In the poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley as a response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre “The Mask of Anarchy,” the grotesque is used as both a narrative and emotional tool as well as an effective means to convey the gravity of the tragic situation as Shelley perceived it. The event that forms the meaning of “The Mask of Anarchy” itself was grotesque; it was a twisted use of power on a peacefully demonstrating public that led to many injuries and death.
In order to explore and express the horror of the event fully in this analysis of “The Mask of Anarchy” it is worth noting that Shelley makes use of frighteningly grotesque imagery and language, a device common in Romantic poetry to convey his feelings and address the grotesque nature of the massacre and relies on contrasts between serene versus grotesque images and language to keep the reader horrified. In addition, the very structure of “The Mask of Anarchy” and the choice of certain blunt but effective words creates and maintains the theme of grotesqueness. Shelley uses the grotesque in this poem to parallel his depth of anger and feeling about the events at Peterloo. In this poem, there is no reprieve for the reader as the parade of grim images marches by. The effect of these grotesque images created by Shelley’s use of language leaves the reader feeling unsettled, uncomfortable, and disturbed both by the event being detailed as well as by the poem itself.
Even from the beginning of the poem “The Mask of Anarchy” by Percy Shelley, the use of the grotesque serves an important function in terms of the reader’s perception and understanding of the massacre and its meaning. The contrast between the calm versus grotesque that occurs between the first and second stanzas is important because the reader and the narrator are jerked into a horrifying awareness of the grim situation. The effect of beginning this poem with a serene and peaceful introduction that invokes soothing images of sleep, the sea, and visions, only to launch into one disturbing set of grotesque images after another is, itself disconcerting and in some ways, grotesque as a narrative device and emphasizes the very meaning of the poem by the end.
By presenting the former condition of his psyche prior to his knowledge of the events at Peterloo (at rest in Italy near a sea that speaks to him) the narrator presents the stark contrast between restful sleep and serenity and bloody tragic events. From his state of tranquility near the ocean in Italy, the reader and narrator are in a dreamlike state, oblivious to the harsh realities. When these realities arrive, they crush the deceptive lull the reader experiences in the first stanza as our first image after that is the visage of Murder followed by a pack of marauding hounds.
This is not the only time Shelley jerks the reader out of a moment of tranquility. For example, in the fifth stanza, the reader is confronted with the image of “little children, who / Round his [Fraud’s] feet played to and fro/ Thinking every tear a gem’ and while this could, if not in the context of this poem, be a delightful and playful image, it is followed with the blunt statement that these children “had their brains knocked out.” From the first to the last moments of this poem, Shelley relies on this device to create meaning in “The Mask of Anarchy” ; first lulling and then smacking the reader with grotesque imagery and contrasts between what is right (children playing happily) versus what is so wrong that it is almost sickening to imagine. The effect of this contrast in these important quotes from “The Mask of Anarchy” is to make the grotesque nature of the situation paralleled with the most grotesque images most readers would dare not let themselves even imagine.
The presence of the grotesque in “The Mask of Anarchy” is not limited to shocking images and contrasts alone. It can also be seen in the very structure of the poem. Instead of relying on a complex structure fraught with a number of deep metaphors, this poem is incredibly straightforward in its style, structure, and rhyming pattern. This very simplicity is at the core of the grotesqueness of the poem because there is no attempt to mask horror or unpleasantness—it is available and ever-present and the narrator does not mince words.
Even more disturbing and grotesque is that one of the most shocking images in the poem, that of children having their brains dashed out, is told with a rhyming structure exactly as one might find in a children’s nursery rhyme or song. For example, aside from the stanza mentioned above about Fraud and the playing children, there are other stanzas, such as the 42nd one, which sing a horrid song. ‘Tis to see your children weak / With their mothers pine and peak / When the winter winds are bleak, –/ They are dying whilst I speak.” Not only is the simplicity of the rhyming pattern alone disturbing, particularly because it relates such complex thoughts and images, but the language itself is almost too simple. Instead of using difficult or obscure words, dense metaphors, or sophisticated prose, Shelley simply uses the most blunt (and often tactless) words to describe or narrate. In many ways, it is easy to imagine how part of the impact might be lost if he were to instead rely on sophistication of language, structure, and style to relate the grotesque. Doing so would distract the reader and might be considered beautiful as poetry—something that is clearly not on the agenda in this poem.
Aside from merely pointing out these contrasts between serene and incredibly grotesque images, it is worthwhile to consider the ways this narrative device, as well as the more general use of the grotesque produced by word choice and the very structure of the poem functions. The grotesque is one of the most important elements driving the sense of anger and outrage throughout the poem. The grotesque in this poem grows steadily until the reader is finally introduced to the most grotesque image in the poem, the figure of anarchy. Interestingly, all of the elements discussed thus far come together to form the overarching tone of the poem—extreme, intense anger and outrage.
Consider the simplicity yet brute force of anger behind stanzas such as, “This is slavery—savage men / Or wild beasts within a den / Would endure not as ye do–/ But such ills they never knew.” The images of men connected to savage beasts presents a savage world, this one haunted by the specters of evil forces. The simplicity of the images and words here, along with the simple structure, makes the narrator seem to almost spit these words out in disgust and rage and this pattern continues throughout the poem. This anger is so intense that it is, even itself, an extension of the grotesque as it is a wildly exaggerated disturbing emotion or idea. In short, the function of the grotesque both compliments and adds to the overarching tone of spitting anger.
To conclude, Shelley’s use of the grotesque makes this poem and the events it is connected to seem like hell on earth. In this world Shelley creates through deceptively simple structure, language, and contrast, all figures are larger than life—both the figures of innocence and the specters of evil, death, and deception. The function and meaning of the grotesque is intimately connected to the anger this poem expresses and although it is disturbing, the use of the grotesque in terms of imagery is vital to the message and ultimate meaning of “The Mask of Anarchy” Shelley attempts to communicate.
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