Paul Foot Speaks!! The Revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley - Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Paul Foot's epic address to the London Marxism Conference in 1981 on the subject of the Revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In Part 1, available here, Foot introduces his subject by pointing out that two very distinct Shelley's exist in the public imagination. He savages the sanitized version of Shelley created by the Victorians; the Shelley referred to by Engels as "castrated". I have written about this Shelley in my essay: My Father's Shelley: A Tale of Two Shelleys.

Look closely.  This is a portrait completed after his death - it was not painted from life. He is pictured almost as a child. This is the "catstrated" Shelley of which Engels spoke.

Look closely.  This is a portrait completed after his death - it was not painted from life. He is pictured almost as a child. This is the "catstrated" Shelley of which Engels spoke.

Many people played a role in the creation of this infantilized version, drained, as it was, 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, screw Amazon).  Sadly Mary played a pivotal role in creating the Victorian Shelley.

Again, look closely.  This is an infantilized image that bears absolutely no relation to reality. It is an embarrassment.

Again, look closely.  This is an infantilized image that bears absolutely no relation to reality. It is an embarrassment.

Paul Foot laboured long and passionately 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 essay.  In Part 2, Foot investigates Shelley's atheism and feminism.  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. Shelley had his battles to fight.  Foot had his.  And now we have ours.  Let's meet at the barricades!

So grab a favourite beverage, relax, sit back and be prepared to be amazed.  Over to you Mr. Foot, how we miss you.

The late, the great, the unequaled Paul Foot. 1937-2004

The late, the great, the unequaled Paul Foot. 1937-2004

[Picking up from where we left off, Foot was talking about how different Shelley was from William Godwin; about how Shelley saw the need for action. This is a principal theme in Foot's advocacy of Shelley. If you want to start at the beginning, then follow this link.  At the end of Part 1 is a link which will bring you back here to Part 2.]

Shelley could clearly see the difference between the reformism of Godwin (sitting there by the fireside churning out 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.]

William Godwin - In Foot's opinion, he attempted to hold Shelley back.

William Godwin - In Foot's opinion, he attempted to hold Shelley back.

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 was 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 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.

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.[i]

All the way through [there is an] attack on religion, on god. [But it is] the proclamation of atheism [that was] censored from the end 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 closèd 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.[ii]

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 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, [women] 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, Cyntha 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 Cyntha 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.[iii]

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 leading it.  That, I think, is one of the most inspiring parts of Shelley’s poetry.

Eugene Delacroix, "Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple"

Eugene Delacroix, "Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple"

And it follows from that, that when these people talk [about Shelley], the Horshams,[iv] 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 what 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 are 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 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]

The present system of constraint 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.[v]

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 Statesmens, 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 comes [of love] 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 [is destructive of all] relationship exists in our society, and nothing comes clearer from Shelley’s poetry than that. 

Another appalling presentation of the Victorian Shelley. This is the sculpture at University College, Oxford. Foot ridiculed it in Part 1.

Another appalling presentation of the Victorian Shelley. This is the sculpture at University College, Oxford. Foot ridiculed it in Part 1.

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[vi], 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 [vii].  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[viii]. 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?  [Foot here looks through his papers for a passage from Shelley’s Preface to Prometheus Unbound and does not find it.] 

What he wrote [in the Preface] was that as 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][ix].  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[x] -  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".[xi]

Now, I don’t know, but there may be one or two people here that have not read a novel by George Eliot[xii] 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 Elliot, and that was t[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[xiii] [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[xiv] [laughter] and all that kind of thing. Shouting down Albert Booth.[xv] 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 Elliott, 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[xvi]. [laughter]

A drawing of Shelley by Edward Williams.  Some think it unflattering, but it is thought by many to be the most true to life image of Shelley in existence. It has none of the child-like qualities of the other paintings.

A drawing of Shelley by Edward Williams.  Some think it unflattering, but it is thought by many to be the most true to life image of Shelley in existence. It has none of the child-like qualities of the other paintings.

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.[xvii] 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.[xviii]  [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 - 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 by a lot of people who think it isn’t funny[xix], 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?[xx] 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[xxi]:  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.]

End of Part 2. Follow this link to Part 3, the exciting conclusion to Paul Foot Speaks! The Revolutionary Shelley

[i] Revolt of Islam, Canto VIII, Stanza VII

[ii] Revolt of Islam, Canto II, Stanza XLVIII

[iii] Revolt of Islam, Canto VIII, Stanza XVI

[iv] Foot is referring back to the people who live in the district of Horsham whom he ridiculed in Part 1

[v] From the Notes to Queen Mab.

[vi] Foot is likely referring to Shelley’s highly controversial separation from Harriet, his first wife.

[vii] I assume he means the idea of “equality”.

[viii] Foot means that Shelley captured his philosophical ideas about equality in his writings, but perhaps not in his life.

[ix] 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.

[x] Foot is referring to his own upper class background. Foot was the grandson of a Liberal MP (Isaac Foot); nephew of two Liberal MPs (one of whom later defected to Labour) and one leader of the Labour Party (respectively Dingle, John and Michael Foot); and son of a diplomat and colonial servant (Hugh Foot, later Lord Caradon).

[xi] 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 Neill Cameron’s The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical.

[xii] Foot is referring to George Eliot’s famous novel, Felix Holt: The Radical.  You can read more about this here:  This is from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

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. Despite his education, Felix Holt has chosen to work as an artisan, hoping to inspire his fellow workers to take charge of their own destiny. His austerity and passionate idealism are contrasted with the political ambitions of Harold Transome, who arrives home in Loamshire to claim his family’s estate and stand as a candidate for the Radicals (those who support parliamentary reform and universal suffrage). Esther, the heroine, believes herself to be the daughter of a Nonconformist minister, but she is in fact the true heir of the Transome estate. Esther falls in love with Felix but must choose between him and Transome after Felix is imprisoned for killing a man (albeit accidentally) while trying to pacify a riot. Eventually she chooses Felix and renounces her claim to the Transome legacy.

[xiii] Foot is being heavily sarcastic here.  He is suggesting that people like Holt (and perhaps Shelley) view elections as tantamount to riots.

[xiv] Clive Jenkins was a millionaire Labour MP who Foot chooses to lampoon for some reason. You can read his obituary here:

[xv] Booth was another Labour MP. He was a “respected left wing politician of high principle who sacrificed his own parliamentary career to his political beliefs.” You can read his obituary here: For some reason he finds himself in Foot’s cross-hairs like Jenkins.

[xvi] Foot’s point is that liberal minded members of the upper classes, like Shelley and like Eliot, flirt with radicalism, but then panic at the idea they might unleash a mob which would over through societal order.

[xvii] 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. This was an idea that inspired generations of pacifists but Foot takes issue with it.

[xviii] 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?

[xix] He is referring to the Victorians who he has mocked earlier in his speech.

[xx] Referring back to the Mask of Anarchy and thinking of Shelley’s many other pacifist statements.

[xxi] The pigs being the priest and oppressors.