ENGLAND IN 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
The sonnet describes a very forlorn reality. The poem passionately attacks, as the poet sees it, England’s decadent, oppressive ruling class. King George III is described as “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying”. The “leech-like” nobility (“princes”) metaphorically suck the blood from the people, who are, in the sonnet, oppressed, hungry, and hopeless, their fields untilled. Meanwhile, the army is corrupt and dangerous to liberty, the laws are harsh and useless, religion has lost its morality, and Parliament (the “Senate”) is a relic. In addition, the civil rights of the Catholic minority are non-existent “Time’s worst statute unrepealed”. In a startling burst of optimism, the last two lines express the hope that a “glorious Phantom” may spring forth from this decay and “illumine our tempestuous day”.
This poem was written as a response to the brutal Peterloo Massacre in August 1819.