Shelley: In His Way, One Of Us
Innumerable days of my life I wish to forget; three days I will always remember with joy. On one of those latter days I read The Communist Manifesto for the first time. On another of the days I saw some of Van Gogh’s pictures at the first exhibition in this country of the work of the post-impressionists of France. On the third, and almost the last, of my joy-days my father gave me a book, “The Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley.”
Shelley is the poet I care for beyond all other poets. He dreamed, loved, wept, and sang; he helped his friends and those who were not his friends — he gave heaps of money away — he went his own way— none could tie him down — he was a wild yet gentle man, and his immortal “sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought.”
I have for years read Shelley. I have not come across a more useful or beautiful purifying influence than Shelley’s work. And in his day he was a Revolutionist.
A Revolutionist! Never mind . . . he’s been dead a hundred years. Moreover, he believed if you only quietly proclaimed your ideas all would run smoothly. For a short time the rulers’ soldiers might “slash and stab and maim and hew” as they did at Peterloo. The business of the rebel was to look earnestly and pityingly upon the armed men. The soldiers would then sheathe their swords—the rulers would recognise the immemorial injustice done to the toilers, be purified by the martyrdom of the masses, and make amends for their tyranny. Shelley didn’t live to hear of the Commune of Paris. He couldn’t possibly have seen photographs in the picture papers of Lloyd George, hat in hand, before the Cenotaph.
No . . . Such an idea of passive resistance was born of his own instinctive gentleness. Could Shelley, even with his wonderful mind, imagine the depths of fiendishness to which a ruling class will sink so they may keep all their privileges? He knew the schools of his day planted base ideas; he knew the churches were used to muddle the minds of potential rebels, and he exposed the crime; he fathomed the duplicity of Castlereagh and Pitt and Ellenborough, but I wonder if it was possible for any man in Shelley’s time to accurately picture the Society of to-day? For crafty brutality there was nothing like it in the old Roman days of slavery—in the morning of capitalism. The despots were somewhat inexperienced ; the arch-fiends and the master hypocrites of the afternoon of capitalism were unborn.
May be, inadvertently by innuendo, I am unjust. Perhaps Shelley advocated no definite “tactic” of Revolution. He looked around him and brooded upon the loveliness and the mighty riddles of the universe. He went down many rivers and came upon mountains. Throughout the year he was out in the open air. He became familiar with the silence and solitude of winter. He came to know the colours and noises and songs of the whole year by heart. And yet —“my fellow man is in chains”—he said. Not all the “unpremeditated art” of Nature, not all the music of a summer’s sky, could make Shelley deaf to the rattle of the iron. Million upon million died knowing nothing of the mystery and grandeur and joy of life. The milk and honey were possessed by liars, traitors, and fools—to the multitude, the dust and ashes.
Shelley wished everyone to be free. Have not all men worth their salt wished the same? All considerate men at some time or other have wished to “re-mould things nearer to the heart’s desire.” But the strange man whose boat got upset and broken in the Bay of Spezzia in 1822 was one of the most constant, indefatigable, and impassioned advocates of Freedom the world has ever known. His music of thunder and sweetness, love of liberty and antipathy to tyranny, has helped many a one to a realisation of the infamy of capitalist class rule. Shelley prepares the mind for the easy acceptance of the principles of Socialism. He fills the mind with a wild hatred of slavery. Marx gives that hate direction. Shelley was the trumpet that sang to battle. Marx supplies us with the weapons. We are encouraged, inspired by the writer of “Prometheus,” “Queen Mab,” “The Masque of Anarchy” “The Odes” . . . we are awakened, infuriated by the thunderous, supremely impassioned music of revolt—then comes the cloudless reasoning of the philosophic, scientific Marx, saying: “ Go here—go there—destroy and build in this way.”
So we march forward with the times. The incessant songs help us on our way. They comfort us in the prisons, they give us heart when things seem still as death, they are the accompaniment to our words at the street corners. It is a strong, sweet and formidable music that is ours. It is the music of a whole storm—beginning, middle with its might, and end with its peace. The calm has yet to come. It will come if the workers “Defy power which seems omnipotent,” as Shelley says, in the way Marx suggests.
In letters, leaflets, pamphlets, and poetry Shelley criticised the vile institutions of his day. He wrote exquisitely of comradeship and trenchantly of all forms and phases of injustice. Blockheads advised “Mr. Shelley” to renounce his “pernicious doctrines.” But “ Mr. Shelley” was wilful —in comparison with some contemporaneous public men, he was quite a naughty boy. Even after advice from “The Quarterly” he obstinately wrote poetry, “The Masque of Anarchy,” in which he urged a nation of quiet slaves to “Rise like lions” in unvanquishable number, shatter their chains, and control the world and all its wealth.
That happened long ago. What would such an irreconcilable poet say to-day. Far as I can remember, one of his songs is a little like this :—
“Sow seed, but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear.”
Would he have been with Derby, Snowden, Churchill, and Macdonald on the recruiting platform in 1914? Would he, who succoured an unhappy prostitute, have smiled like a very Thomas upon the systems which make women prefer the streets to the workshop? Would he have written like Rudyard Kipling? Can a bird singing innocently among the clouds become a bird of prey?
Shelley was thirty years old when he went down in the waters of Italy. Think of the volume of his work—think of the way he strived to overthrow the tyranny he detested. Though we are not quite as Shelley was, still we can work as hard. His genius was particular and inimitable—his energy we may have. Francis Bacon loved roses. In their season they were on his tables every day. Macauley says that by putting roses upon our tables we may in one way at least resemble the philosopher. If resemblance to such men is desirable, then let us work hard for the emancipation of humanity, and in that way resemble Shelley. To get a rose in a jug on a table is fairly easy—the idler can do it, and then be as much like Lord Bacon as Churchill with a silk hat is like a statesman or an ape with a crown is like a king. But hard work upon right lines will prove manhood.
Shelley has played his part in the great awakening of men, just as Marx played his, as we play ours, as all our readers can play theirs. The scientist, philosopher, and singer, age by age, so far as the development of Society would permit, have contributed to the freeing of our thoughts. They have given us ecstacy and knowledge. And the selfish ruling glass cannot understand this. Ecstacy and knowledge, music and wisdom mean as little to such people as Gallipoli and Russia or work and wages. Shelley liked such people much as we do; much as G.B.S. likes roast pork and a bottle of Bass.
But even if Shelley and Marx and lots of others have done their best, we still have a lot of cross-country marching to do. We will have to tread over much rough ground, and there will be a good many nights in between now and the end. Yet we must constantly go forward with a clear vision of that we wish to achieve. We will go on with light hearts; for have we not the companionship of the wonderfulest singer of all time? The “Unvanquishable number” will assemble in some night or other. The principles which, when accepted, mean Freedom will be understood by great numbers, and the wounds of the world will be healed by Socialism. In plain language, that means the people who now own the land and the machinery of wealth production will be dispossessed. It means the workers will take possession of the land and machinery necessary for the production of wealth—and wealth will be produced in abundance and distributed among the people who produce wealth. Even that is not stated so plainly as some writers for the Standard can state it. Read what my comrades say; study our principles thoroughly.
Finis! And yet I would say more. I would say that we find happiness in our work. There is fellowship among the workers for Socialism, life in the principles of Socialism, and selfishness and death elsewhere. Emulate the zeal and heroism of Shelley; fill your hearts, as they say, with his emotions and music, get a grip on the principles which actuate us, endeavour to make your fellow workers see the truth of your belief, and kick the capitalist along “The primrose path to the everlasting bonfire.”
H. M. M.