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Literature Compass 8/2 (2011): 95106, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2010.00773.

Shelleys Mask of Anarchy and the Problem of Modern


Sovereignty
Kir Kuiken*
University at Albany

Abstract
Shelleys political poem, The Mask of Anarchy, was written in 1819 after the event known as
the massacre at Peterloo. It attempts to galvanize the reform movements resistance to what he
saw as the illegitimate power of the British government. Because the poem was deemed too radi-
cal to publish in the wake of government repression after the massacre, it raises the question of
how to judge the political efficacy of a text beyond the immediate historical context for which it
was intended. Recent criticism has sought to locate this efficacy in the tensions between the
poems formal poetics and the specific political proposals that it seems to advance. This article
revisits the need for this approach by proposing that the political efficacy of the Mask of Anarchy
must also be measured in terms of the way that it articulates two different relations to the paradox
of modern political sovereignty which, no longer based on a transcendent foundation such as
divine right, must include within its institution a finite act of self-grounding. Drawing on recent
theoretical debates about the nature of modern sovereignty, I argue that Shelleys poem demon-
strates two different relationships to this act of self-grounding: one that produces an illegitimate
form of sovereignty, and a second that recognizes the contingency of its own institution. I then
go on to consider how these two different conceptions of sovereignty help clarify and sharpen the
specific nature of the poems political efficacy.

On August 16, 1819, a crowd of nearly 80,000 pro-reform protesters gathered at St Peters
Field near Manchester to hear reformist orator Henry Hunt speak and to voice a multitude
of demands, including increased democratic reforms, universal suffrage, and secret ballots.
Government militia, ordered to disperse the unarmed crowd, charged in wielding sabers,
maiming an estimated 500800 people, and murdering between 8 and 11 people. It was a
political crisis that raised both the fear of outright revolution within the government and the
hope for substantial democratic change within the reform movement. Above all, however,
it sparked outrage at the government violence used to suppress an unarmed crowd and
became a symbol of the lengths to which the British government would go to protect itself
from any challenge to its power and privilege. When news of the event reached Percy Shel-
ley in exile in Italy weeks afterwards, he would write to his publisher, Charles Ollier, about
the torrent of indignation that had not yet stopped boiling in his veins.1 Shelley quickly
drafted the manuscript for the late political poem Mask of Anarchy, whose topic is explic-
itly the massacre at Peterloo, named satirically after the Battle of Waterloo that occurred
4 years prior, ended the sequence of conflicts between England and France following the
French Revolution, and culminated in Napoleons defeat.
Shelleys poem is a call to arms for the reform movement in England; an attempt to
mobilize its many divergent interests and political factions into a coherent resistance to
what he saw as the illegitimate authority and power of the British establishment (which
Shelley personifies in the poem as Anarchy). Though he had hoped to have the poem

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96 Shelleys Mask of Anarchy

published in a volume of other political poems that were meant to awaken and direct
the imagination of the Reformers, Leigh Hunt, a reformist and publisher who Shelley
solicited to publish the volume, decided that the poem was too radical to print during
the uncertain political situation in England that followed the massacre. In fact, the events
that immediately followed Peterloo saw the government respond to the threat of political
violence with the enactment of the Six Acts bills, which were designed to limit reform
gatherings and to label a wide range of activism as sedition, and therefore as an overt act
of treasonable conspiracy. The immediate aftermath of their passage was the jailing of
much of the leadership of the reform movement and a general clampdown on reformist
presses. Hunt worried that publishing the poem in this political climate would merely
provide the government with the pretext it needed to curtail freedom of the press, and
his own personal freedom as a publisher, even further. As a result, the poem was not
published until 13 years after the event it responded to, and 10 years after Shelleys death.
The Mask of Anarchy therefore provides an interesting case study in the political per-
formativity of poetry. Given that the poem did not have its desired effect in the particular
historical context and political environment that it was intended for, what kinds of effects
can it be said to have, or have had? Since even before Foots seminal work Red Shel-
ley,2 debate has centered on the question of what course (or courses) of action Shelley
seems to be advocating in the poem. Is the poems main exhortation to engage in passive
resistance, or is it recommending more direct kinds of action? Is Shelley uneasy about the
prospect of unleashing revolutionary violence in the wake of the excesses of the French
Revolution, or not? Commentators, such as Dawson, Scrivener, Behrendt, and others3
have engaged the poem as a contribution from afar to the reformist and radical responses
to the Peterloo massacre. Many of these commentators have emphasized the importance
of the poems genre to the question of its intended effect. As a poem meant for a popular
audience, and enveloped in the conventions of popular balladry, The Mask of Anarchy
seems to constitute what Cameron4 identified as one of Shelleys quintessentially exoteric
poems, to be contrasted with more difficult and obscure esoteric poems such as Prome-
theus Unbound, which was written during the same period and deals with similar
themes, but was intended for a less popular audience. Since the poem failed to reach this
audience because of the period of political repression that followed, the question becomes
whether the political effects of Shelleys poem must be located elsewhere than in relation
to the immediate historical context in which the poem was written.
More recent work has tended to view the debate about the political significance of the
poem in terms of whether its politics are to be found less in the content of its exhortation
to the people of England than in the formal dimensions and innovations of the poem
itself. Recent work by Stephen Jones,5 for example, has emphasized the extent to which
the poem draws on the images of satire, popular iconography, and reformist discourse to
generate its argument. Other commentators6 have explored the poems symbolic attack
on the British government, preferring to locate the poems political significance in its for-
mal gestures, while seeing this claim as grounded in the specific historical context out of
which the poem emerged. As Jeffrey Cox suggests: In a historical moment when the
political and cultural are deeply interconnected, when cultural signs and symbols are
essential to the preservation of power then cultural intervention has political and social
consequences.7 Just what, exactly, those consequences might be continues to be a topic
of significant debate about the poem. Susan Wolfson, for example, has argued that the
poems formal structure, particularly its opening frame, exposes the unreality of its politi-
cal ambitions by converting politics to mere aesthetic spectacle.8 Recent work by
Andrew Franta and Marc Redfield9 has contested this view, and seeks to position the

