• The Polyphony Team

Spiritual awakening and social change in S.T. Coleridge and P.B. Shelley

by Helena Lewis

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1

First published April 2020, Manchester


This essay argues that S.T. Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and P.B. Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ both appeal to the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people through their simple ballad structures and uncomplicated language. However, they offer different solutions to the problem of how to achieve the much needed change within society. Coleridge suggests that a reconnection with Nature and God can lead to freedom through an internal, spiritual awakening, and thus effect social change. Shelley argues instead for a radical, direct response, in the form of passive resistance, a collective political action which can lead to widespread, fundamental social and economic change.

The expression `hearts and minds’ customarily refers to `a less coercive approach to counter-insurgency which emphasises the importance of using "minimum force" in order to win the "hearts and minds" of the people' (see note 1). It is a means of prevailing in a conflict by changing how the masses feel and think, rather than simply using superior force. The Romantic Period [conventionally, 1785-1832] (see note 2) was a time riven by conflict. The Industrial Revolution saw clashes between traditional, rural lifestyles and more modern, urban ways of living, whilst the French Revolution had descended into oppression and bloodshed with the Reign of Terror. This led to a process of atomisation, as people migrated from the country to the city and started to lose their connection with Nature, which, as `that eternal language, which thy God | Utters' (see note 3), also meant losing a connection with God. This alienation was aggravated by the response of the élite to the French Revolution of maintaining their power through `harsh, repressive measures' (see note 4). However, there was resistance, with some writers seeking a `radical transformation' (see note 5) of society, by using poetry to appeal to the people’s ‘hearts and minds’. This is illustrated in S.T. Coleridge’s `The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and P.B. Shelley’s `The Mask of Anarchy’. Whilst both poems appeal to the `hearts and minds’ of the masses, they offer different solutions, with Coleridge arguing for the restorative power of Nature in effecting liberation through internal, spiritual change, and Shelley suggesting the more radical, direct action of passive resistance to achieve much-needed democratic and economic changes. Both `The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and `The Mask of Anarchy’ appeal directly to the ‘hearts and minds’ of the masses through their form and language. Coleridge’s poem is, `first and foremost, a ballad' (see note 6), and Shelley uses `colloquial ballad stanzas' (see note 7). Thus, both poems draw on a form historically handed down in the `oral tradition' (see note 8), and widely perceived as poetry `for the people’, which could be heard, learnt, and passed on even by the illiterate. Moreover, the language used in each poem appeals to a mass audience; Shelley wrote in a `simple, direct, and powerful style' (see note 9), which meant the poem `spoke to the people in the street, not merely to the reviewer or the politician or the Hampstead drawing-room' (see note 10). It also explicitly addressed the people, with a rousing call to the `Men of England, heirs of Glory, | Heroes of unwritten story' (see note 11). Similarly, `The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was first published in Lyrical Ballads, a collection designed to use `the real language of men' (see note 12), made up of `simple and unelaborated expressions' (see note 13). Although the poem’s initial use of archaic spellings such as `Ancyent' (see note 14) and `Marinere' (see note 15) could seem to contradict the aim of the collection, as its 'Advertisement' stated, `the language adopted in it has been equally intelligible for these three last centuries' (see note 16). In addition, both `The Rime’ and `The Mask’ use reasoning to persuade readers’ minds, and they are both emotional appeals which try to win readers’ hearts. However, they propose very different solutions for changing their society, where `[s]uffering was largely confined to the poor […] while the landed classes and industrialists prospered' (see note 17).

As part of the first generation of Romantic poets, in his youth Coleridge was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, which he saw ‘as the means of collective, human salvation' (see note 18). However, as it descended into bloodshed, he became profoundly disillusioned. Peter Kitson argues that its failure meant Coleridge lost ‘faith in the possibility of improvement by political action which the Revolution [had] promised, but the contribution of that event to Coleridge’s new faith in the restorative qualities of the imaginative perception of nature is substantial' (see note 19). Indeed, rather than appealing for collective political action (as does ‘The Mask’), through the figure of the Mariner ‘The Rime’ explores instead the possibility of changing society by first achieving personal enlightenment, arrived at through reconnecting with Nature, and by extension with God and other living beings.

Coleridge shows that the Mariner has become disengaged from the natural world when he kills the Albatross, which had loyally followed the ship since its appearance liberated them from the ice (see note 20). The barbarity of this act is emphasised through the Mariner’s utter lack of motive, as he shows by his dispassionate description: ‘With my cross bow | I shot the Albatross'. (‘The Rime’, ll.~81-2.) He commits a crime against Nature, and part of his punishment is to endure tormenting isolation with his guilty conscience: ‘Alone, alone, all, all alone, | Alone on a wide wide sea!' (‘The Rime’, ll.~232-3.) This echoes the widespread disengagement with Nature which Coleridge felt was an effect of the Industrial Revolution and its massive migration from the country to the ‘great city' (see note 21). The intense description of the Mariner’s isolation also indicates that losing a connection with Nature leads to separation from all other living beings, an idea emphasised by the crew who ‘All stood together' (‘The Rime’, l.~433.), yet ‘said […] nought to me' (‘The Rime’, l.~344.).

