Poetry and Social Change

The Masque of Anarchy

On August 16, 1819, 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protestors met in what is now St. Peters Square in Manchester, England. The square was filled with banners on which were written the words, ‘Reform’, ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘Equal Representation’ and even ‘Love’. Magistrates panicked and ordered the cavalry to charge the field, which they did with sabres drawn, at a cost of 11 dead and over 600 wounded.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.

England in 1819 was reeling from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Aristocratic landowners had pushed through the Corn Laws designed to protect their agricultural profits from the sale of cheaper foreign imports. The result was widespread hunger and unemployment. The British monopoly of maritime trade had disappeared, so the production of British goods was checked, while at the same time the population was increasing and new machinery meant that the demand for labor was falling. Less than two percent of the population had the vote and the British Government met popular demands for reform with iniquitous coercion laws – the Libel Laws and the Anti-Trade Union Acts. The Peterloo Massacre, as the killings in St. Peters Square came to be called, became a defining moment for the age and eventually proved influential in getting ordinary people the right to vote and led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions. It also led to the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.

What art thou, Freedom ? O ! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand – tyrants would flee
Like a dream’s imagery :

‘Thou are not, as impostors say,
A shadow soon to pass away,
A superstition, and a name
Echoing from the cave of Fame.

‘For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.

‘Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude –
No – in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.

These excerpts are taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792-1822) The Masque of Anarchy, following the Peterloo massacre. It is perhaps the best political poem ever written and also the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance.

‘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.

‘Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand –
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

‘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.’

Shelley’s description of the psychological consequences of violence meeting with pacifism influenced both Henry David Thoreau in his essay on Civil Disobedience and Mohandas Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha. Gandhi would often quote Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy to audiences during his campaign for a free India. Political activists take note. Poetry has a tremendous power to inspire and motivate and is one of the most powerful but neglected tools for raising social consciousness and so helping to bring about social change.


“Provided we can escape from the museums we carry around inside us, provided we can stop selling ourselves tickets to the galleries in our own skulls, we can begin to contemplate an art which re-creates the goal of the sorcerer: changing the structure of reality by the manipulation of living symbols … Art tells gorgeous lies that come true.”  Hakin Bey

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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44 Comments on “Poetry and Social Change”

  1. John (Zoli) Varady Says:

    Shelley’s poem is great. Thanks Malcolm. At the same time and probably also in response to the Peterloo ‘Riot,’ he wrote the (IMHO) superb:

    England in 1819

    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 tempestous day.


  2. Clay J Mize Says:

    Good Stuff. What a wonderful blog you have.


  3. Jon Sharp Says:

    I enjoyed this post Malcolm as a good follow on to your piece on legitimacy, and was not familiar with Shelley’s response to Peterloo. I am also relieved to learn that there is an effective alternative to stockpiling automatic weapons and large capacity magazines when it comes to changing overbearing regimes 😉


    • John (Zoli) Varady Says:

      Alas, highly unlikely. Auden’s famous line “Poetry makes nothing happen,” is much closer to the truth. OW Holmes’ “Old Ironsides” is the only clear counter-example I know of, in English at least. The harsh manner in which Lorca, Neruda, Borges and the like were treated by the Latins implies a much greater poetic influence, or at least fear thereof, on the part of their ruling regimes.


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Zoli, thank you. Saw Wai, a Myanmar poet, was also sent to prison after publishing a poem criticizing the senior general of the military junta. I also believe Arabs living under Israeli occupation are not allowed to study, in public school Arabic literature classes, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish who is considered the national Palestinian poet.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, thank you. I appreciate that you follow my thought processes so astutely.


  4. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Clay, thank you for the trackback.


  5. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    This is very moving! I somehow have a deep innate sense that the poet, the musician, well the artist who can wield the sword of creativity that uplifts out spirit and bring us “home” to something profound we’ve forgotten in the rush to get to… somewhere, I don’t know where, has a very important role to play in all the challenges humanity is facing, from war to climate change, on the inner and the outer planes of existence. Thank you for this piece of writing.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Agreed, but where are our prophets and artists to lead the way? They seem to have deserted us.


      • John (Zoli) Varady Says:

        Not entirely true. There is, for example, the Dark Mountain Project ( They seem to think that as artists, musicians, etc. they can save us from our planet destroying stupidity. No techies need apply, and Brighton or the Cotswolds are a long way off for meetings. My wishes for their success are unaccompanied by expectation.