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poems political effectivity in relation to the way it incorporates a meditation on its own
posthumous effects into its formal construction.
The poem, in fact, often explicitly stages an emphasis on the conditions of its own
production, and by doing so considers the conditions of, and possibility for, achieving a
political effect beyond its immediate historical context. As I will argue, the political effec-
tivity of Shelleys poem is indeed not simply to be found in the content of the demo-
cratic alternative that the poem envisions towards its end, but rather in a meditation on
the formal conditions that make possible the articulation of this alternative. Shelleys Mask
of Anarchy focuses on the formal differences between two articulations of sovereignty in
order to highlight two different relationships to the paradox generated by the groundless-
ness of modern political sovereignty as such. It attempts to distinguish the illegitimate
sovereignty of the British government from another relation to sovereignty that would
produce a genuinely democratic alternative. If governmental power is represented in the
poem as a form of anarchy the illegitimate self-production of authority then one of
the tasks of the poem is to imagine an alternative to the mask of legitimacy that the
British government gives itself. Shelleys poem focuses, in other words, on what it is that
would separate illegitimate sovereignty from its legitimate form, and how this difference
can become legible poetically and formally. What makes his poem politically effective is
therefore not merely the specific democratic alternative that his poem envisions, but the
way in which the poem represents the relationship between this democratic alternative
and the radical groundlessness of modern sovereignty itself.
Shelleys poem could be said to be divided into three main sections: the first 21 stanzas
articulate a poetic critique of the mask of illegitimate power in the allegory of specific
government representatives, as well as in the broader political and legal system that this
government helped erect and maintain. The opening section is followed by ten stanzas
that articulate the conditions of the emergence of an alternative to the Mask of power in
the figure of Hope, along with a Shape that emerges co-extensively, and makes possible
the defeat of Anarchy and the emergence of a democratic alternative. The final, largest
section of the poem, comprising 60 stanzas, then articulates the emergence of Hope, and
the exhortation to the people of England to Rise like lions and establishes a new demo-
cratic order grounded in material and intellectual freedom. The second section, therefore,
constitutes the crucial hinge of the poem from illegitimate sovereignty to a legitimate
form that nonetheless has to negotiate the fact that both forms appear at first to have the
same structure. How these forms of sovereignty are differentiated in the second section
(featuring the emergence of Hope) is therefore the most enigmatic and complex part of
the poem, since it is there that Shelley explicitly depicts the conditions that govern the
appearance and representation of the democratic alternative in whatever shape it may
take. It is therefore crucial to understand how this section marks a difference between
the mode of appearance of Anarchy and the mode of appearance of its democratic
alternative.
The question of the mode of appearance of each respective form of political sover-
eignty is made explicit by the opening frame of the poem, which finds the speaker
asleep in Italy, when a voice greets him, and bids him to walk in the visions of
Poesy.10 This initial frame of the first stanza clearly positions the action of the poem in
terms of poetrys capacity to envision not only the violence and illegitimacy of the mask
of power, but also its opposition. It is the failure of this opening frame to return in the
poem that marks, for Wolfson,11 a slumber that conditions the poems entirety, making
it unable to effectuate anything other than a dream or aesthetic fantasy rather than a posi-
tive political intervention. However, if one considers the way in which the poem goes

