By Graham Henderson
In 1981, Paul Foot (1937-2004), the “finest campaigning journalist of his generation,” delivered an epic 90-minute speech on the subject of his hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Appearing at the London Marxism Conference, Foot’s speech was delivered extemporaneously from notes and has become legendary. Amazingly, it has never been published. We are fortunate that it was recorded and that an online copy of the speech exists. Using this recording, I have managed to transcribe what was said. The transcription follows this introduction.
But first, a word about Paul Foot. Foot was, as his obituary in The Guardian noted,
“the finest campaigning journalist of his generation. He had everything: a ferociously forensic brain, deep compassion, a prodigious capacity for work, great courage, a healthy and permanent distrust of politicians of any party, a sharp wit, a devastating pen and principles as deep, wide and awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon.”
Foot died at the age of 66, laid low by an aortic aneurysm. We lost him far too early. That Shelley was his hero and inspired much of his work and his political philosophy is amply evidenced by his grave stone which bears a quote from The Mask of Anarchy.
The Guardian’s obituary continues:
“In a world where allegiances, principles, prejudices and beliefs change with easy cynicism, Paul Foot was a steadfast beacon of integrity. He may have tilted at a few windmills, and his politics remained unapologetically tangled in the barricades of the 1960s. Yet, like Shelley's west wind, he was a “spirit fierce,” who stood against the vested interests of the corrupt, the power hungry, the liars, cheats, hypocrites and shysters. He did not always win, but the great and good thing was that he never stopped trying, and our trade was immeasurably more noble for it.”
Just prior to his speech, Foot had in fact published a book on Shelley, The Red Shelley. The book is a fervent, polemical summing up of his life-long passion for the poet. Dismissed by some ivory-tower critics as lacking in academic rigor, The Red Shelley is nonetheless one of the truly great books on the subject of Shelley’s political radicalism. The prose is breathless, thrilling and at times incandescent. His interpretations of some passages of Shelley’s poetry (such as the role of Demogorgon in Prometheus Unbound) have been quibbled with, but what is beyond question is the fact that Foot presented, almost for the first time to the general reading public, a coherent, radical view of the poet Shelley.
What was it about Shelley’s ideas that so inspired Paul Foot? What was it about the poet that caused Foot to act as part evangelist and part exhorter? Why did he consider Shelley so damned important and relevant? In Shelley, Foot found a kindred spirit—a radical, political animal who fought with every fiber of his being for the rights of the working class and the disadvantaged.
Now, I think it is fair to say that Foot read some of his own personality and radical beliefs into his Shelley. But he was not the only one to see into the heart of Shelley’s fervent radicalism. The Chartists, Robert Owen, Engels, Marx, Shaw and many other progressives have been, to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by Shelley’s ideas. It has been said that Robert Owen is the father of modern British socialism; if this is true, Shelley can rightly be said to be its grandfather; such was his influence on Owen.
The great German philosopher and socialist Friedrich Engels, for example, remarked, “Shelley, the genius, the prophet, finds most of his readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie own the castrated editions, the family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.” (Foot has much to say about these two “versions” of Shelley.) Engel’s collaborator Karl Marx also weighed in, saying,
“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36. Because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29 because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.”
More recently, Michael Demson, in his amazing graphic novel, Masks of Anarchy, traces the influence of Shelley’s great poem to the founding of one of the greatest labour unions in the history of America, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. You can read about Demson's book here.
There has also been speculation about Shelley’s influence on Ghandi’s philosophy of nonviolence. Whether the influence was direct or indirect, the evidence seems clear that Ghandi encountered Shelley’s poetry and philosophy while in England between 1888 and 1892. The socialists he became acquainted with included members of the Fabian and Shelley Societies, including H.R. Salt and G.B. Shaw. Geoffrey Ashe, one of Ghandi’s biographers, speculates that The Mask of Anarchy may have directly influenced Ghandi’s concept of mass civil disobedience and passive resistance. Regardless of the question of influence, there are uncanny resonances between the philosophy of the two men. As Art Young pointed out, “Shelley is a poet-prophet of non-violence as a philosophy of life and a philosophy of action.”
Finally, we have the example of the recent election in the UK where the Labour Party rode a manifesto inspired in part by Shelley’s egalitarian ideas to an extraordinary upset of the status quo. Their motto “For the Many. Not the Few” was directly inspired by The Mask of Anarchy. Corbyn’s election culminated with an electrifying speech in his home riding during which he name-checked Shelley and quoted the concluding stanza of The Mask of Anarchy; on cue, the audience joined Corbyn in reciting the magnificent final line and then stood in a prolonged, rapturous ovation. You can watch it here; the "Shelley moment" begins at approximately 30:00 minutes. The significance of Shelley's role here is not to be underestimated. The slogan seems to have had a catalytic effect. And we need to pause and think about the fact that a major election was just fought, and arguably won, on principles outlined 200 years ago by Shelley, by a radical poet. This has to be one of the most significant and effective uses of poetry in an election in memory.
Foot is one of the most recent, but by no means the last, figures in a long line of revolutionaries to find inspiration in Shelley’s writing. Like Marx and Engels, Foot found in Shelley a free thinker willing to challenge his society’s most sacred idols—King, God, and Mammon—the forces of inequality and tyranny. But here is also a second, far less political version Shelley that has come down to us. At the outset of his speech, Foot introduces his subject by pointing out that two very distinct Shelleys exist in the public imagination. Foot unpacks the curious history of Shelley’s reputation which bifurcated very quickly into two distinct versions, those alluded to by Engels above. We can think of them as the “Radical” Shelley and the “Lyrical” (or what Foot and Engels have called the “castrated”) Shelley. Foot savages the sanitized, “Lyrical” version of Shelley created by conservative Victorians, wary of the period’s revolutionary movements and eager to downplay Shelley’s politics. Here is a visual example of that Shelley:
Look closely. This is Joseph Severn’s famous portrait completed after Shelley’s death—it was not painted from life. He is pictured almost as a child. This is the “castrated” Shelley of which Engels spoke.
Many people played a role in the creation of this infantilized version of Shelley, drained of virtually everything remotely political or radical. Michael Gamer traces the early history of Shelley's reputational arc in his new book, Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry (which you can find here—but order it through your local book store). Sadly, Mary Shelley, Percy’s wife, may also have played a role (whether intentional or not) in creating the “Victorian Shelley.” Look closely at the following image:
The painting on the right is one of dozens of images based on the famous 1819 painting of Shelley by Amelia Curran (left). It is an out and out fantasy. Shelley’s appearance is infantilized in a way that bears absolutely no relation to reality. It is an embarrassment.
Paul Foot laboured long and passionately to recover the Radical Shelley, what he considered to be the real Percy Bysshe Shelley. He presents him to us both in his incisive, polemical and passionate book, The Red Shelley, and here in his speech. After his initial consideration of the development of Shelley’s reputation, Foot investigates Shelley's atheism and feminism. But he also reminds us that Shelley was by no means perfect, and he unflinchingly canvasses Shelley’s weaknesses. The portrait of Shelley that emerges is at once electrifying and sympathetic, and it tells us almost as much about Paul Foot as it does about Shelley. I will be honest and confess that Foot’s Shelley is MY Shelley—that is to say, I am firmly in the “Footian tradition.” You can read one of my articles on the subject here: “My Father’s Shelley: A Tale of Two Shelleys.”
Foot hated authority just as Shelley did. When, early in his speech, he speaks about Shelley’s contempt for Britain’s ruling classes, he might as well have been talking about himself:
“He hated the whole damn lot of them. Every single one of them that fell into any one of those categories or any other category which are parasitical, in one way or another, upon the working people. He loathed and hated them. The whole of his poetry reeks with that hatred. But the other point is this: that it wasn’t just a simple hatred of authority. He understood the reasons for that authority—he understood the central cause of that authority.”
Eventually Foot turns to an aspect of Shelley’s writing that has dogged his reputation for years: Shelley’s apparent fear that his political agitation could lead to uncontrolled mob action. Foot suggests that Shelley's predilection for gradual change manifested itself in his failure to embrace universal suffrage. But Foot is careful to point out that Shelley himself was ambivalent about whether change should about gradually or all at once. Foot asserts that at times, Shelley appeared to argue for gradual non-violent responses to tyranny while at others he seemed to favour actual violence.
Foot seeks to bring to a resolution this dichotomy in Shelley’s work. This part of the speech involves a discussion of Prometheus Unbound, in which Foot relies heavily on the interpretation of Shelley’s biographer, Richard Holmes. Foot is determined to demonstrate that Shelley understood that revolutionary change might also involve potentially violent action by the “masses.”
Much of Foot’s language (particularly later in his speech) will strike the modern ear as somewhat dated and mired in the rhetoric of post-war Marxism and socialism. But this is because he was speaking to an audience of Marxists and socialists in 1981. I will confess that researching and footnoting some of his more obscure references was quite a challenge. He is anxious to connect Shelley directly with the Marxist and socialist traditions by introducing Marx’s own opinion of Shelley as it comes down to us through his daughter Eleanor's reminiscences. You can read more about this here. He then explains how later, in the 1930s, Marxists came to disown Shelley and completely misunderstand him; an echo, in effect, of the whitewashing of Shelley by anti-revolutionaries in the Victorian era.
Foot’s objective is to reconnect the left with Shelley. He does so in a surprising and original manner which is altogether convincing. Foot ably and competently traces the evolution of the modern left and demonstrates how it became disconnected from “the masses,” from real people with real-world concerns and issues. He longs for the “enthusiasm” that Shelley brought to the table. If ever there was a convincing “call to arms” that involves educating one’s self in the philosophy of a poet dead for 200 years, this is it.
Below, you will find a complete transcription of Foot’s speech. As I mentioned, Foot delivered this speech extemporaneously. As a result, he at times wanders or struggles to find the right words. This required me to lightly edit his speech to ensure coherence. My changes will be invisible to the eye, and therefore, I will publish another version which shows what has been added or edited. By listening to Foot's speech while you read (and believe me this is necessary given the poor quality of the recording), you can see what I have done for yourself. My draft was reviewed and ably edited by Jonathan Kerr. Jon received his PhD in English in 2017 from ny old alma mater, the University of Toronto with specialization in the British Romantics. I recently hired Jon to assist me part time in managing the increasing volume of activity associated with managing this site. Jon is interested in Romantic ideas about nature and how those in the nineteenth century attempted to understand various forms of human difference. He is also currently at work on a project about Romantic-era asylum memoirs. He is a brilliant young academic and I was lucky to find him.
In his speech, Foot routinely references events and individuals whose names have been long forgotten. I have therefore provided footnotes to aid modern readers in their understanding as well as links to online biographies and source documents. Foot also speaks with enormous passion and heat; at times his words drip with sarcasm, while at others he speaks with revolutionary zeal. This I simply cannot communicate in writing and I therefore urge you to listen to this great orator as he delivers one of the most remarkable, passionate, polemical tributes Shelley has ever got, or ever will get. Buckle up and prepare for the ride of your Shelleyan life.
Paul Foot’s Speech to the London Marxism Conference, 1981
Comrades, I think that Percy Shelley, if he was here today, would be pretty pleased by the turn out. We’ve had quite a few meetings in this series and I think it is true to say, I am actually quite confident it is true to say, that the reason we took this large hall was that we thought the meeting which would get the biggest amount of people in spite of all the important subjects that are being discussed would be the meeting about a poet who died about 170 years ago. And that might appear to be very remarkable. Why have we got a big socialist meeting on Shelley? After all, I imagine that for many of you, and certainly for many of the people that aren’t here, Shelley is just another of those poets that is taught to us in the schools. You have to read a lot of rather twee stuff about skylarks and clouds and west winds; and you have to learn it by heart and recite it properly to the teacher. And it doesn’t seem to have any relevance whatever to the tradition out of which we come. And so, what are we doing here? And what is the purpose of this meeting?
