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Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Masque of Anarchy

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1832

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Summary and Study Guide


Percy Bysshe Shelley is a polarizing figure of English Romanticism. He is alternately praised as one of the finer English Romantic poets and vilified as the least talented of the so-called “second generation” of English Romantics (Shelley, George Gordon “Lord” Byron, and John Keats). His life was marked by tragedy, tumultuous relationships, financial woe, radical politics, and a fervent desire to challenge authority and realize one’s true potential. After his death by drowning in 1822 at age 29, his second wife, Mary Shelley, edited his works for publication. His writings achieved greater fame after he died, inspiring fellow poets like Robert Browning and W. B. Yeats and political activists like Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi.

Shelley’s radical social and political beliefs often sparked extreme backlash, so much so that Shelley fled to Italy in 1818. Shelley’s long ballad poem The Masque of Anarchy was written in 1819, immediately after he heard about the events of the Peterloo Massacre, a slaughtering of peaceful protestors gathered to call for reform. The poem was not immediately published due to fear of prosecution for seditious libel of the English government. Instead, the poem was published posthumously in 1832. Shelley’s calls for nonviolent resistance have been greatly influential throughout history to the modern day. The poem is one of his most well-known, ranked among other notable works like “Ozymandias,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and Prometheus Unbound.

Poet Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792 in England. He grew up in the countryside and enjoyed happy relationships with his family as a child, particularly with his mother and sisters, but was bullied at school for the nonconformity that would later characterize his literary works. Even in these early years, he was an outsider for his socially progressive views, particularly his atheism. These positions were further developed and radicalized at Oxford College, where he studied classics and was eventually expelled in 1811 for his anonymously authored pamphlet, “The Necessity of Atheism.” Much of Shelley’s literary career centered on politics, which occasionally crept into his poetry as well. His most famous poem besides “Ozymandias” might be The Masque of Anarchy, which was inspired by the murder of nonviolent protestors by British cavalry in the Peterloo Massacre (1819).

While Shelley was first married to Harriet Westbrook in 1811, his most well-known relationship is his affair with and subsequent marriage in 1816 to Mary Shelley, the daughter of radical political philosopher William Godwin. Godwin wrote Political Justice, a text that inspired Shelley and was the first of its kind to elucidate the philosophy of modern anarchism. Shelley’s political and literary circle was as creatively stimulating as it was messy; various affairs and interpersonal conflicts characterized his free-spirited (but fraught) personal life.

On July 8, 1822, Shelley was returning home via his boat from a meeting with essayist and poet Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron about the creation of a new radical journal, The Liberal. The boat sunk during a storm, and Shelley’s body washed up on shore 10 days after the incident. Shelley was 29. His body was cremated, and his ashes were buried in Rome. His gravestone includes a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

When his body was cremated, his calcified heart (the calcification might have resulted from a previous bout of tuberculosis) would not burn and was retrieved. Eventually, it was given to Mary, who, according to legend, kept his heart wrapped in his poetry for the rest of her life.

Poem Text

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Masque of Anarchy. 1832. University of Manchester.


The poem opens with the speaker describing how he “lay asleep in Italy” (Stanza 1). In his sleep, the speaker hears a voice “from over the sea” that speaks with “great power” (Stanza 1). In his dreams, the speaker is lead to “walk in the visions of Poesy” (Stanza 1), with the word Poesy referring to poetry and poetic inspiration.

On this journey, the speaker meets four figures: Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. First, he meets Murder, who “had a mask” (Stanza 2) like the political figure Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh [See Historical Context]. Murder has “Seven bloodhounds” (Stanza 2) who chew on the “human hearts” that Murder throws them (Stanza 3).

Next, the speaker meets Fraud, who wears “an ermined gown” like “Lord E—” (Stanza 4), another political figure named John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon [See Historical Context]. Fraud weeps “big tears” that “[t]urned to mill-stones as they fell” (Stanza 4). “Round his feet played” small children who collected his tears, “[t]hinking every [one] a gem” (Stanza 5), but they “knocked out” the children’s brains instead (Stanza 5).

The third figure the speaker meets is Hypocrisy. He looks like Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth [See Historical Context] and rides in on “a crocodile” (Stanza 6). With Hypocrisy disguised as “bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies,” “many more Destructions played / In this ghastly masquerade” (Stanza 7).

The fourth and last figure he meets is Anarchy, a pale figure who “rode / On a white horse, splashed with blood” (Stanza 8). Dressed like a king, he wore a crown and held a scepter. Upon his forehead were the words “I am God, and King, and Law!” (Stanza 9).

The speaker then describes how these figures, led by Anarchy, seek to take over England, “Trampling to a mire of blood / The adoring multitude” (Stanza 10). The innocent masses are massacred, and the supporters each wave “a bloody sword” (Stanza 11). The destruction continues to spread over England until “they came to London town” (Stanza 13). Londoners are “panic-stricken” (Stanza 14) and try to flee as the “hired murderers” come “with pomp to meet” Anarchy (Stanza 15) and praise his arrival (Stanzas 16, 17, and 18).