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on to meditate on how Anarchy grounds itself through symbol and is, in turn, satirized
and unmasked by allegory, then the status of the visions of poesy that opens the poem is
in fact more ambiguous. As Marc Redfield has suggested,12 Shelleys poetics is faced with
the possibility that it repeats what it condemns. Because illegitimate political power
erects itself through an aesthetics, poetry always runs the risk of reinforcing, rather than
destabilizing, the force of this aesthetics. However, insofar as poetry also counters the
relation between power and aesthetics by demonstrating its arbitrariness (which Shelley
links in the poem to arbitrary rule itself), the visions of poesy turn out to be more than
mere fantasy. Instead, the vision endeavors to become an intervention in the way that the
symbolic helps to reinforce particular political arrangements, without, however, being
able to provide any assurance that this intervention is not enabled by the same structure
of articulation as the power it attempts to undermine. As I will suggest, this same ambi-
guity can be found in the poems awareness that the legitimate form of democratic sov-
ereignty shares a structural resemblance to its illegitimate predecessor, which it always
threatens to reproduce. The nature of Shelleys political intervention, then, is to both
unmask powers collusion with an aesthetics that it is his poems task to expose, and then
to present an alternative that opens itself to the radical contingency of an allegory that is
equally groundless but which, by taking up a different relation to its groundlessness,
opens the possibility of a radically new form of sovereignty.
Shelleys unmasking of the relation between aesthetic and political power takes place in
the 21 stanzas that follow the opening frame, in the presentation of the mask of anarchy
that, like the traditional masque,13 involves actors who personify abstractions. Shelleys
masque similarly presents a series of governmental figures who appear to personify
abstractions like Murder and Fraud. The traditional relationship between the mask and
its referent is reversed, however. Rather than individual figures representing abstract sins,
the abstractions of Murder and Fraud take the form of particular political figures such as
Viscount Castlereagh (foreign secretary and leader of the Tories) and Baron Eldon (Lord
Chancellor). Finally, Anarchy arrives on the scene, and Shelleys allegory focuses on the
production of an entire regime of anonymous figures of power (such as, for example,
soldiers and lawyers) whose authority derives from allegiance to Anarchys cry of self-
assertion: I am God and King and Law (MA 37). Shelleys response to the masque of
power begins at line 86 in the counter-point to the spectacle of Anarchy through the
appearance of a maniac maid whose name is Hope, and who leads the opposition to
Anarchy by initially lying down in front of an advancing cavalry of Murder, Fraud and
Anarchy (MA 101). Before Hope can be trampled, a Shape arises between her and her
foes, which leads to the poems declaration at line 130 that Anarchy now lies dead upon
the earth. It is this section of the poem that will be the focus of my reading, since it is
also where Shelleys poem articulates the conditions of appearance that make possible the
vision of social equality that follows in the address to the Men of England. This address
begins with what first appears to be a call to arms (Hope calls on them to Rise like Lions
after slumber), but then turns into a more general meditation on the meaning of slavery
and freedom. The poems final 60 stanzas focus on a number of sources of political and
economic servitude within England, including the exploitation of labor through the
introduction of paper currency and the exploitation of the poor who remain subjugated
by the requirement to work for their bare subsistence. Hope then focuses her oratory on
the specific actions that should be taken to rectify the situation and end the era of Anar-
chys reign. In a series of performative utterances, she organizes the Men of England into
a vast assembly that declares itself free, and whose strategy in the face of armed suppres-
sion appears to be a form of passive resistance in which the goal is to produce a feeling