And I want to say, first of all, that there are in the history of English literature, two Shelleys. And the two Shelleys are very accurately portrayed by a couple of meetings that took place a very, very long time ago. In 1892 as a matter of fact, in London, on September the 4th 1892 to celebrate the hundredth year of Shelley’s birth.
Now the first meeting I am going to talk about was held in Horsham in 1892. I don’t know if anybody here has ever been to Horsham. I’ve been to Horsham a couple of times and I didn’t see anything moving. I think on one occasion a man crossed the street and that was regarded as a sensation. Horsham is a place where rich people live and come to buy things in the marketplace. It’s a very, very—and was in 1892 just as it is now—a very, very rich place, a place for wealthy people, and yet a meeting was held there to celebrate the hundredth year after Shelley’s birth because this is the area in which Shelley was born. He was born the son of a rich, aristocratic landowner there; a nice, decent Whig family. He was the son of Sir Timothy Shelley, who also was a baronet and somebody of very great importance indeed; he was even from time to time, when he felt like it, a member of Parliament. [laughter]
And the meeting which was held there was a very important meeting. All the important literary people of the time were there. Melvin Bragg was there [laughter], or rather the Melvyn Bragg of his time was there, and Lady Antonia Fraser [laughter] was there, and all those people had come to celebrate the Shelley of Sussex, Sir Timothy’s son. And one of the people that was there was Bernard Shaw. He was somebody who knew a little bit about Shelley. And he wrote an essay about that meeting, which I think sums up very well what the atmosphere was there. Quoting Shaw:
“On all sides went up the cry, ‘We want our great Shelley, our darling Shelley, our best, noblest highest of poets. We will not have it said that he was a Leveller, an Atheist, a foe to marriage, an advocate of incest. He was a little unfortunate in his first marriage; [laughter] and we pity him for it. He was a little eccentric in his vegetarianism, but we’re not ashamed of that, we glory in the humanity of it (with morsels of beefsteak fresh from the slaughterhouse, sticking between our teeth) [laughter]. We ask the public to be generous—to read his really great works such as the “Ode to a Skylark”; and not to gloat over those boyish indiscretions known as Laon and Cynthia, Prometheus Unbound, Rosalind and Helen, The Cenci, The Mask of Anarchy, etc., etc. Take no notice of the Church papers, for our Shelley was a true Christian at heart. Away with Jeaffreson; for our Shelley was a gentleman if there ever was one.’”
If you doubt it, ask Lady Antonia or Melvin. Or you could ask Edmund Gosse, who was the man who came particularly on that occasion to talk about the Shelley that they were celebrating there. And this was all very odd because in his lifetime, Shelley had been hounded and ignored by all of literary lords and ladies of his time. And in the whole period of his life, he was only 30 when he died, but in the whole of that period, despite the enormous amount of material that he wrote, practically none of it was published. He made nothing at all. Literally nothing from all of those poems which were celebrated at that Horsham meeting. They made him nothing. All those poems made nothing. He couldn’t find a publisher to distribute his work and little of what he wrote was published at all. He was hounded by the Home Office and spies from the Home Office hounded him out of a number of the places in which he went to live. Everything he wrote was read by spies in the Home Office. When his first wife committed suicide, his children were denied him by Lord Eldon, because he was an atheist. One of the obituaries that was written about Shelley read like this: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, is dead. Now he knows whether there is a God or not.” That was the attitude of the times in which he lived.
And the meeting in Horsham has a lot of common ground with the Shelley that was hounded and brutalized and exiled and pushed out of different places where he went to live when he was alive. Because just as the lords and ladies of literature hounded Shelley when he was alive, so they patronized him sixty or seventy years later when he was good and safe and dead. And they patronized him in a whole number of different ways, and they’re still patronizing him today. I have here a book by Richard Hughes. This is not a book that I’m recommending, it is a book that I remember with some bitterness because it is the book that we had to learn at school. It's a school textbook about Shelley by Hughes. One of the ways in which Shelley was patronized, one of the convenient ways in which he was patronized, was to quietly censor any ideas that he may have had, any ideas at all, from the textbooks. And you can read right through this little book, and you’ll find quite a lot of poetry, some of it very good poetry, but you won’t find one single idea. You won’t find one single poem—of the many, many poems he wrote—which features his ideas about the society in which he lived.
There’s another book here if I can find it. This is the Penguin edition of Shelley, which was edited by a very fine lady of letters, a very nice Tory lady called Isabel Quigley. She says in her introduction that “No poet better repays cutting [laughter]. No great poet was ever less worth reading in his entirety than Shelley.” And she is set to work with the shears and the scissors [laughter]. You look through here, and you can’t find any ideas. All the poems in which he had ideas are gone. What about a very long poem he wrote called The Revolt of Islam? This is a poem about revolution and about what revolution involves—there’s only about seven or eight stanzas of that in Quigley’s Penguin edition. What about Queen Mab, which is one is of the greatest revolutionary poems ever written in the English language? She has included three or four lyrical stanzas from right at the beginning of the poem and none of the ideas—none of the ideas which went into the poem.
And here is the Nonesuch edition. This is a very beautiful book, very beautiful. Very expensive, and you can buy it at a second-hand book shop. It is a very fat book with more than a thousand pages. It’s published on very, very nice rice paper and edited by Professor A.S.B. Glover who is a professor of literature or somewhere other. I hope he’s still alive, and I hope he’s here tonight because then he can hear what I have to say [laughter]. Says Glover: “Peter Bell III and Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant are mainly of interest as proofs that a great lyric poet may fail lamentably outside of his own proper field, especially in work of a genre which requires a sense of humour.” I don’t know when Professor Glover last laughed [laughter] but I believe it to be thirty or forty years ago. He doesn’t have a word to say about one of the funniest poems ever written in the language: Shelley’s Peter Bell III. This is a wonderful satire about the people who were in charge of society at that time—and not a single word appears in this edition.
Perhaps the most famous textbook on Shelley, is the work of Edward Dowden, a professor of literature from Cambridge, needless to say. This is a book which all the way through suggests that Shelley is a wonderful person, that he was really a saint. Really! Shelley was a saint! And one of the reasons we can say he was a saint is because we can ignore his ideas. [laughter] From Dowden: “This book, Queen Mab, may be regarded as the last expression of that contentious, argumentative side of Shelley’s nature.” As for Peter Bell III, which is a tremendous attack on the apostasy of Wordsworth, on Wordsworth giving up all of his ideas about the French Revolution, Dowden even has to have a word of criticism on that. Quoting Dowden: “we cannot regret that a piece of criticism more than half unjust in its reference to Wordsworth remained unprinted.” How dare he attack Wordsworth? Thus, a professor of English will have his revenge on Shelley by patronizing him in this enormous six-hundred-page work—a book which hardly mentions a single one of Shelley’s ideas.
Now that’s, that’s one view of Shelley. That is the way in which they managed to censor him. They took the words, the ideas that he had, and simply cut them out. There’s a book here called A Philosophical View of the Reform. It is, I think, the only edition of this book that was ever published. If you look inside, you’ll see the date is 1920, which is a hundred years after it was written. It’s a tremendous polemical pamphlet about the political situation at the time, calling for revolt in all different ways, right through the society. Yet it was censored. And not only censored during his life, but when Mary Shelley wanted to include it in her collected works of Shelley after Shelley was dead, she was told by her father-in-law Sir Timothy that he would no longer support her and her child if she did so. And therefore, for a hundred years, this essay remained unpublished—censored.
There’s an introduction to the poem Hellas—it’s all about Greece. All the stuff about Greece was left in Mary's edition, but there is a paragraph in there about Britain. Shelley talks about how the situation in Greece which was being repressed by the Ottoman Empire reflects what’s going on in Britain. That paragraph, just that one rather nasty little paragraph, was cut out for ninety-six years after the poem was published—just simply censored. And therefore, you see, all the way—all the way through the history of Shelley, that Shelley—the Radical Shelley—who was patronized by convention, by the Lords and ladies of literature, that Shelley was censored.
If you go to University College, Oxford, and I’m not recommending that anyone should do that [laughter]. And if by any chance, you want to go play football at the University College, Oxford, you’ve got to walk down an alley, and you’ll pass an enormous, huge tomb like operation with a really disgusting white, naked statue of Shelley borne up by the angels of the sea and sea lions, all in this wonderful, emblazoned tomb.
And there you’ll see a little notice on the side, telling you that Shelley was at University College, Oxford in 1811, and that he is one of the great alumni of that College; one of the people that they look back upon with pride. What it doesn’t say is that he wasn’t very long at University College, Oxford [laughter]. He was there for one term and a half—and half way through the second term he was expelled for writing the first document to be published in English which attacked religion: The Necessity of Atheism. He distributed it around Oxford; he sent it to the Master of the College, [laughter] and he sent it to the local Bishop [laughter]. He sent it to a few people at that time, and asked, “I would like your views on this [laughter]. I’ve thought about the problem, and I’ve come to the view that there is no God. What do you think? I’d like to have little debate about it.” He was hauled up before the Master of his college, asked if he had written it, and he was immediately expelled. There’s no reference to that at University College, Oxford! If you were to go up to a Don, an old Don who was alive in 1811 (most of them were) [laughter], and you were say to them, “Excuse me a moment, what is this about Shelley getting expelled?” They’d say, “Oh was he expelled? I’m sorry about that, we’ll have to put that right” [laughter].
Now that is one version of Shelley and this is the tradition that’s been passed down through the ages; passed down through the textbooks, particularly in schools and universities. Shelley has now been scrubbed off the A level syllabus, but when he was on the A level syllabus, he was brought to the A level syllabus by books by Richard Hughes, Isabel Quigly, Glover and all the rest of those people. They introduced him as someone who was an entirely neutered, lyrical poet. Occasionally, I read this about him: “Occasionally he was disturbed by a recurring pain in his side, and that really is the explanation for his argumentative problems; and then there was an unfortunate homosexual experience when he was a boy” [laughter].That’s really it, isn’t it [laughter]? We can dismiss it all: the fellow was odd from time to time. The trouble was that he couldn’t really be placed in the bosom of that Orthodox heterosexuality for which Horsham stands. This is the tradition of Shelley which has come down to us.
Now there’s another Shelley and that’s really the focus of this meeting tonight. There’s another Shelley; altogether a different Shelley. There’s an atheist and a republican and a feminist Shelley. This is the real Shelley. The Shelley who had ideas, who had revolutionary ideas. The whole of his writings was inspired by those revolutionary ideas and to separate those revolutionary ideas from Shelley is to do no more than to neuter and castrate the poet himself.
Bernard Shaw went away from that meeting in Horsham a bit sick. He was a bit sick [laughter]. He said that the only reason he hadn’t intervened was that they were raising money for a free library. When he left the meeting, he looked at the free library, and he saw that there was a statue of Shelley outside with a Bible in his hand [laughter]. And he said he wished he had intervened.
At any rate, Shaw later went to another meeting that was held not far from here in the East End of London in Shoreditch, not far from Covent Gardens. There were a lot of workers in attendance; Oh, a hundred, two hundred workers came to the meeting, workers from the East End of London who had come out or a meeting about Shelley. And there were people speaking there that were atheists and republicans. There were Irish republicans. There were people of that kind speaking at the meeting. At the end of the meeting one of the workers in the hall rose and read, or recited because he knew it by heart, a quite different poem, a poem which starts like this:
“Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?”
