of trading “blood for blood” and “wrong for wrong,” the people should finally turn back to justice, wisdom, peace, and love in order to achieve liberty. They should be guided by “Science, Poetry, and Thought” and quiet virtues. The true revolution should be “measured” and use words instead of swords, drawing on the “old laws of England” instead of the new laws of the oppressors. When the tyrants fight back, the people should let their anger show itself until the tyrants fall back in shame. The people will then “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number” to reform England.
On August 16, 1819, a large crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Square in Manchester, England, to demonstrate against famine, unemployment, and lack of suffrage in England. At the order of the local magistrate, a militia force was ordered to disperse the crowd. The young army, inexperienced and overzealous, began to brutally attack the innocent unarmed, leaving six dead and wounding several others. The incident was labeled Peterloo, a hybrid term for St. Peter’s and the famous defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Shelley was in Italy at the time. When he received news of the incident, he was outraged.
The “seven bloodhounds” probably represent a seven-nation alliance that recently had been signed in Britain and sought to preserve slavery and postpone its abolition (including Austria, France, Russia, Prussia, Portugal, and Sweden). The leader of the masquerades is Robert Stewart, also known as Viscount Castlereagh, who was British Foreign Secretary. “Eldon” at line 15 is John Scott, or Baron Eldon, the Lord Chancellor responsible for refusing to give Shelley custody of his children after their mother, Harriet Westbrook, committed suicide. “Sidmouth” in line 23 is Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, Britain’s Home Secretary.
The poem is given in stanzas of four lines with aabb rhymes, plus some stanzas in five lines rhyming aabbb. Shelley personifies many of man’s sins (Fraud, Hypocrisy), who are led by the spirit of Anarchy, all of them having very ugly characteristics and attributes. They also have primitive emotions and engage in brutish actions, feasting on raw human hearts and beating children. These beings are identified in line 36 with “God [religious leaders], and King, and Law,” the various authorities holding power in England. At the same time, however, the sins are universally human and not limited to the ruling authorities. People too easily turn to anarchic violence in order to exert power, rather than argument. If there is to be any real revolution, it cannot come by fighting “anarchic” rulers with a new anarchy (as arguably happened at times during the French Revolution).
Indeed, even the peace-loving people of England are duped; the “adoring multitude” are fooled by the disguises worn by state establishments. Shelley is pointing out that the institutions in which people are encouraged to place their trust and faith are the very ones that are out to “trample” them. While the people of England continue to worship their King, they are unable to see the anarchist behind the mask.
While the group of “glorious triumphant” masqueraders continue to travel across England, intoxicated with their successful brutality and their power over their blind subjects, Shelley continues to refer to the wickedness of the ruling authorities being worshipped in England (such as at lines 69-73). Anarchy, so the argument goes, has been made King and employs his slaves to overtake the establishments of London.
It is here that the tone of the poem begins to change from utter despair to a glimmer of optimism. The character “Hope,” who is almost completely defeated, lies down in the path of Anarchy, imploring natural spirits to rescue her before she, too, is “piled with the dust of death.” The spirit that begins to rise comes from nature, a “mist,” and Shelley completely shifts the dark mood of the poem, to one with a small light of possibility. The next five or six stanzas are full of this “image” taking on the deeper power of nature as a source of greater power than that of man (“as flowers,” “as stars,” “as waves”).
The poet never leaves the specific situation of England, calling its situation “dim” but not entirely “expired.” The speaker argues that the only way to liberty is through reason, the salvation of science and intellect, not through made-up powers of religion and monarchy. He calls for a justified “assembly” of rulers to watch over the English land, where the “workhouses” and “prisons” are treated just as “palaces.”
Note that many stanzas continue the radical/revolutionary war-cry to the people to recognize their oppression and fight wisely for their freedom. This war-cry is more on the order of Gandhi than the French revolutionaries, however, for it calls for virtuous principles and non-violence in the face of the violent ruling powers. The people should “Stand … calm and resolute,” with “folded arms and steady eyes,” and thus shame the rulers into retreating in the face of the deep and wide strength of the British people.
“Rise like lions” thus beckons hope in the people to return to the more natural and fair “old laws of England,” drawing on “science, poetry, and thought.” The poet is rejecting the false freedoms the people in England think they have (see lines 156-59), calling on them to embrace their “strong and simple” heritage of virtue. (Compare William Blake’s “Marriage Between Heaven and Hell.”) Freedom, says the poet, is reaping the benefits of your own labor, not having to be subject to some Lord or King (freedom means “clothes, and fire, and food, / For the trampled multitude”). Shelley is disgusted with the fact that principles like law and democracy can be bought and sold at a price, and that men are not free anymore (see especially lines 229-37); the call is to recover the healthy order of social life, free to express virtue instead of suffering under temporal anarchic powers.