Posted by saformo on 14 diciembre 2010

The people most immediately influencing him.

A word again upon Byron here. In Byron we have the vague, generous and genuine aspirations in the abstract, which found their final expression in the bourgeois-democratic movement of 1848. In Shelley, there was more than the vague striving after freedom in the abstract, and therefore his ideas are finding expression in the social-democratic movement of our own day. Thus Shelley was on the side of the bourgeoisie when struggling for freedom, but ranged against them when in their turn they became the oppressors of the working-class. He saw more clearly than Byron, who seems scarcely to have seen it at all, that the epic of the nineteenth century was to be the contest between the possessing and the producing classes. And it is just this that removes hint from the category of Utopian Socialists, and makes him so far as it was possible in his time, a Socialist of modern days.

We have already referred to the influence of Baboeuf, (probably indirect), and of Rousseau. To these must of course be added the French “philosophes,” the Encyclopaedists, especially Holbach, or more accurately his “ghost” Diderot — Diderot, the intellectual “ghost” of everybody of his time.

Into any inquiry concerning the writer, that influenced Shelley’s politics and sociology the name of Godwin must necessarily enter prominently. Bowden’s Life, has made us all so thoroughly acquainted with the ill side of Godwin, that just now there may be a not unnatural tendency to forget the best of him. But whatever his colossal and pretentious meannesses and other like faults may have been, we have to remember that he wrote Political Justice, a work in itself of extraordinary power, and of special significance to us as the one that did more than any other to fashion Shelley’s thinking. Much has been made, scarcely too much can be made, of the influence of Godwin’s writings on Shelley. But not enough has been made of the influence upon him of the two Marys; Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley. It was one of Shelley’s “delusions that are not delusions” that man and woman should be equal and united; and in his own life and that of his wife he not only saw this realised, but saw the possibility of that realisation in lives less keen and strong than theirs. All through his work this oneness with his wife shines out, and most notably in the dedication to that most didactic of poems, Laon and Cythna. Laon and Cythna are equal and united powers, brother and sister, husband and wife, friend and friend, man and woman. In the dedication to the history of their suffering, their work, their struggle, their triumph and their love, Mary is “his own heart’s home, his dear friend beautiful and calm and free.”

“And what art thou? I know, but dare not speak:
Time may interpret to his silent years,
Yet in the paleness of thy thoughful cheek,
And in the light thine ample forehead wears,
And in thy sweetest smiles and in thy tears,
And in thy gentle speech, a prophecy
Is whispered, to subdue my fondest fears;
And thro’ thine eyes, even in thy soul I see,
A camp of vestal fire burning internally.”
And in the next stanza to the one just quoted that other Mary is besung.
“One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled,
Of its departing glory, still her fame
Shines on thee thro’ the tempests dark and wild,
Which shake these latter days.”

In a word, the world in general has treated the relative influences of Godwin on the one hand and of the two women on the other, pretty much as might have been expected with men for historians.

Probably the fact that he saw so much through the eyes of these two women quickened Shelley’s perception of women’s real position in society, and of the real cause of that position. This, which he only felt in the Harriet days, he would have understood fully of himself sooner or later. That this understanding came sooner, is in large measure due to the two Marys. One of them at least before him had seen in part that women’s social condition is a question of economics, not of religion or of sentiment. The woman is to the man as the producing class is to the possessing. Her “inferiority,” in its actuality and in its assumed existence, is the outcome of the holding of economic power by man to her exclusion. And this Shelley understood not only in its application to the most unfortunate of women, but in its application to every woman.

But note how in the Laon and Cythna it is (F. I. 108, xxi) “woman, (i.e. woman in general) outraged and polluted long.” Now truly he understands the position of woman, and how thoroughly he recognizes that in her degradation man is degraded, and that in dealing out justice to her man will be himself set free, the well-known Laon and Cythna passage will serve to illustrate.

“Can man be free if woman be a slave?
Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air
To the corruption of a closed grave!
Can they whose mates are beasts, condemned to bear
Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare
To trample their oppressors? in their home
Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear
The shape of woman — hoary crime would come
Behind, and Fraud rebuild religion’s tottering dome .”

III. Tyranny and Liberty in the abstract. With these in the abstract the poets have always been busy. They have denounced the former in measured language and unmeasured terms. Yet they have been known to refuse their signatures to petitions asking for justice on behalf of seven men condemned to death upon police evidence of the worst kind. They have sung paeans in praise of liberty in the abstract, or in foreign lands. Yet they have written hymns against Ireland and for the Liberal Unionists. Shelley has not, to use a forcible colloquialism, “gone back on himself.” When we read the Ode to Liberty, or the 1819 Ode for the Spaniards, or the tremendous Liberty of 1820, we have not the sense of uneasiness that we have when reading Holy Cross Day or The Litany of Nations. This man is through and through foe to tyranny in the abstract and in the concrete form.

