Professor John Mullan analyses how Shelley transformed his political passion, and a personal grudge, into poetry.
Paul Foot laboured long and hard to recover the radical Shelley, the real Percy Bysshe Shelley. He presents him to us both in his incisive, polemical and passionate book, The Red Shelley, and here in this Speech to the London Marxism Conference of 1981. In Part 2, Foot investigates Shelley's atheism and feminism as well as his views on love. But Foot also reminds us that Shelley was by no means perfect, and he unflinchingly canvasses his weaknesses - yes, Shelley had feet of clay - he was human. 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.
Foot hated authority just as Shelley did. When he said [in Part 1 of this speech]:
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.
he might as well have been talking about himself. And those of us who for twenty years have lived through the preposterous, quasi-religious claims of the Silicon Valley, cyber-libertarian, technology elite, can, I hope relate. They are parasitical, cultural vandals who bring a new and fantastically dangerous form of authoritarianism to our world. Shelley had his battles to fight. Foot had his. And now we have ours. Let's meet at the barricades!
As the famous French proverb says, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose": the more things change the more they stay the same. This oft repeated truism seems to have real relevance in 2017. If Shelley was to drop in on us today, I think what would most surprise him would not be rockets and computers, but rather that in two hundred years so little has changed. Wealth is, if any thing, more concentrated in the hands of the few. We are a priest-ridden society and authoritarian regimes are not in recession, they are advancing. Entire civilizations are dominated by theocracies. That should be a sobering message to all of us. What progress we make is wrung from the entrenched power-brokers at great cost and can just as easily be snatched away. Sandy Grant is not wrong: we must resist, protest and create with others the possibilities of change. We must harness our emotions for the eternal struggle. Oh, and we must read Shelley!