Upon the warring parties’ arrival, Anarchy, “the skeleton” (Stanza 19), greets everyone as if “his education, / Had cost ten millions to the nation” (Stanza 19). Anarchy moves with such confidence because “he knew the palaces / Of our kings were nightly his” and so were “the sceptre, crown, and globe, / And the gold-in-woven robe” (Stanza 20). Anarchy then sends “his slaves” to take “the Bank and Tower” while “proceeding with intent / To meet his pensioned parliament” (Stanza 21). Some of the masses choose to follow him instead of facing death.

Yet at this moment, a “maniac maid” ran past (Stanza 22). This maid, Hope, “looked more like Despair” (Stanza 22). She speaks loudly, describing how her father, Time, is “weak and grey / With waiting for a better day” (Stanza 23). She criticizes Anarchy, blaming him for the death of “child after child” (Stanza 24). Hope is the only one left. Hope then lies in the street, waiting patiently for Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

“A mist, a light, an image” rises between Hope and Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy (Stanza 26). It begins as something “weak and frail” (Stanza 26) before it grows into “a shape arrayed in mail” and “upborne on wings” (Stanza 28). This thing blows past the men, awakening thoughts in them, as Hope walks past. As a result, Anarchy “[l]ay[s] dead” while the Horse of Death tramples the murderers as it fleas (Stanza 33). The “rushing light of clouds and splendour” brings a “sense, awakening and yet tender” (Stanza 34).

This voice speaking “words of joy and fear” (Stanza 34) comes from “their own indignant earth, / Which gave the sons of England birth” (Stanza 35). The English land itself directly addresses the English people, who are framed as potential heroes for the origins of a political revolution yet to come. In one of the poem’s most quoted lines, the land says:

Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew,
Which in sleep had fall’n on you (Stanza 38).

The voice asks the English to rise, fight back, and retake their freedom in response to the violent oppression they have experienced.

After describing many injustices, the land describes the effects of this oppression, describing starving and weak children and mothers (Stanza 42) in contrast to the rich man’s “fat dogs” (Stanza 43). The voice criticizes what it calls “the Ghost of Gold” for requiring more work than the gold could ever be worth (Stanza 44). This injustice requires a human to “be a slave in soul” (Stanza 46). People are not in control of their own lives and instead do what is demanded of them.

The land describes how, if someone dares to complain, “the tyrant's crew / Ride[s] over [their] wives” and the complainant (Stanza 47). While the land acknowledges that it is natural to want violent revenge, the land implores that they “DO NOT THUS, WHEN YE ARE STRONG” and instead practice nonviolent resistance (Stanza 48).

In the next section, the land lists many qualities it believes the English masses should demand, such as freedom. The voice contrasts the English masses with animals who have homes, declaring that “Thou, oh Englishman, hast none!” (Stanza 50). The land equates this with “Slavery,” as even “savage men” and “wild beasts” demand a home (Stanza 51). The land then defines freedom, citing the need for food, clothes, and a warm place to stay.

The next demand is for justice. Here, the land criticizes corruption and bribery in the judicial system and requests, “ne’er for gold / May thy righteous laws be sold” so that both the rich and the poor are treated the same (Stanza 57).

The land then connects the common people to three admirable traits. The first is Wisdom, which the land equates with the ability to recognize the truth about salvation and damnation regardless of “which priests make such ado” (Stanza 58). Next, the land describes the search for Peace from tyrants' violent bloodshed (Stanza 59). Last, the land describes Love: “the rich have kist / Thy feet, and like him following Christ, / Give their substance to the free” (Stanza 61).

The land explains that “Science, and Poetry, and Thought” should guide the English people (Stanza 63). The English should exhibit “Spirit, Patience, Gentleness” such that “deeds, not words, express / Thine exceeding loveliness” (Stanza 64).

The land demands a “great assembly” of the “fearless” and “free” on “English ground” (Stanza 65). It must reach every part of England and all who suffer, including “the workhouse and the prison” (Stanza 68). Those in power must empathize with and “feel such compassion” for those struggling and suffering (Stanzas 70-71).

Those who have suffered in and for England, a “lost country bought and sold / With a price of blood and gold” (Stanza 72), should become a “vast assembly” that “Declare[s] with measured words” that they are free (Stanza 73). They should use “strong and simple words” like “sharpened swords” to overthrow tyrants (Stanzas 74). Despite the violence of those in power, the assembly should stay “calm and resolute” (Stanza 79). The ideals and beliefs of the peaceful assembly should guide their actions. If those in power resort to violence, the masses should allow them to ride amongst them and “[s]lash, and stab, and maim, and hew” (Stanza 84). This peaceful protest should continue until the aggressors’ “rage has died away” (Stanza 85).

As a result of these nonviolent protests, the land argues that those who were violent “will return with shame” to their homes with “hot blushes on their cheek” (Stanza 86). All of the women in England “[w]ill point at them as they stand” (Stanza 87), and the nonviolent protesters will become “[a]shamed of such base company” (Stanza 88). This massacre of the nonviolent and peaceful will serve as an “inspiration” (Stanza 89), and the words will be “[h]eard again—again—again” (Stanza 90).

The poem closes with the refrain of the whole of Stanza 38 to “[r]ise like lions after slumber” but adds the additional rallying cry, “YE ARE MANY—THEY ARE FEW” (Stanza 91).