David Blackburn

Wednesday’s newly discovered poetry

Text settings

I never find the time to read poetry these days; and to enjoy and remember it, you have to read a lot. One of the many pleasures of sitting opposite the Spectator's literary editors is being given recommended reading, built on more than 50 years of professional experience between them. Yesterday, Clare Asquith recommended I read Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy, of which I'd heard but never read.

Written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, it has been described by political thinkers such as Paul Foot and Richard Holmes as the greatest political poem ever written in English. Having now read it, they're not far wrong. It is savage in its contempt and virulent in its disgust. Here is an extract of Shelley at his most seditious:

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy (1819)

As 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;

All were fat; and well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,

He tossed them human hearts to chew

Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,

Like Eldon, an ermined gown;

His big tears, for he wept well,

Turned to millstones as they fell.

And the little children, who

Round his feet played to and fro,

Thinking every tear a gem,

Had their brains knocked out by them.

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, and 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 -