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of shame within the soldiers and the nation for having resorted to violence to quell the
protests of unarmed citizens. Hope then ends her speech in the poem with the future
projection of the destruction of Anarchy, and with the repeated refrain of her initial call
to arms (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 (MA
36872).
Recent debates within contemporary political and critical theory on the paradoxes of
modern sovereignty help to provide a context for understanding what is at stake in Shel-
leys poem. The problem of the ground of modern sovereignty has been taken up
recently by a number of authors, including Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Michael
Hardt, and Antonio Negri, among others.14 Agamben, in particular, has recently focused
on the development of modern sovereignty in relation to the state of exception that has
become progressively normalized in the modern period. Focusing on the early 20th-
century political theorist Carl Schmitt, Agamben develops an argument that tries to
demonstrate how the normalization of the state of exception is a result of the paradox
inherent in modern sovereignty itself. In the absence of a divine legitimation for political
authority, modern political sovereignty is forced to rely on the contradiction of a ground-
less self-authorization. Schmitts famous dictum, that the sovereign is he who decides on
the exception15 highlights the fact that modern sovereignty always involves a negotiation
between the institution of a particular structure of power, and the finite historical
moment of that institution. In Schmitts definition, the sovereign decides on the excep-
tion (to the law) because he first sets in place the juridical order that legitimates the
law, and therefore is capable of deciding when it is in force and when it is not. Modern
sovereignty, in short, is not a given, but must instead be constituted as sovereignty by
including within itself the finite act of its self-founding. Modern political sovereignty,
therefore, does not emerge through reference to something that precedes it, like nature
or law, which would give it its legitimacy; rather, it is grounded on its own uncondition-
ality or exceptionality,16 a force outside the law that gives law its power. The state of
exception emerges when the sovereign attempts to appropriate this unconditionality or
exceptionality to itself, and tries to incorporate or encode it into the juridical order that
it founds as a legal suspension of that order. Thus, it is precisely the nature of the relation
between sovereignty and its groundless exceptionality or self-institution that constitutes
both its revolutionary and absolutist potential. The crisis of legitimation that haunts mod-
ern sovereignty can be both the basis of arbitrary rule and, through the recognition of
the finite contingency of sovereign legitimacy, the basis for a radical re-grounding and
re-legitimation of different forms of political power.
Shelleys Mask of Anarchy is situated in the tenuous and ambiguous distinction
between these two relations to the paradox of modern sovereigntys foundation in its
unconditionality, as evidenced by the poems unmasking of the self-grounding and there-
fore arbitrary rule of Anarchy in the first section of the poem, and the emergence of the
ground of the address to the men of England figured by the Shape that arises in the
second section of the poem. Shelleys satirical allegory of the masque of power works by
revealing the abstractions that underpin particular historical figures or institutions. Murder
has a mask like Castlereagh (MA 6). Fraud has on like Eldon, an ermined gown (MA
14), and ecclesiastical authority is clothed (MA 22) with the Bible. In each case, the
relationship between the mask, gown, or clothing is inverted so that the historical
figures are themselves the mask for the abstraction. The first section of the poem, in
other words, unmasks Anarchy and its cohorts by first linking each of them to an abstrac-
tion that acts as their ground or referent, and then subsequently reveals the arbitrary

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relationship between that ground and the institution or figure of power it makes possible.
If the litany of allegorical figures of power can be unmasked in the first section of the
poem, it is because the world in which they exist is fundamentally a symbolic one. It is a
world in which power, as allegorical mask, has appropriated to itself the groundlessness
that marks its condition of appearance.17
This arbitrary connection between figure and ground that Shelleys poem reveals is at
the heart of illegitimate power is made even clearer when the poem begins to develop
the specific nature of the power of Anarchy, which is associated with no particular histor-
ical figure, but becomes the ground that organizes the juridical, political, and economic
systems that emerge in and through their reference to its repeated self-assertion: I am
God and King and Law! (MA 37). This line, delivered first by Anarchy itself, and then
repeated by the lawyers, priests, and soldiers who define their own authority through ref-
erence to it, constitutes the poems first articulation of illegitimate sovereign assertion.
The line enacts a self-identification that links Anarchys declaration with an attempt to
unite divine transcendence with its own political and juridical power. Though it mirrors
the theological grounding of political power by mimicking an assertion of divine right,
the poem makes clear, through the isolation of the phrase I am God and King and Law!
that its sheer repetition is all that guarantees its efficacy. Anarchys self-assertion in turn
makes possible an entire system of power juridical, military, and economic that erects
itself in and through this self-legitimation. First, the militia who perpetrated the violence
of the massacre itself is implicated in the sovereign assertion of Anarchy: For with pomp
to meet him came Clothed in arms like blood and flame The hired Murderers, who did
sing Thou art God, and Law, and King (MA 5861). Next, the juridical system and
ecclesiastical authority ratify Anarchy, and their own claim to authority, through the same
assertion: Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud Whispering Thou art Law and God(MA 669). This
mutual recognition and ratification reaches its crescendo in the one accord that repeats
the assertion Thou art King, and God and Lord: Anarchy to Thee we bow. Be thy name
made holy now! (MA 703). Structurally, Anarchys repeated assertion is ratified along
the lines of what J. L. Austin18 has argued makes a speech act felicitous, his term to
describe when a speech act does what it says. In this case, the one accord shared by the
lawyers, priests, and soldiers turns Anarchys assertion into a source for the exercise of
multiple forms of authority. Anarchys exceptionality and self-legitimation takes shape
only in the repetition and iteration of the phrase in new contexts: legal, ecclesiastical, and
military. The power of this self-assertion works by attempting to incorporate Anarchys
exceptionality or groundlessness into the juridical system it simultaneously erects. Anar-
chys force and power, therefore, relies on the inclusion within the legal order of some-
thing that remains outside the law; once this outside becomes interiorized in the juridical
order, it claims to ground itself on a transcendence that cannot itself be justified, but
that becomes the source of all legal and authorial justification.
If the first section of the poem unmasks the groundless self-legitimation of Anarchy,
the second section of the poem articulates the conditions of emergence of Hope in oppo-
sition. Like the pageant of power at the beginning of the poem, Hopes first appearance
also takes the form of a mask. She initially appears as despair, but separates herself from
this appearance only through an act of self-naming: And her name was Hope, she said
But she looked more like Despair (MA 878). Her initial appearance brings about an
almost hyperbolic passivity. Her first act, after lamenting her many other appearances as
failures (since father time has had child after child And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me [MA 946]), is to lay supplicant in front of the charging

