18 OCTOBER 1997

Satiric Verses: On Shelley's The Devil's Walk and The Mask of Anarchy
Chris Foss
Texas Christian University

Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Devil's Walk is first and foremost an entertaining read, but this lively ballad also serves as a prism through which one discovers many instructive intertextual links. A number of these links cluster around its resurfacing as a subtle yet significant source of influence upon Shelley's thought and work during his later, more celebrated period of political poetry in 1819-20. The most fruitful links in this cluster establish that the news of Peterloo transported Shelley, in the "torrent of [his] indignation" (qtd. in Shelley, SPP 301), back to 1812 and The Devil's Walk.

The most immediate evidence of such a return are the shared motifs one may detect between The Devil's Walk and The Mask of Anarchy. While these two poems are quite different in many respects, traces of the earlier ballad are unmistakably present in its more illustrious counterpart--especially in the opening stanzas. For example, in both poems readers find themselves out for a walk. Granted in one we follow a natty Devil as he gleefully surveys his "cattle," while in the other we accompany a "Satanic" poet as he witnesses a hellish procession with which he is far from pleased. The sights, however, hold more than a few similarities. Our first detail of the Shelleyan poet's walk involves "[meeting] Murder on the way" (5).[1] Murder makes an appearance during the Devil's perambulations as well, as one of the "hell-hounds, Murder, Want and Woe" (124).[2] These "For ever hungering" hell-hounds "flock around" Satan (125) for the food he gives to them: "human woe and human blood" (127). One finds a similar scene in the Mask, with Murder in the satanic role of provider. Followed by "seven bloodhounds" (8), he "tosse[s] them human hearts to chew" (12).

The particular detail of Murder toting around human hearts foregrounds another link to The Devil's Walk, namely the confluence of Murder and Satan in the person of Castlereagh. Murder, of course, has "a mask like Castlereagh" (6). Shelley might very well have pulled this idea from The Devil's Walk, for not only does the Letter Version's dark-visaged Devil have a snout "something like Castlereagh" (44), but the Broadside Version also presents us with a Castlereagh who evokes the Mask's Murder. Though "flitted round" (59) by "death birds" (57) instead of bloodhounds, the essence of the two scenes is the same. The "dearest gore" that these birds have "glutted themselves" (58) upon is "the Patriot's heart" (60), food from Castlereagh's own hand.[3] The death birds circling him are "fat" (57) with these meals, and so too are the bloodhounds running after the Castlereagh-like Murder in the Mask: "All were fat" (9).

Castlereagh is, of course, just one of many targets for Shelley's satire in The Devil's Walk. Shelley attacks other representations of the British establishment whom he sees as tools of the Devil, including the "brainless" King (40) and the "fat" Prince Regent (67, 71). He also singles out priests (33) and bishops (100), lawyers (84, 101) and statesmen (114). All of these are targets in the Mask as well. The Destructions that follow Murder, Fraud, and Hypocrisy are "All disguised, even to the eyes, / Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies" (28-29). Even more tellingly, Anarchy's brow is marked with, "I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!" (37).[4] Thus, as he begins his sweep through London his slaves "seize upon the Bank and Tower" (82) while he seeks out "his pensioned Parliament" (85). Anarchy "[knows] the Palaces / Of [England's] Kings were rightly his" (78-79). Similarly, Satan visits St. James's court, Parliament, and St. Paul's Church as he starts his stroll through town (15-17). All those who represent God or King or Law are revealed to be nothing more than the Devil's docile "cattle" (46).

A final link between these two poems consists in their visions of the demise of these perpetrators of evil and suffering. In the Mask the satirical bent of the first 101 lines gives way to a distinctly visionary mode as "a Shape" (110) vanquishes Anarchy and Murder, followed by Earth's impassioned address (which represents the final 226 lines). It is the very earnestness of nearly three-quarters of the Mask's lines that above all seems to distinguish the poem from The Devil's Walk, yet the earlier ballad in fact prefigures this shift in tone. One need only compare the ballad's ending with that of its precursor, "The Devil's Thoughts." Whereas Southey and Coleridge sign off with the sort of gag one expects as Satan heads back to Hell after mistaking a general's red face for a "general conflagration," Shelley apparently is not content to close without assuring his readers that the Devil will get his due. The visionary quality of the final two stanzas exposes an earnestness behind this entertaining ballad. Obviously Shelley gives such visionary seriousness far greater range in the Mask, but The Devil's Walk reminds us that this tendency had long before infiltrated his satire.