Seven or eight verses; straightforward; simple; not very lyrical but talking about the way in which the men of England at that time worked and sweated for the drones who would drain their sweat and drink their blood. And the worker knew that and recited that. That was a different kind of Shelley. And how was it that the son of an aristocratic land owner in Sussex, the son of a Whig MP, somebody who went to Eton and Oxford, how was it that somebody so young could come to all these revolutionary ideas? How was he able to write poetry of that kind? And the answer to that is very, very simple. It has to do with the times in which he wrote, something which will also never be discussed by any of these people that write or talk or teach about Shelley in the schools today. It has to do with the time into which Shelley was born in 1792, three years after the French Revolution. And the fact that the French Revolution had inspired right the way throughout Europe and indeed right the way throughout the Americas, whole new ideas. And people began to stand up and to think: “maybe all the superstitions and all the ideas that passed on from above weren’t right. Maybe that wasn’t the way in which you should view society.” And all the poets of that time, whenever they were born, and all the people with any ability whatsoever, all of them at the outset were infected with the enthusiasm of that revolution: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Southey.
All these people that you read and people read in schools and universities and all those people that were writing at the same time, in just about that period: in those twenty or thirty years, all these people were infected with enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and wrote about the revolutionary upsurge. Even Wordsworth in his youth used to write about the menace of gold and the power of reason. People used to talk about how reason could be used to undermine superstition; how individual working people are as good as the people who dominate them and so on and so on. And those things happened because of the French Revolution. And the French Revolution, of course, terrified people in England, particularly as it went on and developed, and as the left in the French Revolution began to seize power and consolidate it.
And what happened in the British ruling class was a great terror took them, seized them with terror. They were terrified that the Jacobin ideas, the revolutionary ideas, the ideas of reason as opposed to superstition would start to grip people in Britain. And therefore, they moved troops into the cities, and they unleashed the most terrible repression right across the whole country. All different kinds of spies were put into the cities; put into workplaces in order to detect whether or not there was any evidence of any Jacobin or revolutionary ideas of one kind or another.
And Shelley developed in that atmosphere. This is the point even at Eton where he refused to take part in the faggingoperation. Even at Oxford where he challenged the rights of people to tell him whether he should believe in God or not. Those ideas developed in his mind because of the French Revolution. And what comes out of all his poetry? The first thing that comes out of all his poetry is a deep, intense hatred and contempt for authority. For people who put themselves in authority without any responsibility for the people over whom they put themselves in authority. A contempt for those who have become masters of other people, not because the people have chosen them but as a result either of some superstition or most of all because of their wealth. All of his poetry is about that. Queen Mab, which is the poem that he wrote when he was eighteen, bursts with rage and fury at all the drones, the sycophants, the parasites and the people who were in charge. I can’t read these poems out to you in full. I might one day have to have a meeting about eight or nine hours long, and then all these poems can be read out in full. But the whole purpose of this meeting is to get you to go back and get hold of Queen Mab and read it—particularly the central cantos. It’s a story of a young woman asleep and a faerie coming from above, a great spirit coming and taking her so that she ca look upon the world. He takes her right out into the stratosphere so that she can look down upon the world and see all the things that go on: all the kings and priests and statesmen and parasites that operate there. The whole of his poetry bursts out in rage. All the way through his life, he couldn’t stand the idea of illegitimate authority.
And then there is his greatest poem of all: The Mask of Anarchy, the poem that he wrote about the massacre at Peterloo in 1819 when the trade unionists who were meeting in the fields outside Manchester were mowed down by the yeomanry on the orders of the local magistrate.
Shelley wrote in this poem about the Tory government that was in power at that time; about Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary; about Sidmouth the Home Secretary; about Eldon, the Lord Chancellor. He wrote about these people in language which is so furious and so simple that it has come down to us all the way through the ages. Quoting Mask of Anarchy:
"And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.”
“I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
He hated the whole damn lot of them. Every single one of them that fell into any one of those categories or any other category which are parasitical, in one way or another, upon the working people. He loathed and hated them. The whole of his poetry reeks with that hatred. But the other point is this: that it wasn’t just a simple hatred of authority. He understood the reasons for that authority—he understood the central cause of that authority.
Shelley wrote a pamphlet in 1817 in reaction to the Derby Insurrection. Those of you that have read that great book by Edward Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, will have received a very clear outline of the trials that took place of those Derbyshire workers. Thompson describes it as the first real sign in Britain of proletarian insurrection. The Derbyshire workers came together to fight against the oppression that had been imposed upon them by the government. The authorities arrested three of them, tried them and then hanged them. And on the day that they hanged them, Princess Charlotte died and the whole world, and all of the women’s magazines, Women’s Own, Women’s Journal [laughter], all these papers, organs of the influence among the bourgeoisie of the time, wept tremendous tears for Princess Charlotte.
And Shelley wrote an essay, a really magnificent essay, comparing the reactions to the death of Princess Charlotte, on the one hand, and the death of the Derby insurrectionists on the other. And in the essay, you get an understanding of what Shelley thought the central causes which perpetuated that tyranny were. Here is just an example:
“The labourer, he that tills the ground and manufactures cloth, is the man who has to provide, out of what he would bring home to his wife and children, for the luxuries and comforts of those, whose claims are represented by an annuity of forty-four million a year levied upon the English nation. Before, he supported the army and the pensioners, and the royal family, and the landholders; and this is a hard necessity to which it was well that he should submit. Many and various are the mischiefs flowing from oppression, but this is the representative of them all; namely, that one man is forced to labour for another in a degree not only not necessary to the support of the subsisting distinctions among mankind, but so as by the excess of the injustice to endanger the very foundations of all that is valuable in social order, and to provoke that anarchy which is at once the enemy of freedom, and the child and the chastiser of misrule.”
This understanding of the source of tyranny is present all the way through Queen Mab; all the way through The Mask of Anarchy; and all the way through the Revolt of Islam. All the way through his poems and the prose. Shelley understood that at the root of exploitation is the fact that man feeds on man. I wish I could read to you all the different ways in which he demonstrates that the exploitation of the worker was the central source of tyranny.
The other thing that set Shelley apart from almost everyone else then and even now, even those who understand the nature of authority, the cause of authority and of exploitation, is that he wanted to do something about it. He got a lot of inspiration from a man called William Godwin, who was a writer of a considerable note who wrote Political Justice.
This was in many ways a quite revolutionary work that talked about inequality and the exploitation that was going on in society. But the point about Godwin is that he was not prosecuted. Why not? Almost anyone that was challenging authority at that time was prosecuted. Godwin was not prosecuted for a very simple reason: when Prime Minister Pitt was asked whether Godwin should be prosecuted, he asked, what was the price of Political Justice? He was told that it was 6 guineas. When he heard this, he said that there was no point prosecuting Godwin because no one who mattered from the government’s point of view was going to read it. In other words, it was a bourgeois work, a book written for the bourgeoisie and not directed at the working class.
And when Shelley was in Ireland, protesting and trying to form associations of people in Ireland to protest against the British oppression in Ireland, he and Godwin had a correspondence which underlined the difference between them. Godwin said, “you must explain these ideas to people at the fireside. Do it gently and do it with people of intelligence, people who understand things. People who understand things. Do it that way. Whatever you do, don’t try to form associations. Don’t try to form political parties because you will end up with violence. Shelley! You are preparing a sea of blood.” And Shelley wrote back this:
“Will truth alone convert the world without generous advocates of the truth united to press its claim upon an unheeding generation? It is nearly twenty years since Political Justice was first published. What has followed? Have men ceased to fight? Has misery been banished from the earth? Have the fireside communications which it recommends taken place? I think of the last twenty years with impatient scepticism after the progress of which the human mind has? made during this period. I will own that I am eager that something should be done.”
In Queen Mab, he writes Godwin directly into the poem:
Whom the morn wakens but to fruitless toil;
Whoever hears his famished offspring's scream;
Whom their pale mother's uncomplaining gaze
Forever meets, and the proud rich man's eye
Flashing command, and the heart-breaking scene
Of thousands like himself; —he little heeds
The rhetoric of tyranny; his hate
Is quenchless as his wrongs; he laughs to scorn
The vain and bitter mockery of words,
Feeling the horror of the tyrant's deeds,
And unrestrained but by the arm of power,
That knows and dreads his enmity.”
“The man of ease, who, by his warm fireside,
To deeds of charitable intercourse
And bare fulfilment of the common laws
Of decency and prejudice confines
The struggling nature of his human heart,
Is duped by their cold sophistry; he sheds
A passing tear perchance upon the wreck
Of earthly peace, when near his dwelling's door
The frightful waves are driven, —when his son
Is murdered by the tyrant, or religion
Drives his wife raving mad. But the poor man
Whose life is misery, and fear and care;
Shelley could clearly see the difference between the reformism of Godwin sitting there by the fireside churning out the six guinea works, which people could discuss at fashionable soirées and the hatred, the anger, the unquenchable fury of working people who have nothing and who are beaten down by the power of the ruling class. He understood not only the exploitation, but he understood the need to do something about it, and he also understood that the will to do something about it can only really come in the end from the people who were most oppressed. For Shelley, it was not enough to talk about the problem of exploitation and tyranny. He wanted to do something about it.
But he applied himself all the time to the problem of tyranny, and perhaps there are lessons for us regarding the ideas which underpin tyranny. He could see, just as we can see, that the tyranny that exists in the society doesn’t sustain itself by proclaiming itself. Tyranny doesn’t say, “we are profiteers, we are exploiters, we are speculators; we love to speculate from the mountains” [laughter]. “What you have to do you navvies, is you have to agree to be speculated by us and profiteered and lynched, and robbed and looted. We’re looters and you are the looted, so let’s carry on like that. That's a fair form of society isn't it?” [laughter] That’s not how authority sustains itself at all. That is not how authority sustains itself. It sustains itself with a whole number of different ideas, which it imposes through its media— through the people who write and talk for authority. It imposes those ideas, and gets those ideas current among the people that it is trying to oppress, and therefore and thereby finds oppression much easier.
And Shelley took a number of these ideas and dealt with them all the way through his poetry. The first of them perhaps was the idea of God. The idea of religion. Perhaps not quite so central now to us in terms of holding people back. But then it was absolutely fundamental. As I say the very first essay that was ever published against religion, against organized and established religion in this country, was The Necessity of Atheism. And when I say “published,” I mean that Shelley used his father’s funds, which were not given for that purpose I can assure you [laughter]. He used his father’s funds to publish a just few copies and distribute them to the bishops of Oxford. That’s the level to which that got “published.” But Shelley understood that if people talk about God and take their command from a supernatural power and believe somehow that there is another world that they can go to and that any rewards that exist in society, exist not in this world but in another world, then that paves the way for authority and tyranny. That is an opening for people to be able to say: “Nothing you can do about it. Absolutely nothing you can do about it. All you have to do is believe.” Quoting The Revolt of Islam.
“Men say they have seen God, and heard from God,
Or known from others who have known such things,
And that his will is all our law, a rod
To scourge us into slaves—that Priests and Kings,
Custom, domestic sway, aye, all that brings
Man’s free-born soul beneath the oppressor’s heel,
Are his strong ministers, and that the stings
Of death will make the wise his vengeance feel,
Tho’ truth and virtues arm their hearts with tenfold steel.
