Paul Foot Speaks!! The Revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley - Part 1

In 1981, Paul Foot (1937 - 2004), the "finest campaigning journalist of his generation", delivered an epic one and a half hour speech on the subject of his hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Appearing at the London Marxism Conference, his speech was delivered extemporaneously 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 and can be found here. Today, for the first time, I am pleased to be able to offer an edited transcription of Paul Foot’s speech - based on this audio recording.[i]  Buckle up and prepare for the ride of your Shelleyan life.

But first a word about Paul Foot.

Paul Foot

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 (note to self.....).

“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.[ii]

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[iii]. 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.  I will be honest and confess that Foot's Shelley is MY Shelley - I am squarely in the “Footian tradition”.  You can read one of my articles on the subject here: My Father’s Shelley: A Tale of Two Shelleys.  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.

The cover of The Red Shelley

The cover of The Red Shelley

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 and many others all were to a greater or lesser extent, inspired by Shelley’s ideas. It has been said of Robert Owen that he 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.

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.

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."

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.

The influence of Shelley’s doctrine of massive, non-violent protest on Ghandi is also well documented.

And, of course, we now 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 and 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 to an enthralled audience that recited the magnificent final line with him 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 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.

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?  Well you are about to find out.

I will be publishing Paul Foot Speaks!! The Revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley in three parts.  This is largely due to the fact that it was almost an hour and a half long as delivered. In Part One, Foot unpacks the curious history of Shelley’s reputation which bifurcated very quickly into two distinct versions – the versions alluded to by Engels.  I will refer to them as the Radical Shelley and the Lyrical Shelley – though I believe both Foot and Engels would have preferred the Castrated Shelley. As an aside, the cover of Foot's book, pictured above, is truly unfortunate.  The Shelley pictured there never existed - this is an imaginary portrait from the tradition of the Lyrical Shelley.

A word about what you are about to read.  As I mentioned earlier, 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. Foot also routinely references events and individuals whose names have been long forgotten. I have therefore provided footnotes to aid modern readers in their understanding.  He also speaks with enormous passion and heat; at times his words dripping with sarcasm, at times 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.

And so, without further ado, I turn the proceedings over to the late, great, Paul Foot.

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 had a suspicion] 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[iv] 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[v].  And the two Shelley’s 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[vi]. 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 [as the] son of a rich, aristocratic land owner 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]

Shelley's home near Horsham.

Shelley's home near Horsham.

And the meeting which was held there was a very important meeting.  All the important literary people of the time were there. Melvin Bragg[vii] 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 celebrate the Shelley of Sussex - Sir Timothy’s son[viii].  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 [Paraphrasing 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, opposed 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 the glory in the humanity of it - with morsels of beefsteak fresh from the slaughterhouse sticking between our teeth.” [laughter] [We should all] be generous and read his really great works such as the Ode to a Skylark; and don’t [bother with] those boyish indiscretions known as Laon and Cyntha, Prometheus [Unbound], Rosalind and Helen, the Cenci, the Mask of Anarchy and etc etc.[ix] Take no notice of the church papers[x], for our Shelley was a true Christian at heart. Our Shelley was a gentleman if there ever was one. If you doubt it, ask Lady Antonia or Melvin.

Or [you could ask] Edmund Goss [xi], who was the man who came particularly on that occasion to talk[xii] 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 thirty 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[xiii] 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.”[xiv]  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.[xv] 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[xvi].  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 [produces a book from his lectern]. 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 the 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 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[xvii] 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].  [Quoting]: “Peter Bell III and [inaudible] 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.[xviii] 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] [Quoting 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 [referring to Shelley’s poem] 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.

Edward Dowden

Edward Dowden

Now that’s – that’s one of the Shelleys. 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. [Foot produces the book] 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[xix] 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 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 Turks] reflects what’s going on in Britain.  [Shelley maintains that England needs the same sort revolutionary inspiration that was influencing the Greek fight for freedom].  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 lady 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 Quigley, 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, and 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 there had intervened.

