England, in 1819An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flowThrough public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,But leechlike to their fainting country clingTill they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;An army, whom liberticide and preyMakes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—Are graves from which a glorious Phantom mayBurst, to illumine our tempestuous day.Percy Bysshe Shelley
After writing here only a couple of weeks ago that I never want to read Shelley, I found myself stopping at this poem this morning. I don’t think I’ve read it since I was an undergraduate and can’t remember reading it at all, yet it is one of those poems that has passed into my consciousness – I seem to know it. Yet the anger arrested me, perhaps because I already have it in me. Not many poems are angry. Or rather, I do not read many angry poems. Yesterday I read a lot of poems by Denise Levertov that were angry about the Vietnam war. Most war poems are angry. For me, poems about social injustice do not seem to work, they become trite, you get propaganda or party lines. But today Shelley’s spitting anger seems the right feeling.
Like many people I cannot get the Grenfell Tower tragedy out of my head. I recommend listening to Sir Michael Marmot on yesterday’s Radio 4 Start The Week. Marmot talks about life expectancy in Kensington: the difference between the wealthy south of the borough and the impoverished north is 14 years for men. The average income for the borough is £125,000 but for half of the population it is below £35,000. All kinds of problems, social, physical, and mental follow these stats. Marmot says, just because we have the NHS offering treatment doesn’t mean that is the right way to go about things. In the case of a fire, we’d say, not we have to treat the results of fire, but we have to prevent fires. The same is true for heart attacks and mental illness.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tvj71#play (from about 12 minutes in)
Yes, I want a new world. I believe that new world starts with education, not simply for the poor children of Kensington, but also for the apparently well-educated people who make the decisions about the £5000 saving on the flammable tower coverings. The Marmot Review (2010) called for us to act in 6 domains simultaneously in order to help close the inequalities gap. Those domains are
1. giving every child the best start in life
2. enabling all children, young people and adults to maximize their capabilities through education and lifelong learning and have control over their lives
3. creating fair employment and good work for all
4. ensuring a healthy standard of living for all
5. creating and developing sustainable places and communities
6. strengthening the role and impact of ill-health prevention.
What does the poem say? It says everything’s broken, the instituitions (state, people, army , church, parliament) it’s all disgusting, corrupt, dead. It says I’m sick of it all. It says, something may happen to change that, some glorious phantom may burst forth… but, at this point I stop reading. I don’t believe in that phantom. (And perhaps neither does Shelley, otherwise, why call it a phantom?)
So, back to work. I’m working on the second (and the fifth, and the sixth) of Marmot’s recommendations and must get back to it.
Thank you. This is just right for this moment. I’m still reading Denise Levertov…..what a discovery!
Hope to start writing about some of her poems this week