The University of Toronto at Scarborough
ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)
Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane
The occasion on which Shelley wrote this poem was an event known as the "Peterloo massacre" in which the army fired into a group of workers gathered in a non-violent protest against the government. Nine were killed and hundreds were wounded.
The term "Peterloo" was coined with reference to the battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon was defeated in 1815. The workers' meeting was held in St. Peter's field near Manchester, in the industrial midlands of England. On page 3 of the Anthology, about 15 lines down, you'll find a description of the workers' conditions and some of the reasons for their protest: unemployment and starvation conditions, caused by too many men in the workforce (with men returning from the war with France) and by the loss of jobs due to developing technology.
The Poem as Revolutionary and Visionary
Shelley's poem records horror at the event ("A people starved and stabbed in th'untilled field" ) and a sense of thorough corruption in all the sources of authority in England: in the rulers, in the government, in the law, in the army, in religion. But the poem ends with a visionary prophecy that the sources of corruption are headed for destruction, to be followed by the birth of a glorious new world, presumably a new democratic society.
Revolution and the Sonnet Form
Shelley is, perhaps surprisingly, using a traditional form here--that of the 14-line sonnet. But note the revolutionary way in which he uses it.
The poem is one long sentence, leaving us almost breathless. So often a sonnet gives us balanced thought: a question and an answer, or three stages in a developing train of thought, concluded or neatly reversed at the end. This poem is one long cry, mounting in energy up to the last prophetic image.
The subject extends for 12 lines until we finally get the verb in line 13. We are given a long list of evils headed for destruction: the King (l. 1), Princes (l. 2), Rulers (l. 4), the army (l. 8), the laws (l. 9), religion (l. 11), the senate (l. 12). All these things "are graves." Shelley is saying to them, "you're dead." (Is this a threat?)
Then out of the death imagery comes an image of new life. The words "burst" and "illumine" suggest a sudden fire, possibly implying the Phoenix--a mythological bird said to burn itself up and then to spring to new life from its ashes. The poem does not detail to us what the new era will be like; it is a "Phantom," a spiritual force, a vision to inspire its readers with hope. The violent energy of "burst" and "tempestuous" suggests both an avenging and a creative force.
The Shakespearean sonnet traditionally ends with a rhymed couplet. Here we have two rhymed couplets: first with the rhymes "sealed" and "unrepealed" in lines 11 and 12; then with "may" and "day" in lines 13 and 14. It is as if the poem ends, and then is overthrown by a second ending. The words signifying restriction ("sealed" and "unrepealed") are replaced by possibility ("may") and imagined fulfillment ("day").
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