In previous posts and articles I have described some of the ways in which the works of the great philosopher and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley have stood the test of time. My central point is that beneath the establishment whitewash, Shelley’s work is as relevant to radical politics now as it was two centuries ago; his concerns are our concerns. So it has been an idea of mine to take Shelley back to where he belongs – the streets of Britain, via a megaphone!
Protest and Poetry
This year the Conservative Party held its annual conference in central Birmingham between the 2nd and 5th October. As a means of protesting the Government’s austerity measures which has seen the poorer and more vulnerable members of society paying for the excess and incompetence of a broken financial system, the People’s Assembly organized a weekend of protest in the city. With our presence at the start of the Sunday protest march, the Birmingham branch of Republic Campaign drew attention to the fact that monarchy is one of the few institutions completely shielded from the cuts inflicted on the rest of society. This presented the perfect opportunity to debut my ‘Street Shelley’ plan especially as between 10,000 and 20,000 people would be queuing up to march past.
Deciding that road transport and parking would be a nightmare I took the train into Birmingham. It was an almost surreal experience as protestors laden with banners, flags and leaflets rubbed shoulders (literally in the case of a crowded train) with conference delegates in suits and carefully coiffured hair!. I had chosen my poems beforehand, England in 1819, Masque of Anarchy and Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. Three of the most radical and hard hitting of Shelley’s pieces. The major problem I needed to overcome was a total lack of experience of poetry recitation! My original plan had been to include some stanzas from the great chartist poets such as Gerald Massey. But powerful as these works are (I must get around to writing about them very soon) they proved far trickier for a novice to handle than the fluid lines of Shelley. Considering the fact that I was also using a megaphone in a restless crowd I decided to play safe by letting the words of the poems do the work.
As a shorter sonnet, England in 1819 was suitable for reading in its entirety. But the longer poems needed more careful consideration. One of the delights of reading both Masque and Poetical Essay at your leisure is the way in which Shelley structures his material, diverting now this way, now that way to provide background and develop his theme. This would simply not work for a shifting crowd where the aim is for impact in an environment with competing demands for attention. The best plan would be to choose portions in the hope of hooking people in to discover more. Selecting the material from Masque was a relatively straightforward task with Shelley deftly creating distinct points of tension within its tripartite structure. This means that groups of 10 or 12 stanzas are distributed through the poem which have both internal coherence and impact. So, for example, the following section works as a unit, especially as it contains one the most famous lines in radical poetry Ye are many—they are few.!
Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another ;
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.
Paper coin—that forgery
Of the title-deeds, which ye
Hold to something from the worth
Of the inheritance of Earth.
’Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.
Reciting the poetry was an experience with very steep vertical learning curve. For example, I quickly discovered that it was more effective to actually turn down the megaphone volume and raise the volume of my voice. In this way I realized just how well it works as a visceral language with a weight capable of projection. Lines such as
’Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
could be delivered with energy and passion, the whole thing becoming quite a cathartic experience. Strangely, despite having spent much time over the past few months with these works I discovered that the meaning of a few words and lines were less obvious than I originally thought.
The reaction of the protestors was mixed. Many of them were simply bemused, but I did draw a small round of applause at one point. More gratifyingly were the people who came up to me and enquired further about the poems which fulfilled a central aim of piquing interest. One person in particular wanted me to place Shelley in the historical sweep of radical dissent. The surprising and depressing fact was that he was an English History graduate for whom radicalism was presented as a half-hearted account of Marxism in the 19th Century! The majestic sweep and variety of radical thought over four centuries had largely passed him by – what an indictment of the education system.
Will I continue – absolutely! The sense of catharsis may have just been simply the result of over-oxygenation of course, but the surge of energy was wonderful. It was also a humbling experience to be a vessel for ideas and emotions far beyond my own abilities to articulate. I felt a great sense of connection, as though the past two centuries had simply evaporated and the man himself was still amongst us. I discovered patterns and connections which had not occurred to me when reading the material quietly and alone. I hope Shelley would have approved of what I had done to his poetry. For me the work of Shelley is not an artifact to be studied and analyzed but a continuing personal inspiration for my political engagement. I am sure it will be the same for many more people when we release him from the sanitized gilded cage in which the establishment has trapped him.