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—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’
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