The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 496 words.)