Moreover, for Coleridge, the natural world and God were one entity, as he explained in his famous concept of ‘the one life within us and abroad’ (see note 22). Therefore, through losing a connection with Nature, both the Mariner and the people of England have lost a connection with God. The Mariner illustrates this particularly well in his changing attitude to the water-snakes. Initially he dismisses them as ‘slimy things’, (‘The Rime’, l.~125.) then finds that he is severed from God, as he ‘tried to pray; | But or ever a prayer had gusht, | A wicked whisper came’.(‘The Rime’ ll.~244-6.) He eventually comes to love the only other ‘happy living things’ (‘The Rime’, l.~282.) within his lonely world, and says ‘a spring of love gushed from my heart, | And I blessed them unaware'. (‘The Rime’, ll.~284-5.). Coleridge explicitly shows that a connection to God lies in loving Nature, for ‘that selfsame moment I could pray' (‘The Rime’, ll.~288.) and the symbol of his guilt – the body of the murdered Albatross – falls from his neck and sinks ‘[l]ike lead into the sea' (‘The Rime’, l.~291.).

Thus, Coleridge indicates that the Mariner has achieved some sort of understanding through a reconnection to the natural world. Moreover, he shows that it is a message which needs to be passed on, as the poem concludes with the Mariner saying ‘[t]hat moment that his face I see, | I know the man that must hear me: | To him my tale I teach' (‘The Rime’, ll.~588-90.). The use of the verb ‘teach' suggests that this poem’s readers can learn from its moral of ‘He prayeth well, who loveth well | Both man and bird and beast' (‘The Rime’, ll.~612-3.). This implies that there is an alternative to collective political action in order to change society. Despite the failure of the French Revolution, Coleridge ‘maintains his belief in Liberty. Now, however, it is an inward state of the mind and not a political arrangement' (see note 23). Therefore, Coleridge attempts to change ‘hearts and minds’ by showing that the lost connection with Nature alienates people from God and other living creatures. He shows that this connection can be regained but, having witnessed the failure of mass political action in the French Revolution, he suggests now that '[f]reedom only exists, elusively but surely, in the forms and powers of nature' (see note 24). Thus, the way to change society is to first achieve individual freedom, through a re-forging of the connection with Nature and God which had been broken by the Industrial Revolution.

Shelley, however, proposes a different solution, though he still appeals to ‘hearts and minds’. The majority of his adult life was a time of:

[d]ictatorial laws, prejudiced judges and packed juries, the suppression of free expression, [] inhuman punishments – all backed up with organised military power barracked in every major town and city (see note 25).

This was demonstrated by the Peterloo Massacre, in Manchester in 1819, where 80,000 people peacefully demonstrating for democratic reform were charged by yeomanry (see note 26). Shelley’s response is 'a controlled expression of fierce anger' (see note 27), that might well constitute 'the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English' (see note 28).

Like Coleridge, Shelley emphasises that a reconnection with one another is essential. He calls the Men of England 'Nurslings of one mighty Mother, | Hopes of her, and one another', (Shelley, ll.~149-50.) thus showing how vital it is to counter the alienation arising from the Industrial Revolution. However, unlike Coleridge, Shelley calls for direct, collective political action, in 'plain language with powerful, stirring energy', which appeals to the common peoples’ ‘hearts and minds’ (see note 29). He empathetically captures their desire for retribution in the aftermath of Peterloo:

Then it is to feel revenge
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood – and wrong for wrong  (Shelley, ll.~193-5.)

However, though he retained a lifelong conviction that 'England was on the verge of a violent revolution' (see note 30), Shelley believed largely in non-violence, and explicitly warns the people against the tyranny and violence of the mob, telling them: 'Do not thus when ye are strong' (Shelley, l.~196.). He saw that 'Oppression makes revolution inevitable, tyranny breeds tyranny, violence breeds violence in a ‘natural cycle', hence, Anarchy in the poem is shown to be just as much part of the pageant of 'Destructions' as Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy (see note 31).

Whilst understanding the need for revenge, Shelley advises that it is tactically and morally better to 'Let the horsemen’s scimitars | Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars', (Shelley, ll.~315-6.) for numbers will ultimately triumph. In the Whig-Liberal tradition, he also implores the masses to 'Let the Laws of your own land, | Good or ill, between ye stand', (Shelley, ll.~327-8.) as the rule of law can offer the populace protection from oppression. The repetition of 'Let' as the first word in four consecutive stanzas emphasises the point, concluding with 'What they like, that let them do'. (Shelley, l.~343.)

