Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, with a theme of Freedom.
I’d like to offer The Masque of Anarchy as a token, because Mahatma Ghandi would often quote Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.
Shelley begins his poem, written on the occasion of the Peterloo massacre, Manchester 1819, with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time, “God, and King, and Law” – and then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action: “Let a great assembly be, of the fearless, of the free”. The crowd at this gathering is met by armed soldiers, but the protesters do not raise an arm against their assailants:
“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:
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!”
The last stanza has been widely used by Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the UK Labour Party, most notably to the 120,000 audience at the Glastonbury Festival this year.