In this post we present part of article Poetry and Revolution on Organize nº 35 -  Jul-Sep 1994 with some extended pictures and explanations.

Poetry and Revolution
THE AUTHORITARIAN MENTAL­ITY has always been suspicious of poetry. Plato saw poets as subver­sive and wanted to ban them from his Republic, while the Nazis murdered the anarchist poet Eric Mühsam be­cause they were frightened of his words. 

Poetry's subversive edge is usually left out of the school curriculum, or forgotten when anthologies are compiled, although some of the earliest British poetry is ­ noticeable for its demands for social justice, and for its praise for resistance to tyranny.

Chaucer's contemporary, Langland, wrote 'A Vision of Piers Plowman', which in spite of its religiosity vibrates with indignation at the corruption of the rich and powerful and their oppression of the peasantry. Langland's vision was written at about the time of the Peasants' Revolt, much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Romance of the Rose, but Chaucer lacks any concern for the poor and dispos­sessed -probably why he is taught on the 'A' level syllabus and Langland is not. Langland's religious background re­sults in the absence of any idea of resis­tance to injustice, but resistance is nota­ble in the early ballads of Robin Hood which celebrate the outlaws resistance to the Norman Yoke.


Because poetry can compress and ex­press meaning in a way that ordinary prose cannot, it has frequently been cho­sen as the vehicle for spreading radical ideas and attacking the rich and power­fuI. 

The Romantic poets were inspired by the early ideals of the French Revolution and influenced by the writings of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two precursors of modern Anarchism. 

Byron's long satirical poems 'Vision of Judge­ment' and 'Don Juan' attacked the degen­erated monarchy, while some of his short poems celebrated the resistance of the Luddites

Byron's friend, Shelley, was the poet most closely associated with Godwin's proto-anarchism, and as Paul Foot has demonstrated in Red Shelley nearly all his poems can be seen as a direct and sustained attack on political tyranny and economic exploitation. 

Shelley was ex­pelled from Oxford University for writing a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism, Shelley's early poetry includes 'Queen Mab', a long work criticism both Chris­tianity and political tyranny, and 'Ozy­mandias', a sonnet which provides an ironic commentary on the vanity and fu­tility of a tyrant's power. 

Years later  armed sol­diers attacked a peaceful demonstration in St Peter's Field, Manchester, killing 11 people and wounding over 400. Shelley, inspired by outrage wrote the 'Mask of Anarchy'. So powerful was Shelley's poem that no one would publish it until 1832, many years after Shelley's death. Nearly all of Shelly's work is imbued with hope, and he openly celebrates resistance, call­ing on people to "rise like lions". 

The attraction that French anarchism held for artists after the Paris Commune (1871) was matched by a similar feeling among writers, particularly avant-garde poets. When police seized the subscrip­tion lists of the anarchist paper La Revolte in 1894, they found poets like Mallarmé, Quillard and Richepin in­cluded in the records. 

 Félix Feneon portrait by signac

Nearly all the symbolists poets sympathized with anarchism, writing poems on anarchist themes, con­tributing financial support or writing articles and pamphlets supporting anar­chism. Mallarmé even took his support to the extent of appearing as a character witness for the anarchist Félix Feneon, who was charged with possession of ex­plosives during the so called "Trial of the Thirty'; Verlaine wrote short poems about Louise Michel, the anarchist organizer, who had become imprisoned for her role in the Paris Commune and again for organizing the poor. The American poet living in France, Stuart Merrill, claimed that "the symbolist is the anarchist in litera­ture", and Viele-Griffin wrote of "the Literary anarchy for which we have battled", 

For late 19th century French poets, to call themselves anarchist meant to insist in nonirritating their individuality as creators, to reject out-dated rules and to affirm the artist as the only judge of his or her own work. This can be seen clearly in the work of Gustave Kahn, who pio­neered free verse and made the urban streets the subject of his poetry in Aesthetique de la Rue. His political anar­chism was an extension of his literary radicalismo. 


Britain, like France saw a socialist resurgence at the end of the 19th century, but although it was a socialism strongly flavored with anarchism, few British po­ets became anarchists. 

One minor poet who did was Louisa Sarah Bevington, who had written several slim volumes of poetry before becoming interested in an­ anarchist ideas. She saw no distinction be­tween being a poet and being a revolu­tionary. In the last few years of her life she wrote widely for the anarchist press; to which she also contributed poems. 
Working with the London Anarchist Communist Alliance she wrote several pamphlets, which still retain a relevance to our own time. 

A second minor poet associated with the late Victorian anarchist movement was the Scot John Barlas, who wrote for the Socialist League paper'. Barlas took part in the 'Bloody Sunday' demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1887, where he was badly injured by blows from a policeman's truncheon. 

Barlas is usually remembered for firing a pistol shot at the Houses of Parliament as a gesture of contempt. A gesture for which he was arrested and imprisoned. Oscar Wilde stood bail for Barlas, partly be­cause of a shared interest in anarchism. As a result of his truncheon injuries Bar­las suffered from repeated bouts of de­pression and eventually died in a Glas­gow asylum. During his lifetime he wrote several volumes of poetry, some of which are regularly reprinted. 

Oscar Wilde is always mocked as a dilettante and jester, but this is the Iiter­ary establishment's method of defusing Wilde's work. His plays represent a scath­ing indictment of the morals and concerns of the ruling classes, disguised as comedy, but much of his work is more overtly political. The plays are an attack from within the ruling class, his later writings are from a position of exclusion. 

The Soul of Man Under Socialism is an incisive argument for lib­ertarian socialism, but it is the 'Ballad of Reading Gao' which is his most inspira­tional work. A poem based on his experi­ence while in prison, it is a powerful attack on the notion of punishment. 

The anarchist-communist Eric Müh­sam placed culture at the centre of his political activism, fiercely defending free­dom of the individual from encroachment by right and left. His socialism was anti­ statist and he was a tireless campaigner for sexual emancipation and for prison abolition. Mühsarn's main weapon was his razor sharp verse and he became one of Weimar Republic social critics. 

His 'Der Revoluzzer', writ­ten in 1907, became one of the most per­formed chansons of the Weimar period.

During World War One Mühsam was a revolutionary pacifist who refused even to carry out 'alternative labour service' and was consequently imprisoned for his anti-war stand. After his release at the end of the war he took part in the Munich soviet, which was brutally suppressed by the German State. 

Mühsam's anarchist colleague Gustav Landauer was mur­dered and Mühsam was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. While in prison Mühsam wrote a play Judas, accounts of his revolutionary ex­perience in Munich and many songs and poems, one of which became extremely popular. Called 'The Death of a Red Guard Soldier' it is based on Mühsam's witnessing the death of a young fellow revolutionary during the Munich soviet.