The Masque of Anarchy

peterloo plaque

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.”

The Manchester International Festival is held every two years in July. Unfortunately, it inevitably coincides with my summer holiday so although it usually includes a number of events I’d like to attend, I end up missing out. One event I’ll be sorry to miss this year is the performance of Shelley’s epic poem “The Masque of Anarchy”  by Maxine Peake.

A ballad with 38 verses, Shelley wrote the poem on 5 September 1819 when he was living in Leghorn in Italy in response to the news of the “Peterloo massacre” (also known as the Battle of Peterloo) that took place in Manchester on 16 August of that year.

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

(Picture source: here)

Fifteen people had been killed and a large number seriously injured (estimates vary, but there may have been as many as 700)  when the Yeomanry cavalry (mainly volunteers from the upper classes) charged into the crowd at a large peaceful demonstration and meeting of some 60,000 people organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, which was addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. The events took place on what was then the open land of Peter’s Field, now a built up area in the city centre around the former Free Trade Hall.

File:The Massacre of Peterloo.jpg

Cartoon by George Cruikshank. The text reads: “Down with ’em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! —- & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty” (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The ruling class used the event as an opportunity to attack the reform movement.  Viscount Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, sent a letter of congratulations to the Manchester magistrates for the action they had taken. Parliament also passed the Six Acts in an attempt to prevent such meetings happening again. The organisers were put on trial, being charged with  “assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent”. A number of the leaders, including Henry Hunt were found guilty and jailed.

So in the short term, the events on the 16th August were a setback for the reform movement. But it’s legacy endured and today Peterloo is remembered as one of the pivotal events in the struggle of working people to achieve the vote and improve their lot.

Although Shelley wrote the poem immediately after hearing news of the massacre, it wasn’t published until 1832. He had sent the manuscript for publication in The Examiner but the editor, Leigh Hunt, withheld it because he “thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.”

File:Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint crop.jpg

Percy Shelley (picture source: Wikipedia)

It isn’t his best poem, but it’s one of his most stirring, demonstrating Shelley’s raw emotion, passion and commitment to the rights of ordinary people. It remains one of the greatest political poems in the English language.

‘And that slaughter to the nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

And these words shall then become
Like oppression’s thundered doom,
Ringing through each heart and brain
Heard again, again, again –

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.’