The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

The Mask of Anarchy, a ballad of ninety-one stanzas, was inspired by the “Peterloo Massacre” in Manchester, England. On August 16, 1819, several thousand people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields to hear the orator Henry Hunt speak in favor of reform in the English government. The assembly was broken up violently by militia and cavalry, who attempted to arrest Hunt. At least ten people were killed and hundreds injured.

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The first stanza tells how news of the massacre led the sleeping Percy Bysshe Shelley “To walk in the visions of Poesy”; the images he envisions within his poetic imagination are essentially a reenactment of “Peterloo,” with a happy ending. The first twenty stanzas offer a hideous parade in which the sins of government hide behind the likenesses of individual politicians of the day. The poem’s title is therefore a pun both on “mask,” to conceal one’s identity, and on “masque,” a dramatic form of entertainment based on an allegorical theme. Murder “had a mask like Castlereagh,” Robert Stewart Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary who often introduced unpopular repressive measures in Parliament. Fraud bears the mask of Lord Chancellor John Scott Eldon, the judge who took two of Shelley’s children away from him. Hypocrisy bears the likeness of Lord Sidmouth (Henry Addington), Home Secretary in the Tory Government. Other horrible beings follow, “All disguised, . . ./ Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.”

Last in the procession is Anarchy himself, a symbol for the English government. He claims: “I am God, and King, and Law!” Anarchy’s “white horse” is “splashed with blood,” reminiscent of the Death that rode a pale horse in Revelation. He is followed by “hired murderers,” loyal bloodthirsty soldiers whom Shelley associates with those who took part in the killings at “Peterloo.”

The macabre masquerade spells doom for the oppressed. Thus, Hope is described as a “maniac maid” resembling “Despair.” She rushes by the procession, proclaims her “Misery, oh, Misery!” and lies on the ground before Anarchy, resigned to a dismal fate. Then an ambiguous “Shape” emerges, causing Anarchy to flee and to trample his followers to death. This entity brings with it “A sense awakening and yet tender” that brings the people hope. A mysterious voice is heard, like the cry of the “indignant Earth,” nature itself.

The impassioned speech made by this voice takes up the final stanzas of the poem. The speech is a cry from freedom, urging the oppressed to “Rise like Lions . . .” and to “Shake your chains to earth like dew.” The first part of the speech paints a poignant picture of the dismal plight of the working class caused by despotism. Next the concept of freedom is discussed. To the common laborer, freedom means simply the food and shelter that are denied under tyranny. Freedom is synonymous with justice, wisdom, peace, and love. In the name of freedom, the oppressed from all across the country are urged to unite in a great “Assembly” to demand reform. Shelley suggests a nonviolent struggle: “Stand ye calm and resolute.” The great potential within the united numbers of the oppressed is expressed in the final words of the speech: “Ye are many—they are few.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

Shelley wrote The Mask of Anarchy to appeal to the working class. He avoided any overly sophisticated or difficult poetic techniques that might have made the poem inaccessible to an uneducated audience. This lack of sophisticated technique should not be viewed as a weakness. The poem’s relatively simple language, structure, rhythm, and metaphors enhance its direct and vigorous message of liberty.

Structurally, the poem follows standard convention in the use and arrangement of stanzas. Each of the ninety-one stanzas has four lines, except for eight five-line stanzas scattered throughout, used in times of particular emphasis (for example, when the voice calls for those assembled to “Rise like Lions . . .” in stanza 38). The stanzas are arranged in an uncomplicated plot structure. The first twenty-one stanzas describe the procession. The next fifteen stanzas include Hope’s desperate act, which provides the conflict and makes way for the entrance of the “Shape” and the voice. The remaining fifty-five stanzas make up the speech of freedom. Within this plot structure, the tendency is toward symmetry. After the introductory stanza establishing Shelley’s dream, the descriptions of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy receive two stanzas each. The following twelve stanzas that describe the horrible masquerade are balanced by the twelve stanzas (excluding the two on Hope) devoted to the mysterious, yet hopeful, “Shape.” Within the final speech, thirteen stanzas portraying the slave-like conditions of the working class are balanced by thirteen stanzas describing freedom.

The poem’s rhythm and rhyme are that of street balladry, a form accessible and familiar to the working class. The poem’s prosody makes various stanzas easy to remember, like a well-worn song. Most of the stanzas consist of seven syllables per line of trochaic rhythm, a heavy stress followed by a light stress: “I met Murder on the way—” (stressed syllables in italics). At times this meter varies to include lines of eight or ten syllables, but this rarely jars the rhythmic ease of the poem.

The simple rhyme scheme facilitates the rhythm’s smooth beat. The four-line stanzas usually follow an aabb pattern, while the five-line stanzas follow aabbb. Frequently the scheme is even simpler in that all line-ending words within the stanza rhyme (for example, stanza 42 with “weak,” “peak,” “bleak,” “speak”). Most of the rhymes are one syllable (“fly,” “sky”) with an occasional two-syllable rhyming couplet (“waken,” “shaken”) to make the poem even more musical.

Shelley is known for his elaborate metaphors and obscure allusions, but in The Mask of Anarchy he rejects such complex artifice and offers simpler, more familiar images and references to suit his poor, uneducated audience. Most of Shelley’s readers would have recognized the allusion to Revelation in describing Anarchy as “Like Death in the Apocalypse.” Similarly, the “Shape” who is “Brighter than the viper’s scale” alludes to the snake, a well-known symbol of resistance to oppression. Throughout the poem, Shelley uses symbols and metaphors of oppression and liberty familiar to the common people of the day.

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