Labour

P.B. Shelley, “Men of England,” (1819 or 1820)

Jean-Francois Millet,  The Gleaners  (1857)

Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

“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? 

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge, 
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil? 

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm, 
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm? 
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear? …

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells— 
In hall ye deck another dwells. 
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye. 

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.”

In Europe’s revolutionary era, the contest over hearts and minds was fought across many cultural arenas. We get a sense of this in “Men of England,” a poem written in the style of the popular songs that, in the England of Shelley’s day, would have been the stuff of riotous sing-alongs in pubs, fairs, and other centres of public life. In 1820, writing politically-charged content intended for a mass audience was extremely dangerous: reformers who wrote for common people often found themselves facing libel or even treason charges. On the other hand, finding innovative ways to reach out to common, illiterate people was deemed crucial if England was to achieve grassroots change. 

Shelley commits himself to just this kind of project in “Men of England.” Shelley writes in easy-to-understand language and adopts a bouncy metrical structure (“tetrameter,” or lines of eight syllables) that makes memorization easy. The metaphors Shelley utilizes for describing the situation in England are simple but powerful: worker bees—the hard-working men of England—toil for the benefit of the “drones,” the non-labouring members of the hive. Capping it all off are a number of rhetorical questions that bring readers or listeners directly into the poem’s action: why “plough for the lords who lay ye low?”

Like the people of London described by William Blake, Shelley’s workers are adorned with “mind-forg’d manacles,” since they wear the very chains they themselves have “wrought.” While they remain complicit in their subjugation, understanding this fact is the first precondition for achieving lasting change. And it couldn’t come at a more crucial time: Shelley writes that by toiling the earth for other people’s profit, the labourers are in fact digging their own mass grave, one Shelley calls “England.”