Indeed, another lesser-known poem from the following year (1820) suggests that Shelley is in the process of rethinking the usefulness of satire-- in part due to a reconsideration of his relationship to Southey (to which the resurfacing of The Devil's Walk surely contributed). Such an idea admittedly may seem belied by the penning of Peter Bell the Third and Swellfoot the Tyrant. Shelley even takes a potshot at Southey in Peter Bell the Third: The Devil, he writes, is sometimes a gentleman, sometimes a statesmen, sometimes a swindler, and sometimes "a bard bartering rhymes / For sack" (83-84).[5] But in "Fragment of a Satire on Satire," Shelley seems conciliatory. There are more echoes of The Devil's Walk in yet another satanic trinity ("Despair / And Hate, the rapid bloodhounds with which Terror / Hunts through the world . . ." [6- 8]), and echoes of Shelley's feelings of betrayal concerning the Poet Laureate (". . . who that has seen / What Southey is and was, would not exclaim, / 'Lash on!'" [22-24]). Yet Shelley's main focus is a critique of "Satire's scourge" (17) and its efficacy in erasing "deeper wounds" (18) and turning "regret to hope" (22). As the poem breaks off, its speaker advocates a "country walk" with Southey (45) that would point out "How incorrect his public conduct is" (47) but would do so by "Softening harsh words with friendship's gentle tone" (46).

The implications of the final line, "Far better than to make innocent ink----" (49), suggest that Shelley now worries about satire's relation to "the sophisms of revenge and fear" (11) and the "burning wrath" (14) preached by priests. Instead, he would have us take a different sort of walk than we find in either The Devil's Walk or the Mask--a sincere, friendly stroll as a means to a mutual meeting of minds, however devilish one or the other might be. In this case, The Devil's Walk remains an instructive intertextual resource for any comprehensive consideration of the relation between Shelley's satiric verses on the one hand and his mature poetical and political aims on the other.



1. All citations of The Mask of Anarchy are from Shelley's Poetry and Prose. All citations of The Devil's Walk are from the Broadside Version (rather than the Letter Version) hypertext provided by Romantic Circles unless otherwise noted. All citations of "Fragment of a Satire on Satire " are from Shelley: Poetical Works.

2. Interestingly, the Mask also offers us Murder as part of a satanic trinity, for while Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy all merit mention as part of the "ghastly masquerade" (27) witnessed by the poet, Hypocrisy does not seem to carry the same weight as the others. Thus, when Hope casts herself down in front of the procession she is "Expecting, with a patient eye" (100), only "Murder, Fraud and Anarchy" (101).

3. As noted on the Annotations page, this is most likely a pointed reference to acts of torture and murder carried out under Castlereagh's direction during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

4. Shelley's depiction of Anarchy riding "On a white horse" (31), looking "Like Death in the Apocalypse" (33), obviously first and foremost is drawn from the Book of Revelation. As Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers have pointed out, Benjamin West's Death on the Pale Horse represents a secondary source for Anarchy (Shelley, SPP 302). I would like to suggest that, with The Devil's Walk so clearly in Shelley's mind as he writes the Mask, another strong possibility is his portrait also is harking back to the fourth stanza of the work his early ballad derives from, "The Devil's Thoughts" by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as it appeared in the Morning Post in 1799): "He saw an Apothecary on a white horse / Ride by on his vocations, / And the Devil thought of his old friend / Death in the Revelations" (Coleridge 1: 320).

5. Southey himself was overly sensitive to such associations, especially after Byron's The Vision of Judgment. Thus, in the extended version of "The Devil's Thoughts" (published in his Poetical Works, ironically, as The Devil's Walk), he takes pains not only to separate his person from Satan by claiming to be of the greatest sinner against the Devil's majesty (3: 96), but also to affiliate his attackers with said Satan, who in stanza 43 warns about Southey: "But this Mister Poet shall find / I am not a safe subject for whim; / For I'll set up a School of my own, / And my Poets shall set upon him" (3: 97). Fittingly, however, Southey's poem is introduced by an advertisement that, no matter only in jest, compliments Shelley's joke in Peter Bell the Third (at that time, still unpublished). Writing on the continuing controversy over the original authorship of "The Devil's Thoughts," the advertisement cites the following notice from the Court Journal: "We happen to know that it is Mr. Southey's; but, as he is alive, we refer any body, who is not yet satisfied, to the eminent person himself--we do not mean the Devil--but the Doctor" (qtd. in Southey 3: 85).

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. London: Oxford UP, 1968.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Devil's Walk. Broadside Version. Online. Romantic Circles. Internet. 18 July 1997.

---. The Devil's Walk. Letter Version. Online. Romantic Circles. Internet. 18 July 1997.

---. Shelley: Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. London: Oxford UP, 1967.

---. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.

Southey, Robert. The Poetical Works of Robert Southey. 10 vols. London: Longman, 1838.


Last modified September 1997.