Shelley’s Arab Spring

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Percy Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam looks mightily prophetic

Critique Literature

The current political unrest spreading along the southern edge of the Mediterranean has held the attention of the world’s media for weeks. But in all the column inches devoted to discussion of the likely prospects for these uprisings, and of the stance which the West should adopt towards both the region’s dictators (often, of course, our erstwhile friends and business partners) and the people struggling to cast off their governments, it has not been noticed that the shape of these events was strangely foretold nearly two hundred years ago by an English poet writing about the recent European past.

When Shelley composed The Revolt of Islam he thought he was writing a work of philosophic history, not a prophecy. The poem is set in the dejecting aftermath of the failure of the French Revolution, “when the last hope of trampled France had failed/Like a brief dream of unremaining glory” (I.1). The narrator of the poem, haunted by “visions of despair” as a result of the extinguishing of the revolutionary cause, climbs to the top of a cliff where he sees flying towards him an eagle fighting with a serpent. Eventually the eagle prevails:

    […]when lifeless, stark, and rent,
    Hung high that mighty Serpent, and at last
    Fell to the sea, while o’er the continent,
    With clang of wings and scream the Eagle passed,
    Heavily borne away on the exhausted blast.  
                        (I.14)

The wounded serpent is collected by an anonymous woman in a magical boat “of rare device, which had no sail/But its own curvèd prow of thin moonstone”. She sails with the narrator and the serpent to a revolutionary Valhalla where “sate on many a sapphire throne,/The Great, who had departed from mankind,/A mighty Senate”. They are followed by two new arrivals:

[…]two mighty Spirits now return,
        Like birds of calm, from the world’s raging sea,
        They pour fresh light from Hope’s immortal urn;
        A tale of human power — despair not — list and learn!
                            (I.58)

The story the male Spirit tells is the core of the poem. It is a narrative of a failed revolution in a fictional Levantine state called Argolis. Argolis groans under the oppressive regime of the despot Othman, which Shelley evokes with his characteristic blend of conceptual cloudiness and vivid metaphor:

        The land in which I lived, by a fell ban
        Was withered up. Tyrants dwelt side by side,
        And stabled in our homes, — until the chain
        Stifled the captive’s cry, and to abide

        That blasting curse men had not shame — all vied
        In evil, slave and despot; fear with lust
        Strange fellowship through mutual hate had tied,
        Like two dark serpents tangled in the dust,
        Which on the paths of men their mingling poison thrust.
                            (II.4)

Shelley’s hero, Laon, an unmistakable proxy for the poet himself, and his moral idealism, determines to lead a revolt against the tyrant:

        It shall be thus no more! too long, too long,
        Sons of the glorious dead, have ye lain bound
        In darkness and in ruin! — Hope is strong,
        Justice and Truth their wingèd child have found —
        Awake! arise! until the mighty sound     
        Of your career shall scatter in its gust
        The thrones of the oppressor, and the ground
        Hide the last altar’s unregarded dust,
        Whose Idol has so long betrayed your impious trust!  
                            (II.13)

The references to altars and idols, dictated by Shelley’s fervent deism, reveal an important difference between his Islamic revolt and the upheavals of 2011, which if not always prompted by Islamic fundamentalism, at least seem not to take issue with it directly.

Laon, assisted by his sister Cythna (with whom he has a rapturous, and morally revolutionary, incestuous liaison), overturns the tyrant in a Shelleyan fantasy of bloodless regime change and spontaneous fraternity:

        Lifting the thunder of their acclamation,
        Towards the City then the multitude,
        And I among them, went in joy — a nation
        Made free by love; — a mighty brotherhood
        Linked by a jealous interchange of good;
        A glorious pageant, more magnificent
        Than kingly slaves arrayed in gold and blood,
        When they return from carnage, and are sent
        In triumph bright beneath the populous battlement.  
                            (V.14)

But the revolution, at first successful, falls prey to a counter-revolutionary revanche. The tyrant Othman is captured in his palace, deserted by all except “one child, who led before him/A graceful dance: the only living thing/Of all the crowd, which thither to adore him/Flocked yesterday” (V.21). Shelley’s imagination here shows an ability, if not to empathise with, then to create scenes which evoke the pathos of, fallen despotism. The rebels call for Othman’s blood:

        Then was heard — ‘He who judged let him be brought
        To judgement! blood for blood cries from the soil
        On which his crimes have deep pollution wrought!
        Shall Othman only unavenged despoil?
        Shall they who by the stress of grinding toil
        Wrest from the unwilling earth his luxuries,
        Perish for crime, while his foul blood may boil,
        Or creep within his veins at will? — Arise!
        And to high justice make her chosen sacrifice.’
                        (V.32)

For Othman, substitute Gaddafi or Mubarak, and these have been in recent weeks the natural sentiments on the streets of Alexandria and Tobruk.