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horses of Anarchy and its minions. This imagery, of course, is meant to identify the
crowds of Peterloo, trampled and maimed by militia cavalry, with the figure of Hope.
But it is also meant to contrast the violent self-assertion evidenced by Anarchy in the pre-
vious section of the poem. If both Anarchy and Hope are masks, emerging like some-
thing that they are not, what characterizes Hope differently from Anarchy is her specific
relation to her own performative self-assertion. If Anarchy attempts to incorporate the
moment of its own sheer imposition inside the juridical system that it founds, Hopes
relation to its own self-naming is far more obscure. This obscurity, however, constitutes
Shelleys greatest challenge to the development of modern sovereignty and its ability to
appropriate its own structure of self-grounding to illegitimate forms of power. Since both
Anarchy and Hope are self-grounding, what separates the two?
Unlike Anarchy, whose violent self-assertion is ratified by an entire juridical and legal
structure, Hopes tentative power originates in an explicit relation to an image whose
sheer indeterminate rising up in the poem is described in almost unmotivated terms.19
Hopes subsequent defeat of Anarchy is made possible by a Shape that separates Hope
from Anarchy: Between her and her foes A mist, a light, an image rose, Small at first,
and weak and frail Like the vapour of a vale (MA 1025). The Shape merely rises to
distinguish Hope from Anarchy, taking on first a natural, and then almost warlike
violence in its emergence, since the figure moves from the conventional link between
revolution and lightning, to an indeterminate shape clad in armor:
Till as clouds on the blast Like tower-crowned giants striding fast And glare with lightnings as
they fly And speak in thunder to the sky It grewa Shape arrayed in mail Brighter than the
Vipers scale And upborne on wings whose grain Was the light of sunny rain. (MA 10613)
The Shapes emergence leads to no immediate act of resistance or assertion. Instead, it
merely emerges between Hope and Anarchy, drawing a division between them, but one
that remains unspecified. Rather than the violent acts of trampling that Anarchy threat-
ens, the Shape walks with step as soft as wind (MA 118) passing oer the heads of men
who can feel its presence, but who look and find only empty air (MA 121). Not just
the action of the Shape, but the agency that is behind it, remain fundamentally indeter-
minate, a mere vapour. If it is true, as Marc Redfield has argued in his reading of the
poem, that The Mask of Anarchy stages a drama of personification,20 then the intro-
duction of the Shape in the second section actually adds a dimension of the impersonal
to the personification of Hope. It does not act as Hopes mask, nor does it point to any
specific power that grounds Hopes triumph in the third section of the poem. Unlike
the mask of Anarchy, which appropriates its own groundlessness as the source of its
authority, Hopes grounding in the Shape is rooted in an arbitrary and indeterminate rela-
tionship between figure and ground that is never effaced or disguised by the mask of a
performative self-justification.
Just what the Shape might signify politically has been the topic of extensive debate. If
early commentators identified the Shape with the personification of the Spirit of Liberty,
more recent commentary has emphasized the multiplicity of references that might deter-
mine its origin. Stephen Jones, for example, has suggested that the Shape is overdeter-
mined, and may be a reference not only to Liberty, but to a revolutionary appropriation
of the traditional feminine figure of Britannia.21 He goes on to suggest that the Shape
may also be modeled after a transparency, a popular device which involved a kind of
print that exploited special effects of light by folding to superimpose or overlay multi-
ple images.22 Susan Wolfson has recently argued that the Shape must be read as a figure
of the feminine cast as the repository of a myth of transformative revolution without

