Book Review: ‘Red Shelley’


‘Red Shelley’ by Paul Foot (Sidgwick and Jackson)

To most people who have heard of him, Shelley will be just another Romantic poet like Wordsworth, Keats or Byron who wrote odes to Grecian urns and wandered lonely as a cloud. It is true that Shelley was such a poet; he did write odes to skylarks and the like but as Paul Foot’s book reminds us he was much more than this.

Before the first world war there would have been much less need to remind people that Shelley was a “red”. It was precisely for this reason that he was widely read and admired in radical working class circles, and had been since Chartist times. Shelley was born in 1792, the heir to a baronetcy and, if he had been a good boy, to his father’s seat in the House of Commons. As befits a member of the ruling class he was educated at Eton and then went on in 1811 to Oxford. But he hadn’t been there long before he was expelled for having jointly written a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. He remained an atheist till his premature death in 1822 at the age of 29, in a boating accident in Italy where he had gone into self-imposed exile.

Besides being a convinced (and convincing) atheist, he was also strongly opposed to war, marriage and on the side of the poor against the rich. All these ideas were expressed in his first major poem Queen Mab, written in 1812, and in the notes he appended to it. Because of its atheism, Queen Mab was chosen as a test case by radical publishers in the 1820s to challenge the censorship laws of the time and so earned a certain notoriety. It went through many editions and was very popular among Chartist militants, no doubt for its view that the wealth of the rich came from the exploitation of the poor. Queen Mab can be said be a part of the tradition of radical working class literature in Britain.

In 1885—when the literary establishment were trying to resurrect Shelley as a harmless, lyrical poet—Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx gave a lecture to the Shelley Society on “Shelley’s Socialism”. The early Marxist in Britain had no doubt about Shelley’s radicalism; but was he a socialist? Aveling and Eleanor Marx claimed in their lecture that he was. Paul Foot says that this going too far, preferring to call him a “leveller” or an “egalitarian”; what Shelley advocated was essentially a levelling of property and an equal share of goods. But, for his time, these were advanced ideas and were shared by most of the early working class militants and others who had been influenced by the more radical elements in the French Revolution. But there can be no doubt at all that Shelley was sincerely for the common people against their oppressors (kings, aristocrats, capitalists and priests). He was a Radical and, as Foot argues, would have been a Chartist had he lived, since he saw the way to his equal society through the establishment of universal suffrage which would then be used by the propertyless majority to abolish the privileges of the rich.

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