But, in a fit of idealistic clemency, Laon persuades the revolutionaries to spare Othman’s life. Othman responds to this generosity in the Shelleyan way of despots, by summoning the poet’s favourite villains — that is to say, monarchs, prelates, and their attendant lackeys — to his aid:

        For traitorously did that foul Tyrant robe
        His countenance in lies — even at the hour
        When he was snatched from death, then o’er the globe,
        With secret signs from many a mountain-tower,
        With smoke by day, and fire by night, the power
        Of Kings and Priests, those dark conspirators,
        He called: they knew his cause their own, and swore
        Like wolves and serpents to their mutual wars
        Strange truce, with many a rite which Earth and Heaven
abhors.                          
                            (X.7)

Prefigurations here, surely, of the anxious messages reportedly passing between Tripoli and Caracas? The tyrant returns, and immediately sets about the business of repression in what is again a Shelleyan fantasy of reactionary violence, painted in the most lurid, although not necessarily unrealistic, colours:

        Myriads had come — millions were on their way;
        The tyrant passed, surrounded by the steel
        Of hired assassins, through the public way,
        Choked with his country’s dead: — his footsteps reel
        On the fresh blood — he smiles. ‘Ay, now I feel
        I am a King in truth!’ he said, and took
        His royal seat, and bade the torturing wheel
        Be brought, and fire, and pincers, and the hook,
        And scorpions; that his soul on its revenge might look.  
                            (X.8)

Scenes soon to be re-enacted, perhaps, in Benghazi, Tripoli and Bahrain.

In the midst of the violence and ensuing pestilence (evoked by Shelley in what, after many re-readings, I still think of as verse of exceptional imaginative power) Laon offers his life for Cythna, who has been captured by the tyrant. The tyrant promptly has them both burned, in what for Shelley is a stereotypical act of despotic betrayal. But not before Laon has told him that “in the desert there is built a home /For Freedom”:

        There is a People mighty in its youth,
        A land beyond the Oceans of the West,
        Where, though with rudest rites, Freedom and Truth
        Are worshipped; from a glorious Mother’s breast,
        Who, since high Athens fell, among the rest
        Sate like the Queen of Nations, but in woe,
        By inbred monsters outraged and oppressed,
        Turns to her chainless child for succour now,
        It draws the milk of Power in Wisdom’s fullest flow.

        That land is like an Eagle, whose young gaze
        Feeds on the noontide beam, whose golden plume
        Floats moveless on the storm, and in the blaze
        Of sunrise gleams when Earth is wrapped in gloom;
        An epitaph of glory for the tomb
        Of murdered Europe may thy fame be made,
        Great People! as the sands shalt thou become;
        Thy growth is swift as morn, when night must fade;
        The multitudinous Earth shall sleep beneath thy shade.
                            (XI.22-23)

He refers, of course, to America; and it would be interesting now to have Shelley’s thoughts on the extent to which America has either shunned or embraced an imperial destiny over the past two centuries.

The Revolt of Islam is a work of history, because in it Shelley transposes the broad outlines of the course taken by the French Revolution to the vaguely Levantine setting of Argolis. Why did Shelley translate recent European history into the form of the oriental romance? He had read Ruines des Empires, a strange book by the late French philosophe Volney, in which the natural history of political despotism had been expressed as an oriental dream vision.  Shelley had evidently been impressed by the Frenchman’s way of fusing the literary form of oriental fantasy and a philosophic interest with the natural history of political processes, and he attempted something similar in his own poem (the sonnet “Ozymandias”, written at almost the same time as The Revolt of Islam, is another Shelleyan experiment in the mode of the “oriental-philosophic”). There is a calculated affront to an English reading public in this presentation to them of unrepentantly revolutionary sentiments in a form saturated with connotations of French philosophy.

Yet to affront was not, it seems, Shelley’s purpose. In the long preface he composed for The Revolt of Islam he describes it as “an experiment on the temper of the public mind, as to how far a thirst for a happier condition of moral and political society survives, among the enlightened and refined, the tempests which have shaken the age in which we live.” That is to say, after the defeat of Napoleon, the restoration of the monarchy in France, the Congress of Vienna, and the violent suppression of radicalism in England, did the public still have any appetite for Shelley’s brand of progressive idealism, with its inflammatory components of anarchic republicanism, inveterate hostility to monarchy and established religion, deism and free — if need be, incestuous — love? Shelley certainly strains every nerve in this poem to embellish the cause of political, sexual and religious radicalism with images of exceptional power, and often of memorable beauty.

Nevertheless, to the poem’s implicit question its first readers seem to have returned a resounding “No”. The public mind of the early-19th century was resolutely averse to experiments of this kind, and The Revolt of Islam quickly fell into obscurity. Later generations were reluctant to revive its fortunes. Its political, social and sexual commitments, and its narrative form, were incompatible with the ethereal, lyrical Shelley so prized by the Victorians. Only very recently have readers become once more interested in its strange blend of philosophy, radicalism, and oriental romance. Perhaps the poem’s uncanny foreshadowings of current realities in Cairo, Bahrain and Tunis will now gain for it yet more readers.