007. Song To The Men Of England. P B Shelley Song. Appreciation by P S Remesh Chandran
Editor, Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum
Posted in Wikinut>Poetry, Drama & Criticism
A revolutionary is a person who causes constant changes around him wherever he is. In this sense, Shelley was a revolutionary poet. Song To The Men Of England opened up world’s eyes to the torture, brutality and exploitation workers were subjected to in England during the time of her colonial prosperity and raised the question: Why can’t we revolt?
Kill not a bird or beast or man, they are all our brethren.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote each poem to celebrate and enjoy each particular tune as we can see in his Song To The Men Of England, Ode To The West Wind, To A Skylark, The Cloud and Adonais. He is considered one of the greatest poets in the English Language. And his influence on world literature is paramount. When we refer to him as a revolutionary, it does not mean he advocated merciless killing. In fact, he considered even animals as our fellow creatures, not to be slain for human food. It was after reading his works that the famous English author and dramatist George Bernard Shaw became a strict vegetarian.
Workers and exploiters are like bees and drones in the bee community.
Here in this poem, Shelley is asking the Nineteenth century peasants and workers of England why they are not revolting against the landlords and production owners who are exploiting them to the last drop of their blood. In the Bee community, female bees do all the work and the male drones live by exploiting them. Shelley calls the workers Bees and the exploiters Drones which is apt
Purpose of weapons fails when they are used against man.
Shelley’s questions in the poem to the workers of England skillfully bring out their pitiful living conditions in the England of his times. He is asking them for what reason they plough the fields for the lords who are responsible for their poverty. For what reason with toil and care they weave the rich robes their tyrants are wearing, while their own children shiver in the dark without coal or cotton. From their birth till their death the workers feed, clothe and save those ungrateful drones, who in their turn would either drain their sweat or drink their blood.
Weapons become spoiled when they are stained with their makers’ blood.
The Bees of England forge many weapons, chains and scourges which go straight to the hands of the tyrants to be used against them in it’s time. Weapons were invented to assist man in his works but when used against man, their purpose fails and they become spoiled. Critics have differed in their interpretations of this word ‘spoiled.’ A weapon to become spoiled means, to become stained with it’s maker’s blood. Knives were invented for cutting away tree branches from the ancient man’s path, chains were invented for lifting huge weights from the ground, and whips for taming wild animals. But when they happen to be used for throat-cutting, binding men together and for beating him, their purpose fails and they become spoiled.
Sacrificing a life, making riches and robes and arms for tyrants.
The workers pay so high a price by living in constant pain, fear and poverty but even then, in spite of all their sufferings, at least their physical and spiritual needs are not got fulfilled. If not for fulfilling their basic animalistic needs, why should they labour from morning till night and from night till morning? Leisure, comfort and calmness are the spiritual needs of man. Food, shelter and the medicinal treatment of love are the physical needs of man. It is strange to note that Shelley, unlike many of the other poets of his times, has included love as a physical need of man, like food. The workers sow seed, but the harvest is taken away by the lords. They bring wealth out of earth through their work, but the riches are amassed and kept by the others. They weave robes for the others, but their own children have nothing to wear. The arms they forge also add to the armories of the oppressors. Thus Shelley convinces the workers of England and elsewhere that they are exploited to the extreme and that rising through revolutions is their right.
A poet’s burning eloquence forcing the doors of England open.
We will normally expect that the poet, spreading such radical ideas will finally find his way to the London Tower, the English equivalent of the French Bastille. But it was the era of the Industrial Revolution, closely following the English version of the Italian Renaissance. No workers’ revolution occurred in England then or later as Shelley hoped and Marx predicted. Communism, the supreme theory of revolution was indeed born in England’s soil, but Carl Marx fuming and storming his head in the British Museum for Thirty two years came to no use. Prosperity extinguishes revolutionary traits whereas poverty inflames them. But England in later years became the haven and world headquarters of revolutionaries in exile, due to the open door policy there. Shelley’s burning eloquence in this song cannot be denied it’s due share of influence in bringing about this change.
The silent song of weaving their winding-sheets to their graves.
Shelley showed to the exploited workers that they have a right to rise in revolts. He encourages them to sow seed but let no tyrant reap; find wealth but let no impostor heap them. But his clarion-calls fell into deaf ears. Seeing the inertness of the English workers, towards the end of the poem, Shelley condemns them. By not revolting, they will have to finally shrink to their cells, cellars and holes that are supposed to be their residences, as the vast halls they constructed are all possessed by the privileged. Imagine a great massive elephant melting itself down and disappearing into the tiny pit of a sand-elephant; that is how the proletariat shrinks. The great beast does not know its capabilities. It is a pity to see them still wearing and shaking the chains they themselves wrought. ‘The steel ye tempered glance on ye’, he says. Glance here has a dual meaning. He used the word in it’s both senses: slip off from the hand causing a mortal wound, and have a quick look. The steel the workers themselves tempered ridiculingly laughs at them! If their destiny goes on unhampered in this manner, with plough and spade and hoe and loom, the tools of their trade, they will continue to build their tomb and weave their winding-sheet till their beautiful England becomes their vast sepulchre.
Shelley was very bold and daring to have published these lines during the peak of England’s colonial powers. And he certainly might have been very sympathetic and delinquent in his attitude to the workers in his native land. He indeed was a very brilliant poet who set fire to the conscience of his century. This poem is a masterpiece of poetical eloquence. Commitment and involvement in flames.
Pictures Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Appreciations, English Songs, Literature And Language, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poetry, P S Remesh Chandran, Reviews, Sahyadri Books And Bloom Books Trivandrum, Song To The Men Of England
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Meet the author
Editor of Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum. Author of several books in English and in Malayalam. And also author of Swan: The Intelligent Picture Book. Born and brought up in the beautiful village of Nanniyode in Trivandrum District in the Sahya Mountain Valley in Kerala. Unmarried and single. Edits Bloom Books Channel, world’s foremost producers of musical English Recitation Videos.