All the way through The Revolt of Islam there is a attack on religion, on God. But the proclamation of atheism was censored from the end of The Revolt of Islam. Where the people who come up to be finally chained and burned to death by the authorities shout that they want to show how atheists and Republicans can die. And that was cut and carved out for about a hundred and fifty years after he wrote it. But those ideas, against God, against religion, are central to it. All the way through Queen Mab again is that attack upon the priests, the people that come in the name of God and in the name of some supernatural power from outside and who get rich and fat as a result of other people not noticing that they’re getting rich and fat because they are distracted by a philosophy based on the supernatural.
And then there was Shelley’s attitude to women. See, it wasn’t just that he noticed, that he saw all around him, that a part of human race was held in a particular form of tyranny. A particular form of contempt. It wasn’t just that he could see the result of that kind of domestic tyranny. Not only in the upper circles of society but all the way through the society. It’s not just that he wrote these very, very famous lines:
“Can man be free if woman be a slave?
Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air,
To the corruption of a closéd grave!
Can they, whose mates are beasts condemned to bear
Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare
To trample their oppressors? In their home,
Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear
The shape of woman-hoary Crime would come
Behind, and Fraud rebuild Religion's tottering dome.”
It’s not just that he saw that women were oppressed in the society, that the women were oppressed in the home; it’s not just that he saw the monstrosity of that. It’s not even just that he saw that there was no prospect whatever of any kind for revolutionary upsurge if men left women behind. Like, for example, in the 1848 rebellions in Paris where the men deliberately locked the women up and told them they couldn’t come out to the demonstrations that took place there because in some way or other that would demean the nature of the revolution. It wasn’t just that he saw the absurdity of situations like that. It was that he saw what happened when women did activate themselves, and did start to take control of their lives, and did start to hit back against repression. Shelley saw that what happened then was that again and again, wome seized the leadership of the forces that were in revolution! All through Shelley’s poetry, all his great revolutionary poems, the main agitators, the people that do most of the revolutionary work and who he gives most of the revolutionary speeches, are women. Queen Mab herself, Asia in Prometheus Unbound, Iona in Swellfoot the Tyrant, and most important of all, Cythna in The Revolt of Islam. All these women, throughout his poetry, were the leaders of the revolution and the main agitators. The person who says, “Can man be free if woman be a slave” is Cythna in The Revolt of Islam! She is taken captive and then she goes to her captors and calls on them to free her and the other prisoners and join with the revolution: “This need not be; ye might arise, and will / That gold should lose its power, and thrones their glory.”
And that comes from a woman. And he understood, just as we had better understand, and we better understand it fast, because it is a prejudice that goes back deeper than any other prejudice that exists in society today. We’d better understand that point: that when the women start to take control, and it’s not just the question of understanding oppression, paying lip service to the oppression, but the possibility of taking part and sharing in the revolutionary upheaval, actually of leadingit. That, I think, is one of the most inspiring parts of Shelley’s poetry.
And it follows from that, that when these people talk about Shelley, the Horshams, the lords and the ladies of literature throughout the ages, the Rossetti circle in the 1880s sitting and reading their Shelley by the fireside (perhaps one or two people might object to my being a bit cynical about that), they seemed to believe that Shelley was only concerned with love. A wonderful thing love, particularly for Victorian gentleman [laughter]. It was a thing, the relationship between men and women, that was founded on prettiness and obsequiousness and fawning and looking after your man and seeing that he has all the things that he needs and living your life through your man. That’s really what love meant to the people who read Shelley to themselves in the 1880s and 1890s. And they could pick out the pieces and little bits of love poetry. And Shelley was pretty guilty of it, you know: “what are all these kisses worth, if thou kiss not me.” They used to read this to one another. And really it was no more than just a seductive poetry of the worst kind if you want to know. But, they used to read it and say that Shelley was very interested in love; he was interested in that kind of love. He was interested in wooing. Young men wooing their young women in high society at that time always used to have a little copy of Shelley’s love poems, suitably censored [laughter], which they would perhaps read in the moonlight to one another in a romantic kind of way.
And of course he did write marvelous poetry and not that kind of drivel of which I’ve just spoken. He wrote very, very marvelous love poetry, including some descriptions of the sex act which in my view are some of the greatest ever written. The Victorians used to read these kinds of things to each other and titillate themselves and propose after the right kind of poetry had been said to one another. All that kind of thing.
And this is the most intolerable thing of all. Because the one thing that he did stand for, much more than anything else and he did write a great deal about the relationship between men and women and not only the relationship between men and women, but the relationship between men and men, and women and women. And men and women and children. And the relationship between human beings in general. The one thing that he understood perhaps more than anything, and it drove home more than anything, is that what is central to any real love, any real affection, and any real respect between human beings, is the lack of constraints. All the way through, that runs all the way through his poetry. And it’s not just Queen Mab, it’s not just the poem (which is magnificent), it’s the notes to the poem. I tell you, I read the notes to the poem when I was thirty-seven, and I spent the first two hours after reading them dreaming around the place thinking that this was absolutely fantastic [laughter]. And I spent the next two years after I read them wondering why the bloody hell hadn’t I read them before [laughter]? Absolutely appalling! Most of you had the opportunity of reading them before you were thirty-seven, but you missed the opportunity—and that is the most appalling thing you’ve ever done [laughter]. Quoting Queen Mab:
"The present system of constraint through marriage does no more, in the majority of instances, than make hypocrites or open enemies. Persons of delicacy and virtue, unhappily united to one whom they find it impossible to love, spend the loveliest season of their life in unproductive efforts to appear otherwise than they are, for the sake of the feelings of their partner or the welfare of their mutual offspring: those of less generosity and refinement openly avow their disappointment, and linger out the remnant of that union, which only death can dissolve, in a state of incurable bickering and hostility. The early education of their children takes its colour from the squabbles of the parents; they are nursed in a systematic school of ill-humour, violence, and falsehood. Had they been suffered to part at the moment when indifference rendered their union irksome, they would have been spared many years of misery: they would have connected themselves more suitably, and would have found that happiness in the society of more congenial partners which is forever denied them by the despotism of marriage. They would have been separately useful and happy members of society, who, whilst united, were miserable and rendered misanthropical by misery. The conviction that wedlock is indissoluble holds out the strongest of all temptations to the perverse: they indulge without restraint in acrimony, and all the little tyrannies of domestic life, when they know that their victim is without appeal. If this connection were put on a rational basis, each would be assured that habitual ill-temper would terminate in separation, and would check this vicious and dangerous propensity.”
I can’t tell you what kind of subversion that represented when it was written. And I can’t tell you the kind horror that ran through the minds of the people who wrote in the New Statesman, and the Spectators and the Couriers, and all the people of that time when they read that kind of thing. They felt the whole foundation of their miserable world was being undermined by that kind of writing. All the way through (there’s three or four pages of it) Shelley is talking about the indissolubility of the constraints, the economic constraints and the domestic constraints that exist in society. These constraints trap love, making it impossible for any kind of real relationships between human beings of any description to exist.
And of all the insults, which have been leveled against Shelley throughout of all these years, there is none to touch this one: the idea that he wrote about love as though it fitted with the Victorian ideal of love. That ideal of love comes out of a society which depends upon potentates at the top and potentates all the way through. Little despots and dictators all the way down from top to bottom. That ideal of the relationship exists in our society, and nothing comes clearer from Shelley’s poetry than that.
And I should say this, just in case anyone thinks at any stage that I think Shelley was a saint or a marvelous creature that was blameless in his own life or in his writings. Nothing could be further from the truth. For example, that little bit of drivel and doggerel that I quoted earlier about the kisses and the seductions. That type of thing runs through not only his poetry but also through a lot of his life. I think from time to time, and the fellow was prepared to “help himself,” he wasn’t prepared to assume responsibility. It was easy enough for him to say: “the answer is separation,” but the problem is, do both parties want to be separated?—that often is the problem. And he didn’t always apply his mind to that, in the terms of the equality of people. And therefore, I think that when you look at his life, and the way he lived his life, there is none of the perfection and the stringency of the ideals that appear in his poetry. And although there is some of it in his life, he certainly doesn’t live up to it.
But the point really is this, that the poetry and the writings and the things that he believed in, were there. There is a guide and a marker as to how people should determine their lives and how people could determine their lives if society wasn’t founded on constraint right the way through—all those economic restraints and domestic constraints that exist. And then people say, and they say it often with a lot of justifications, that there is a lot of talk about Shelley as a great revolutionary poet that doesn’t fit the facts; it doesn’t fit a lot of the things that Shelley wrote about. There were many, many aspects of Shelley’s writing, which appear to us to be quite crudely reformist, revisionist, if you want to use that kind of language, or even elitist if you want to use that kind of language. But there’s a whole number of things that he wrote, which indicate a rather different kind of approach when compared to the one that I have been talking about. Can I find it?
What he wrote in the Preface was that he was interested in reform and change in society. And he said he wanted to write only for an educated and intelligent group of people so that they can understand his intentions. There’s a whole lot of his writing which talks about the dangers of the mob and dangers of doing things too fast. For example: the pamphlet that I mentioned earlier, A Philosophical View of Reform, and another one very similar to it which he wrote in 1817 called A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote. As a matter fact in these writings, Shelley comes out against universal suffrage, against the thing which many other reformers were advocating; reformers who were much less revolutionary in my opinion than Shelley. He comes out against universal suffrage on the ground that no one wants to move too fast, that you can’t be quite sure about what the mob will do because they are not educated people and they’re not intelligent or sensitive people and they might make nonsense of universal suffrage and therefore, we ought to be careful about it.
And it is no good talking about Shelley in an idealistic or utopian matter—hagiography, writing about the man as though everything that he said fitted into the proper Socialist Workers Party line. In fact a lot of things go right against the kinds of things that I’ve been supporting. How can such clearly contradictory ideas such as those he espouses in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound, for example opposing universal suffrage, how can they be reconciled with the rest of his radical philosophy. Let me put it this way: a number of people, and particularly people who come to the revolutionary cause out of the ruling classes—a species, with which I have some familiarity—people such as this are like Shelley, who was all his life, or most of his life, very much isolated from the working people about whom he wrote and for whom he wanted to change the world. Such people, according to the degree to which they’re isolated from the working class, can have a “fear of the mob.”
Now, I don’t know, but there may be one or two people here that have not read a novel by George Eliot called Felix Holt. Now, some people have boils and some people have piles, and that’s very unfortunate. And some people haven’t read Felix Holt and that is also unfortunate [laughter]. The good news is that you can put that right. You can read it; but you don’t have to tell anyone that you haven’t read it before, and you can read it and pretend you read it ten years ago [laughter]. I know that’s what most you should have done because it’s a marvelous novel, a wonderful radical novel.
Felix Holt is about a man who is perhaps the nicest man ever written about in the whole of literature. You can’t help reading Felix Holt without feeling a fantastic affection for him. He was lovely. Everybody loved him. He wanted to change the world. He wanted to be with the workers, and he didn’t like all the hypocrisy of the society, and he was wonderful. There was one thing about him and there is also one thing about George Eliot, and that was they both had this “fear of the mob”; uncertainty about unleashing the mob. The same uncertainty Shelley expresses in A Philosophical View Reform. Shelley was uncertain about universal suffrage and had debates with Willian Godwin about universal suffrage. Godwin being a Methodist minister was in favour of universal suffrage. Like Felix Holt, Shelley was afraid of the mob. And if there is one nightmare, the traditional nightmare of the bourgeois novelist or poet, or for that matter the average Labour Member of Parliament [laughter], it is the nightmare of the mob in action. There is a passage in Felix Holt I want to point out. It is a Saturday, and he’s sitting there thinking about his ideas, and he realizes there is an election underway and that there is a riot [laughter]! He thinks, “Oh my God, there’s a riot!,” and he leaves home to keep the people in check, and he talks to them about what they should do. But a lot of people are stampeding, demanding and picketing, and kicking Clive Jenkins in the balls [laughter] and all that kind of thing. Shouting down Albert Booth. All these things are happening and he’s telling the people, “For god’s sake, watch it, don’t do it. You can’t do this! It’s the mob!” And he’s standing there and here come the yeomanry, and they shoot him because they think he’s the leader [laughter]!