The imagery of the poem contrasts the brutal, man-made technology of 'bayonet' (Shelley, l.~311.) and 'charged artillery'(Shelley, l.~307.) with the natural world where the patient multitude stand 'Like a forest close and mute'.(Shelley, ll.~320.) Moreover, Shelley appeals to Nature. When the voice speaks 'these words of joy and fear',(Shelley, l.~138.) it is 'As if their own indignant Earth' (Shelley, l.~139.) was speaking, thus it 'is presumably that of the ‘power’ as inherent in nature' (see note 32). However, he does not rely on this power to change society, though he does suggest that a reconnection with Nature could help to do so. He instead calls for passive resistance, '[i]t is not, however, the pacifism of the individual conscience, but a pacifism of massive nonviolent resistance, the tactic of Gandhi more than a century before Gandhi' (see note 33). Thus, he calls for people to stand together against despotism, realising that this means 'that Slaughter to the Nation | Shall steam up like inspiration' (Shelley, ll.~360-1.) to be 'oppression’s thundered doom'. (Shelley, l.~365.)

The power of Shelley’s verse is still evident, with the last stanza being quoted by Jeremy Corbyn as recently as 2017 (see note 34):

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. (Shelley, ll.~368-72.)

However, although these 'lines evoke a barely contained violence' (see note 35), Seth Reno’s opinion that the poem 'advocates […] immediate and violent revolution' (see note 36) is incorrect. Still aware of how the French Revolution had descended into violence, Shelley calls for a time of 'measured words'. (Shelley, l.~297.) It is not a call for violent revolution, but for passive resistance which will, through endurance and sheer weight of numbers, lead ultimately to revolutionary change.

Overall, both poems are appeals to the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people, as they are written for the masses, in simple and direct language. They both provide reasoned logic and emotional appeals to make their case but they provide different solutions for how to actually change society. Coleridge suggests a traditional Christian route of redemption through suffering, and enlightenment through a personal reconnection with Nature and God, in order to effect social change, albeit at a glacial pace. Shelley, on the other hand, takes a proto-Marxian approach to political economy, which understands that fundamental change comes not through individual journeys of conscience but by the wholesale political and economic change of revolution; yet this revolution will not descend into bloodshed and tyranny because it eschews violence in favour of passive resistance.


1: Paul Dixon, ‘“Hearts and Minds”? British Counter-Insurgency from Malaya to Iraq’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 32.3 (June 2009), 353-81 (p.353).

2: Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Introduction’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt, 10th edn, Vol. D (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018), pp.1-27 (p.2).

3: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’, in The Norton Anthology, pp.482-4 (ll.59-61).

4: Greenblatt, ‘Introduction’, p.6.

5: Greenblatt, ‘The Revolutionary Controversy and the “Spirit of the Age”’, in The Norton Anthology, pp.193-4 (p.193).

6: John Spencer Hill, A Coleridge Companion, (London: The Macmillan Press, 1983), p.136.

7: Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit, (London, Quartet Books, 1976), p.532. 8: Tom Pettitt, ‘Ballads and Bad Quartos: Oral Tradition and the English Literary Historian’, Oral Tradition, 18.2 (October 2003), 182-5 (p.183).

9: Donald H. Reiman, Percy Bysshe Shelley, (Woodbridge: Twayne Publishers, 1969), p.95.

10: Holmes, p.539.

11: Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, in The Norton Anthology, pp.794-804 (ll.147-8). [Further references to this text can be found in the main body of the essay following quotations.]

12: William Wordsworth, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800/1802)’, in Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2003), pp.5-25 (p.22).

13: Wordsworth, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800/1802)’, p.7.

14: Alun R. Jones and William Tydeman, ‘Introduction’, in Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner and Other Poems: A Casebook, ed. by Alun R. Jones and William Tydeman (London: The Macmillan Press, 1973), pp.11-19 (p.~13).

15: Ibid.

16: Wordsworth, ‘Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads (1798)’, in Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, pp.3-4 (p.4).

17: Greenblatt, ‘Introduction’, p.8.

18: Peter Kitson, ‘Coleridge, the French Revolution, and the “Ancient Mariner”: Collective Guilt and Individual Salvation’, Yearbook of English Studies, 19 (1989), 197-207 (p.201)

19: Kitson, p.207.

20: Coleridge, ’The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, in The Norton Anthology, pp.448-64 (ll.58-78). [Hereafter referred to as ‘The Rime’ Further references to this poem can be found in the body of the essay following quotations].

21: Coleridge, ‘The Eolian Harp’, in The Norton Anthology, pp.444-5 (p.445), l. 26.

22: Kitson, p.202. 23: Ibid., p.203.

24: Paul Foot, Red Shelley, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980), p.37.

25: Holmes, p.531.

26: Seymour Reiter, A Study of Shelley’s Poetry, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967), p.205.

27: Holmes, p.532.

28: Reiter, p.207.

29: Cian Duffy, Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.38.

30: Duffy, p.12.

31: Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p.348.

32: Cameron, p.350.

33: Jeremy Corbyn, Glastonbury Festival Speech, online video recording, YouTube, 24 June 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rN07fnvGomo> [accessed 15 November, 2018].

34: Seth T. Reno, ‘The Violence of Form in Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy”’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 62 (2013), 80-98 (p.81).

35: Reno, p.87

36: Reno, p.87

Polyphony, n. 
The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.

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