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Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jeremy Corbyn and the Irony of History

Last week, the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom saw an unexpected on-stage appearance by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn recited the closing lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy: 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!

As this video shows, the Glastonbury crowd received 19th-century poetry rather well, giving Corbyn his own football chant in return. Yesterday, an article in the New Statesman pointed out that by quoting Shelley, Corbyn was tapping into a longstanding tradition of Left politics. It quoted the poet Michael Rosen, who said:

“When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions… We’re making a claim on our authenticity… just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

And:

“Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Apart from pointing out how Shelley’s lines have become Corbyn’s de facto political slogan, the New Statesman article quotes a number of instances where the poem has been used before – at Tianmen Square, Tahrir Square, and by former Labour Party leader Michael Foot. All those instances, however, are of political movements that were defeated without ever coming remotely close to power. Corbyn’s labour party, on the other hand, forced a hung Parliament in the recently concluded British general election, leading to several policy climbdowns from the ruling Conservative Party, and is widely accepted to have infused an enthusiasm for politics among young people that has rarely been seen before.

If is here that the irony of a successful political leader making Shelley his standard-bearer becomes interesting, because both in his time and after, Shelley – who was passionate about politics and about protest – was the embodiment of the failed and ineffective rebel. In his lifetime, he protested, leafletted and wrote poems about revolution, but accomplished nothing of significance. Mathew Arnold called him “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” His ill-fated phrase, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of this world“, achieved such notoriety that it was parodied relentlessly by modernist poets in the mid-20th century. And more than anything else, Shelley was one of the centrepieces of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, a savage critique of youth, lyric poetry, and of revolution:

And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.”

And, in a remarkable long passage:

The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.

He’s been in Dublin for several weeks, he’s passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn’t succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.

If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers. 

And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier’s cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier’s cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.

And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand…”

Kundera’s Shelley (and Mathew Arnold’s Shelley, and the modernist poets’ Shelley) is the dreamer, the idealist, and the lyricist, who longs to bring about revolution with the stroke of a pen, but instead only succeeds in wandering around his own, self-constructed hall of mirrors. Instead of taking the world as he finds it, Shelley dreams up his world and writes it, but finds the hard edge of reality coming up against his imagination, and inevitably – to paraphrase Charles Segal – the intransigence of the reality prevails over the plasticity of language. As Kay Wye wrote mockingly:

The Unacknowledged Legislator of the world/ Was heating his morning coffee/ With a sheaf of his own poems./ It is natural remarked a fellow Legislator/ Who hopefully dropped in/ That the product of intense passion/ Should go up in visible combustion!”

And yet, after all that, two hundred years later, it is Shelley and his verse that is on the banner of a left-wing, avowedly socialist political movement that has come closer than any other of its kind (in recent history) to obtaining political power – and may yet obtain it.

Such is the irony – or the revenge – of history.

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