The Story of The Mask of Anarchy, from Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire

I have a treat in store for members of the Shelley Nation.  Michael Demson’s book, Masks of Anarchy tells the story of two political radicals and the poem that brought them together:  Percy Shelley and the early 20th Century union organizer he inspired, Pauline Newman.  Demson, in collaboration with illustrator Summer McClinton, accomplishes this through an unusual medium: a radical political comic! This gets my RPBS "Stamp of Champ, You Must Read This" recommendation! Masks of Anarchy: The History of a Radical Poem, From Percy Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire is published by Verso.

Pauline Newman is largely unknown to history.  She came to America as a child, the daughter of immigrant Lithuanian Jews. She spoke no English, lived in appalling poverty and was subjected to brutal labour conditions as a child worker in New York. But inspired by the poetry of Shelley, she went on to be a driving force in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and helped to change the world.  Shelley himself had set out to change the world - through poetry. And, across the centuries, a poem that was not even published in his lifetime, did just that: The Mask of Anarchy.

Through the medium of a comic, Demson tells the story of the creation of Shelley's poem and the incredible real world influence it had a century later and on the other side of the world.  Regular visitors to will know that my goal is to introduce Shelley to a new generation of readers in an accessible, approachable manner. Thus, when I stumble on something like Masks of Anarchy I get very excited: it is something I can recommend to the burgeoning Shelley Nation without reserve. I know this will fire your interest in Shelley and inflame your passion for him. Masks of Anarchy is thrilling to read. I found myself emotionally overwhelmed at several points - most particularly as I read the story of Pauline Newman’s activism.

Poetry, writes Demson in his introduction, "is our most fundamental weapon against alienation, isolation, automation, apathy and despair." Coupled with skepticism, that ancient philosophy that Shelley so admired, the liberal arts and the humanities may be the only trump card we have to play in the face of a wave of 21st century intolerance, hypocrisy, xenophobia and cyberlibertarianism.

Paul Buhle, self portrait from  Verso Press

Paul Buhle, self portrait from Verso Press

Demson’s technique is to interweave the two narratives, a chapter on Shelley followed by a chapter on Newman and then a flashback to Shelley, and so on.  In his forward, Paul Buhle, places this work in the context of the history of comic art and notes that Masks of Anarchy is “one of the most remarkable works of comic art to date.” Buhle should know, he is a formerly a senior lecturer at Brown University who now produces radical comics full time. He founded the SDS Journal Radical America and the archive Oral History of the American Left and, with Mari Jo Buhle, is coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left. Buhle believes Masks of Anarchy will “cast its influence widely over future non-fiction graphic works, especially as regards the uses of poetry and meanings of social, labour and women’s history.

If I have a quibble about Masks of Anarchy, it is that some of the details about Shelley’s life have been somewhat distorted. The reason for this is not obvious to me.  Demson has Claire Clairmont meeting Byron for the first time in Geneva and getting pregnant by him there. We know this is incorrect. He also has Shelley, Mary and Claire leaving Geneva in 1816 to go straight to Italy, when it is well known that they returned to England so Claire’s child could be born there. While somewhat troubling, these flaws are no reason to turn away.

But what of the poem Demson celebrates? The Mask of Anarchy was written by Shelley as a response to the massacre of unarmed protestors (including children) in Manchester on 16 August 1819. Shelley was in Italy at the time, hence the famous opening lines of the poem, “As I lay asleep in Italy / There came a voice from over the Sea.”  Shelley had been cut off from the politics of England for some years, so he does not mean he was literally asleep, he means this figuratively. As Paul Foot has pointed out, the people of England had endured the worst government in their history for Shelley's entire adult life (1810-1822); Shelley called it the "ghastly masquerade." (Foot, 19) Living in Italy, Shelley felt cut off and impotent for years. He was outraged by what he heard and it motivated him to drop everything else he was doing and focus on a response. Now he wanted to get plugged back in.

