On Yellow Vests and Monsters

Commenting on the political aspects of Shelley’s life and poetry, Virginia Woolf asserted in 1927 that the poet’s England “has already receded, and his fight, valiant though it is, seems to be with monsters who are a little out of date, and therefore slightly ridiculous.” Woolf was referring to Shelley’s nineteenth-century opposition to a system in which journalists were imprisoned for being disrespectful to the Prince Regent, men were stood in stocks for publishing attacks upon the Scriptures, weavers were executed upon the suspicion of treason, and boys (Shelley included) were expelled from Oxford for avowing their atheism. Dramatic in its own time and context, by the decadent mid-1920s such activism had indeed become a little anachronistic on paper, even if I disagree with Woolf that it had become slightly ridiculous. The exertion of political power, after all, is a monster that may change costume and migrate in certain seasons, but is also a fixed reality of human relations and therefore no more ridiculous, in any guise or era, than the people it rests upon.

The profundity of Woolf’s comment, for me, therefore lies less in its discussion of Shelley’s poetry than in its exposure of Woolf’s own interwar sense of political security. It is this sense of political security that today seems the more out of date, and therefore slightly ridiculous, especially as we live in an age where the monsters of the past, present, and putative future, are perpetually invoked in all areas of life. Today, people are imprisoned for being disrespectful to certain races, men are stood in the postmodern equivalent of stocks for attacking certain ideologies, workers are today arrested more often for patriotism than treason, and children are threatened with expulsion for the new sin of ‘racism:’
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