The Masque of Anarchy - Essay Prowess

The Masque of Anarchy


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Study Questions for Shelley: “The Masque of Anarchy”

As with John Clare’s “The Moors,” you will need to know a little bit about the historical background to understand Shelley’s poem, which is written in direct response to a historical event, the “Peterloo massacre” of 1819. You’ll find a link to a good and not too long article, which also includes historical images, in the link below.

Also, do look up the two nouns in Shelley’s title – “masque” and “anarchy” – in the OED to determine the range of possible meaning of these words in Shelley’s time. Read the full entries closely, i.e. not only the definitions of the different senses, but also the usage examples the OED lists for them, and also explore the etymology (origin) of the words, given at the top of each entry. Since Shelley wrote the poem in 1819, you will need to discard all meanings that developed after 1819 for your reading of the text (take a look at the dates for the examples of usage the OED gives, to see which ones those are). Since the title describes the poem – the stanzas that follow are the Masque of Anarchy –, while Anarchy is one of the poem’s main characters, fully understanding the words’ meaning will be quite important for your reading of the text.

Here are the study questions for our first blackboard discussion of the poem. Choose one question to answer:

1) What frame does the first stanza create for the narrative of the poem? What do these four lines tell us about the speaker and the way the long poem that follows “came” to them? (Shelley himself lived in Italy at the time, see the biographical information in our coursepack.) Why do you think Shelley chose to open the poem in this way?

2) How are British politicians represented in stanzas 2-7 at the beginning of the poem? See the editors’ footnotes for information about the specific politicians to whom Shelley alludes.

3) How is Anarchy described? How does the speaker of the poem describe Anarchy’s relationship to the British government and to the people of England? How do you understand this figure? (See stanzas 8-21.)

4) How do you understand the relationship between Anarchy, the “maniac maid,” who says “her name was hope” (ll. 86-101), and the mysterious Shape (ll. 102-125) described in the poem? (See stanzas 22-33.)

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