The Tyrannical Continuation Of England In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Poem “England In 1819”
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “England in 1819” was originally written in 1819, but due to Shelley’s controversial and radical views on things such as religion, free love, and political reform, the poem was not published until 17 years after his death in 1839 by his wife, Mary Shelley. The poem is reminiscent of a Petrarchan sonnet with 14 lines being versed by iambic pentameter, but Shelley inverts the form where the first six lines are coupled together, then followed by the next eight, creating an already troublesome start.
The poem provides a report on the state of England in 1819, starting off by describing King George III’s health and well-being then transitioning to describe the other rulers and current affairs of England in the first 6 lines. The last 8 lines, on the other hand, turn to focus on the people and the importance they have within the government. Shelley finishes out the poem by looking towards the people in hope that they (the English people) can see a light beyond their “tempestuous day. ” Shelley’s use of illusions, syntax, and power imagery make the text have a very straightforward and simplistic meaning to the untrained eye. But what is Shelley really trying to say about political reform and current matters?
The difficulty of this text lies within the blurring of political boundaries and stances of leaders during this time, making it difficult for scholars to correctly analyze one side’s argument without knowing which side the leader firmly stood behind. By contextualizing this poem, it helps us recognize Shelly’s intended message and the political unhappiness of the nation. Shelley implies that people have a greater power than any single political leader and should demand equality and fairness by overthrowing current power.
To understand PB Shelly’s, “England in 1819, ” it is necessary to place the poem within the political turmoil and a call to action for reformation of higher government in England during the Georgian Period. With the takeover of the British Empire by King George III in 1760, he served as the longest ruler of Great Britain up until his death in 1820. The countless battles that George had won coupled with the return to absolute monarchy created a tension within Parliament and the people. Following his acquisition of the crown in 1760, King George faced 3 worldwide wars that forced him to look inward at his beliefs and the ability to convince Parliament and citizens alike to fight his battles. Arguments broke out over whether wars were worth it, and it ultimately became one of the most problematic times for politicians and monarchs in England. Many pamphlets and essays were produced from the time of the American Revolution until his death in 1820. A majority of them focused on the capability of Parliament and King George to rule a country. One group of articles, “An Account Of The Celebration Of Jubilee, Being The Forty-Ninth Anniversary Of The Reign Of King George III, ” was published on the 49th anniversary of his reign and it stated, on the cover page, a saying that was used by loyalists to the government for his remaining years: “The Father Of His People”. With the collection of essays being published by Egniton, Jabet, Longhman, and Rees, it signifies the importance of King George’s III stature and the power of his nobility through his reign. This collection of essays was well received by the public and a number of people took it upon themselves to edit it and offer their opinion.
A later publication of the collection included Robert Orme’s additional phrase on the title page where he twists a biblical verse from Samuel by stating, “And All The People Shouted And Said, God Save The King, ” further demonstrating the public opinion of King George. People often looked at George as a war-hero and a military mastermind, winning almost every major battle the British were involved in, almost as a God. After being in office for 15 years, George was faced with the American Revolution which only created a greater playing field and impact of George. In an essay written by Parliament member William Pitt, he classifies George as “noble” and “trustworthy of the people, ” (allowing the public to feel more inclined to allow him more power to accomplish his goals for the country. After defeating Napoleon and successfully ending the Napoleonic Wars, King George III furthered his position amongst the greats by demonstrating his military ingenuousness and capability.
This depiction of George by the English people can be seen in a cartoon by James Gillray, a political cartoonist, and political activist, living in London during the time. In the cartoon, King James III is holding Napoleon in the palm of his hands while closely analyzing him with a spy-glass signifying the immense size and strength of the British Empire under George III. In the cartoon, it further valorizes George by his condescending dialogue towards the French general by stating, “ My little friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon Yourself and Country, but from what I can gather from your own relation & the answers I have with much pains wringed & extorted from you, I cannot but conclude you to be one of the most pernicious, little-odious-reptiles, that nature ever suffer’d to crawl upon the surface of the Earth, ” emphasizing the notion that the public was quite fond of King George III and his position within the government.
On the other hand, other major works of literature came from this time period, many of which were critical of the government and supporting a change of power or a revolution. A few years prior, Britain engaged in a revolutionary battle with the United States and ended up losing countless economic ties as well as a stake in the New World. The people, after already struggling to maintain economic prosperity during this time, started to grow tired of the endless spending of their money by the government. In 1815, a series of legislature was signed declaring tariffs and trade restrictions on food imported into Great Britain. These tariffs were known as the Corn Laws and become synonymous with poverty, starvation, and riots. Countless people died from these tariffs, but the government favored this method of high tariffs as it represented British mercantilism. Over the course of 20 years, Britain had managed to lose major economic partnerships, the ability to support their country, and the support of the people. John Thelwall vocalized this and held weekly meetings at his house, under the protection of night, to educate the people that reform was important. In one of his speeches, Thelwall states, “Rouse from the couch of lethargy, O sluggish and insensate people! shake off the drowsy stupor, which, creeping over the frozen nerve of misery, at once soothes, and threatens with the sleep of death, ” calling for the people to stop being inactive and take action together to overthrow the government. Shortly after hearing about these weekly meetings, another author and orator published a work that shattered the political sphere of England.
