'English In 1819' by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--Princes, the dregs of their dull race, whoThrough public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,But leech-like to their fainting country cling,Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--An army, which liberticide and preyMakes 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 mayBurst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Percy Bysshe Shelley's "England in 1819": A Critique and Interpretation

Wow. Just wow. Percy Bysshe Shelley's "England in 1819" is a masterpiece of political poetry that still resonates today. In this 14-stanza ode to a nation in crisis, Shelley paints a vivid picture of England's corrupt and decaying society, criticizing everything from the monarchy to the Church to the apathy of the common people. Let's dive in and take a closer look at this powerful poem.

The Historical Context

Before we jump into the poem itself, it's important to understand the historical context in which Shelley was writing. The year 1819 was a tumultuous one for England. The Napoleonic Wars had just ended, and the nation was facing economic and political instability. The ruling class was deeply unpopular, and there were widespread calls for reform. In Manchester, a peaceful rally for political representation turned violent when the authorities sent in troops to disperse the crowd, resulting in the infamous Peterloo Massacre.

It's against this backdrop of unrest and disillusionment that Shelley wrote "England in 1819." The poem is a scathing critique of the ruling elite and their complacency in the face of suffering and injustice.

The Structure

"England in 1819" is structured in 14 stanzas, each consisting of nine lines of iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC, with the last two lines of each stanza rhyming with each other. This gives the poem a sense of unity and coherence, even as Shelley touches on a wide range of topics.

The poem is also notable for its use of repetition. The first line of each stanza begins with the phrase "An old..." followed by a description of some aspect of England's society. This repetition serves to underscore Shelley's message that the problems facing England are deep-seated and long-standing.

The Themes

There are several themes that run throughout "England in 1819." Perhaps the most prominent is the idea of decay and corruption. Shelley describes a nation that has lost its way, where "An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king" (line 1) rules over a society that is "wormy with vice" (line 9).

At the same time, Shelley also criticizes the apathy of the common people. He describes them as "Men who arose to freedom, and then fell" (line 6), suggesting that they had failed to live up to the promise of the French Revolution and were content to live in a state of subjugation.

Religion is also a target of Shelley's ire. He describes the Church as "An army of priests in their black gowns" (line 10), suggesting that it is a tool of the ruling class and serves to justify their power.

The Language

Shelley's language in "England in 1819" is rich and evocative. He paints a vivid picture of a society in decline, using striking imagery to convey his message. For example, he describes the king as "old, mad, blind, despised, and dying" (line 1), using a series of adjectives to emphasize the monarch's decrepitude.

Shelley also uses allusions to classical mythology and literature to underscore his critique. For example, in stanza 7 he references the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. Shelley uses this image to describe the fate of England's ruling class, who have become too arrogant and complacent to survive.

The Message

So what is Shelley trying to say in "England in 1819"? At its core, the poem is a call to arms. Shelley is asking his readers to recognize the deep-seated problems facing their society and to take action to address them. He is urging them to reject the apathy and complacency that have allowed the ruling elite to maintain their grip on power.

At the same time, however, Shelley also offers a note of hope. In the final stanza, he writes:

"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."

This stirring call to action suggests that there is hope for England yet. If the people can rise up and overthrow their oppressors, they can create a better society for themselves and for future generations.


In conclusion, "England in 1819" is a powerful and important poem that still resonates today. Shelley's scathing critique of England's ruling elite and their complacency in the face of suffering and injustice is as relevant now as it was in 1819. By using vivid imagery, rich language, and classical allusions, Shelley has created a work of art that is both timeless and urgent. It is a call to arms for all those who would seek to create a more just and equitable society, and a reminder that the struggle for freedom and equality is an ongoing one.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a powerful medium that has the ability to evoke emotions, inspire change, and capture the essence of the human experience. Percy Bysshe Shelley's "England in 1819" is a classic example of this, as it delves into the political and social issues of the time while also exploring the power of poetry itself.

The poem was written during a time of great political upheaval in England, with the country still reeling from the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Shelley, a passionate advocate for social justice and political reform, was deeply affected by these events and used his poetry as a means of expressing his frustration and anger.

The poem begins with a powerful image of an aging monarch, King George III, who is described as "an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king." This image sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as Shelley uses it to criticize the corrupt and ineffective government of the time. He goes on to describe the "anarchy" and "slavery" that he sees all around him, painting a bleak picture of a society that is in desperate need of change.

Despite this, Shelley remains hopeful and optimistic throughout the poem, using his words to inspire his readers to take action and fight for a better future. He writes, "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."

These lines are perhaps the most famous in the poem, and they encapsulate Shelley's belief in the power of the people to effect change. He urges his readers to rise up against the oppressive forces that are holding them down, to cast off their chains and fight for their freedom.

Throughout the poem, Shelley also explores the power of poetry itself, describing it as a force that can transcend time and space. He writes, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," suggesting that it is through poetry that we can truly understand the world around us and effect change.

This idea is further explored in the final stanza of the poem, where Shelley writes, "The world's great age begins anew / The golden years return / And all that's fair is foul once more / And foul is fair again." Here, he suggests that poetry has the power to bring about a new age, a time of renewal and rebirth.

In many ways, "England in 1819" is a call to action, a rallying cry for those who believe in the power of poetry and the ability of the people to effect change. It is a powerful reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is always hope, and that through our words and actions, we can create a better world.

Overall, Shelley's "England in 1819" is a masterpiece of poetry, a powerful and evocative work that speaks to the human experience in a way that few other works can. Its themes of political and social upheaval, the power of poetry, and the ability of the people to effect change are as relevant today as they were in Shelley's time, and it remains a timeless work that will continue to inspire and move readers for generations to come.

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