‘England in 1819’ is a sonnet by the second-generation English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). It’s one of Shelley’s most angry and politically direct poems, although a number of the allusions Shelley makes to contemporary events require some analysis and interpretation to be fully understood now, more than two centuries on. Before we offer an analysis of ‘England in 1819’, here’s the text of the poem.
England in 1819
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.
First, an important piece of context for this poem: on 16 August 1819 in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, the army was deployed to scatter the peaceful protest taking place (the protest was over issues of electoral reform; in 1819 very few men had the right to vote in England, and no women could; there was also widespread hunger and poverty). Eleven people were killed and over 400 were injured. Shortly after the news of this horrific event broke out, Shelley began writing a number of poems in response to what became known as ‘the Peterloo Massacre’ (‘Peterloo’ after ‘Waterloo’, the British victory over the Napoleon’s army just four years earlier). Perhaps the most famous of these is ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, although ‘England in 1819’ also contains an allusion to Peterloo (which we’ll come to below).
‘England in 1819’ was thus written some time between early September and 23 December 1819, when Shelley sent this poem to Leigh Hunt, adding that he didn’t expect Hunt to publish it.
Why not? ‘England in 1819’ contains a number of strongly worded denunciations of the political situation in England at the time, and Shelley, who had fallen foul of the authorities before, knew that the poem would probably be too much of a risk for a publisher to take on. The poem sees Shelley giving vent to his anger at the injustices committed against the protestors in Manchester, as well as the institution of the British monarchy.
Shelley begins ‘England in 1819’ with several lines attacking a ‘King’ and ‘Princes’. In 1819, the ‘dying King’ was George III, who was in his early eighties and had been on the British throne for nearly sixty years (he would die the year later, in 1820). The ‘madness of King George’ – memorably dramatised in a play, and subsequent film, written by Alan Bennett – was also well-known, and feeds into Shelley’s opening line: ‘An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King’.
The commas provide a series of brief caesurae or pauses in the line, underscoring all the problems with George III: he’s old and weak, he’s been mad for a long time, the people hate him, and he’ll soon be dead. The repeated ‘d’ sounds in the line reinforce the harsh judgment Shelley reserves for King George. Each adjective also seems to arise naturally from the previous one: ‘old’ gives way to ‘mad’ (united by the final ‘d’ sound); ‘mad’ gives way to ‘blind’, both suggesting George’s inability to rule; ‘blind’ paves the way for ‘despised’, linked by both that end ‘d’ sound but also the assonance on the shared long ‘i’ sound); ‘despised’ turns to ‘dying’ thanks to the shared opening d-sound and the ‘i’ assonance; and finally ‘dying’ turns into ‘King’, both of them sharing the ‘-ing’ ending.
The fact that he is ‘dying’ doesn’t provide any hope for the future, since his son, who will become King George IV the following year, is the ‘dregs’ of the royal line: he had been acting as Prince Regent as his father’s madness made him incapacitated and unable to rule, but Prince George seemed more interested in women and in eating and drinking (he was vastly overweight) and in pursuing pleasure of all kinds than in governing responsibly while his country was in the grip of civil unrest. Rulers like the two Georges are ‘leechlike’ in that, like a blood-sucking leech (used in the old days of medicine to suck ‘bad blood’ from the patient), they ‘cling’ to ‘their fainting country’: the country is ‘fainting’ because of the blood it’s had leeched out of it by the parasitical ruler, of course, but it’s a clever word because the much of the country was literally fainting with starvation in 1819.
Shelley segues into this civil unrest in the seventh line of the sonnet, with the reference to ‘people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field’, i.e. St. Peter’s Field, the site of the Peterloo massacre. Curiously, his earlier references to ‘mud from a muddy spring’ and ‘drop[ping], blind in blood, without a blow’ – both used about the degeneracy and parasitism of the royal family – pave the way for this shift to the muddy and bloody field in which British reformers were killed and injured by the ‘army, whom liberticide and prey / Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield’ (i.e. the army, which had protected the British against Napoleon at Waterloo, now turned against them and killed their ‘liberty’, or freedom to peacefully protest, at Peterloo; Shelley uses the old image of the double-edged sword cleverly here, given that he’s literally referring to the army).
The rest of ‘England in 1819’ sees Shelley attacking the corruption of the Church (‘Christless’: Christ advocated looking after the poor and drove the money-lenders from the temple, but England’s laws are ‘Golden’ because they’re designed for the rich, and ‘sanguine’ because they are, literally, bloody, as Peterloo had shown when the law came down hard on those arguing for reform). However, Shelley does end on a ‘sanguine’ note of a different kind, i.e. a more hopeful one: he believes that all of these corrupt institutions are, like the King, ‘dying’, and that they are ‘graves from which a glorious Phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.’ Almost thirty years before Marx and Engels, in their 1848 Communist Manifesto (which, like the reform movement that was slaughtered at Peterloo in 1819, came out of Manchester), argued that there was ‘a spectre … haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’ which ‘the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise’, Shelley was arguing that a ‘glorious Phantom’ may rise from the old order and point the way forward for a fairer and more equal society.
One last point to observe, by way of conclusion to this analysis: ‘England in 1819’ may be a sonnet (Shelley described it as such in his letter to Hunt), but it’s a decidedly odd one. Although it has 14 lines and is written (largely) in iambic pentameter, as we expect from a sonnet, its rhyme scheme departs from the usual rhyme schemes seen in sonnets. Shelley rhymes ‘England in 1819’ ababab cdcd ccdd. This makes it difficult to divide into an octave and sestet (the usual way a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is structured, i.e. an 8-line section followed by a six-line one) or into three quatrains and a concluding couplet (the structure for a Shakespearean or English sonnet).
How can we best analyse the structure of Shelley’s ‘sonnet’? The best way to think of it is as an English sonnet that takes a wrong turn in the middle: it begins the four lines rhymed according to an English sonnet (abab) and concludes the way an English sonnet concludes, with a rhyming couplet. But in the middle, Shelley departs from this structure – perhaps to suggest the way England itself has descended into chaos – and restricts the number of different rhymes he uses to just four. The return to the pattern of the Shakespearean sonnet at the end of ‘England in 1819’ – that final rhyming couplet – arrives just in time for Shelley to end the poem on a note of hope, and his belief that out of such chaos, a new order might be created.