        Their idol is Robinson Jeffers, and the organization is named after an image from one of his poems. He also was pessimistic regarding the success of such endeavors, but at least these people, and many others, are aware of the impending disasters and doing what they can to avert or at least minimize them.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Zoli, as usual your erudite replies are much appreciated. I was not aware of the Dark Mountain Project and will explore their website. However, I was chilled by the Robinson Jeffers line referencing the dark mountain:

          “…The beauty of modern
          Man is not in the persons but in the
          Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
          Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.”

          What a way to start the day 🙂

        • John (Zoli) Varady Says:

          Do note that I consciously did NOT reference the poem from which the name was taken. You’re too adroit at chasing these down! I find nothing ‘beautiful’ in the ‘the dance of the Dream-led masses,’ indeed very much to the contrary. However Jeffers took the (very) long view. As another blogger observed, he found beauty in the meteor that pulverized dinosaurs into bird songs and massacred Mesozoic monsters that monkeys might crawl out of the mud and write poetry. I’m considerably less sanguine about the fate of our ‘heavy and mobile masses,’ or the ability of artists to divert their suicidal course. Nevertheless they have my admiration.

          BTW, John Felstiner’s ‘Can Poetry Save the Earth’ is a wonderful anthology of nature poems, but includes few calls to political action. Enjoy our lovely April-delighted world.

          “ it [the caged eagle] saw far under eastward the April-delighted Continent;
          and time relaxing about it, abstracted from being,

          It saw men learn to outfly the hawk’s brood and forget it again;
          it saw men cover the earth and devour each other and hide in caverns,
          scarce as wolves. It neither wondered nor cared, and it saw
          Growth and decay alternate forever, and the tides returning.”

      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        Great question Malcolm, I have a few ideas, shared on the other post I just replied to (Ending Wage Slavery).

        You might find this interesting, having the artist to lead the way or at least be in the core of the work of the Climate Change Gathering in the Burren, Ireland February 2013
        A Burren Call: (we are still working on it’s potential)


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          The Burren seems a very special place. Looking at the pictures I itched to put my hiking boots on. Yes, having artists lead the way in your Climate Change Gathering is a big part of what I meant and was a brave move. Why is it that artists can understand climate change but have such problems with subjects such as economics? I can’t imagine artists being allowed to lead (or even attend) a meeting of professional economists.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          You sensed that right, the Burren is very special and trust me, my hiking boots are on more often than not to walk there, getting lost for hours and hours. It’s also called the flowering desert and fertile rock. Many an artist are drawn to this place and somehow it cracks open the creativity in people in whatever form it happens, maybe simply as a melting of a frozen heart.

          Great question re artists an economics. I have no idea. I’ll dare a suggestion though. Most creative minds I’ve met simply don’t “speak” or understand the language of economics, numbers and calculations, or have absolutely no interest in it, their work being in a much different sphere, the space between the numbers and calculations. Their minds working in a far less tangible way and never resting from the emergence of new creative ideas… Some world known musicians doesn’t know how to read notes, even though they have been writing songs since age 12. They can hear and sense the music without needing (or wishing) it do be written down, somebody else will do it for them, if necessary.

          Another thing I was pondering today regarding this, it might be far out, but suppose everything is creative. Numbers and calculations too, could it be just very different creative skills? Like a painter might not know a single tune on a piano, a dancer can’t write poetry and so forth.. ? Would be an interesting project to combine economy with artists… 🙂

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, great points. I agree with you that economists and mathematicians just have different creative skills. I would still like to see visual and other artists interpreting their work, presumably in the same way that you had artists interpreting the work of climate scientists at the Burren.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          What is your sense of an outcome with an artist interpreting the work of economists and mathematicians? I’m not sure I completely understand interpreting in this context, would you mind clarifying to me what you mean? See, sense?

