“England in 1819” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Political Sonnet Following the Peterloo Massacre

“England in 1819” is a political sonnet by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and reflects his liberal ideals. Composed in 1819, it was not published until 1839 in the four-volume The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Edward Moxon) edited by Mary Shelley. Like all sonnets, “England in 1819” has fourteen lines and is written in iambic pentameter; however, its rhyming scheme (a-b-a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, c-c-d-d) differs from that of the traditional English sonnet (a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g).

The sonnet describes a very forlorn reality. The poem passionately attacks England’s, as the poet sees it, decadent, oppressive ruling class. King George III is referred to by “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying.” The “leech-like” nobility (“princes”) metaphorically suck the blood from the people, who are, in the sonnet, oppressed, hungry, and hopeless, their fields untilled. Meanwhile, the army is corrupt and dangerous to liberty, the laws are harsh and useless, religion has lost its morality, and Parliament (the “Senate”) is a relic. In addition, the civil rights of the Catholic minority are non existent “Time’s worst statute unrepealed.” In a startling burst of optimism, the last two lines express the hope that a “glorious Phantom” may spring forth from this decay and “illumine our tempestuous day.”

This poem was written as a response to the brutal Peterloo Massacre in August 1819.

The state of England in 1819 is described. The king is “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying”. The princes are “the dregs of their dull race”, and flow through public scorn like mud, unable to see, feel for, or know their people, clinging like leeches to their country until they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The English populace are “starved and stabbed” in untilled fields; the army is corrupted by “liberticide and prey”; the laws “tempt and slay”; religion is Christless and Godless, “a book sealed”; and the English Senate is like “Time’s worst statute unrepealed.” Each of these things is like a grave from which “a glorious Phantom” may burst to illuminate “our tempestuous day.”

“England in 1819” is a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem metered in iambic pentameter. Like many of Shelley’s sonnets, it does not fit the rhyming patterns one might expect from a nineteenth-century sonnet; instead, the traditional Petrarchan division between the first eight lines and the final six lines is disregarded, so that certain rhymes appear in both sections: ABABABCDCDCCDD. In fact, the rhyme scheme of this sonnet turns an accepted Petrarchan form upside-down, as does the thematic structure, at least to a certain extent: the first six lines deal with England’s rulers, the king and the princes, and the final eight deal with everyone else. The sonnet’s structure is out of joint, just as the sonnet proclaims England to be.

Although an idealistic poet, Shelley was concerned with the real world: He denounced and attacked oppression, tyranny, and the abuse of political power as a passionate advocate for liberty. The result of his political commitment was a series of critical political poems condemning the arrogance of power, including “Ozymandias” and “England in 1819.”

Like William Wordsworth’s “London, 1802,” “England in 1819” lists the flaws in England’s social fabric:The furious, violent metaphors Shelley employs throughout (nobles as leeches in muddy water, the army as a two-edged sword, religion as a sealed book, Parliament as an unjust law) leave no doubt about his feelings on the state of his nation. Then, surprisingly, the final couplet concludes with a note of passionate Shelleyean optimism: from these “graves” a “glorious Phantom” may “burst to illumine our tempestuous day.” What this Phantom might be is not specified in the poem, but it hints simultaneously at the Spirit of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and at the possibility of liberty won through revolution, as it was won in France.

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
An army which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,–
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless, a book sealed,–
A Senate—Time’s worst statute unrepealed,–
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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