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England in 1819: Worlds and Lives Analysis

England in 1819 was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was never published during his lifetime but was included in a private letter he sent.

Shelley was perhaps the most radically political of the Romantic poets. He often called for social change and was critical of those in power.

1819 was a very turbulent and unsettled time in England:

  • The Napoleonic Wars had ended in 1815, bringing a victory to England. However, when the soldiers returned, there were not enough jobs for everyone, causing mass unemployment, poverty and starvation.
  • In 1819, the Peterloo Massacre occurred. This took place in Manchester when approximately 60,000 people took to the streets to protest for parliamentary reform. This event ended with a cavalry charge into the crowd, resulting in eleven people being killed and over 400 injured.
  • King George III was on the throne. His reign started in 1760 and ended when he died in 1820, the year after this poem was written. He suffered from a debilitating illness that caused him to act erratically. By the end of his reign, he had developed dementia and became blind and increasingly deaf.
  • The heir to the throne, George IV, was seen by many as selfish, irresponsible and lazy, and there were concerns about the financial effects of his eventual rule.

Poem

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poem Summary

Shelley angrily attacks the leaders and institutions that he believes are causing harm to England. He criticises the monarchy, the politicians, the church, the army and the country’s laws. He highlights the devastating impact of corruption on the masses of people living in poverty. The poem ends with Shelley expressing hope for a significant societal change that could lead to national redemption.

The poem’s key message:

Shelley demonstrates how power has become corrupted, with those meant to serve the entire country only looking out for themselves. He suggests that, without a massive change in how the country is run, this corruption will likely continue.

Language

Language featureExamples and the Effects of This
Metaphorical languageThe king is described as “blind,” which has a double meaning. It alludes to King George III, who was blind, and metaphorically indicates how the monarchy is oblivious to the effects of their selfishness.

This idea is further developed with the simile “leach-like” to describe the country’s rulers, suggesting they drain the wealth and resources out of the country for their own benefit rather than helping anyone else.
AlliterationShelley’s anger is conveyed through alliteration in describing the monarchy. The king is described as “despised, and dying,” while the princes are the “dregs of their dull race.”

The plosive ‘d’ sounds emphasise Shelley’s disgust at the ineptitude of the monarchy. This is contrasted with the suffering of the masses, described with sibilant (‘s’ sounds) “starved and stabbed,” highlighting their pain and struggle.
AdjectivesAdjectives are used to describe the corruption. Laws are described as “Golden,” implying they favour the wealthy. Soldiers carry a “two-edged” sword, symbolising harm to both enemies and the people they should protect.

Religion is termed “Christless, Godless,” suggesting that the church prioritises its powerful leaders over true worship. In contrast, the Phantom that Shelley imagines appearing to eradicate corruption is envisioned as “glorious.”

Structure

  • In the first twelve lines, Shelley addresses the many leaders and institutions he sees as responsible for England’s turmoil.
  • In the final two lines, Shelley hopes for a “Phantom” that could rise from the ground and rid the country of these social injustices.

Form

  • The poem is a sonnet. Usually, sonnets are associated with love; however, Shelley subverts this form to express anger at the corrupt forces that have taken over England.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
Corruption of powerShelley expresses his belief that there is systemic corruption in England, with every leader and institution acting in self-serving ways.

The rulers “neither see, nor feel, nor know,” indicating their ignorance about the struggles of those not in power.

Their inability to “feel” underscores their lack of empathy. This is the opposite of what leaders should be doing as they are in positions of power to help the masses.
Inequality and oppressionDue to the corruption of those in power, the general masses are oppressed (subject to harsh treatment). They are treated as “prey”, giving the impression of them being hunted or killed by those in power. This could be an allusion to the Peterloo Massacre.

They are the victims of “liberticide”, meaning the death of liberty. Also, their mistreatment has caused them to be “starved and stabbed”, meaning that they are neglected and attacked in equal measure.
Societal changeShelley concludes the poem with the hope that “a glorious Phantom may/ Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.”

He leaves the nature of this “Phantom” open to interpretation; it could represent a revolution like the French Revolution (1789-1799), despite its eventual descent into tyranny under Napoleon.

The use of “may” indicates this is only a possibility, and Shelley does not express strong optimism about it happening. The poem therefore ends on the same pessimistic note that has been carried through the first twelve lines.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“But leech-like to their fainting country cling.”The simile “leech-like” illustrates the rulers of the country draining its wealth and resources, even as the country is weakened and “fainting.” This imagery powerfully conveys the exploitative nature of the leadership.
“A people starved and stabbed.”The oppression has left the people poor and unable to feed themselves while the wealthy indulge in their excess. The word “stabbed” could be an allusion to the violence and deaths at the Peterloo Massacre.
“a glorious Phantom may/ Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.”Shelley hopes for a “Phantom” to rise up and wash away all the corruption plaguing the country. He hopes this entity will “illumine” (brighten) the nation’s dark and troubled times. The phrase emphasises his desire for a radical transformation to uplift the country.

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