The Masque of Anarchy Vs. Passive Resistance

The work of Percy Shelley was a powerful springboard for the principle of passive resistance, both at its publication in the midst of major political upheaval and during modern day conflicts. One of Shelley’s most influential works heralding the concept of nonviolent resistance is his poem “The Masque of Anarchy,” which underscores the importance of historical consciousness that citizens must cultivate in order for the power of Hope to slay the insidious rule of Anarchy.

Shelley’s poem was intended to stir the public into making a stand against despotic rulers via nonviolent resistance. His piece was incited by the seminal event of the Peterloo massacre.

Cruikshank, George. The Massacre of Peterloo. 1819. Public Domain, n.p.

Cruikshank, George. The Massacre of Peterloo. 1819. Public Domain, n.p.

The tragedy was instigated when hundreds of pro-democracy campaigners for parliamentary reform and universal suffrage gathered in St. Peter’s fields in Manchester on 16 April 1819 and were grievously injured and killed by the yeomanry (Long 1). From Shelley’s perspective, any form of “government” that has no regard for its subjects and instead craves “money, blood, and gold,” is truly a manifestation of anarchy (Shelley 394). The poem is framed as an extravagant parade of personified sins tramping towards Parliament; among them, Murder rides with a pack of bloodhounds that devour human hearts, Fraud sheds mil-stone tears that dash the brains of children below, and Anarchy rides on a white horse splashed in blood. The personified figure of Hope herself “looked more like despair,” and she lay down before the procession hoping to be crushed. This image is especially effective for Shelley’s audience because they felt that under such oppressive rule, they had little individual power to effect change. However, in the next few stanzas after Hope attempts to forfeit herself, a mist rises before Hope and vanquishes the procession. Shelley uses this image to evoke a sense of unity for his audience, by reiterating that sometimes subordinates in society will not realize that they are enslaved merely by their perceptions of subjection, and that they must “rise like lions after slumber” (Shelley 397). Shelley encourages protestors to “stand ye calm and resolute…with folded arms and looks which are weapons of unvanquished war” (Shelley 401). The success of such a movement depends upon a faith in historical consciousness, a belief that history is not static and participants in movements must accept that that they may never harvest the seeds of change that they sow, and perhaps only their children will enjoy the fruits.

Shelley’s concept of nonviolent revolution is still very influential and widely referenced in recent history. Many historical proponents of passive resistance clung to Shelley’s political poems; American reformist Henry David Thoreau based his principles of civil resistance were very influence by Shelley’s works, and Mohandas Gandhi often quoted Shelley’s political poem to large audiences during the campaign for a free India (Sujith 1). This dedication to passive resistance as a vehicle for social change is paramount to the continued growth of historical consciousness in the public.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol.2: The

Romantics and Their Contemporaries : The Victorian Age : The Twentieth Century.

New York: Longman, 1999. Print.

Long, Chris. “The Masque of Anarchy: Shelley’s Poem Is ‘slogan for Modern Times'”

BBC News. BBC, 13 July 2013. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

Sujith. “Journeys..& the Joie De Vivre!..” Journeys..& the Joie De Vivre!.. N.p., n.d.

Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

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