Subject Material

Two Critical Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Published: 07.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Percy Bysshe Shelley had a rich poetical production that contains some of the finest poems in English literature. Though he had a rebellious nature and, by the standards of his time, a scandalous lifestyle, he was a burning idealist who wanted to stand up for injustice and what he saw as political misrule. Of his radical writing, these two poems stand out as his most poignant.

Song to the Men of England

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?

Wherefore, bees of England, forge
Many weapon, chain and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed, - but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, - but let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, - let no idle wear;
Forge arms, - in your defence to bear.

Shrink to your cellars, holes and cells;
In halls ye deck, another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade, and hoe and loom,
Trace your grave, and build your tomb,
And weave your winding-sheet, till fair
England be your sepulchre.


England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king, -
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public storm – 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 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 statue unrepealed, -
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illuminate our tempestuous day.

 

 

A Closer Look at the Poems

1. Song to the Men of England

  • Give some examples of the strong visual imagery in the poem.
  • It is fairly clear where Shelley's sympathy lies; what metaphors does he use about the ruling class and the exploited workers?
  • What is Shelley's dismal conclusion?

2. England in 1819

  • Point out a line or two that you think sum up Shelley's message in this poem.
  • Which metaphors does Shelley use to describe the Church, the Parliament, the Army, England?
  • Comment on the two last lines of the poem.

Research

  1. Shelley was a radical poet who criticised his home country from his exile in Italy. Search the net for information about what may lie behind Shelley's harsh criticism of England. Key words: Industrial Revolution, poverty, working class, political situation (why 1819?), expanding British Empire. Make a presentation based on your research and the two poems.
  2. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a rebel and led a dramatic and short life. He was married to Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein") and he died in 1822 only thirty years old. Follow the link below and read about Shelley's dramatic life and how he died "the death of a poet".
    Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Romantic Rebel (right click to open in new tab)