An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;‘England in 1819’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom 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 statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Shelley’s poem, ‘England in 1819’, was never published in his lifetime. It was deemed too politically sensitive. It is a punk rock poem fuelled by the energy of youth railing at the moral bankruptcy of a nation’s leaders.
1819 was a tumultuous year in English history, set against a backdrop of royal scandal and global economic unease. It was a year characterised by disillusionment about the way things were and the way things were heading. In 14 acerbic lines Shelley bitterly listed the failure in England’s social fabric. At its head was a king, George III, who was ‘old, mad, blind, despised, and dying’ but the angry poet’s real scorn was reserved for those who were in Government, ‘Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know’ but who ‘leechlike to their fainting country cling’.
Years of austerity and an out-of-touch Government had led to mass popular protests and calls for change. In Manchester the Peterloo massacre had seen a peaceful protest attacked by armed troops: 15 died, over 600 were injured.
Shelley’s own father was an MP but the poet castigated Parliament as a rotten law, ‘Time’s worst statute, unrepealed’. The poet was no friend of organised religion and dismissed the Established Church as ‘Christless, Godless’. Shelley piled on complaint after complaint until the last couple of lines, when against all that had gone before, he envisaged a time when ‘a glorious Phantom’ might burst from the grave to bring about a better future.
Amid all the political and social uncertainty of 1819, there were other dramas, played out on smaller but no less important stages. People fell in love, they fell out of love. Children were born into the world, others left it. For some it was the best of times, for others the worst of times.
As we prepare to celebrate our 200th birthday we remember those women and men of faith who helped give birth to this community. They understood that whatever hopelessness and turmoil might surround them it could not have the last word. Their hope was not in Shelley’s ‘phantom’ but in the risen Christ who had already burst from the grave, won the fight, and defeated the powers of death and decay.
Shelley’s angry poem rages against the night, but rather than curse the darkness our forebears understood that it is better to light a candle. The women and men who founded this fellowship witnessed to a light that had come into the world 1,800 years earlier. John’s Gospel tells us, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
The world has changed in many ways since those women and men of vision, and in ways they could not have possibly envisaged. In other ways however the world has changed little – political unrest, protest and global economic unease are the backdrop to the hopes and fears, joys and sorrows of our own lives.
As we mark our 200th anniversary we are thankful to God for all those whose lives have faithfully witnessed to ‘Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8) and with them declare the good news that ‘the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining’ (1 John 2:8).