The Mask of Anarchy was the first of a stream of highly charged political poems and essays: (i) his letter in support of the radical journalist Richard Carlile (one of the words great defenses of free speech), (ii) Peter Bell the Third (a scathing attack on Wordsworth's callow, shameless black-sliding into conservatism), (iii) A Philosophical View of Reform (a brilliant set of philosophical proposals that anticipated socialism by decades) and (iv) The Mask of Anarchy.  Not one of these works of genius were published in his life time.  He wrote with increasing desperation to his friend Leigh Hunt, but to no avail.  The letters are tinged with a deeply moving, plaintive desperation:

You do not tell me whether you have received my lines on the Manchester affair. - Florence, 14 November 1819
I don't remember if I acknowledged the receipt of "Robin hood" - no more than you did of "Peter Bell". - Pisa, 5 April 1820
I wish to ask you if you know of any bookseller who would like to publish a little volume of popular songs, wholly political. Pisa, 1 May 1820
One thing I want to ask you - do you know any bookseller who wd publish for me an octavo volume entitled "a Philosophical View of Reform? It is boldly by temperately written - and I think readable - ... will you ask and think for me? Pisa, 26 May 1820

All of the works were either ignored or actively repressed until very recently.  Even modern collections of Shelley's poetry routinely omit The Mask of Anarchy; a work Richard Holmes has called "the greatest poem of political protest every written in English". It is time to restore this poem to its rightful place in the history of protest - and not a moment too soon considering the election of Donald Trump in America. If ever there was a poet speaking to our times, it is Percy Bysshe Shelley. So let's learn more about the events that inspired him to write his great poem.

What happened in Manchester in 1819 was an outrage, an outrage that has been perpetuated by a failure by English authorities to honestly and respectfully recognize the tragedy.  You can find out more about this here. I almost never recommend Wikipedia as a source for reliable information on the internet, however, here you will find an unusually well written and researched document with appropriate sources.  Demson pictures Shelley’s reaction when he heard of the massacre thusly:

On the morning of 16 August, a peaceful assembly of some sixty thousand English men, women and children began to gather in what is now St. Peter’s Square in Manchester (hence the name the massacre was popularly given: Peterloo). They did so quietly and with discipline. The protest was organized by the Manchester Patriotic Union and was to feature the famed orator Henry Hunt. Here is Demson's depiction of the event:

Hunt was to speak from a simple platform in front of what is now the Gmex Center. The crowd brought homemade banners that proclaimed REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and (touchingly) LOVE. But before the speeches could begin, local magistrates ordered the local militia (known as ‘yeomanry”) to break up the meeting.  This was done with extraordinary violence.  As many as 12 protestors died and over 500 were wounded.

In the aftermath, journalists attempting to cover the massacre were arrested and news of the event suppressed. The businessman John Edwards Taylor was so shocked by what had happened that he went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper to ensure that the people would have a voice. Today the massacre still lacks an appropriate memorial despite decades of demand. For years, the event was commemorated only by a blue plaque which described the massacre as follows:

 “The site of St Peters Fields where on 16th August 1819 Henry Hunt, radical orator addressed an assembly of about 60,000 people. Their subsequent dispersal by the military is remembered as “Peterloo”.

That the term “dispersal” is used to describe what was a massacre is an unconscionable euphemism.  It was only in 2007 that it was replaced by a more appropriate red plaque:

According to Michael Scrivener, “the response of the radical leadership to Peterloo was surprisingly timid…the leaders must have been more alarmed than inspired by the revolutionary situation”. (Scrivener, 207) Hunt, for example, called for passive resistance in a variety of forms (such as tax resistance) and others sought a Parliamentary investigation. Only Richard Carlile (a radical journalist championed by Shelley and who later did much to keep Shelley’s reputation alive) proposed a meaningful response: he and a few others proposed a general strike – which never materialized. Shelley as we shall see went much further. Scrivener notes: ‘the key to understanding the uniqueness of Shelley’s poem is his proposal for massive non-violent resistance.”  (Scrivener, 208)

Shelley's poem opens with a poetic, allegorical vision of the true nature of social reality a reality which must be "unmasked' - hence the title of our poem. We are shown a parade (Shelley calls it the "ghastly masquerade") of political figures; exposed for what they really represent.  Shelley sets out to expose the manner in which Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy and Anarchy operate in society: they can only come to life through the actions of people. The individuals he names, leading members of government, can be thought of as having completely given up their humanity as they take on their roles: Castlereagh as Murder, Eldon as Fraud, and Sidmouth as Hypocrisy.  Daringly, the skeletal Anarchy represents the entire social order and is described in such a way as to invite a connection to the Prince Regent. These monsters are shown trampling the people of England, aided and abetted by lawyers and priests.