          At the climate gathering the aim was to have a gathering of great diversity on equal terms. But to use creative expressions as poetry, tunes and dance to inspire new ways of thinking but even more so, to “blow the hearts open” (Seamus Heaneys poem) in order to profoundly engage the participant. From there then have a look again at where we are at, not only as “we need to fix this” and a purely solutions mindset, but to open the space for a deeper care on a soul-level opening new ways and perspectives. This is one of the reasons we find the Burren a powerful place to do exactly this, as said previously, it somehow leaves no-one unaffected. It hasn’t occurred to me though that we were aiming towards having the artist interpret anything, but I’m intrigued and curious on what you see.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Most people think of economics as just having to do with money. It is not. It is the study of human action and the coordination thereof. For example, markets are just one example of what is called a ‘spontaneous order’ an order which is created by human actions but not by human intentions. Examples of spontaneous orders include morals, law, language, money, cities, customs, culture and the internet (

          Although spontaneous orders were first described in the 18th century most people today have no notion of what they are, how they work or what ‘miracles’ they manage to achieve. While it takes some level of conceptual thought to understand how spontaneous orders work I believe the main problem in communicating this key economic concept is that economists are not very good at communicating, except among themselves. Where are the artists, sculptors and musicians who can evangelize the beauty, power and profound implications of spontaneous orders? More provocatively, I also see a role for artists in expanding the discipline. Just as science fiction writers like Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov extrapolated trends in technology and wrote about inventions before they were actually made so I believe an artist who understands economics can inspire economists to apply their skills in areas where they otherwise might be reluctant to go e.g. religion, family relationships and space exploration (economists have already written about these subjects but I think they might have got there earlier if they had been more accepting of the role and value of artistic creativity).

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          Malcolm, thank you so much for this in-depth and thorough answer. It gives food for thought and opens up a new understanding and a lot of “bubbling” 🙂 I’m visiting Copenhagen, my old hood, so there is a lot of coffees to be had the coming weeks, but I will return when I have opened time enough for diving deeper into this, it’s too interesting to just surf it, I have an urge to dive into the ocean of it too… I’ll return. Thanks again for all the learning!

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          I have now re-read this a dozen times or more to get my head around it, not sure I have at this point either however, I find it fascinating. I apologize if my questions are missing the point and are way off, it’s just me trying to understand it, if it can be understood at all…

          Well, here we go: a question popped up (and then another and another), are the economist themselves aware of the potential they are working with in regard to for instance your suggestions of usage? Do they themselves understand that they/it perhaps can already be looked upon as creative and the work of an artists? Would such recognition open up for inviting the poet to the table or do they need another artist to translate it, if they fully understand the creativity in it themselves? Would they need an artist to recognize that they themselves in a way are artists, only expressed differently than what is commonly called art. Why is the economist reluctant in communicating it to a broader “audience” than among themselves in the first place?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, I did not mean to put you to all this trouble but here are the answers to your questions:

          “Do they themselves understand that they/it perhaps can already be looked upon as creative and the work of an artists?”

          Most professional economists would feel that they are doing creative work.

          “Would such recognition open up for inviting the poet to the table or do they need another artist to translate it, if they fully understand the creativity in it themselves?”

          This all started because I wondered why artists were a successful part of your climate change event although they are not usually invited to the events of other professions such as economists. I think most economists would be horrified at the idea of inviting an artist to an event for professional economists. On the other hand if the artist understood economics I think an artist talking about what they could contribute to the field would be a fascinating presentation.

          “Would they need an artist to recognize that they themselves in a way are artists, only expressed differently than what is commonly called art.”

          I think we have to be careful here. Economics is a science, although not one of the ‘hard’ sciences like physics. While economists are creative that doesn’t make them artists, just creative economists.

          “Why is the economist reluctant in communicating it to a broader “audience” than among themselves in the first place?”

          Economists are not reluctant, they are just poor at communicating what they do to people outside their field.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          As always, a very thorough answer to my rambling questions and not to worry about the hard work, it’s a world I know nothing about and it’s truly interesting for me to all of a sudden look at something where I definitely are in the category of “most people” and with your clarifying help see new perspectives.

          This topic here could be a very interesting one to have at “A Burren Call” as a subject for our next Breakthrough Conversation in the Burren. We have already touched down on the idea of calling out for an event specifically looking deeply into the role of artists today and what leadership means in regard to an artist. A leadership that “speaks” in a much softer, humble and most likely more subtle way… not the artist as persons with opinions but through their art and language that somehow seems to go beyond everything and connect us in resonance and not that of convincing about what “reality” or opinion is the “right one”…. somehow those loud vessels that makes the most noise might be close to reaching their expiry date.

