Sonnet: Political Greatness

P.B. Shelley, “Sonnet: Political Greatness” (1820 or 1821)

Antonio Joli, View of ... Benevento (1759)

“Nor happiness, nor majesty, nor fame,
Nor peace, nor strength, nor skill in arms or arts,
Shepherd those herds whom tyranny makes tame;
Verse echoes not one beating of their hearts,
History is but the shadow of their shame,
Art veils her glass, or from the pageant starts
As to oblivion their blind millions fleet,
Staining that Heaven with obscene imagery
Of their own likeness. What are numbers knit
By force or custom? Man who man would be,
Must rule the empire of himself; in it
Must be supreme, establishing his throne
On vanquished will, quelling the anarchy
Of hopes and fears, being himself alone.”

Shelley apparently wrote “Political Greatness” with Benevento in mind, an Italian city that briefly established itself as a republic between July 1820 and the spring of 1821. Whether Shelley wrote his poem before or after the fall of the republican city is an interesting conundrum, given the poem’s questioning attitude about the possibilities of political revolution. Do the people of Benevento embody Shelley’s portrait of successful revolutionaries, who must exercise self-awareness and mastery of their own will before they are able to create political change? Or does Benevento illustrate the failure that awaits spontaneous and disorganized mass uprisings?

Whatever the answer to this question, this sonnet certainly captures Shelley at a moment of political uncertainty. While 1820 was a fairly good year for progressives, witnessing successful reform movements in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, Shelley dedicates his poem to asking hard questions about the possibilities for achieving political change. Shelley doesn’t renounce the hope of revolution or reform; rather, he suggests that an inner revolution—a self-disciplining, whereby we are able to master our desires and better know ourselves—must take place before we are able to achieve widespread social change. Shelley seems to have understood a crucial lesson imparted by reformers from Socrates to William Godwin to Martin Luther King Jr.: that in a world in which power is deeply ingrained not only in social institutions but in the collective psyche, the effort to change minds is perhaps more important than the effort to change laws.