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violence.23 It appears, in fact, to act not just as a repository of various myths of transfor-
mation, but as an undecidable reference that authorizes a number of readings. What these
readings tend to do is interpret the Shape as yet another allegorical figure like Anarchy or
Hope herself.
The Shape, however, is not an allegorical figure like the ones that emerge in the first
section of the poem. Nor is it identical with the emergence of Hope in the second sec-
tion (since Hope also first appears as something which it is not: i.e. Despair). Steven
Behrendts reading of the Shape as a figure for the spirit of intellectual beauty24 is illus-
trative of a continuity of interpretation that transforms it into yet another mask, yet
another figure for something else, whether it be a particular cultural practice, or an ideal-
ized transcendence. Instead, the Shape must be read here as Paul de Man reads the
Shape all light in Shelleys last great unfinished poem The Triumph of Life: as a figure
for the figurality of all signification.25 That is, rather than conflate the Shape with other
allegorical figures in the poem like Hope or Anarchy, it must instead be understood as
the condition for the possibility of allegory itself. As in the Triumph of Life, the Shape in
the Mask of Anarchy is linked with the optical imagery of light: it first arises between
Hope and her foes as A mist, a light, an image (MA 103). The six stanzas that develop
the Shape emphasize not just its ethereality, but its ocularity: the Shape is upborne on
wings whose grain Was as the light of sunny rain (MA 1123), and the reference at line
115 to Venus and Lucifer reinforces the extent to which the Shape does not just coincide
with a new dawn, but actually becomes a Luciferian bearer of light by establishing the
conditions of appearance through which Hope brings about the death of Anarchy. This is
reinforced by the way that the Shape withdraws itself from visibility and from being a
direct actor in the poems return to the allegorical figure of Hope. The men who feel
the Shapes presence look, but find only empty air (MA 121). The pause in the poetic
line between the men looking and the vision itself suggests that the Shape is an image
not in the sense of a mask of an original ground, but rather must be understood as an
image in the Kantian sense26 in that it images or makes possible that which is visible. The
second look by the multitude at line 126, which repeats the same pause in the poetic
line that conditions the first look, returns us to the poetic vision of a triumphant Hope
who has overthrown Anarchy. But it does so by insisting on the visibility of Hope, and
on the non-visibility of the Shape that inaugurates and produces the vision of the third
section of the poem in the address to the Men of England. The Shape is, therefore,
explicitly not the direct agent of change, but the condition of that visions emergence.
As the ground or condition for the possibility of Hope, the Shape also thereby enacts a
different relationship between particular forms of sovereignty and the grounds or condi-
tions of appearance that make those forms possible. If the Shape inaugurates the vision of
democratic reform and passive resistance that characterizes the third section of the poem,
it does so by remaining fundamentally distinct from the vision it enables.27 In other
words, while Shelley offers a particular vision of a democratic England in the third part
of the poem (the details of which cannot be sufficiently explored here), his poem also
offers a meditation on the formal conditions that govern sovereign assertion more gener-
ally. What separates the illegitimate sovereignty of Anarchy from the legitimate sover-
eignty of Hope is not an erasure of the arbitrariness that characterizes self-legitimation. In
fact, the role of the Shape in the poem emphasizes a radicalization of that arbitrariness in
the way that the Shape constitutes Hopes non-identical ground. The very inappropri-
ability of this ground as a resource for self-authorization is what gives rise to the alterna-
tive form of sovereignty in Shelleys poem. If Anarchy attempts to make the arbitrary
ground of its self-legitimation the very source of its power by effacing the difference

