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.)