John Keats’s ode To Autumn is one of the best-loved poems in the English language. Composed during a walk to St Giles’s Hill, Winchester, on September 19 1819, it depicts an apparently idyllic scene of harvest home, where drowsy, contented reapers “spare the next swath” beneath the “maturing sun”. The atmosphere of calm finality and mellow ease has comforted generations of readers, and To Autumn is often anthologised as a poem of acceptance of death. But, until now, we may have been missing one of its most pressing themes: surveillance.
What I love about Mark Summers' writing is his ability to put Shelley in the context of his time, and then make what happened then feel relevant now. Both Mark and I sense the importance of recovering the past to making sense out of what is happening today. With madcap governments in England and the United States leading their respective countries toward the brink of authoritarianism, Shelley's revolutionary prescriptions are enjoying something of a renaissance; and so they should, we need Percy Bysshe Shelley right now!
The real Shelley was a political animal for whom politics were the dominating concern of his intellectual life. His political insights and prescriptions have resonance for our world as tyrants start to take center stage and theocracies dominate entire civilizations. Dismayingly, the problems we face are starkly and similar to those of his time, 200 years ago. For example: the concentration of wealth and power and the blurring of the lines between church and state. Some of you will have read my review of Michael Demson's history of Shelley's Mask of Anarchy. Guest contributor Mark Summers comment on the Mask says it all: "Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Mask is the cast of villains, the substance is unchanged!." For Castlereagh read Rex Tillerson; for Eldon read Michael Flynn, for Sidmouth read Stephen Bannon and for Anarchy itself, we have, of course Trump: