Shelley's Views on Social Reform
by H. S. S.
In the record of those truly great men to whom lasting honour and gratitude is due from the English people a high place must always be awarded to the name of Shelley. He has earned immortality as the greatest of our lyric poets; but his claim on our affections rests on a still firmer basis than this. An aristocrat by birth, and brought up in an aristocratic atmosphere of luxury and selfishness, he devoted the whole power of his genius to the cause of the people, and impressed all who knew him with the conviction that he was the noblest and most unselfish of men. Alike in social questions; politics, and religion, he was an ardent and uncompromising champion of the people’s rights and true liberty of thought and action; and his whole life testified to the perfect sincerity of his opinions, for he suffered much from calumny and persecution. Even now, more than sixty years after his death, he is still the victim of the persistent misrepresentation and hatred of the bigots who uphold every form of social and religious tyranny. It is a common fallacy to affect to regard him as a mere crazy enthusiast and crotchet-monger, who could write good poetry, but had not a sensible word to say on any practical subject; though it is difficult to understand how anyone who has ever read Shelley’s splendid letters and prose works could venture on such ridiculous criticism as this. Others again, whose hostility is of a milder kind, love to indulge in what may be called the “poor, poor, Shelley” theory, and to plead on Shelley’s behalf that if he had only had a better education, religious and moral, together with this, that, and the other advantage, this erring lamb would have developed into one of the most orderly and respectable sheep in all the fold of Orthodoxy. It is needless to state that this ludicrous supposition finds not a trace of evidence to support it in the study of Shelley’s life, writings, or character, and is only adopted by those who have never really grasped or appreciated the value of his opinions. Was Shelley a mere crack-brained Republican, with a taste for lyric poetry, and a foolish aversion to priests and kings? The history of the last sixty years has brought about some unexpected things, but it has hardly established that conclusion!
In the Notes to “Queen Mab” Shelley depicts in burning words the curses that result from Luxury and Wealth. “No greater evidence,” he says, “is afforded of the wide extended and radical mistakes of civilized man than this fact; those arts which are essential to his very being are held in the greatest contempt: employments are lucrative in an inverse ratio to their usefulness; the jeweller, the toyman, the actor, gains fame and wealth by the exercise of his useless and ridiculous art; whilst the cultivator of the earth, he without whom society must cease to subsist, struggles through contempt and penury and perishes by that famine which but for his unceasing exertions would annihilate the rest of mankind......... The commodities that substantially contribute to the subsistence of the human species form a very short catalogue; they demand from us but a slender portion of industry. If the labour necessary to produce them were equitably divided among the poor, and, still more, if it were equitably divided among all, each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure would be ample.” Here again is a passage which some Radicals of the present day would do well to lay to heart: “English reformers exclaim against sinecures but the true pension list is the rent roll of the landed proprietors. Wealth is a power usurped by the few to compel the many to labour for their benefit.” To wealth too Shelley rightly traces the moral degradation of our great towns, showing a keener insight into the true causes of vice than do many well-meaning assailants of the modern Minotaur. “Society avenges herself on the criminals of her own creation; she is employed in anathematizing the vice to-day which yesterday she was the most zealous to teach.”
The remedy for these wrongs is the overthrow of the whole capitalist system. In a letter to Leigh Hunt, Shelley expressly states his conviction of this necessity. “And in fact they are all rogues. It is less the character of the individual than the situation in which he is placed which determines him to be honest or dishonest. The system of society as it exists at present must be overthrown from the foundations, with all its super-structure of maxims and forms.” To this end Shelley certainly contributed all he could; and his poem on “The Masque of Anarchy,” together with the song to the “Men of England” and the sonnet on “England,” in 1819, are scarcely surpassed in the annals of revolutionary poetry. He, at any rate, the enthusiastic worshipper of Liberty, was not to be misled by that sorry spectre of “Freedom of Contract” evoked by canting economists; still less by the fallacies of Malthus; or the quack remedy of Charitable Relief. In the “Masque of Anarchy” he writes
“What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which slavery is too well.........
‘Tis to work, and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day.”
Elsewhere he remarks “For my part I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon than go to heaven with Paley and Malthus.”
The following extract from the “Declaration of Rights” may be commended to the study of those amiable persons who love to combine the professions of philanthropist and millionaire. “No man has a right to monopolise more than he can enjoy; what the rich give to the poor whilst millions are starving is not a perfect favour but an imperfect right.”
The same sound wisdom and clear common sense characterized all Shelley’s utterances on the question of politics. His “Address to the Irish People” and “Proposals for an Association,” published in 1811 are a splendid vindication of the doctrines of National and religious liberty, and have extorted from a recent biographer*, who has a rule has failed to do full justice to Shelley’s character, the confession that “Catholic Emancipation has since his day been brought about by the very measure he proposed and under conditions he foresaw.” The “Letter to Lord Ellenborough” is deserving of equal praise; though we have not yet realized the full toleration and intellectual freedom in religious matters for which Shelley pleads.
It is one of the common-places of dogmatic criticism to assert that a poet has no business to meddle with any debateable matter, but should confine himself to literature pure and simple. It is pleasant to find this arbitrary dictum repeated in the case of one of England’s greatest singers, who could successfully employ the loftiest poetical inspiration as a means towards hastening the emancipation of the people and the overthrow of every kind of social tyranny and injustice.
Published: Justice, No. 94 - October 31, 1885