P.B. Shelley, “Lines Written During the Castlereagh Administration” (1819-20)

Unknown Painter, “Lord Castlereagh, Marquess of Londonderry” (1809-10)

Unknown Painter, “Lord Castlereagh, Marquess of Londonderry” (1809-10)

“Corpses are cold in the tomb; 
Stones on the pavement are dumb; 
Abortions are dead in the womb, 
And their mothers look pale—like the death-         white shore
Of Albion, free no more. 

Her sons are as stones in the way-- 
They are masses of senseless clay-- 
They are trodden, and move not away,-- 
The abortion with which SHE travaileth
Is Liberty, smitten to death. 

Then trample and dance, thou Oppressor! 
For thy victim is no redresser; 
Thou art sole lord and possessor
Of her corpses, and clods, and abortions—they     pave
Thy path to the grave. 

Hearest thou the festival din
Of Death, and Destruction, and Sin, 
And Wealth crying 'Havoc!' within? 
’Tis the bacchanal triumph that makes Truth dumb, 
Thine Epithalamium. 

Ay, marry thy ghastly wife! 
Let Fear and Disquiet and Strife
Spread thy couch in the chamber of Life! 
Marry Ruin, thou Tyrant! and Hell be thy guide
To the bed of the bride!”

Viscount Castlereagh, the British Secretary of State from 1812-22, casts a dark shadow in Shelley’s poetry. This is because Castlereagh lead some of the most pivotal—and controversial—foreign policy moves of Shelley’s era: in addition to breaking Irish independence movements and bringing the Celtic island under the dominion of the United Kingdom, Castlereagh spearheaded the work of restoration in the years following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Royal families reassumed positions of power, and with them came a new era in Europe, one committed to crushing the reform movements spurred by the French Revolution two decades earlier.

Shelley’s poem invokes a gristly image that captures this dispiriting moment in European history. Shelley describes “Albion” (that is, “England”) as a failed pregnancy, a symbol that evokes how optimism about a better life ahead can so swiftly transition toward despair about the future. England, a country formerly looked on as Europe’s most progressive country, now lies broken, her son, “Liberty,” dead in the womb. 

It’s worth comparing Shelley’s picture of England to William Blake’s “London” (1794), another poem that uses a “blasted” child and ailing mother to reflect on England’s uncertain future. Shelley was likely unfamiliar with Blake’s poem, but the similarities between their poetry is worth noting. Both poems reflect a fear experienced by many in this period: that decades of dearly-bought progress was on the brink of being dissolved by the kinds of backroom dealing that “makes Truth dumb” and spreads “Fear, Discomfort, and Strife.”