Egypt’s Glorious Phantom Bursts Through


I’ve been looking for literature that can speak to the earth-shaking events going on in Egypt. Poetry seems almost unable to do justice to the joy that people are feeling as they revel in a vision of liberty. Maybe this sonnet by Percy Shelley gets at their breakthrough.

On August 16, 1819, a large but peaceful demonstration in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester was violently broken up charging cavalry. Known as the Peterloo Massacre, 11-15 people died and 400-700 were injured. In his poem Shelley is writing about George III and his Prince Regent, but he could well be talking about Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his subordinates, who also clung “leechlike” to power. Here’s the poem:

An old, mad, blind, despis’d, 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 leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless – a book seal’d,
A Senate – Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Note how all of Shelley’s targets have Egyptian equivalents. The poet mentions

–an army that has been used to repress liberty;
–“golden and sanguine laws,” which is to say laws that have been bought with gold and enforced with bloodshed;
–religion whose holy tenets are not kept (Christ is not in evidence, the Bible is “sealed”);
–corrupt politicians (a senate which is like a rotten and unrepealed statute)

Although there have been Egyptian protesters slain, thank God there was not a general massacre. Mubarak fell practically “without a blow.”  It helped that the army (at least for the moment) has proven to be a different kind of “two-edg’d sword,” coming down on the side of the protesters.  May it not prove to be two-edged again and cut those it is currently aiding.

Shelley had more reason to be pessimistic than the Egyptians since the immediate aftermath of the Peterloo massacre was more repression. But knowing this makes the final couplet that much more powerful.  Because Shelley’s grim list, the piling up of graves, is so lengthy, the bursting phantom in the final couplet is that much more glorious as it illumines “our tempestuous day.”

And so it has transpired in Egypt.  For those who marched, the world has never seemed to bright.

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One Comment

  1. Katja
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    A great poem. Thanks for sharing it! I knew “Ozymandias” before (loved that post, too), but I read this one for the first time. It seems to be even more powerful when it comes to sound symbolism. The abundance of the strong, majestic plosive phonemes (p, t, k, b, d, g) cuts through the poem, stopping the rhythm (or, rather, creating a rhythm through the multiple stops), emphasizing resistance, cruelty, terror.

    You mention there was no massacre…. I read a report by Robert Fisk in _The Independent_ today–it seems a massacre could well have taken place if it wasn’t for the military. I wonder, has this resonated in the U.S. at all? It hasn’t in Europe. Fisk didn’t state a source, yet he is a rather prominent correspondent and expert for Middle East … Anyway, this is what he wrote:

    “But the critical moment came on the evening of 30 January when, it is now clear, Mubarak ordered the Egyptian Third Army to crush the demonstrators in Tahrir Square with their tanks after flying F-16 fighter bombers at low level over the protesters.

    Many of the senior tank commanders could be seen tearing off their headsets – over which they had received the fatal orders – to use their mobile phones. They were, it now transpires, calling their own military families for advice. Fathers who had spent their lives serving the Egyptian army told their sons to disobey, that they must never kill their own people.”

    It appears Tunisia and Egypt were quite fortunate to see that Phantom (I misread it as Phoenix the first time I read the poem) rise against the old, mad, blind “king”….

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  1. By Shelley and Non-Violent Resistance on July 21, 2011 at 5:27 am

    […] Egypt’s Glorious Phantom Breaks Through […]


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