Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Paul Foot - Red Shelley

When campaigning journalist Paul Foot died last year died, many people remarked how much he would be missed. A tireless campaigner for social justice, for freedom, for democracy and for socialism, he had devoted his life to struggling for a better world.

Amongst many Foot’s many qualities, was his ability to popularise odd periods of history or forgotten revolutionaries. At the annual Marxism conference in London, his meetings on the English Revolution, or the Levellers or Democracy were always amongst the most popular.

But many socialists in the UK have a special place in their hearts for his speeches on the poet Shelley.

This book, written in the early 1980s was clearly a result of Foot himself discovering Shelley. The poet he discovered, wasn’t the slightly unusual, lyrical romantic that was often taught in English schools. Rather he was a radical. A revolutionary. A man who believed that the world could and should be better, and that his poetry could be one of the weapons against that injustice.

Shelley had been distorted and ignored after his death. His best and most radical poems, works like “Queen Mab” and “The Mask of Anarchy” weren’t even officially published till long after his death. They existed often only in illegal and underground publications, repeated word for word by groups of workers, oppressed and under the thumb of the reactionary state.

For decades, the rich would gather around dinner tables and recite Shelley’s poetry. But they would ignore the revolutionary, challenging poetry, living almost entirely on the romantic poetry and even then stripping it of its context and his beliefs.

Foot argues that Shelley was one of the first socialists. Immature and isolated he might have been, but he was also a thinker and philosophiser who came up with some new and radical ideas. Ideas that would only become mainstream within the emerging left movement decades later.

Of course, Shelley was also driven by a militant atheism that meant he was ostracised by the rest of the establishment he was from, during his lifetime. But it’s an atheism at the heart of some of his best poetry. This atheism meant that he clashed with all those who believed that the poor deserved to be poor, or were poor because of their own making. So Shelley was driven by a desire to both illuminate the world and change it.

The book ends with Foot arguing that a new generation needs to grow up with Shelley in one hand as they struggle for peace and justice. He would have liked nothing better than to see Tony Blair humiliated in the House of Commons today, and so it’s really only fitting that I finish with one of Shelley’s most famous poems. One that dictators and politicians everywhere could do well to learn:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Related Reviews

Foot - The Vote


Anonymous said...

Nice. Gives me fresh fodder for my reading lists. Thanks! :-)

P.S. - You should have seen how they murdered ozymandias in a classroom where i was (unfortunately) present.

Anonymous said...

Yeah... I had a fantastic teacher when I was fourteen, who called himself a "marxist of the heart" (which I puzzled over for years, until I figured out it meant he was a liberal, but a damn sweet one) -- in our humanities class, he gave us Brecht's Mother Courage, Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" (contrasted to McCrae's "In Flanders Fields"), W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming", and Shelley's "Ozymandius"... my dad loved Shelley as a revolutionary poet, and I don't know whether he read the Foot book or not. He liked Paul Foot, though, too.