This week sees the two-hundreth anniversary of a dark time in English history, but a bright moment in the history of poetry – for the Peterloo Massacre may well have been a tragedy, but it was no mere statistic. It was the still-glowing brand that fuelled the Reform Act thirteen years later, and it was the outrage that sparked one of our finest pieces of polemical verse. Not the first of course – Johnny Swift and Georgie Byron had both dipped their quills into the bloody inkhorn of anger, but this time it fell to that old Etonian Percy Bysshe to speak out for the workers with his Masque of Anarchy. Yes, it wasn’t actually published until the reform year of 1832, after its author had died and taken the fight direct to the Heaven he didn’t believe in, but no less timely for all that.
It is also a memory of when a poet could also be a dissident, an agitator, a demagogue, rather than a cosy Radio 4 luvvie or Hay Festival doyen. Because young Shelley was every bit the radical we all wanted to be at fifteen – moody, wild-eyed and wilder-haired, and probably dressed in black. Perhaps it’s just as well that he never got the chance to become old Shelley and sell himself out like that Tory lickspittle Wordsworth. After him, polemical verse was never as good, though honourable mention must go to Alfie Tennyson for his Light Brigade, precisely because such a complaint was so unexpected from one so embedded in the establishment.
Anyway, calmer heads were to be found at this week’s workshop, beginning with a pondering Roger Beckett mulling over what makes writing great, and the world-weary park bench observations as relayed by John Hurley. A restored painting has struck David Hovatter as losing something as it gained back its clarity, and for Doig Simmonds’ dog, the only part of his master that matters is his feet. Daphne Gloag brought us two versions of a thought, saying the same thing in rather different ways, and asked us to choose, while Martin Choules has been rallying the modern radicals to favour positivity over doomsaying, and Alan Chambers has been forceably inspired by his cat’s gift of a dead mouse.
But why the delay in the publication ? Was it suppressed by the dastardly state, or a feint-hearted hothead ? The Archives reveal a clue on a Tuesday night later in the Autumn. Leigh Hunt was in attendance and had just received the submission from the Sunshine Socialist on the Italian Riviera, intended for publication in his Examiner. He read out the Masque of Anarchy in his best lilting, Anglican tones so as to damp down its strident proclamations, but even this was not enough. The room was outraged, and editor Hunt knew that now was not the time.
But as Sir John would later note, a couple of years earlier such a work would have received, if not a standing ovation, then a very lively sitting one from the salon’s well-stuffed armchairs. But by 1819, Byron and the Shelleys were abroad, Johnny Keats was suffering from depression that would often keep him quiet in the corner, and Bill Blake was now in his sixties and mostly in a world of his own. Instead, ever present were those long-extinguished radicals of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, drifting ever rightwards into grumbling fear and comfortable pensions, proving that the new order would be very much the old order. But the reformers would win the long game, the lions would rise up from slumber, and Leigh Hunt would indeed eventually publish every blooded syllable.
Sometimes, revolutions happen slowly, but away from the middle classes, the spirit of Shelley lives on in the raps and slams of the youth of today. And still those in power are desperate to keep a lid on things, with coercion, ridicule and even outright censorship, from Rock & Roll to Punk to Drill. But always remember – ye are many, they are few.