Song to the Men and Women of Bahrain

Protesters in Bahrain

Protesters in Bahrain

As the remarkable uprisings continue to erupt across the Middle East, I turn for a third time to the revolutionary poetry of Percy Shelley.  When one looks at his time period, one finds a number of modern day parallels. Napoleon’s wars, although imperial, still carried the ideas of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” into the rest of Europe, sparking democratic brushfires that the reigning monarchies, after Waterloo, did their best to extinguish once and for all. Shelley was responding to these reactionary efforts.

Tunisia and then Egypt have triggered protests in Bahrain, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Iran and elsewhere, sometimes prompting brutal crackdowns. No one knows how far the protests will progress and whether once seemingly invincible tyrants will topple. Is there any hope when some of the leaders (Libya’s Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi for one) have shown themselves willing to use machine guns against protesters?

Although I’m pessimistic about the chances of those trying to overthrow Gaddafi, I recall how pessimistic I was about Rumania when the Iron Curtain dictators were falling. And yet Nicholae Ceausecu, no less brutal than Khadafi, fell as well.

Anyway, these are times that call for heroic, not ironic, poetry. Therefore I have chosen Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England.” Of course, if Shelley were writing today, he would need to add “women” to the title.

Shelley’s poem is a rousing call for action as he addresses the farmers and weavers who were being thrown out of work and forced into the industrial centers following the economic meltdown that accompanied the end of the Napoleonic wars. They are bees toiling for the benefit of “stingless drones.” Why shrink back shaking your chains, Shelley asks. If you don’t resist, he warns, you will be using your spades to dig your own graves and using your looms to weave your own winding sheets.  In some ways Shelley sounds like the women of Bahrain, who reportedly have been calling out their men to stand strong and resist.

Here’s the poem:

A Song to the Men of England

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defense to bear.

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—
In hall ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulcher.

The men and women of these Middle Eastern countries have shown themselves up to Shelley’s challenge.  Their heroism, described by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column this morning, is inspiring. Are we ourselves capable of it? At the very least, we can give them our support, whatever form that support may take.

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  1. By Shelley and Non-Violent Resistance on July 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    […] Song to the Men and Women of Bahrain This entry was posted in Shelley (Percy) and tagged "Masque", Arab Spring, Percy Shelley, politics. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Queen of the Animals Quiz […]


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