Of course in much of his work the ideas that exercise a malevolent despotism over men’s minds are attacked in general terms. Superstition and empire in all their forms Shelley hated, and therefore he again and again dealt with them as abstractions from those forms. Superstition, or an unfounded reverence for that which is unworthy of reverence, was to him, at first, mainly embodied in the superstition of religion. To the younger Shelley, l’infâme of Voltaire’s ecrasez l’infâme was to a great extent, as with Voltaire wholly, the priesthood. And the empire that he antagonised was at first that of kingship and that of personal tyranny. But even in his attacks on these he simultaneously assails the superstitious belief in the capitalistic system, and the empire of class. As time goes on, with increasing distinctness, he makes assault upon these, the most recent, and most dangerous foes of humanity. And always, every word that he has written against religious superstitions, and the despotism of individual rulers may be read as against economic superstition and the despotism of class. “The immense improvements of which by the extinction of certain moral superstitions [for moral we can also read economic] human society may be yet susceptible.” [Preface to Julian and Maddalo].

IV. Tyranny in the concrete. We must pass over, with a mere reference only, the songs for nations — for Mexico, Spain, Ireland, England. Of his attacks upon Napoleon mention has been made. In the Mask of Anarchy, Castlereagh, Sidmouth, Eldon, are all personally gibbeted. In each case, not only the mere man but the infamous principle he represents is the object of attack. Just as the Prince Regent to Shelley was embodied princeship, and Napoleon embodied personal greed and tyranny, so Castlereagh (the Chief Secretary for Ireland before he was War Minister), was embodied war and government; Sidmouth, Home Secretary at the Peterloo time, embodied officialism, Eldon embodied Law. He is for ever denouncing priest and king and statesman.

Kings priests and statesmen, blast the human flower,
Even in its tender bud; their influence darts
Like sudden poison, through the bloodless veins
Of desolate society — (Queen Mab)

But he scarcely ever fails to link with these the basis on which nowadays they all rest — our commercial system. See the Queen Mab passage beginning: —

Commerce has set the mark of selfishness
The signet of its all enslaving power.

It is not for nothing that in Charles I. the court fool puts together the shops and churches. “ The rainbow hung over the city with all its shops — and churches.”[This leads us to our next point.

V. His perception of the class-struggle. — More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that to-day tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery. He saw that the so-called middle-class is the real tyrant, the real danger at the present day. Those of us who belong to that class, in our delight at Shelley’s fierce onslaughts upon the higher members of it, aristocrats, monarchs, landowners, are apt to forget that de nobis etiam fabula narratur. Of us also he speaks. This point is of such importance that more quotations than usual must be taken to enforce it. From Edinburgh, in his first honeymoon he writes: — “Had he [Uncle Pilfold] not assisted us, we should still have been chained to the filth and commerce of Edinburgh. Vile as aristocracy is, commerce — purse-proud ignorance and illiterateness — is more contemptible.” From Keswick a few months later he writes of the Lake District: — “Though the face of the country is lovely, the people are detestable. The manufacturers, with their contamination, have crept into the peaceful vale, and deformed the loveliness of nature with human taint .”

Or take the end of a Keswick letter, 1811, to Miss Hitchener: — “The grovelling souls of heroes, aristocrats, and commercialists.” Even when he uses the phrase “privileged classes” in the Philosophic View of Reform , it is clear he is thinking of them as a whole in contradiction to the class destitute of every privilege. Two or three last quotations in this connection to show how he understood the relative positions, not only above and below but antagonistic of these two classes. The chorus of priests, Act ii. scene 2 of Swellfoot:Those who consume these fruits through thee (the goddess Famine) grow fat; those who produce these fruits through thee grow lean.” For a taste of the consequences to all and sundry, to whichever class they belong, of this class-antagonism a few stanzas from Peter Bell. Mary’s words may be quoted as summing up his position: “Shelley loved the people, and respected them as often more virtuous, as always more suffering, and, therefore more deserving of sympathy than the great. He believed that a clash between the two classes of society was inevitable, and he eagerly ranged himself on the people’s side.” — (Critical Notes)

VI. His understanding of the real meaning of things. — His acuteness of vision is not only seen in his marking off society into the two groups, but in his understanding the real meaning of phrases that are to most of us either formulae or cant. Let us take as many of these as space allows.

Anarchy. — Shelley saw and said that the Anarchy we are all so afraid of is very present with us. We live in the midst of it. Anarchy is God and King and Law in the Mask of Anarchy, and let us add is Capitalism.

Freedom. — The extraordinary statement that England is a free country was to Shelley the merest nonsense. “The white shore of Albion free no more …. The abortion with which she travaileth is the Liberty smitten to death.” Lines written during the Castlereagh administration . And he understood the significant fact in this connection that those who talk and write of English freedom and the like know they are talking and writing cant. The hollowness of the whole sham kept up by newspaper writers, parliamentary orators, and so forth, was as apparent to him sixty years ago as it is to-day to the dullest of us

Custom. — The general evil of that custom which is to most of us a law, the law, the only law of life, he was never weary of denouncing. “The chains, the icy chains of custom (Queen Mab) The “more eternal foe than force or fraud, old custom” (Fall of Bonaparte). And with the denunciation of custom, followed merely because it is custom, is the noble teaching of self-mastery, and the poet’s contradiction of the statement that under the new regime men will be machines, uniformity reign, and individuality be dead.

