A Pond Between Ideals: Thoreau’s Walden and Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” - by Caleb Parsley
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
Writers of the Romantic era, a period that extended from the late 1700s into the mid-1800s, produced many works of art that praised God, nature, and humankind. The Romantic Movement was popular in much of the western world, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. In general, the two countries approached Romanticism in similar ways in terms of their focuses on humanity, emotion, and the call to return to nature. However, beneath the flowery poetics, two significant disparities reveal the intended reaction and the intended change that the two nations aspired to. American author Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) suggests that people ought to make a social change and return to nature in the countryside. He does this by expounding the benefits of living life in a purposeful way and, in doing so, seeks to inspire change among the people. In contrast, Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem “The Mask of Anarchy” (written 1819) seeks to attack the currently standing political order of early 1800s Britain. Shelley does this by turning the government and those who serve it into symbols of evil and despotism; by doing so, he hopes to inspire change on the political level. Despite coming from the same yearning Romanticism, both American and British writers arrive at two very different conclusions. American writers hope to entice people to a social change by begging for a return to the agrarian countryside, while across the Atlantic, the British Romantics hope for a release from an overbearing, tyrannical rule that stifles the natural self. This divide is perhaps most obvious in Thoreau’s Walden and Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy.” By closely analyzing the two works and comparing them to one another, readers can see the defining characteristics not only of the literature but also the cultures from which the two originated.
Henry David Thoreau, as well as many of his American contemporaries, was focused on affecting change on the social level, specifically reminding people of the power of nature. In 1845, Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond for two years to better connect with nature. While on this adventure, Thoreau discovered some aspects of his character that are captured when, after returning from his adventure, he wrote Walden. In the book Thoreau captures the beauty of nature and suggests changes that society must make if there is ever to be hope of living purposefully, just as Thoreau himself models. One such change is famously remembered: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (976). Here Thoreau condemns those who lead lives that they themselves hate, lives that are not devoted to something greater and lead simply to being miserable and resigned. Thoreau thought that this must change through both work and reflection in nature. This obsession with work manifested in Thoreau’s real life as well. As Robert Gross notes in his essay “Thoreau and the Laborers of Concord,” Thoreau “liked to present himself as labourer” (1), which is to say that Thoreau found in labourers something to admire and respect. This shows up often in Walden as several characters that Thoreau meets can be classified as rough workers, such as the French-Canadian woodchopper and a local Irish farmer. This close tie to the American worker was powerful, so much so that Thoreau would occasionally make visits to local workers. Gross documents an instance when Thoreau said to a group of mechanics, “A man should have a farm or a mechanical craft for his culture” (6). By working and developing a culture, mankind could at last live purposefully and escape the suffocating quiet desperation. Secondly, by describing nature in the way that so many American Romantics were known to do, Thoreau is able to transform a return to nature into a religious experience. Not only does it allow for relaxation, but venturing into nature fosters ethical development, personal realization, and a deeper understanding of the world. These are concepts that cannot be achieved without a return to nature, and society as a whole will suffer for it.
In contrast, Percy Bysshe Shelley wanted to inflict change upon the larger political structure that loomed above the United Kingdom. He did so primarily through scathing attacks such as the one featured in his poem “The Mask of Anarchy.”
Here Shelley tells the story of an assault on England carried out by the personification of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, Destructions, and Anarchy. It is worth noting that the various destructions appear “Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies” (29). As Anarchy arrives, he declares himself by saying, “I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!” (37). Within the first 40 lines, Shelley defines the evils themselves. Not only are the truly horrific concepts in this world made evil such as murder and hypocrisy, so too are bishops and lawyers who, in a booming industrial nation such as the United Kingdom, would exist at a high rung on the social ladder. Additionally, Anarchy declaring himself to be God, King, and Law very closely resembles the makeup of the British hierarchy at the time: first, the Church of England, then the Monarchy, which then still retained some power, and lastly the Parliament. Furthermore, during Anarchy’s seize of London, Shelley implies that Anarchy already ruled London before arriving. He writes, “So he sent his slaves before / To seize upon the Bank and Tower, / And was proceeding with intent / To meet his pensioned Parliament” (81-85). Here, Anarchy has taken control of the Bank of England as well as the Tower of London. After seizing these two key monuments, Anarchy then meets his “pensioned Parliament,” meaning he has been paying them or they have been in his service. Interpreting the reading as such, Anarchy is directly related to the political spectrum of the United Kingdom, making the criticisms of Anarchy relatable to the foundations of British democracy as well.
The rest of the poem describes Hope becoming discouraged initially but later reinvigorated by the spirit of England itself. After this, Hope gives a speech which feels like a revolutionary oration, encouraging the men of England to action. However, Marc Redfield in his paper “Masks of Anarchy: Shelley’s Political Poetics” disagrees. Instead of the poem’s speech being a call to action and revolution, Redfield proposes the idea that Shelley was calling for a return to a law of an older England. In explanation, Redfield writes, “…the ‘Men of England’ speech has seemed to many twentieth-century readers a blend of revolutionary, reformist, and even at times agrarian-reactionary advice: the speech’s most famous stanza, the twice-repeated refrain ‘Rise like Lions after slumber . . . / Ye are many, they are few,’ seems a call to revolutionary action; yet the Men of England are also told to ‘Let the Laws of your own land, / Good or ill, between ye stand . . . The old laws of England – they / Whose reverend heads with age are grey,’ and to avoid retaliatory violence at all costs” (8). However, this interpretation fails to take into account the kind of person Shelley was. He wanted more power for the average citizen and likely would not hold the feudal age of English history in high regard. Instead, Shelley was likely referring to a new age of English ideals. The poem ends with the stanza, “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” (368-372). While the citizens of England had fallen silent, Shelley argues that they had been slowly confined by chains set in place by the three aspects of Anarchy. Hope, instead of supporting a return to the old, calls for a revolution in England. She believes that tyrants and oppressors are dangerous and calls the men and women of England to arms to ward away this evil.
