As American’s go to the polls today in a series of epochal mid-term elections, Shelley’s To the Lord Chancellor (written in 1819 or 20) seems a more than appropriate choice for our Tuesday Verse selection. As Timothy Webb once noted, politics was perhaps the consuming passion of Shelley’s life. On the 6 November 1819, right around the time he might have been writing this poem, Shelley wrote to his friends the Gisbornes saying, “I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature to journey across the great sandy desert of Politics; not, you may imagine, without the hope of finding some enchanted paradise.” Shelley was what was known as a perfectibilist, someone who believed in the perfectibility of humans. He even developed a sophisticated political and social theory to compliment this belief. This does NOT mean Shelley was a utopian - he emphatically was not. But he did believe in the gradual evolution of the human species toward something like perfection.
How sad he would be to see our world in the condition it is in - a world in which tyranny is on the rise, not on the wane. A world in which wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands. A world in which we still have kings and in which religious superstitions govern the behaviour of so many. Despairingly, he might conclude, that things to not appear to be getting more “perfect”.
Perhaps today the people of America will strike a blow against racism, intolerance and bigotry. Perhaps today we can take a step toward a better future. Perhaps today we can aspire to be better.
“Thy country's curse is on thee! Justice sold,
Truth trampled, Nature’s landmarks overthrown,
And heaps of fraud-accumulated gold,
Plead, loud as thunder, at Destruction's throne.
And whilst that sure slow Angel which aye stands
Watching the beck of Mutability
Delays to execute her high commands,
And, though a nation weeps, spares thine and thee,
Oh, let a father's curse be on thy soul,
And let a daughter's hope be on thy tomb;
Be both, on thy gray head, a leaden cowl
To weigh thee down to thine approaching doom.
I curse thee by a parent's outraged love,
By hopes long cherished and too lately lost,
By gentle feelings thou couldst never prove,
By griefs which thy stern nature never crossed […]
Yes, the despair which bids a father groan,
And cry, 'My children are no longer mine--
The blood within those veins may be mine own,
But--Tyrant--their polluted souls are thine;—
I curse thee--though I hate thee not.-- O slave!
If thou couldst quench the earth-consuming Hell
Of which thou art a daemon, on thy grave
This curse should be a blessing. Fare thee well!”
Jon Kerr Comments:
John Scott (1751-1838), the Earl of Eldon and the Lord Chancellor from 1801-1827, was a major figure in Britain’s conservative establishment for most of Shelley’s adult life. From his position in Britain’s courts of law, the Chancellor had a hand in suppressing the work of radical publishers and writers or revoking the copyright of “seditious” writings—forms of character assassination that significantly impacted the careers of some of the era’s leading reformers. The Chancellor also affected Shelley’s life in a far more personal fashion, however. In 1817, Scott denied Shelley custody of his children on the grounds that the father’s political principles would lead to an “immoral and vicious” upbringing for his children.
“To the Lord Chancellor” affirms the maxim that the personal is the political. In this way, the poem is unique in Shelley’s corpus for its attempt to expose systemic political wrongs from the vantage point of a suffering father. While Shelley begins by outlining the Chancellor’s complicity in British tyranny—“Justice sold, | Truth trampled…”—the poem’s real source of power lies in its focus on the individual rather than the system, on the pain of everyday people that get caught in the wheels of British “law and order.” This also leads Shelley to reflect darkly on the country’s future, since the system Shelley exposes impacts not only parents but children, whose experience in such ordeals leave them scarred, or as Shelley writes, “polluted.”
Jon Kerr is a recently graduated from the University of Toronto with his PhD in English literature with a specialization in the Romantics. He is currently at Mount Alison University in New Brunswick, Canada on a post doctoral fellowship.