The allegorical figure of Hope however intervenes and overthrows Anarchy; that is to say the existing social order.  It is unclear how Anarchy’s downfall is accomplished and exactly who kills it. One gets the sense that tyranny self-destructs in the face of massive non-violent protest. The most famous stanza of the poem, and the only one which is repeated, is this:

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'
                lines 151-54 and 369-72

Scrivener notes that “What is foremost here is struggle, unity and revolutionary consciousness: this is not moral argument, but political exhortation, and appeal to physical superiority.” (Scrivener, 209).

The Mask of Anarchy is neatly divided into two sections: the first is the visionary dream just described, and the second (which PMS Dawson considers “the main substance of the poem”), is Shelley’s address to the people of England in which he outlines the nature of the political problem and proposes a solution. Shelley’s economic analysis has been widely praised for its sophistication and for anticipating socialism. Dawson wrote that Shelley addressed himself “responsibly, and with a realism that does not shun the banal, to directing the efforts of those who seek to redeem [the plight of the people of England]". (Dawson, 207)

Following his economic analysis, Shelley issues his call not to arms, but to peaceful assembly:

'Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free -'

It is this assembly (made up of people from every walk of society and without class distinction) upon which Shelley imagines liberty will be founded. His description of that liberty is celebrated:

What are thou Freedom? O! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand - tyrants would flee
Like a dream's dim imagery:'
Thou art not, as imposters say,
A shadow soon to pass away,
A superstition, and a name
Echoing from the cave of Fame.'
'For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.'
Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude -
                  Lines 209-222

Even reading this poem at a distance of 200 years, it is impossible not to be inspired. And very clearly it inspired Newman. She incorporated a lot of Shelley’s poetry into her speeches and Demson and McClinton beautifully capture this in their book. The final chapter brings Shelley and Newman, graphically, face to face.  This has a quite electrifying effect as we are presented with situations in Newman’s life that cause her to draw directly from Shelley’s poetry for inspiration.

Very clearly, Shelley’s calls for unity, struggle and revolutionary consciousness, for a great assembly and general strikes, had a profound effect on Newman and therefore on the development of one of the most powerful and effective unions of the 20th Century. It also led to the creation of the Worker's University, where course on the radical poets of the French Revolution were taught.

I had to laugh at the comment regarding George Gordon (Lord Byron); but it is so true.

Well done Percy.  And well done Pauline. We will need a lot more of your help in the 21st Century. Thanks to Michael Demson and his illustrator Summer McClinton you both feel closer than ever.

If you want to read more about Pauline Newman, try this: “Common Sense and a Little Fire. By Anelisse Orlek Do not order it through Amazon. Order it at your local book shop!

Michael Demson's wonderful comic can be purchased directly from Verso.  Verso is a terrific imprint of New Left Books. Follow them on Twitter.  Demson is currently professor of English at Sam Houston State University in Texas.


Dawson, P.M.S.  The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Print.

Foot, Paul. Red Shelley, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980. Print.

Scrivner, Michael. Radical Shelley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.

Other Reviews

“Absorb these words and pictures. Read them carefully. This is your history on the verge of oblivion. An unbroken thread of labor activism through the centuries, across oceans, is skillfully woven together here. Art and activism are the warp and woof of this unforgettable story: allow it to seep deeply into your soul and inspire you.”

         – Eric Drooker, author of Flood! A Novel in Pictures

“With spectacular panache, Demson and McClinton weave together two passionate tales across the ages that come together to transform the world. An inspirational testament to the longevity and power of poetry.”

          – Kennith Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing, founder of UbuWeb, and the Museum of Modern Art's 2013 Poet Laureate

“The historical scholarship is impressive”

          – Publishers Weekly

“It’s a fascinating book for all sorts of reasons, not least its portrayal of America’s ongoing antipathy toward immigrants, which, of course, remains very much in the news.”

            – LA Times

“A stunning yet nuanced story… In collaboration with talented illustrator Summer McClinton this short graphic novel reaches deep within one's sense of humanness.”

            – SWANS Commentary