While Shelley’s poem certainly contrasts with Thoreau’s Walden, vast similarities exist as well. The great bonding element of Romantic art is, in a sense, minimalism. In Walden, Thoreau excitedly describes how frugal he was when building his house while those in the cities must spend 15 years’ worth of their salaries (1001). This theme continues as he goes on to describe his furniture, which is only a few chairs, a table, and a bed (1018). Thoreau imagines a world where one has as few worldly possessions as possible and instead finds contentment in the natural world. Nature has all that one needs to sustain humanity. Shelley echoes this sentiment in “The Mask of Anarchy” in his own way by writing, “On wealth, and war, and / fraud – whence they / Drew the power which is their prey” (252-253). Instead of claiming that less material makes us happier, he instead decries wealth as akin to war. Those that seek to oppress the masses do so through outrageous wealth. In this sense, not only does being materialistic make us unhappy, it is also the weapon that those who are evil and powerful use against others. Another similarity springs from the shared joy of companionship and camaraderie. In Thoreau’s Walden, several outside characters make appearances such as farmers, neighbours, and hunters. Thoreau at one point describes himself as a man who loves to talk, and he does so at times through the story (970). This conversation is simply neighbourly and Thoreau uses it to find himself in the wilderness. Shelley’s camaraderie is much more severe and extreme. Instead of having simple friendly conversations, camaraderie refers to revolution. Still, the core idea is much the same. People must come together for the sake of rejoining nature and retaining the individuality that comes with it.
With an ocean dividing the two expressions of Romanticism, the difference in their use becomes apparent. Thoreau’s Romanticism is presented in a way that beckons the reader into a more natural lifestyle – not because it will fix the world but instead because it will be a solution to dissatisfaction with one’s life. This solution can be found in both nature and work, shown in how closely Thoreau places himself both in the natural wilds and in the world of the common American worker. Across the Atlantic, Shelley uses Romanticism as a tool for political protest. He begins by using simple allegory to label the government as an evil entity. After denouncing the church, monarchy, and Parliament, Shelley then promotes revolution from the current tyranny and calls for a progression of the Englishman. Instead of calling for a social change and blaming the common man for this injustice, Shelley targets the wealthy and powerful. Despite the intended effect of their works, both American and British Romanticism hold similarities. Both advocate for minimalism and denounce any form of materialism. Wealth holds the capacity for evil, as the villains in Shelley’s poem show, and being frugal is something to take pride in. Also, the only way to be truly close to nature and to stand up for the natural self is through camaraderie. Thoreau saw companionship as an enriching experience and believed that by seeking meaningful relationships, one could become a moral person. Shelley saw camaraderie as the vessel by which natural freedoms are maintained; only by caring for one another will we ever have true equality.
Romantic tenets and the work of Shelley and Thoreau still hold tremendous value today, both socially and politically. Socially, the relevance comes through in how we treat the world. Junhong Ma explains in her article “Life and Love: Thoreau’s Life Philosophy on Man and Nature in the Age of Industrialization” the way that Thoreau’s philosophy on nature and how mankind can be closer to it can influence Chinese policy (2). Politically, Mark Bevir in his essay “British Socialism and American Romanticism” details how Romantic writers, on both sides of the ocean, have influenced British politics, especially in the Labour party. Bevir recounts a study performed by William Stead in which Stead “sent a questionnaire to prominent members of the Labour party asking what books had influenced them (1). The most frequently cited authors were Carlyle and Ruskin, but Emerson and Thoreau came not far behind. Much has been written about the influence of British romanticism on the British socialist movement, and perhaps the obvious impact of Carlyle and Ruskin has obscured that of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman” (1). While this study was carried out in 1906, the fact is that the idea still rings true today. In much of the world, there is currently political upheaval evidenced in the military coup in Turkey, the widely disapproved “Brexit” in the United Kingdom, and various political scandals in the United States. The words of Shelley remind us that one day the anger will grow to be too much, and a revolution will take place. At the same time Thoreau notes that in light of the disappointment we feel today, we would be better served to escape the life we currently lead and instead find ourselves in the natural world we left behind so long ago. Ultimately, these works provide a balance between extremism and active passivity. Shelley sought to cure his and his fellow countrymen’s plight through violent revolution, while Thoreau wished to escape the chains of urban life. However, when the two works are read together, they advocate for a singular idea: only by embracing nature, both internal and external, will humankind ever be free.
Bevir, Mark. “British Socialism and American Romanticism.” The English Historical Review, vol. 110, no. 438, 1995, p. 878+. Literature Resource Center.
Gross, Robert A. “Thoreau and the Laborers of Concord.” Raritan, vol. 33, no. 1, 2013, pp. 50-66,148, ProQuest Central.
Ma, Junhong. “Life and Love: Thoreau’s Life Philosophy on Man and Nature in the Age of Industrialization.” Neohelicon, vol. 36, no. 2, 2009, pp. 381-396, ProQuest Central.
Redfield, Marc. “Masks of Anarchy: Shelley’s Political Poetics.” Bucknell Review, vol. 45, no. 2, 2002, pp. 100-126,9, ProQuest Central.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Mask of Anarchy.” University of Pennsylvania.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. The Norton Anthology: American Literature, 9th ed., B, New York, 2016, pp. 969–1144.