ROMANTICISM
 
England in 1819: Peterloo and Shelley

 

1819 is remembered as the year of Peterloo in British history. Peterloo was the worst massacre of unarmed civilians committed by the government in modern Britain. 1819 was also “a miraculous year” for the Romantic poets such as Shelley, Byron, and Keats because it was during this year that they composed or published a lot of their major poems: Prometheus Unbound, “Ode to the West” by Shelley, the first two cantos of Don Juan by Byron, and his famous odes and “The Eve of St. Agnes” by Keats. This paper is an attempt to explain why the year 1819 became such a decisive moment in the political history of modern Britain as well as in the movement of British romanticism. My argument is that it was basically the same Zeitgeist of the 1810s that gave rise to both occurrences. It was “the spirit of age” of that decade defined by Hazlitt as “the progress of intellectual refinement, warring with our natural infirmities.” John Stuart Mill redefined it a few years later, in Patrick Story’s phrases, as “a transitional process of fearful conflict between the tide of progressive expectations reawakened by international peace, and the opposing reaction of ‘existing institutions’,” which I think is more useful for me to collocate Peterloo and the prolificacy of the romantic poets in a historically significant manner. There has been no serious objection among historians to E. P. Thomson’s view that Peterloo was “a formative experience” in the history of modern Britain. Peterloo, then, is the most indubitable expression of the “fearful conflict” between the “progressive expectations” and “the opposing reaction” in the 1810s. Shelley, in this context, is making an ideal case of poetically embodying the ‘spirit’ of the year 1819 since he composed “The Mask of Anarchy” and “A Philosophical View of Reform” right after Peterloo as a reaction to the unprecedented government brutality from a reformer’s point of view. In this paper, I analyse those two works to illuminate Shelley’s earnest commitment to the cause of the British reform movement of the 1810s.

 

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