P.B. Shelley, “Mask of Anarchy” (1819)

 Unknown Illustrator, illustration of the Peterloo Massacre (1819)

Unknown Illustrator, illustration of the Peterloo Massacre (1819)

I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy. 

I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him… 

Next cam Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell… 

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. 

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse. 

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -
'I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!" 

“The Mask of Anarchy” begins on an unassuming note: Shelley’s claim that his “visions of Poesy” have come to him in a dream might lead the reader to imagine that what follows is a flight into imaginative wonder and away from reality. But as with “Queen Mab,” Shelley’s dream vision does not take us away from the world but forces us to confront its ugliest features. Alluding to the four horsemen of the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations, the opening of “The Mask of Anarchy” presents four figures who, according to Shelley, were undertaking their own world-destroying fury: Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Unlike in Revelations, however, these are not abstract forces in a spiritual conflict between good and evil. Shelley gives his evil corporeal form and well-recognized names: Viscount Castlereagh; Lord Eldon; Lord Sidmouth; and the royalty, churchmen, and timeservers of Britain’s establishment class. If the apocalypse is coming, in other words, it will be achieved through Britain’s unholy trinity of “God, and King, and Law.”

In 1819, it might very well have felt like the apocalypse was coming: food shortages, economic turmoil, and widespread civil unrest plagued the realm. But Shelley’s poem also registers some hope. If poets are prophetic figures whose deep knowledge of their times creates knowledge and permits change (ideas explored in the essay “Defense of Poetry”), then Shelley’s dream vision might produce “the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time”—a different, brighter future, in other words.