Friday, November 18, 2011

Percy Bysshe Shelley at Occupy Wall Street

Yesterday’s heroic actions, both here in the US and abroad, of the rising Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement have put me in mind of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s magnificent poem, The Mask of Anarchy.
Mask was written in 1819, following the Peterloo Massacre.  In August, 1819, the cavalry attacked a crowd of some 70,000 peaceful protestors who had gathered to demand reforms of parliamentary representation.  It was a time of incredible unemployment, and austerity measures on behalf of the government were making matters worse.  During the demonstration, local authorities called on the military to arrest the movement’s leader, Henry Hunt, and other key followers.
In a manner that eerily foreshadows recent events in New York, Portland, Seattle and Oakland, the cavalry charged into the crowd with drawn swords.  Some 15 people were murdered during this early police action, and more than 500 were injured.  Wags of the time called the massacre Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the recent Battle of Waterloo.
Shelley (1792-1822) -- idealist, humanist and liberal – was appalled at the heavy-handed behavior of the government, and at the unthinking violence on the part of the cavalry.  He wrote The Mask of Anarchy in response, but the poem was not published until 1832, after the poet had drowned off the coast of Italy.  It was published with a preface by fellow poet Leigh Hunt, who had initially withheld it from publication 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.”
Readers who want to read the whole poem can see an online edition of the 1832 first edition here:
I’d to close today with my favorite passage from the poem:
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away

Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

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 Peterloo Massacre was one of the defining moments of its age, as, I believe, OWS will prove to be to ours.  The poem should be required reading for the police of our once-great nation.

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