          This quote popped back into my mind reading this:
          “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision” Bertrand Russel

          Would be interesting if a shift could happen from “doubt and indecision” to trust and strength in not knowing…

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, it is I who am seeing “new perspectives” with your help. I do believe that the world is undergoing massive changes as a result of the ongoing global financial crisis, consequently I would not be surprised if, at the end of this process, “somehow those loud vessels that makes the most noise might be close to reaching their expiry date.” I have to admit that your “ramblings” do contain much truth. Maybe the shift from “doubt and indecision” to “trust and strength in not knowing” comes from the world healing itself by squeezing out all the excesses of debt from the system. We don’t know exactly how this will all turn out, but both economists and artists/mystics like yourself, have confidence in the underlying order of things i.e. the spontaneous order or the interconnectedness of all life.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          Massive changes seems to be happening in our outer and inner climate in the broadest meaning of these words, is it escalating in our time? Or is it merely that we are more aware and conscious about the changes and our role in it, if we have a role?

          I often step into a place of imagining the whole world would stop, just stop and be silent and very still for a little moment, not rushing anywhere in the seeking of something (whether it’s money, spiritual enlightenment, bigger house, better sports-results, new hairdo, fame etc etc) or need to fix or change whatever. Just stop. And be. Be still. Sense. Breathe. Listen… Something often interpreted as ‘doing nothing’, however on the contrary, it’s an absolute focus and attention to life while standing ‘naked’ and open right in the middle of it without interfering, yet still fully engage and participate aligned with this underlying mystic current/spontanous order and responding to and with it. Paradox, not surprisingly… And this moment could be extented into a way of living/being on the outside looking different for each person, but on the inside there is aliveness stemming from the same source and an innate knowing of already being whole and separation is merely an illusion…

          I have no doubt, we are creative beings, creations will continously arise in us from this place of still, something arising out of nothing, however the motivation will not be that of seeking for more or even healing anything, but that of playing and engaging fully with life in a timeless way… When I imagine this, there is peace. Absolutely peace everywhere for everyone, in other words; creative stillness…

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          p.s. Sure, a good point, distinguishing between being creative and art.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          Malcolm, it just occurred to me, maybe one day you are the one to invite the economists to the Burren for this conversation and thereby introducing the artists to their world and what this exchange might bring…. ?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, thank you. Maybe one day… Let me begin with a more modest proposal of starting a conversation on the subject with some economist friends. If I survive the encounter I will return to the subject.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          😀 might be wise alright, I will be curious to know how such conversation unfolds, if you survive to fill me in that is…

  6. Himani Gupta Says:

    Lovely.Great post.I can see the effort invested.


  7. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    I enjoyed reading your post as usual; British history and poetry fabulous combination -both favourite topics of mine. A massive thank you for including Shelley in this post too; I admire his work, and how he turned away from the societal norms set in those times.


    • John (Zoli) Varady Says:

      Today is National Poetry Day, on which everyone is to have a poem to share. I’m guessing about 0.00001% of us will. In order to discharge my task and since we’re into Shelley, I’ll offer:

      I met a traveler from an antique land
      Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
      Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand
      Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
      And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
      Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
      Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
      The hand that mocked them and the heart that feed:
      And on the pedestal these words appear:
      “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
      Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
      Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
      Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
      The lone and level sands stretch far away.


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Zoli, thank you for reminding us all of National Poetry Day. As you are an Oxfordian I offer you Sonnet 66 by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (aka William Shakespeare):

        It’s so easy to be tired
        Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
        As, to behold desert a beggar born,
        And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
        And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
        And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,
        And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
        And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
        And strength by limping sway disabled,
        And art made tongue-tied by authority,
        And folly doctor-like controlling skill,
        And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
        And captive good attending captain ill:
        Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
        Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

        In 15 lines Oxford describes our age to a tee.


      • The Savvy Senorita Says:

        I know this poem all too well – memorised it at the age of 13!!! Thanks for including this!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bex, thank you. You have to love Shelley. He was expelled from Oxford for publishing The Necessity of Atheism, which outlined his arguments against religion and his convction that atheists should not be persecuted for their beliefs. He opposed the monarchy and stated that “Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil.” He turned away from his well-off family and his second wife was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and daughter of feminist Mary Wollstencraft and anarchist writer William Godwin. What a man!


  8. Michele D'Acosta Says:

    Malcolm, thanks so much for opening my eyes. Shelley is one of my favourite poets, but, still, you have awakened me to his influence in shaping the non-violence resistance movement. I shall keep reading your posts and continue to learn from you. Thank you!


  9. jrbenjamin Says:

    Excellent, excellent post.



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