That’s the terror of every bourgeois radical. That's the nightmare that they have: they wake up sweating in the night [laughter]. All the Labour MPs, all the reformers, they wake up and think, “My god, have we unleashed the mob by what we’re doing? [Laughter.] Shelley! You’re preparing the sea of blood! Remember what Godwin said? Perhaps that’s what’s gonna happen. The mob! We’ve got to watch out for the mob! The mob aren’t intelligent!” And all these prejudices sank in to the ruling class mind, that sensitive, intelligent and ruling class mind, the one that doesn’t go along with his class’ ideology. But then that sort of person comes to some other ideology, some reforming or radical ideology, and then he finds he’s worried about what he unleashes. Just like the people who 40 years later read Felix Holt. Nice, radical bourgeois people read George Eliot, read Felix Holt and thought oh it’s the nightmare! The mob, the election riot and Holt who is shot through the shoulder and then put in prison, by the way, for leading the riot in the first place [laughter].
And that sort of idea is in some of Shelley. People aren’t—they aren’t perfect. And they don’t have ideas which are pure. And there’s some part of Shelley all the time forging its way out, here and there, in some of his poems. You know, there’s a passage in The Mask of Anarchy where he says the answer to violent oppression is to fold your arms when the yeomanry come next time. He’s talking about the people that had been mowed down at Peterloo, women and children, murdered at Peterloo. And he says, “next time, fold your arms resolutely, thinking about the laws of England, the good old laws of England. Stand there and talk about the law of England, and stand there and let them mow you down and then maybe everything will be all right but whatever you do, don’t unleash yourself.”
And that was one part of him. Of course, there was another side of him, the side that I talked about already, the side of him that says, “Yes. You’ve got to get them [laughter]. You’ve got to move and get them.” There are two sides to his personality, constantly coming out.
Shelley wrote a whole series of letters to a woman called Elizabeth Hitchener when he was a young man. He had a long correspondence with her. And I’ll just read out one section of it but this is typical of his other side, a side that was different from the reformist side, the side that was worried about the mob. There was another side to him as well. Shelley wrote: “They may seethe and they may riot, and they may sin at the last moment. The groans of the wretched may pass unheeded till the latest moment of this infamous revelry (of the rich), till the storm burst upon them and the oppressed take ruinous vengeance on their oppressors.” “Ruinous vengeance”? What the hell is that? That’s Felix Holt saying exactly what you shouldn’t do! [laughter]. In Shelley’s poem Swellfoot the Tyrant, which is a wonderful poem, which has been sneered at by a lot of people who think it isn’t funny, what he has, is a lot of pigs. [laughter]. The pigs are snorting away and doing everything they are told and then suddenly the pigs turn into people and all the oppressors, all the priests and the parasites and speculators and industrialists and people of that kind and commercialists, they turn into pigs. And the pigs turn into people. And then you have a fantastic scene at the end of the poem in which he has the pigs driven out and killed. What happened to all this talk that you must never take people’s lives, that you mustn’t be a retributionist and you mustn’t seek revenge? And then he goes completely out of school, and now he’s ultra-left in his attitude to what they should do to the pigs: get them out, drive them out, pin them down and stick them in the back! Anything! Just get them! When Shelley is aroused to fury by what he sees going on around him, you see a very different attitude to violence.
And really it comes to a climax, this division, this contrast between the way in which he thought about revolutions and oppressions and the mob: all these things come to a climax when he writes Prometheus Unbound. Now that’s a very difficult poem to read. I have lots of people who’ve come up to me since we had the meeting at Skegness last year and they say, “Well, I tried to read this thing, this Prometheus Unbound, but it is very difficult to read.” And so it is. It is very difficult to read. But the most important thing about it in my view, is that it brings that contradiction—between his fear of the mob and the need for revolution—to a head and forces it through to some kind of conclusion.
And this is the story of Prometheus. I was a Greek scholar. I’ll admit it [laughter]. I was a Greek scholar at school. I was very, very good at Greek; we didn’t have to be good at anything else. And, well, I’m not actually all that good at it [laughter]. But anyways, I was a Greek scholar, and we were taught this about Prometheus: we were taught that it was a Greek legend. And it was simply this: that there was a man, Prometheus, who dared to say that Jupiter was not god of the Earth. We were taught this was an absolute scandal, and that Prometheus was a really revolting, subversive figure. And he was treated in a way in which subversive figures ought to be treated. He defied Jupiter, he dared to invent fire, and he had the idea that the science of this invention might advance the cause of mankind instead of advancing the cause of Jupiter. Jupiter’s view was that the science was really a radical idea in the first place, that we would be better off without science of any kind in order that his rule could be more secure. But Prometheus disobeyed Jupiter, invented fire and gave science to humanity and he was treated in a way in which all naughty school boys ought to be treated, which is to be chained to a rock for seven million years [laughter]. And every evening a vulture came and gnawed out his liver which would grow again by the following morning and then the vulture would come again and gnaw it out again. And it was extremely painful. I understand the Turkish authorities in Cyprus are looking into this form of dealing with recalitrants of one kind or another [laughter].
And the whole thing was taught to us in that way. The original story was written, as a matter of fact, by a man called Aeschylus and it was called Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound. And he did have an idea about how people should rebel against authority. But we were not taught that. I read the whole bloody thing in Greek. I never came to that conclusion; I never even started to come to that conclusion. But anyways, there we are. Here is a man in revolt against authority and he’s chained to a rock.
Shelley writes a poem about this man chained to the rock and how his lover Asia seeks to get him off the rock. He represents oppressed mankind. Now Asia loved militants. Richard Holmes, whose book is the only one worth reading on the subject, describes her love as militant. She is trying to get him out of there. That’s the point: how the hell do you get him out of there? What do you do to get him out of that situation?
It’s very interesting the way in which critics write about Prometheus Unbound. Because there is another character in this play; in this play/poem. Prometheus Unbound contains some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the whole history of English literature. But you have here another character called Demogorgon. But what is Demogorgon? You can read all the books you want. You can try looking him up in the index. Everybody discusses it. Who is this Demogorgon? They tell you it is a spirit, some kind of weird thing that Asia goes to and appeals to, to help her save Prometheus. You see her man is in trouble [laughter]. And in the same way you would go to an altar or to some deity and say: “now who can help me save my man” [laughter].
But actually the original Greek actually assists us here. Because the word “Demogorgon,” as I understand it and as Richard Holmes understands it and as no one else has yet understood it [laughter], comes from two words in Greek: demos, that means “the people” and gorgon, which means “the monster.” He is the “people monster” [laughter].
Now where does Asia go to save Prometheus? She goes to the “people monster.” She goes down to his cave in Act 2, Scene 4 of Prometheus Unbound which is one of the most fantastic passages in the whole of literature. I am going to find this even if it takes me half an hour to find it. I bloody well got to find this. Act 1 is extremely difficult to read and I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t read it and if I were you I would go straight to Act 2, Scene 4 [laughter]. Quoting Prometheus Unbound:
“Act 2, Scene 4—The Cave of Demogorgon. Asia and Panthea.
Panthea: What veiléd form sits on that ebon throne?
Asia: The veil has fallen.
Panthea: I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun.
— Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living Spirit.
Demogorgon: Ask what thou wouldst know.
Asia: What canst thou tell?
Demogorgon: All things thou dar’st demand.
Asia: Who made the living world?
Asia: Who made all
That it contains? thought, passion, reason, will,
Demogorgon: God: Almighty God.
Asia: Who made that sense which, when the winds of Spring
In rarest visitation, or the voice
Of one belovéd heard in youth alone,
Fills the faint eyes with falling tears which dim
The radiant looks of unbewailing flowers,
And leaves this peopled earth a solitude
When it returns no more?
Demogorgon: Merciful God.
Asia: And who made terror, madness, crime, remorse,
Which from the links of the great chain of things,
To every thought within the mind of man
Sway and drag heavily, and each one reels
Under the load towards the pit of death;
Abandoned hope, and love that turns to hate;
And self-contempt, bitterer to drink than blood;
Pain, whose unheeded and familiar speech
Is howling, and keen shrieks, day after day;
And Hell, or the sharp fear of Hell?
Demogorgon: He reigns.
Asia: Utter his name: a world pining in pain
Asks but his name: curses shall drag him down.”
And Asia whips him with agitation, whips him with it. She asks a simple question first: “Is it God who done it? Well, then, what about all the dirty things that are going on? What are you gonna do about that?” All the way through this passage she is whipping him and agitating him.
“Asia: Whom calledst thou God?
Demogorgon: I spoke but as ye speak,
For Jove is the supreme of living things.
Asia: Who is the master of the slave?”
Asking the question, “who is the master of the slave?” And on and on and on until she says:
“Prometheus shall arise
Henceforth the sun of this rejoicing world:
When shall the destined hour arrive?”
And what happens after all of her agitation, her constant agitation? What happens after Asia demands that Demogorgon bring new ideas to her that he come out of his old religious superstitions and backward ideas, his old racist ideas? What happens? What happens is that two cars emerge out of the cave. Two cars representing change, representing the powers that are going to go after Jupiter and who? deal with him. In one way or another, they’re going to deal with him. I’m not gonna read that out to you. I’ll leave that for you to read. But what I will read is Richard Holmes’ description of what those two cars mean, what they represent. And here is the synthesis, if you like, the coming to grips with the problems that he had all his life about the masses. Would the masses respond and what would happen if they did? What was the problem of the mob? All these things. [Quoting Holmes]:
“There are two chariots mentioned: the one that brings Demogorgon to Jupiter is undoubtedly terrible and violent: Jupiter, authoritarian government, is to be overwhelmed by massive force, and the process in society is to be like a volcanic eruption and an earthquake which “ruins” cities. The etymological reading is surely relevant here. It is the eruption of ‘Demogorgon,’ the ‘people monster.’
Yet there is also the second chariot with its “delicate strange tracery,” and its gentle charioteer with “dove-like eyes of hope.” This is the chariot which carries Asia and Panthea back to Prometheus, and it seems to indicate that political freedom transforms man’s own nature and substitutes an ethic of love for the ideology of revenge and destruction represented by Prometheus’s curse. The end of Act II leaves both those possibilities open historically. Revolution will come, but how it will come depends on man himself. There are always two chariots. In either case it is inevitable, and it is to be celebrated.”
