Mixed ironies in “The Mask of Anarchy”

I thought I was following “The Mask of Anarchy” fairly well until the stanza beginning on line 30. Prior to that point, Shelley was drawing straightforward equivalences between the supposedly noble peers and the corruptions that they and the institutions they represent embody. I thought he did it very strongly, too; the lines

His big tears, for he wept well,

Turned to mill-stones as they fell.


And the little children, who

Round his feet played to and fro,

Thinking every tear a gem,

Had their brains knocked out by them.

in my opinion perfectly convey the sense of increasing disillusionment that comes with growing up after being raised in country far too proud of itself.

I was surprised, therefore, when, at line 30, Shelley introduces Anarchy as not only bad, but the overarching evil that allows all of the other corruptions to fester. According to the anthology’s headnote, the aristocracy accused liberal revolutionaries of promoting anarchy, and while I agree with the headnote that Shelley’s use of personified anarchy belongs in an “upside-down world of role reversals,” I don’t understand why he chose to treat it that way.

Many left-leaning members of our own generation tend to speak positively of communism, not, I think, because they genuinely believe that unfettered communism works, but in order to highlight that unfettered capitalism is also deeply flawed. I would have expected something similar from Shelley: I would have expected him to embrace those accusations and discuss Anarchy as the herald of Freedom and Hope. Toward the end, he even encourages his countrymen to abide by laws “Good or ill,” and repeatedly suggests that the corruption of the ruling class exists outside of the law.

I am left wondering whether there is truth to the details of his accusations; I am personally used to corruption existing legally in loopholes carved deliberately by politician. who will benefit from them. Were the corrupt members of parliament actually breaking laws, or is this whole poem just a long, elaborate argument that ultimately boils down to “no, you”?

One thought on “Mixed ironies in “The Mask of Anarchy””

  1. Good question, though it doesn’t have a simple answer, I think. Part of the difficulty is the word anarchy itself, which has multiple meanings, or understandings, and Shelley is taking advantage of that. The most obvious part of his satiric use of Anarchy as a personification of the ruling authority is that in shooting randomly at peaceful demonstrators, the government has produced a powerful example of anarchy–of anything goes, as it were. And the act threatens increased anarchy as the mask of power and respectability falls away to reveal this form of anarchy. Shelley is proto-Marxist (or Hegelian) in believing that there is a set of higher natural laws that will govern us if we are are unshackled from the current oppressive ones. I think that’s what some anarchists believe too, though there are others who simply think that chaos is good because it is destructive. Burn down the house and maybe something better will come of it. Or not. Shelley doesn’t want that kind of anarchy….

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