Cruelty of the governing class. — A tyrannical class like a tyrannical man stops at nothing in order to maintain its position of supremacy. No means are too insignificant, no weapon too ponderous. From the policeman’s “nark,” or spy not a member of the police force, to the machinery of a trial for treason, nothing comes amiss to the class that governs. Shelley knew what a mockery for the most part is a trial instituted by a government, whether in Ireland or in England. “A trial I think men call it” (Rosalind and Helen) .

In June 1817, a few operatives rose in Derbyshire. A score of dragoons put down the Derbyshire insurrection, an insurrection there is reason to believe put up by a Government spy. On November 7th 1817, three men, Brandreth, Turner, Ludlam, “were drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, and were hanged and decapitated in the presence of an excited and horror-stricken crowd” (Dowden’s Life). Against this judicial murder Shelley’s voice was lifted up, as it would be now in like case. For like cases are occurring, still occur in increasing numbers as the class struggle intensifies. In Ireland at Lisdoovarna, Constable Whelehan was murdered recently in a moonlighting raid. The raid had been planned by Cullinane, a Government spy. On Monday Dec. 12, 1887, one man was condemned to ten years’, four others to seven years’ penal servitude for an offence planned by a government spy. Against this sentence Shelley were he alive would, we are certain, protest. So would he have protested against the direct murders by the police at Michelstown, and Trafalgar Square. So would he have protested against the recent judicial murder in America of four men and the practical imprisonment for life of three others. The Chicago Anarchist meeting differed even from the Derbyshire insurrection of 1817. There was no rising, no talk of rising, no use of physical force by the people, no threat of it. Yet seven men were condemned on the evidence of the police, evidence that those who have read every word of it feel was not only insufficient to prove the guilt, but absolutely conclusive as to the innocence of the accused. Had Shelley been alive he would have been the first to sign the petition on behalf of the Chicago Anarchists.

Crime. — This phenomenon Shelley recognized as the natural result of social conditions. The criminal was to him as much a creature of the society in which the lived as the capitalist or the monarch. “Society,” said he, “grinds down poor wretches into the dust of abject poverty, till they are scarcely recognizable as human beings. In his literal discussions with Miss Hitchener Shelley more than once asks whether with a juster distribution of happiness, of toil and leisure, crime and the temptation to crime, would not almost cease to exist. And much that is called crime was to Shelley (the Preface to Laon and Cythna is but one evidence) only crime by convention.

Property. The opinion of Shelley as to that which could be rightly enjoyed as a person’s own property and what could only be enjoyed wrongly, will be in part gathered from a quotation which paraphrased in the more precise language of scientific Socialism reads thus: “A man has a right to anything that his own labour has produced, and that he does not intend to employ for the purpose of injuring his fellows. But no man can himself acquire a considerable aggregation of properly except at the expense of his fellows. He must either cheat a certain number out of the value of it, or take it by force.”

Again, note the conception of wealth in the Song to the Men of England: “The wealth ye find another keeps.”  The source of all wealth is human labour, and that not the labour of the possessors of that wealth.

As to that for which the working class work he quotes Godwin in the fifth note to Queen Mab.

Let us take as our last example of his understanding of the central position of Socialism, a quotation to be found in a letter to Miss Hitchner, dated December 15th, 1811. Shelley is discussing the entailment of his estate: “that I should entail £120,000 of command over labour, of power to remit this, to employ it for beneficent purposes, on one whom I know not.

We cannot expect even such a man as Shelley to have thought out in his time the full meaning of labour-power, labour, and the value of commodities. But undoubtedly he knew the real economic value of private property in the means of production and distribution, whether it was in machinery, land, funds, what not. He saw that this value lay in the command, absolute, merciless, unjust, over human labour. The Socialist believes that these means of production and distribution should be the property of the community. For the man or company that owns them has practically irresponsible control over the class that does not possess them.

The possessor can and does dictate terms to the man or woman of that non-possessing class. “You shall sell your labour to me. I will pay you only a fraction of its value in wage. The difference between that value and what I pay for your labour I pocket, as a member of the possessing class, and I am richer than before, not by labour of my own, but by your unpaid labour.” This was the teaching of Shelley. This is the teaching of Socialism, and therefore the teaching of Socialism, whether it is right or wrong, is also that of Shelley. We claim him as a Socialist.


  1.   Free People Women Poets Says:

    […] Sara » Blog Archive » PEOPLE WHO INFLUENCED HIM “Can man be free if woman be a slave? Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air. To the corruption of a closed grave! Can they whose mates are beasts, condemned to bear. Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare And with the denunciation of custom, followed merely because it is custom, is the noble teaching of self-mastery, and the poet's contradiction of the statement that under the new regime men will be machines, uniformity reign, and individuality . […]