Now we don’t say that it is inevitable. But the point is this: that in either case the synthesis there, the dialectic if you like, of the argument about the mob—that the mob might go and supersede itself—is really met in that great passage there. Everyone says that it is the greatest passage ever, but nobody understands what it’s about! They don’t understand what’s going on in his head because they have separated Shelley from his ideas. They don’t understand what the imagery is about. They say: “this is a very beautiful passage; learn it off by heart and shut up.” If you ask any questions they’ll tell you: “Demogorgon, yes that’s all very interesting, Demogorgon’s rather like Mary, the mother of Jesus, that’s the sort of creature Demogorgon is.” They unleash all kinds of fanciful ideas about what Demogorgon stands for. But the fact of the matter is, that you do have a synthesis there coming out of the dialectic of the argument. The fact of the matter is that when you rise up, you can have civil war, bloody revolution and all kinds of violence on the one hand. On the other hand, if you’re strong enough, powerful and forceful enough, you can do it by cutting down on the amount of violence and do it with that gentle “dove-eyed charioteer.” Either way, probably, if the truth be known, it will be a mixture of both. But either way it is to be celebrated. Either way it has to be supported. And the point about Shelley is this: that although there is his statement about writing for elites that aren’t gonna do the job, there is no conclusive proof that whenever he came to test the two ideas. that he came out on that side. There is no evidence at all for this. You read for instance Stephen Spender. Oh, Stephen Spender [laughter]. Stephen Spender, you know, that old Stalinist hack from the thirties who couldn’t even bear to be a Stalinist and who gave that up and then just sort of driveled on in the Times Literary Supplement. And he writes that there’s lots of proof that Shelley at the end of his life gave up his revolutionary ideals.That’s not what happened at all. Prometheus Unbound was written right at the end of his life. There are also all the great poems of 1819 including The Mask of Anarchy and other shorter poems including one that starts off, “An old mad, blind, despised and dying king.” That’s not the line of a man who’s giving up the struggle. His attacks on the Castlereagh administration comes right at the end of his life. Those things happened. And the people that understand Shelley, understand that he would have gone on to develop these themes. The tragedy is that he did die when he did, otherwise he would have gone on to develop his ideas among the rising working-class movement that was taking place.
One person who understood it, thankfully, is Karl Marx who was writing at the same time as all these drivellers who were mucking about in Horsham [laughter]. Or a little earlier at any rate. This book is the Franz Mehring biography of Marx. One thing did come out of that dreadful series on Eleanor Marx that was on the television recently. Only one or two tiny little scraps of information and importance came out. One of the things was that Marx and his family were great lovers of literature and weren’t people that looked back on literature in the way in which some sectarian people do: as though it were something all belonging to the bourgeois class, as if all real literature starts from the revolution. He was someone who looked back and reveled in the great literature that had been written. Quoting Mehring:
“After Marx had become permanently domiciled in London, English literature took first place and the tremendous figure of Shakespeare dominated the field. In fact, the whole family practiced what amounted to a Shakespearean cult. Unfortunately, Marx never at any time dealt with Shakespeare’s attitude toward the great questions of his day. Referring to Byron and Shelley, however, he declared that those who loved and understood those two poets must consider it fortunate that Byron died at the age of 36. For had he lived out his full span he would have undoubtedly have become a reactionary bourgeois. Whilst regretting on the other hand that Shelley died at the age of 29. For Shelley was a thorough revolutionary and would’ve remained in the van of socialism all his life.”
He did, although dead, remain in the van of socialism.
The greatness of that book by Richard Holmes is that it traces this other Shelley, that revolutionary Shelley, that Shelley who would have remained in the van of socialism all of his life. It traces that Shelley through the years that followed his death. It traces him through the period of the Chartists. I have a book here, the nicest book I’ve got that is not on loan to anybody. This is a publication of Queen Mab, which is dated 1831.
It was published without Shelley’s permission by a man called William Clark who was one of the many people at that time that started to publish literature on the streets, in the stalls, outside the ordinary publishing houses, without the necessary stamps and without the necessary government approval. They sold books and essays by the millions. And this copy of Queen Mab was a book like that. It didn’t look like this in those days, it was just a leaflet which was dished out. Between 1821 and 1841 there were fourteen separate editions of Queen Mab published by working class publishers for working people. They were sometimes given away or sold at very cheap prices in bookstalls and places of work all around the places and the neighborhoods where working class people lived. No one knows how many copies were sold, but we have a better idea about how many editions there were. These were just the fourteen editions that Richard Holmes has discovered. But there were many, many more, no doubt, than that, including pirate editions of The Mask of Anarchy and the Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte.
All these wonderful words were published not by the bourgeois publishers who on the whole tried to keep Shelley’s work for themselves and instigated all kinds of prosecutions against the people. Richard Carlile was hounded off the streets. He was prosecuted and sent to prison for three years for publishing Queen Mab.
Richard Carlisle published all of Shelley’s work in his journal, The Republican. He also sold copies of Shelley’s works in Ireland. Richard Carlile spent years and years and years in Dorchester prison, still giving orders that these sorts of publications should be published. That tradition goes all the way through the 1830s and through the 1840s and on. Thomas Cooper, the “Chartist Rhymer,” used to deal with the fact that many people could not read by going to the workers’ meetings and reading poetry. They read out Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy, “Men of England,” “1819” and the rest of Shelley’s radical poems. They used to read those things out to people and people used to learn them and pass them on to their families. And that’s a tradition which is varied from the bourgeois publishers, a tradition that comes down through that Bernard Shaw meeting in 1890 and right up to the earliest Communist movement in the 1920s when Shelley again was a great favourite.
And I say the “earliest communist movement” in the 1920s, because the later communist movement does not find Shelley a favourite. Where’s the book? Here is a disgusting book by a man called David Daiches [laughter] who is I think still a professor of literature somewhere or other. It was published in the good old days by the Left Book Club; they published two hundred and fifty-seven books which is quite a considerable feat of publishing except so much of it is utter drivel. And here is the response to Shelley of what I think you might call the left/labour/communist tradition in 1938. Quoting Daiches’ Literature and Society:
“In Shelley’s poetry, he’s continually stressing the inevitability of man’s natural goodness eventually destroying the bonds that enslave the world. He thinks chiefly of the ideal rather than the means for its attainment. Although later socialist thinkers may look on him as a forerunner, he is in no way a political thinker in the modern sense. He had the outlook on life of a sensitive and intelligent child. He never faced the real problems of earthly existence, though on the other hand he never consciously retired into a dream world. If he did spend time in an unreal world, he did not realize it; he thought it was the real world and judged accordingly.”
That is why Shelley, for all of his great lyrical faculty, is a poet that he finds sooner or later to be unsatisfying. This a book called Literature and Society. And that is the passage devoted to Shelley by a man who is part of a movement which had lost its lust for the activity of human beings, of real human beings; lost its enthusiasm and vigor in terms of the operation of masses of people. An intellectual movement which is cut off from the tradition of Thomas Cooper and the Chartists, Richard Carlile, Bernard Shaw and the early communists, even people like Willie Gallacher who used to run around the Clyde shouting the poems of Shelley. And then there is a little review of Holmes’ book in the Morning Star the other day which is even more revolting than David Daiches, because they too have lost the vigor and the enthusiasm which Shelley had for the people.
And that really, ah, brings us to this meeting and why we’re here. We have forgotten that we are part of a tradition which goes back to Shelley. So, let me just end off by saying one or two things about the importance of that tradition and why it’s important that we talk and read about Shelley. See, I think we—most of us here—come out of a more modern political tradition, which is part of a sectarian world. A modern tradition where reaching people was not our problem because no one appeared to want to be reached. A tradition in which we were isolated from the masses. And as we were isolated from the masses, it became necessary for us to turn inward to people who shared the same, or roughly the same, revolutionary ideas. And we developed, therefore, a manner of speaking and writing and a language which is very much separated from the speaking or reading of the masses. And we isolated ourselves and developed what I like to call a kind of internal “bulletinese”—a sort of language which was always worried about the great hideous party line. We worried whether we were in order with the party line, and if we weren’t in order with the party line we knew we’d better trim our language and correct what we said so that is conformed to the party line. We worried about whether or not we had got the right way of saying things so that we wouldn’t get stabbed in the back by members of the IMG or the SLL who happened to be sitting around in the meeting. But there was no one real in the meeting at all. There was no one real in the meeting, and it was all unreal and therefore you had to develop a language that was unreal. We developed an absolutely disgusting party line filled with political bile and also a way of denouncing people. We became very, very good at denouncing other people. Always smashing them, exposing them: “alien-agents of the Pentagon.” We developed a way of talking about people as though they were hostile to us. And we thought that everyone was hostile to us. We came out of that tradition.
Now everybody knows that this is changing. Changing very, very fast and changing faster than we can cope with sometimes. And the point is we have to develop a language which suits the change because we are for mobilizing the masses. We are for doing what Asia and Demogorgon did. But we can only do that if we develop a language which is suited for that purpose, a language which the people can understand. A language which has some bite and zest and enthusiasm. That’s what we have to do and that’s why I think reading great revolutionary poets like Shelley is fundamentally important. It is filled with all kinds of images, all kinds of similes and metaphors, ways of saying things; different ways of saying things. The great masters of language really understood language and could use it like great musicians use the piano. These are things we need to soak up. We need to really go back and soak it up. Particularly when those great masters of language are in line with our politics.
And then I would say another thing. You see this happen when you see people talking and arguing with one another in the streets. You see them arguing about, I don’t know, say austerity or something like that. And they are talking in a normal fashion until they see somebody coming up, say a member of the Central Committee or a member of some other faction or something of that kind. And then you absolutely, really do see people change in midstream. They were talking away about people’s children and their lives and they were trying to get them to understand something and trying to be on the level with them, and someone from the Central Committee comes along and they’ll suddenly snap into the old routine, bloody, ritualistic rhetoric. And then you see the worker they were talking to get that confused look of embarrassment. And they are thinking, “My God! What the hell is all this about? It’s nothing to do with me. I have to get away. I’ve found the perfect excuse to get away and pay no attention to this person.” These things matter. Yes, people say a lot of the time that Shelley is difficult to read. People often say his poetry is difficult to read. But it is worth it. The value that you get out of reading it is to be able to turn it around and use the language: the metaphors and the similes.
And there is something else about the way we have grown up politically. I think because we were so small and isolated from the outside world, we developed a skepticism. This came from observing people who said that they were going to do things and then didn’t do those things. For example, politicians who promised they would do things after the election if they were elected to office and then did not do those things. Communist party people who were very sentimental about freedom and liberty but didn’t appear to be doing anything about freedom or liberty. And therefore, we developed a skepticism. A skepticism which, to some extent, shaped our language and our attitudes. We were skeptical all the time and we worried about the tendency to say one thing and do another and therefore we were able to grow out of that phase. It wasn’t a healthy thing. The fact that we’re here at all is because people held the line. They held their line through their skepticism and they were able to say “We don’t approve of that kind of thing, that bloody sentimentalism. And we don’t approve because that’s reformism and opportunism. We don’t go for those kinds of things.”
But the problem now is much more serious than that. The problem is that there is a line drawn between skepticism and cynicism, and that line is an extremely narrow one. It’s very, very easy for the skeptic to topple over into being a cynic. And a cynic can never be a revolutionary. It is absolutely impossible for a cynic to be a revolutionary because they don’t see the possibilities—they don’t believe that it’s possible that working people can change their lives and change society. And therefore, there’s a danger that we might hold on to our skepticism and hold on, if you like, to what we believe to be the party line. If we do this there is a danger we will not undertake the task that’s most important for us, which is, among the working people of this country, to unlock the enthusiasm, the excitement that exists in every human being. And that’s what changes people more than anything else, just allowing people to be enthusiastic and to have the enthusiasm and the energy to change society. To come away from that dreary skepticism by which we on the left managed to keep ourselves together, during that period in which we were isolated from the people, and going to the masses with the enthusiasm, with the feeling, that society can be changed. That every militant in the factory can change the world.