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between ground and figure, Shelleys poem distinctly separates Hope from its ground in
the Shape, thereby reinforcing their arbitrary connection. What emerges through the
Shape, is a form of sovereignty that is divided from itself, and whose condition of
appearance cannot be made the ground of its own self-legitimation.
The Shape, then, must be read as a figure for the ground of the appearance of Hope.
Shelleys insistence on the arbitrariness of the relation between figure (Hope) and ground
(the Shape) thereby imagines a new relationship to the groundlessness that characterizes mod-
ern political sovereignty. The poem, through the Shape, highlights the difference between
Anarchys relation to the unconditionality of its sovereign assertion, and Hopes relation to
this same unconditionality. If, as I suggested earlier, the political efficacy of Shelleys poem
is to be judged not according to its immediate effect on a particular political situation (the
state of English politics after the Peterloo massacre) but on the formal links it makes
between its own poetic vision and the particular political vision that emerges as a result,
then the focus must be on the formal conditions in the poem that produce Hopes victory.
The poem clearly separates Hope from the Shape that makes possible Hopes address to the
Men of England, suggesting that the Shape holds in reserve other possible forms and shapes
of resistance to Anarchy. To identify the Shapes ambivalent emergence as identical with
the emergence of Hope, and therefore with an apparent political passivity, is to misconstrue
the relationship between that figure and its ground. Whereas Anarchys own exceptionality
and self-grounding operates by incorporating its own groundlessness into its performative
self-justification, Hopes emergence is characterized by a very different relation to its own
unconditionality. Rather than immediately re-enter the traditional realm of competing
assertions of political legitimacy by repeating the gesture of imposition that characterizes
Anarchys refrain (I am God and King and Law), Hopes emergence points towards a self-
division, an unconditionality that it tries to mirror, but that remains fundamentally
withdrawn from the particular act and speech that it makes possible. Hopes emergence,
therefore, points towards an act of sovereignty that is self-divided, contingent, and open to
an unconditionality that it does not and cannot identify with its own power and will.
Hopes act, its particular form of sovereignty, opens that sovereignty to the threat of its
own dispersal and its own undoing. If, as Marc Redfield has argued,28 the poems political
force lies in its ambiguous relation to the unmasking of Anarchy and the need to oppose
this illegitimacy with a mask of its own, it is also the case that the poem tries to demon-
strate a fundamental difference in Hopes repetition of Anarchys self-assertion by staging it as
the ambiguity of two different relations to the paradox of modern sovereignty itself.
Though it is no longer grounded on a divine transcendence, modern sovereigntys self-
grounding is shown to be possible only though a mask that hides its reliance on something
irreducible to the speech act that sets it in place and in power to begin with.
What Shelleys poem points to as part of the legacy of its own political intervention,
then, is that Hopes specific form of resistance to Anarchy is to be found not only in the
specific political strategies proffered in the address to the Men of England,29 but also in
the way that Hope suggests a new relation to the structure of modern sovereignty itself.
What Hopes grounding in the unconditional and indeterminate figure of the Shape sug-
gests is a relation to an unconditional ground that cannot be made the object of a sover-
eign act of will. Shelleys poem, rather, points to an unconditional ground of sovereignty
that lies outside of any performative that seeks to annex to itself the absolute ability to
produce its unconditional ground within an immediate context that it itself determines. If
the Shape oscillates between a weak and frail vapour and a more violent and assertive
Shape arrayed in mail (line 110), this is not because of an ambivalence on the poems
part about the use of political violence, or because of a reluctance to locate the engine of

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104 Shelleys Mask of Anarchy

political change within a particular movement or figure. If the Shape suggests something
more like a radical form of dissemination,30 this is because the poem gestures not only to
the specific futural dream of Hopes triumph over Anarchy in the form of democratic
resistance in the wake of the Peterloo massacre, but to a broader future that tries to imag-
ine something like a non-sovereign politics. If the imagined and fictionalized triumph of
Hope leads to a series of performative utterances (that begin with Hopes invocation at
line 295 to Let a vast assembly be), which do not provide any assurance of doing what
they say, this is not because of the impotence of their gesture, but because they model
themselves upon the pure emergence of the Shape, and thus maintain a relationship to
their own radical contingency. It is this radical contingency that constitutes Shelleys last-
ing intervention into the problem of modern sovereignty, and a basis for his poems con-
tinued political efficacy in not just producing an imagined future, but also in poetizing
the possibility of an unimagined one.

Short Biography
Professor Kuiken holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from the University
of California, Irvine (2006). He joined the English faculty at the University at Albany,
SUNY in 2008. His areas of research include Romantic literature and culture, Romantic
moral and political philosophy, and contemporary political and aesthetic theory. He is
working on a book manuscript that focuses on the relationship between materialist con-
ceptions of the imagination and the formation of modern political sovereignty in the
wake of the collapse of divine right. His book will argue that what emerges out of this
relationship is a form of sovereignty that leads to something other than a fantasized politi-
cal homogeneity a sovereignty that must refer itself to the temporally determined, non-
transcendental, material conditions of its institution. His other projects include exploring
the legacy of this materialist conception of sovereignty throughout current debates in crit-
ical theory.

Notes
* Correspondence: Assistant Professor, University at Albany, SUNY, 1400 Washington Ave, Albany, NY 12222, USA.
Email: kkuiken@albany.edu

1
Shelley, Percy. Letters of Percy Shelley, Vol. 2. Ed. Frederick Jones. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964. 117.
2
For an extensive reading of Chartrist and Spencean interpretations of Shelleys political poems see Paul Foot, The
Red Shelley. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Publishing, 1980.
3
See P. M. S. Dawson, The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980;
Michael Scrivener, Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1982; Stephen Behrendt, Shelley and His Audiences. Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1989; William Keach, Shelley and the Revolutionary Left, in Evaluating Shelley. Ed. Timothy Clark and
Jerrold Hogle, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996, 7590.
4
Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. See also Stephen
Behrendt, Shelley and His Audiences.
5
Stephen Jones, Shelleys Satire: Violence, Exhortation, and Authority. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University, 1994.
6
See, for example, Andrew Stauffer, Anger, Revolution, and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2005, 11032; Jon P. Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 17901832. Madison: University of Wis-
consin Press, 1987, 98134. For more general studies on Shelleys political poetics, see Cian Duffy, Shelley and the
Revolutionary Sublime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005; Hugh Roberts, Shelley and the Chaos of His-
tory: A New Politics of Poetry. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997; David Duff, Romance and
Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994; Timothy Clark,
Embodying Revolution: The Figure of the Poet in Shelley. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
7
Jeffrey Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 61.