At any rate Shaw [later went to another] meeting[xx] 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?[xxi] 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 fagging[xxii] operation. 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 can] 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 the 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.

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.
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.

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[xxiii] [in reaction to the Derby Insurrection.][xxiv]  Those of you that [have] read that great book by Edward Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class,[xxv] 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 for 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; [the fact that authority takes its sustenance from the exploitation of the working class and from the wealth that is robbed from the working class]. 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.[xxvi]

[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.][xxvii]

And when Shelley was in Ireland[xxviii], 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.  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!” he wrote, “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 was made during this period. I will own that I am eager that something should be done.”

In Queen Mab, he writes directly [satirizes] Godwin; [you can tell this is the case, I think, because of the reference to the fireside]:

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;
   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.

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.]

Paul Foot.

Paul Foot.


[i] 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.

[ii] You can read his obituary here.

[iii] 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).

[iv] Socialism.

[v] Foot is now going to expound on one of the major issues in Shelley studies.  And that is the fact that his reputation seemed to split into two streams shortly after his death. One of which focused on his lyric and love poetry; the other which 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 selection of poetry for her first edition of Percy’s poetry: Posthumous Poems.

[vi] Horsham is located in Sussex. The event was sponsored by the Shelley Society.  You can read more about this remarkable, hugely successful organization here.

[vii] 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.

[viii] 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.”

[ix] Again, more heavy sarcasm from Foot.

[x] Referring to Shelley’s attacks on religion, such as The Necessity of Atheism.

[xi] 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."

[xii] Goss, delivered the “keynote” speech on that occasion.

[xiii] The Home Office was formed in 1782.  Among its many functions was the operation of the secret service.

[xiv] Foot is referring to the obituary that appeared in 1822

[xv] 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.

[xvi] Richard Arthur Hughes (1900 – 1976).

[xvii] Published in 1951 by….

[xviii] 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 euphemistically called Shelley’s “irregular relations.”  Oxford’s Regius Professor of History, Edward Freeman, referencing Dowden’s biography, 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.” For Foot, Dowden’s sin was to ignore the Radical Shelley in favour of the Lyrical Shelley.

[xix] The four volume edition of Shelley’s poetry issued by Mary in 1839.

[xx] This is the second meeting to which Foot alluded at the beginning of his speech.  Foot tells us that a worker rose to recite Men of England.  But he may be confused.  Bernard Shaw, who was there, tells us that Mr G.W. Foote, President of the National Secular Society, recited the poem before a large audience of ‘working men who took Shelley quite seriously.’ The meeting took place at the Hall of Science in St Luke’s parish, east London, on the occasion of the 1892 Shelley centenary. There were, says Shaw, ‘thunders of applause’. Foot wishes to contrast this meeting with the Horsham meeting of upper class reactionaries.  The Radical Shelley was celebrated at the former, the Lyrical "castrated" Shelley at the latter.

[xxi] This may have resonated profoundly with Foot as he also came from an upper-class background which he later repudiated.

[xxii] Foot is referring to the fact that Shelley refused to participate in the ritual hazing to which new student were subjected.

[xxiii] 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 and complete absence of attention to the public execution of three laborers who were hanged and beheaded for taking part in the Derby Insurrection.

[xxiv] You can read more about the Derby Insurrection here.

[xxv] The Making of the English Working Class can be purchased here. But why not order it through your local bookshop.

[xxvi] 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 issue of the working class and contrasts his “fireside” reform programme that Foot suggests says was directed at the bourgeoisie, and Shelley’s understanding that change can only come when the people revolt.

[xxvii] Foot’s point, possibly apocryphal, is that the book was too expensive for the working class and was therefore unlikely to be read by anyone likely to be inspired to cause trouble for the government. It could therefore be ignored.

[xxviii] Shelley visited Ireland in 1812.  Most biographers and commentators have treated this excursion as a youthful indiscretion and paid 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. He advances much evidence to suggest that the Irish treated themselves his ideas quite seriously.