I was in a blanket factory the other day talking to a woman of fifty-nine and now crippled with arthritis. She was losing twenty-five pounds a month because she refused to take her pension so she could fight to save the factory. You sit opposite this woman, and you feel that there is nothing that the stooges could do to curb her. Nothing. And you feel that we are absolutely together in the battle. Her enthusiasm was incredible. She was saying, “I want to fight! I’m not having these bastards on my back, I’m with you.” And then I felt a little bit embarrassed about saying who I was, where I was from and what paper I represented. Because I felt cut off from her fighting tradition. We have to find a way to harness the enthusiasm of people like her. I think enthusiasm is the centrepiece. All the time—enthusiasm.
Of all the things about Shelley that really inspired people in the 160 years since his death, the thing that matters above all is his enthusiasm for the idea that the world can be changed. It shapes all his poetry. And when you come to read “Ode to the West Wind” where he writes about the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” and the leaves being blown by the wind, then you understand that he sees the leaves as multitudes of people stricken by a pestilence. You begin to see his ideas, his enthusiasm and his love of life. He believed in life and he really felt that life is what mattered. That life could and should be better than it is. Could be better and should be better. Could and should be changed. That was the thing he believed in most of all.
And the thing that make me most furious is when people say that he committed suicide. That he ran that ship into the storm on purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. There he was in Leghorn on the 8th of July 1822 rushing around and arranging his plans for a political quarterly with Leigh Hunt and rushing hurrying to get back to Jane Williams and meet other people. The sky was beautiful, and the weather was good and he loved his boat. He loved life. He loved life all the time. And all the time that he loved it, he saw the way in which it was damaging masses and masses of people around him. And he saw the need to change it.
It is a little like lying in bed on a Sunday morning with no meetings and no demonstrations to go to. And you think life is terrific. You’re lying there and you’re drinking your one cup of coffee a week, and you’re thinking, “well this is great” [laughter]. And the sun is coming through the window and you’re bantering with your children and you think “well, you know, life is pretty good, really. It’s pretty good. Everything is all right and I don’t have anything really to complain about.” And then you pick up the bloody Sunday Times or the Observer, and you read there about some people in Chile or in Cyprus or about some woman whose body has been broken at the hand of some torturer or executioner. And then you begin to feel the rage, the fury boiling up in you. You begin to feel that fury. But a light comes on that represents what could be and a light comes on that represents what should be. And you think about what could be and what should be on the one hand and what is, on the other hand, and it is intolerable. It has to be changed, and it can only be changed by the action of the masses.
It was the same for Shelley basking in the sunlight in Leghorn in 1819, coming down for breakfast, chatting to his family and enjoying life - thinking of the boat trip that he was gonna take that day, thinking of the winds and the sun, the stars. And suddenly, the papers come in from England and the papers tell the story of the massacre of women and children at Peterloo. And Shelley flies up into the attic in a fury. And raging and furious he writes The Mask of Anarchy and he didn’t have a Socialist Workers Party to activate, he didn’t have an organization and that was part of his problem—he had no one around him. But he had the ability to write. He had the ability to write an appeal for revolution, which all of us must feel.
‘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.’”
[Quoting Mask of Anarchy:]
“‘And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
A volcano heard afar.
‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
My thanks to Jon Kerr who has recently joined me as a part time editorial and research assistant. In 2017, Jon received his PhD from the University of Toronto having written a dissertation on Shelley. Jon provided valuable editorial assistance in the finalization of this publication. During the summer of 2017 I had previously published Foot's speech in three parts on my website. This edition is the first time the entire speech has been available in one place. It was a gargantuan effort involving hundreds of hours of listening, researching and writing. I dedicate this to the memory of the late, great Paul Foot - we miss you Paul, thank you.
 This speech appears to be a variation of a paper Foot wrote in 1975 called “Shelley: The Trumpet of a Prophecy.” You can find this paper here. Another version was delivered as a speech in 1992 and can be found here.
 It was selected by Julian Roach in The Guardian as one of the top 10 books about Shelley. You can enjoy an excellent review of Red Shelley, more of an appreciation, by William Keach in International Socialism, the journal of the Socialists Workers Party (of which Foot was a founding member).
 Geoffrey Ashe, Ghandi, New York: Stein and Day, 1968. 103-105. Art Young, Shelley and Non-Violence, The Hague: Mouton, 1975. 23. Roland Duerksen, Shelley: Political Writings, New York: Appelton-Century-Crofts, 1970. vii.
 Young, 163.
 Foot is now going to expound on one of the major issues in Shelley studies: the fact that two very different versions of Shelley have appeared in the years after his death. One of these versions focused on his lyric and love poetry; the other focused on his radical political beliefs. In my notes, I will refer to them as the “Lyrical Shelley” and the “Radical Shelley.” You can read more about this here. It has been the subject of countless books and articles. Most recently, Michael Gavin weighed in on the extraordinary effect Mary Shelley’s early collection of Shelley’s works, entitled Posthumous Poems, has had on his reputation as a love poet.
 Foot is now about to relay what took place at two different meetings, held on the same day, to celebrate the centenary of Shelley’s birth. Foot’s account relies exclusively upon an article by George Bernard Shaw which appeared in the Albermarle Review, September 1892, called “Shaming the Devil About Shelley.” The first meeting took place in Horsham, near where Shelley was born. The organizers were launching a subscription to raise the funds build a free Shelley Library and Museum in Horsham. Libraries in those days were membership-only affairs and could be quite costly. The point behind a “free” library was to make it available to the working classes. The second took place the same evening in what Shaw described at the “easterly parish of St Luke’s.” This meeting, characterized by Shaw as a “proletarian celebration,” was called by G.W. Foote, the President of the National Secular Society, and was attended by members of the working class. The two meetings thus served as a point of contrast for Foot.
 Melvyn Bragg and Lady Antonia Fraser, members of the English “literati,” are clearly being lampooned here by Foot, held up as modern representatives of the Victorian upper classes.
 Foot is being derisive. Shelley’s father had disowned him for his atheism. Foot is suggesting that the people who came to the meeting came to worship the Lyrical Shelley, the one which Foot calls the “neutered, castrated Shelley.”
 “Shaming the Devil About Shelley,” in Pen Portraits and Reviews. London. Constable and Company 1932. Pages 236-246.
 Again, more heavy sarcasm from Foot.
 Referring to Shelley’s attacks on religion, such as The Necessity of Atheism.
 John Cordy Jeaffreson (1831-1901), author of the biography The Real Shelley (1885).
 “Shaming the Devil About Shelley,” page 241.
 Sir Edmund Goss (1849-1928) was an English man of letters who belonged to the Shelley Society. He was obviously not a favourite of Foot’s, and his Encyclopedia Britannica entry seems to suggest Foot did not miss his mark: “Unfortunately, Gosse was active just before the modern revolution in standards of scholarship and criticism, so that much of his critical and historical output now appears amateurish in its inaccuracies and carelessness.”
 Goss delivered the “keynote” speech on that occasion.
 He was in fact 29 when he died.
 The Home Office was formed in 1782. Among its many functions was the operation of the secret service.
 Foot is referring to the obituary that appeared in The Courier, a Tory newspaper.
 Foot’s point is that the people who idealized Shelley in the Victorian period were as bad as the people who vilified him during his life. In either case, Shelley loses, because the picture of him that is presented to the world is false.
 Richard Arthur Hughes (1900-1976).
 See Quigley’s Introduction to her edited volume Selected Poetry, first published by Penguin in 1956.
 Foot here refers to a 1951 edition of Shelley’s writings edited by Nonesuch Press, entitled Shelley: Selected Poetry, Prose, and Letters.
 See Glover’s introduction to the Nonesuch Press collection.
 Edward Dowden was the author of The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1886. A controversial figure in Shelley studies, he was the first to have gained access to Shelley’s manuscripts and letters, thanks to Sir Percy Florence’s wife, Lady Shelley. Fiercely protective of Shelley’s reputation, and a proponent of the Lyrical Shelley, she never actually showed Dowden the manuscripts, merely her own edited, and, as some alleged, perhaps forged versions. Nonetheless, Dowden’s book was the first to reveal what Matthew Arnold (in his essay “Ineffectual Angel”) euphemistically called Shelley’s “irregular relations.” Oxford’s Regius Professor of History, Edward Freeman, wrote, “After reading Dowden it was no longer possible to read Shelley on love and liberty with the same pleasure as before and no longer possible to study him without dragging unpalatable biographical facts into the critical assessments. The poetry was tarnished by the biography.” (See Freeman’s 1887 speech “Literature and Language”). For Foot, Dowden’s sin was to ignore the Radical Shelley in favour of the Lyrical Shelley.
 From Glover’s introduction to his 1896 edition of The Life of Percy Shelley, page 213.
 On page 289 of Glover’s The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. 2, published by Keagan and Paul in 1886.
 The four-volume edition of Shelley’s poetry issued by Mary in 1839.
 In Hellas, Shelley maintains that England needs the same sort of revolutionary inspiration that was influencing the Greek fight for freedom.
 I haven’t been able to find Foot’s source here.
 Shaw has refrained from debating the vision of Shelley presented by the Horsham organizers for fear of jeopardizing the successful launch of the fund to build a free library for the working people.
 This is not quite correct. As Shaw tells it, he left early in order to catch the train to London so that he might attend the other meeting. Further, there was no such statue yet built; it was in fact a relief that had been proposed by the Horsham committee. Shaw described it as follows: “a relief representing Shelley in a tall hat, Bible in hand, leading his children on Sunday morning to the church of his native parish” (page 243).
 Foot now returns to the “proletarian meeting” which took place in London in St Luke’s parish.
 This is also not accurate. It was the President of the National Secular Society, G.W. Foote who recited the poem. See Shaw’s account of this in “Shaming the Devil about Shelley,” page 244. For obvious rhetorical purposes, Foot would have preferred the poem to be recited by heart by a worker.
 Shelley’s “Men of England,” lines 1-8.
 This may have resonated profoundly with Foot as he also came from an upper-class background.
 Foot is referring to the fact that Shelley refused to participate in the ritual hazing to which new students were subjected.
 Foot refers here to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), British Foreign Secretary and Chief Secretary for Ireland; and John Scott, Lord Eldon (1751-1838). As Lord Chancellor, Scott denied Shelley custody of his children following his first wife's suicide.
 Lines 5-29.
 Foot is referring to “An Address to the People on The Death of the Princess Charlotte.” This was a political essay written by Shelley in 1817 that was not published until 1843. Shelley contrasted the outpouring of grief over the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth with the complete absence of public concern for the execution of three laborers who were hanged and beheaded for taking part in the Derby Insurrection.
 Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817), Daughter of King George IV, who died following childbirth.
 From Shelley’s “Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte.”
 That is, that authority takes its sustenance from the exploitation of the working class and from the wealth that is robbed from the working class
 Foot now tries to distinguish between the radicalism of Shelley and what he calls the “reformism” of Godwin. He ridicules Godwin repeatedly for avoiding the real issues afflicting the working classes. Foot also contrasts Godwin’s bourgeoisie-friendly “fireside” reform programme with Shelley’s understanding that change can only come when the people revolt.
 Foot’s point is that the book was too expensive for the working class and was therefore unlikely to be read by anyone likely to cause trouble for the government. It could therefore be ignored by the authorities.
 Shelley visited Ireland in 1812. Most biographers and commentators treat this excursion as a youthful indiscretion and pay little heed to it. Kenneth Neil Cameron, however, writing in The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, accords it very serious attention and believes it constitutes an essential stage in the development of Shelley’s radicalism. William Keach also has an excellent article on this phase of Shelley’s career. Cameron advances much evidence to suggest that the Irish themselves treated his ideas quite seriously. He writes: “But his trip to Ireland was not in vain, for Irishmen later looked back with pride that one of the great English poets had joined in their cause, and were surprised at his insight; and the Irish at the time, while aware of his errors and limitations, regarded him with sympathy.”