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Shelleys Mask of Anarchy 105
8
Susan Wolfson, Formal Charges: the Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1997, 193226.
9
See Andrew Franta, Shelley and the Politics of Political Indirection. Poetics Today 2001; 22 (4): 76593. Marc Red-
field, The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, 14871.
10
Percy Shelley, Shelleys Poetry and Prose (Eds. Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat). New York: W. W. Norton and
Company, 2002, 316. Henceforth, the poem will be cited in-text as (MA), followed by the line number of the poem.
11
Susan Wolfson, Formal Charges, 196206.
12
Marc Redfield, The Politics of Aesthetics, 161.
13
For a discussion of Shelleys use of the masque genre, see Stuart Curran, Shelleys Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing
of an Epic Vision. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1975, 18192.
14
See, for example, Giorgio Agamben, The State of Exception (trans. Kevin Attell). Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2005 and Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen). Stanford: Stanford Univer-
sity Press, 1998. See also Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael
Naas). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005; and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2000.
15
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (trans. George Schwab). Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2005, 5.
16
For a discussion of the relation of unconditionality to the problem of sovereignty, see part II of Jacques Derrida,
Rogues: Two Essays on Reason.
17
For an argument about the connection between Shelleys understanding of language and his conception of polit-
ical power, see William Keach, Arbitrary Power: Romanticism, Language, Politics. Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2004, 123. Keachs argument in the first chapter of his book articulates a connection between the arbitrary
nature of the signifier, and the arbitrary (or the illegitimate) in the political realm.
18
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa). Cambridge: Harvard Univer-
sity Press, 1975. Austins work tries to separate constatives (utterances that describe the world and therefore are sub-
ject to questions of truth or falsity) from performatives (utterances that are themselves an act, and are therefore not
judged in terms of their descriptive accuracy, but in terms of whether they have carried out an action or not).
19
A number of commentators have noted that the Shape seems rather indeterminate in its origin and efficacy.
See, for example, William Keach, Arbitrary Power, 147 and Marc Redfield, The Politics of Aesthetics, 161. The conclu-
sions one draws from this indeterminacy, however, are wide ranging, as I go on to suggest.
20
Marc Redfield, The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism, 159.
21
Stephen Jones, Shelleys Satire, 112.
22
Stephen Jones, Shelleys Satire, 112.
23
Susan Wolfson, Something must be Done: Shelley, Hemans, and the Flash of Revolutionary Female Violence,
in Fellow Romantics: Male and Female British Writers, 17901835. Ed. Beth Lau, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009, 99122.
24
Stephen Behrendt, Shelley and His Audiences, 199.
25
Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, 116.
26
For a discussion of the Kantian schema-image as a crucial transition in the modern period from image as repre-
sentation to image as presentation, see Jean-Luc Nancy, Ground of the Image (trans. Jeff Fort). New York: Fordham
University Press, 2005, 8099.
27
A number of commentators have linked the Shapes indeterminacy to the vision of non-violent resistance that
emerges in the third section of the poem. See, for example, Michael Scrivener, Radical Shelley, 20710.
28
Marc Redfield, The Politics of Aesthetics, 162.
29
Shelley articulated a more specific reformist plan in his prose tract of the same year (1819), A Philosophical
View of Reform. See Percy Shelley, Shelleys Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy (Ed. David Lee Clark). Albuquer-
que: University of New Mexico Press, 1966, 22961.
30
Line 125 of the poem seems to suggest that the Shape becomes a catalyst of new and unheard of thoughts
which sprung whereer that step did fall, mirroring the radical emergence of the Shape itself. These lines also
appear to reflect the speech that Shelley has the figure of Rousseau utter in Triumph of Life where, prior to
encountering the Shape all light that makes him forget his origins, has him questioning whether the sparks of his
thought has produced the seeds of misery (Napoleon), or whether there are yet other beacons that might emerge
from these seeds to challenge that legacy (see Shelley, Triumph of Life particularly lines181306). Caught between
a past of political failure that he links with his own thought and the indeterminate future that that same thought
might re-imagine, the figure of Rousseau becomes, like the Shape in the Mask of Anarchy, open to dispersal, and
ambiguous posterity.

Works Cited
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University Press, 1998.
. The State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005.

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Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. Eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa. Cambridge: Harvard University
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Literature Compass 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd