by Tamara Mitrofanova
How a simple poem influenced famous freedom fighters like Gandhi to adapt peaceful protests and non-violent resistance.
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public Domain.
Percy Shelley, a famous poet from the Romantic Era, was the first to advocate for peaceful protests and he inspired Gandhi to adopt non-violent resistance. Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance influenced Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. They had all followed Shelley’s philosophy and it helped create a new world.
When Gandhi read Shelley’s poem, “The Masque of Anarchy” (poem below) he was instantly captivated by its message for freedom through peace. It is known that Gandhi would often quote various passages from the poem to vast audiences during the campaign for India’s independence.
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”
Percy Shelley wrote this poem after hearing of the tragic event known as the Massacre of Peterloo. More than a hundred working men, women and children were seriously injured when they staged a public meeting to determine how to achieve reform through “the most legal and effectual means.”
Like many others, Percy Shelley was furious over this naked governmental oppression and seized the opportunity to write what is now considered, “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English.”
Sadly, during his lifetime his poem was considered too radical and never published until 1832, years after he died.
In 2020, this poem is still very relatable to modern events. We have seen many people throughout the world rising up in protest.
The BLM protests in response to police brutality, the Beirut explosion followed by mass protests against corruption and protests in Belarus against government oppression. The quote “Ye are many — they are few!” in the Masque of Anarchy resonates even today.
Percy Shelley’s poem had even influenced the Egyptian revolution 2011, with protestors chanting the lines, “Rise, like lions after slumber, In unvanquishable number!”
Percy Shelley is the most underrated intellectual who envisioned way ahead into the future and foresaw pacifism as the greatest weapon against despotism and injustice.
As a self-proclaimed Atheist and an advocate for freedom, he did not fit in strict and religious 18th century England. Percy Shelley was expelled from Oxford for atheism, broke ties with his rule-abiding father and eloped with two women, one being Mary Godwin Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
Discriminated against and hunted for being a political radical, he died tragically at age 29. Despite the difficulty he experienced, he never gave up hope for a better future. Percy Shelley walked around Italy wearing a ring with the good time will come inscribed on the inner surface.
Indeed good times did come and it was his poem that inspired others to take up the scepter in creating a better world.