Thomas Paine’s work, “Common Sense, ” became one of the most influential pamphlets of this time period. In his work, Paine advocates for the right of citizens to overthrow government powers, highlighting the corruption and critical view people had of Parliament and the King during this time. Apart from weekly orations and pamphlets, the issue of the King’s declining mental health was heard across the country and puzzled the people on what actions to take. In 1812, a regency was established by the government for George IV to take the throne, but not to start ruling or making decisions. Unable to sign any new legislature or enact new laws, the government was seen as useless and only acted as a centralized hub for politicians. King George III during this period held no political power, nor spoke to the public, or signed off on any legislation, as he was deemed mentally unfit to speak to anyone but his wife and children. One of the main issues that pushed civilians and commoners over the edge was the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. During a peaceful protest in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, government cavalry along with independent jockeys rode into a crowd of nearly 100, 000 people who were gathered to demand a reform of the government. This careless incident by the government resulted in the death of 15 people and the injury of another 500. Afterward, the government denied any responsibility claiming that they didn’t have any involvement and would take none of the blame. This all happened after one of the most controversial time periods ever in Great Britain.
In “England in 1819, ” Shelley uses distant narration and indirect identification techniques to critique the notion that the monarchy is secluded and removed from everyday occurrences. To clarify, King George III and Parliament are withdrawn from the middle and lower class causing a conflict of interest between the two. At the beginning of the poem, Shelley describes King George III as “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King, ” which depicts a person that is seemingly unfit for ruling, but the English people still recognize him as their king. Shelley’s use of adjectives here can be translated onto the people themselves, often being described by some as “out of touch” with corruption on a local scale and the people growing old of the current system of government. While Shelly does not explicitly state that the king or his princes are unfit for ruling, he implies that they are worthless and representational of a broken system by referring to them as a “muddy spring” which “flow / Through public scorn”. There are numerous conclusions we can draw just from the first 3 lines alone, with the most important being the criticism and blame that government received by allowing the King to retain his power and title without being in direct political authority. This shows the flaws within the English government and the hereditary order dispute amongst the people.
Shelley’s condemnation of the current political system is also represented through the metaphorical comparisons he makes between the current rulers and the country. An example that performs this connection is Shelley’s reference to the kings as only acting in the interest of themselves and not the country. “Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know, ” Shelley writes, “but leechlike to their fainting country cling, ” represents his views on the catastrophic nature of the government and the fleeting relevance of the country. In this example, Shelley uses leeches as a metaphor for the destruction and unsympathetic nature of the monarchy and Parliament. In other words, with the king holding zero political power, and the princes acting in the interest of themselves and Parliament, the current monarchy is a system that will kill England unless something is changed. Shelley implies that the current corruption of the government will further destroy the country “till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow” and force political reform upon themselves in order to regain prosperity. Another tactic that Shelley uses to critique the current state of the government comes from the valorization of the middle class and protests. Shelly encourages political reform by demonstrating the oppressive force of the existing government. Simply put, the current government’s way of handling demonstrations and protests are often violent and brutal, emphasizing the control of the government against the people and its detrimental nature. Shelley’s indirect identification of the Peterloo Massacre and the Corn Laws are echoed throughout the poem referring to the impact each one possesses as monumental. “A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field, ” Shelly states, offering a realistic image of the innocent killing of 15 people and injuring 500 more. The Peterloo Massacre is depicted in this poem as a turning point, the final straw of the people towards political reform. By reinforcing governmental aggressiveness towards the people, Shelley shows a broken system that must resort to the killing of people who are outspoken and differ on political views.
Another important line Shelley notes about the killing of innocent people and the oppressive style of government comes at line 8 which states, “an army, whom liberticide and prey / makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield, ” demonstrating the outcomes of the middle and lower class in either scenario. This is the most important line in the poem and shows the similarity of the government attitude towards daily activities or protests. Shelley’s comparison of the army being a two-edged sword alludes to, no matter what the actions of the people, whether they remain silent and starve due to food shortage, or if they gather and try to protest, either way, they will be killed. The government’s choice to not act in the interest of the people causes them to act for themselves, often suffering severe punishment, if not death, at the hands of Parliament or the King, exemplifying the notion that a new government needs to arise. By valorizing the middle class, Shelley is able to encourage an uprising by demonstrating the insignificance of power the government possesses. To simplify, the sheer masses of the people can easily overthrow the government and look for motivation within themselves instead of a godsent symbol. Shelley states that the current government only passes laws that “tempt and slay, ” promoting for a change by way of the people. With the murdering of innocent people, Shelley condemns the government by saying “a senate” is “Time’s worst statue, ” begging for the people to look no further than the past and enact change themselves. In the last lines of the poem, Shelley asks the people to look no further than the graves of the innocent and rise up, hoping that with body count continuing to rise, something will “illuminate our tempestuous day”. Hoping that the people understand their capability and choose to act in the interest of themselves creates an optimistic tone in the latter half of this piece. This inactivity of the people gives the government consent to continue these atrocities and not recognize their faults. Shelley implies that the people are not powerless at all, for the current method of government is nothing more than a plague sweeping over the masses and the people hold the power to eradicate this disease.
P. B. Shelley’s, “England in 1819” reinforces the notion that the government during the Georgian Era was under the hand of a tyrannical ruler and needed reconstruction. King George III, being praised as a war hero by some, was also delirious and held no political power for the last 10 years of his reign, causing a problematic scenario for Parliament and the people. The starvation, innocent killing, and distrust of the common people led to riots which called for a change of power, if not a reform of the whole monarchy system. A conflict of interest between higher powers and the working class created tension and produced prolific commentary on the recklessness and destruction of the government. By analyzing this poem, we can view this piece as relevant today as a warning message to not fall blind to corrupt powers. As P. B. Shelley states, “Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil. When all men are good and wise, government will of itself decay. ”
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