IN 2019, to mark the 200th anniversary of the St Peter’s Fields massacre in Manchester, publisher Redwords produced a second edition of Shelley’s Revolutionary Year: The Peterloo writings of the poet Shelley, a volume that included one of his poems the most famous, the mask of anarchy.
In his introduction to this edition, Paul O’Brien describes the Masque of Anarchy as one of the greatest political poems in the English language – and it is undoubtedly the work that sealed Shelley’s reputation as one of our greatest radical poets.
The anniversary of 2019 was a time to celebrate Shelley’s radical writings, a body of work that has inspired radical movements and activists through the centuries and across the world, including the Chartists and the Owenites. Karl Marx and Gandhi were among the admirers of the poet.
Article four of the Labor Party constitution refers to the most famous lines in the Mask of Anarchy and in 2017 then party leader Jeremy Corbyn used these lines as a rallying call for activists from the Glastonbury Festival:
Get up like lions after sleep
In invincible numbers
Shake your chains to the earth like dew
Who in sleep had fallen on you
There are many of you, there are few of you.
Paul Foot, the radical and investigative journalist, was also a great admirer of Shelley.
He wrote an excellent introduction to the first edition of Shelley’s Revolutionary Year and, at a conference in 1981, explained why he found Shelley’s work so inspiring.
“It’s his enthusiasm for the idea that the world can be changed. It shapes all of his poetry… He believed in life and he really felt that life was what mattered, that life could and should be better than it is. Could and should be changed.
Such was the extent of Foot’s admiration for Shelley, that he played a key role in a campaign for a public memorial to commemorate the poet.
The result of this campaign was the installation of a public artwork in Horsham, West Sussex, the town closest to Shelley’s family home and birthplace and where he spent his early years. .
In 1996, Foot was invited by the Horsham Council to unveil the sculpture, a large kinetic aquatic sculpture, titled The Rising Universe.
Foot’s view of the artwork is not recorded, but upon installation the sculpture met with a mixed reaction.
Some thought it was ugly and did not see the connection with the poet clearly; this was understandable as it had not been specially commissioned to commemorate Shelley, but purchased “off the shelf” by Horsham District Council who seemed to think it was as close as possible to something serving that purpose.
Others appreciated the artwork more but were unhappy with how often the mechanism that kept it working seemed to fail. It was eventually dismantled by the council because it became too expensive to maintain.
This has been extremely disappointing to many admirers of Shelley’s work, as the long-standing public memorial to a towering literary figure, and arguably the only public memorial to Shelley in the country, has been removed without any clear plan. to provide a replacement.
In 2022, admirers of his work will have yet another opportunity to reflect on Shelley’s place as a great poet and radical thinker – and as a recent surge of interest in romantics has recognized, one of the greatest English-speaking poets.
July 8 marks the bicentennial of Shelley’s death. The Shelley Memorial Project identified this important anniversary as an opportunity to revisit Foot’s vision of a permanent public memorial to the great poet.
The project was formed by individuals and community groups based in Horsham who are interested in the work of the internationally renowned writer and his connection to the city.
The goal of the project is to commission a work of art that clearly relates to and commemorates the significant contribution that Shelley has made, not only to literature, but to political and social philosophy.
The intention is to ensure that this public work of art will commemorate Shelley’s accomplishments in a way that will provide pleasure and inspiration to residents and visitors of Horsham and especially young people.
Shelley tragically passed away before he reached his 30th birthday, but over the course of his short life he produced poetry and prose which has been described as offering a magnificent portrayal of the energy and curiosity of the youth. This work remains capable of inspiring, influencing and delighting today.
Along with the debate that has taken place in recent years on the relevance and purpose of memorials and monuments to individuals, there is a growing interest in the recognition, through memorials, of positive actions and ideas; the Star recently reported on the International Brigade memorials that serve to rally and inspire communities.
As Paul O’Brien said, “Shelley has left us with a body of work and access to language that can inspire and energize people to organize and be agitated for a better world. It is certainly a work that deserves to be commemorated.
Carol Hayton is Secretary of the Shelley Memorial Project – visit www.shelleymemorialproject.co.uk to support the campaign.