 Foot paraphrases Godwin here.
 This is from a letter Shelley wrote to Godwin on 24 February 1812.
 You can tell that Shelley has Godwin in mind in Queen Mab, I think, because of the reference to the fireside.
 Revolt of Islam, Canto VIII, Stanza VII.
 Revolt of Islam, Canto II, Stanza XLVIII.
 Revolt of Islam, Canto VIII, Stanza XVI.
 Foot is referring back to the people who live in the district of Horsham whom he ridiculed in Part 1.
 Foot misquotes from Shelley’s poem “Love’s Philosophy,” lines 15-16.
 From note 111 to Queen Mab.
 Foot is likely referring to Shelley’s highly controversial separation from Harriet, his first wife.
 Foot means that Shelley captured his philosophical ideas about equality in his writings, but perhaps not in his life.
 Foot is referring to a famous and controversial passage in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound in which Shelley suggests he is writing for a tiny elite of educated readers in England: “My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.”
 Foot is referring to his own upper-class background. Foot’s grandfather (Isaac Foot) and uncles (Dingle and John Foot) were Liberal MPs, and a third uncle (Michael Foot) was leader of the Liberal Party. Foot’s father, Hugh Foot, Lord Caradon, was a diplomat and colonial servant.
 Foot is referring to Shelley’s well know concern that too much change, too fast, could result in bloody revolution. Shelley was likely thinking about the end-result of the French Revolution. There is an excellent discussion of Shelley’s fear of “mob violence” in both The Red Shelley and Kenneth Neil Cameron’s The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical.
 Foot is referring to George Eliot’s famous novel, Felix Holt: The Radical. The novel is set in England in the early 1830s, at the time of agitation for passage of the Reform Bill, a measure designed to reform the electoral system in Britain. You can read more about this here:.
 Foot is being heavily sarcastic here. He is suggesting that people like Holt (and perhaps Shelley) view elections as tantamount to riots.
 Booth was another Labour MP. He was a “respected leftwing politician of high principle who sacrificed his own parliamentary career to his political beliefs,” as the Guardian wrote in its obituary to Booth in 2010. You can read his obituary here. I wasn’t able to find out why Foot chose to attack him.
 Foot’s point is that liberal-minded members of the upper classes, like Shelley and Eliot, flirt with radicalism, but then panic at the idea that they might unleash a violent mob that might ultimately undermine the goal of social change.
 Foot here mocks one of the most famous aspects of The Mask of Anarchy: Shelley’s idea that violent oppression should be met with massive, non-violent protest. Shelley instructs, for example, that “if then the tyrants dare / Let them ride among you there, / Slash and stab, maim and hew” (lines 344-346). This was an idea that inspired generations of pacifists; however, apparently Foot finds this form of passive resistance preposterous.
 Foot is suggesting that Shelley had another side, a side which understood that violence might be necessary when opposing tyranny. It is possible to see this in Prometheus Unbound, which Foot is about to discuss. This is one of the more controversial aspects of Shelley’s philosophy: did he advocate or promote the violent response to tyranny or not?
 Foot here quotes from a letter Shelley wrote to Hitchener on 26 December 1811. Shelley would have been 19 when he wrote it.
 Foot refers here to the Victorians who he has mocked earlier in his speech.
 Foot refers back to the Mask of Anarchy and Shelley’s many other pacifist statements.
 In Swellfoot the Tyrant, the pigs represent the priests and oppressors.
 Skegness is a seaside town near Lincoln in the English Midlands that was home to many socialist and Marxist meetings.
 Foot now launches into a heavily sarcastic version of the Promethean myth as taught by his school masters in England.
 Foot is referring to a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer. Only the first survives. Shelley derived much of his understanding of the second and third from Cicero’s commentary on it. From Wikipedia: “In Prometheus Unbound, Heracles frees Prometheus from his chains and kills the eagle that had been sent daily to eat the Titan's perpetually regenerating liver. Perhaps foreshadowing his eventual reconciliation with Prometheus, we learn that Zeus has released the other Titans whom he imprisoned at the conclusion of the Titanomachy. In Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, the Titan finally warns Zeus not to lie with the sea nymph Thetis, for she is fated to give birth to a son greater than the father. Not wishing to be overthrown, Zeus would later marry Thetis off to the mortal Peleus; the product of that union will be Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Grateful for the warning, Zeus finally reconciles with Prometheus.”
 Foot could be referring either to Prometheus Bound, the only surviving play Aeschylus wrote about Prometheus, or Prometheus Unbound, of which only fragments now exist.
 Foot is referring to Shelley, The Pursuit. This book was published in 1975 and was the first full-life biography to emerge about Shelley since the 1940s. It created something of a sensation because of the favourable, serious treatment it accorded Shelley, whose reputation had been in decline for decades.
 The “situation” is Prometheus’s predicament: he is eternally chained to the rock by Jupiter. Foot’s point here is that Asia is the sort of revolutionary heroine he had been talking about earlier. She isn’t in love with Prometheus in a romantic, “Victorian” manner: she is militantly in love with him and wants to do something about his predicament.
 Prometheus Unbound is what Shelley called a “lyrical drama.” Critics have fussed over this for decades: is it primarily a poem or a play? Foot simply calls it a “play-poem.”
 The question of what Demogorgon represents has bedeviled critics for centuries. Foot mocks the problems they have had in figuring it out, suggesting that they have all come to trite, non-revolutionary conclusions. He then maps out his own straightforward interpretation.
 Foot quotes from Prometheus Unbound, Act 2, Scene 4, lines 1-128.
 Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit, pages 504-505.
 Foot is mocking the non-radical, non-political response to Demogorgon. He suggests that many scholars acknowledge the beauty of the language but fail to ask the proper questions. If asked political questions, these readers deflect to mythic nonsense.
 Foot misquotes Asia’s description of the “wild-eyed charioteer” in Prometheus Unbound, Act 2, Scene 4, line 132.
 Foot is referring back to Shelley’s statement in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound, where he says that he is writing the poem for the members of the societal elite.
 These two ideas are violent revolution (on one hand) and peaceful revolution (on the other).
 That is, the side of the elites.
 Foot is referring to “England, 1819.”
 Once considered the classic biography of Marx, today some consider it more hagiography than biography. Published in German in 1918, it was finally translated into English in 1935.
 Eleanor Marx was the daughter of Karl Marx and was married to Edward Aveling. In 1888, she and her husband delivered two lectures to the Shelley Society entitled “Shelley’s Socialism.” Copies are virtually impossible to obtain, and the one version that was produced contained only the first lecture. You can find my article on it here. Later in his passage, Foot uses the term “sectarian” which he uses in the sense of “factional.” Marxism by this point had split into dozens if not hundreds of factions.
 From Mehrig’s Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, published by Routledge in 2003. Page 504.
 Chartism was one of the principal vehicles by which Shelley’s radical tradition was passed down to the modern world. From the Encyclopedia Britannica: Chartism refers to the “British working-class movement for parliamentary reform named after the People’s Charter, a bill drafted by the London radical William Lovett in May 1838. It contained six demands: universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annually elected Parliaments, payment of members of Parliament, and abolition of the property qualifications for membership. Chartism was the first movement both working class in character and national in scope that grew out of the protest against the injustices of the new industrial and political order in Britain. While composed of working people, Chartism was also mobilized around populism as well as clan identity.” Read more here.
 Foot is possibly confused: the last British law requiring that publishers obtain government approval before printing a work expired in 1694. When Queen Mab was first published by Shelley in 1813, he printed 250 copies. Approximately 70 were bound and distributed personally by Shelley. William Clark, who was a bookseller, stored the rest in his shop. Years later, in 1821, Clark distributed the remaining copies without Shelley’s permission through the black market. Government agents confiscated the copies, arrested Clark, and sent him to prison for 4 months.
 Foot may be conflating two issues here. On the whole, there were very few copyright-based prosecutions against the pirate editions of Shelley’s work. On the other hand, the government actively prosecuted anyone publishing words considered seditious or threatening to the government, which basically meant ALL of Shelley’s poetry and essays. Much of this activity took place after Shelley’s death.
 Richard Carlile (1790-1843) was a republican and a radical who championed freedom of the press. He spent many years in jail for his publishing activities, which included publishing most of Shelley’s radical poetry and essays. Read more about him here.
 Foot is alluding to the fact that even while he was in prison, Carlile managed to publish his journal, The Republican.
 David Daiches (1912- 2005) was a well-respected Scottish literary historian and literary critic, scholar, and writer. He wrote extensively on English literature, Scottish literature and Scottish culture. read more about him here.
 Foot, in true polemical form, pours scorn on what was one of the most important leftist publishing initiatives of the 1930s. From Wikipedia: “Pioneered by Victor Gollancz, The Left Book Club offered a monthly book choice, for sale to members only, as well as a newsletter that acquired the status of a major political magazine. It also held an annual rally. Membership peaked at 57,000, but after the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact of 1939, it disowned its large Communist element, and subsequent years of paper-rationing, during and after the war, led to further decline. It ceased publishing in 1948.” Read more here.
 From Literature and Society, pages 198-199.
 William Gallacher (1881-1965) was a Scottish trade unionist, activist, and communist. He was one of the leading figures of the Shop Stewards' Movement in wartime Glasgow (the “Red Clydeside” period) and a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He served two terms in the House of Commons as the last Communist Member of Parliament. Read more about him here.
 The Morning Star is the only socialist daily newspaper published in England. It was originally called The Daily Worker and was first published in 1930.
 The International Marxist Group (IMG) was a Trotskyist group in Britain between 1968 and 1982. Foot for most of his life had a deep and abiding affection of Trotsky. It was the British Section of the Fourth International. It had around 1,000 members and supporters in the late 1970s. In 1980, it had 682 members; by 1982, when it changed its name to the Socialist League, membership had fallen to 534. Read more here.
 Socialist Labour League was an openly Trotskyist organization, although most of its members remained active in the Labour Party. The SLL was formally announced at the end of February 1959. Membership was “open to all who want to see the vigorous prosecution of the class struggle and the achievement of working class power.” Read more here.
 Foot is referring to senior members of the party hierarchy.
 I am not sure who Foot is referring to. He might be alluding simply to the leftwing movement in England at large.
 In a difficult passage that is tied very much to the circumstances of the time, Foot now discusses the atmosphere on the left from the 1930s through the 1970s. His point is that the left had abandoned action for rhetoric; the left became divorced from (and hence isolated from) the people; the left became “sentimental.” This last charge is a curious one. I think he means the left was attached to ideas of freedom but lacked the will to do anything about it. He asserts that this pattern of behaviour caused more modern leftists to become skeptical and demanded change. And out of this skepticism grew the modern labour movement.
 She would have foregone her pension so that she could remain employed and hence continue to work as a union organizer.
 From “Ode to the West Wind,” line 5.
 Modern-day Livorno.
 This is a rather risqué assertion. Jane Williams was the wife of his friend Edward (who perished with him). In the last months of his life, Shelley developed something of an infatuation with her, despite the fact they all lived together under one roof in San Terenzo: Mary, Percy, Edward and Jane. Shelley wrote poetry to her and Mary was quite deeply aggrieved by this. Whether they conducted an actual sexual affair in unknown. But Foot’s point here is that Shelley was very much engaged in life and had much to look forward to.
 Foot is now talking about the moment Shelley heard of the massacre we now call “Peterloo.” This event took place not in Livorno, but rather in San Terenzo at the Villa Magni.
 Shelley, Mask of Anarchy, 360-372.