Borushko, "'A nation or a world': Patriotism in Shelley"

Romanticism and Patriotism:
Nation, Empire, Bodies, Rhetoric

"A nation or a world": Patriotism in Shelley

Matthew C. Borushko, Boston University

  1. At first glance nothing seems more un-Shelleyean than patriotism. Nothing seems more opposed to Shelley’s professed cosmopolitanism, to his philosophical skepticism, to his Godwinian disinterestedness, to his moral universalism, and to his political radicalism than the idea of patriotism, especially if we associate, as we are prone to do, patriotic sentiment with chauvinistic nationalism. But if we recall that there was a politically radical version of British patriotism,[1] and if we realize that Shelley’s politics were just as practical as they were radical, we can start to think through just what Shelley means when he invokes patriotism, which he does in a surprising number of writings. Not only is his appeal to patriotic sentiment rhetorical, as in the "popular songs wholly political" (Letters 2: 191), it is also philosophical and poetic, as in writings as diverse as the pamphlet An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte, the essay On Love, the unpublished Philosophical View of Reform, and the manifesto A Defence of Poetry. What emerges from these various deployments is an idea of patriotism that at once motivates the political reformer, whom Shelley calls the "true patriot" in A Philosophical View of Reform, and also occasions community, offering proof, in the language of the Princess Charlotte pamphlet, "that we love something besides ourselves" (Prose Works 232). Combining the motive to reform with the necessity of community, the references to patriotism in A Defence of Poetry suggest that patriotism in Shelley is what Edward Blyden called "the poetry of politics" (qtd. in Appiah 26).

  2. Shelley’s Irish pamphlets, written mostly in England, show an acute awareness of the problems facing a reformer who would like to address those outside his national borders. An Address to the Irish People (1812) begins,

    FELLOW MEN, I am not an Irishman, yet I can feel for you. I hope there are none among you who will read this address with prejudice or levity, because it is made by an Englishman; indeed, I believe there are not. (Prose Works 9)

    From a position of tenuous authority, Shelley’s gesture of transcultural sympathy is careful to register cultural difference and then move on to assert that the accident of where we are born ought not to disqualify the desire of the English reformer to enlighten the Irish: "I should like to know what there is in a man being an Englishman, a Spaniard, or a Frenchman, that makes him worse or better than he really is. He was born in one town, you in another, but that is no reason why he should not feel for you, desire your benefit, or be willing to give you some advice, which may make you more capable of knowing your own interest, or acting so as to secure it" (9).

  3. But is there tension between the apparently deracinated interests of the cosmopolitan reformer speaking political truth to the Irish people, and the "interests," however unspecified, of the Irish people themselves, interests that the cosmopolitan claims to be able to help the Irishman know? On a Shelleyean account the answer would be no: by virtue of feeling for and speaking to the Irish people, the cosmopolitan reformer performs the benevolence with which he or she hopes to animate his or her readership. As Shelley puts it in another of the Irish pamphlets, the "benevolent passions . . . generalize and expand private into public feelings, and make the hearts of individuals vibrate not merely for themselves, their families, and their friends, but for posterity, for a people; till their country becomes the world, and their family the sensitive creation" (Prose Works 41). The idea of feeling "for a people," italicized by Shelley in Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists, is probably deliberately unspecific as to who "the people" is, because "a people" in this sense can be either a nation or the world. So long as we move beyond the circles of families and friends and into the larger, often inconceivable circles of nation and world—and here is where patriotism becomes a vital concept even for the young Shelley — we negate the tendency toward self-centeredness: "In proportion as he feels with, or for, a nation or a world, so will man consider himself less as that centre, to which we are but too prone to believe that every line of human concern does, or ought to converge" (41).

  4. Phrases such as "a nation or a world" suggest that Shelley thought the moral imagination capable of feeling for more than one "people" at once; additionally, they suggest that he thought patriotism and cosmopolitanism not incompatible. The compatibility of cosmopolitanism and patriotism was not an uncommon trope in the rhetoric of English radicalism after the French Revolution, a tradition which came to Shelley most of all through William Godwin, his intellectual hero and eventual father-in-law, but also through Paine, Tooke, Coleridge, and the Wordsworth of the 1790s. In a sermon called A Discourse on the Love of our Country on 4 November 1789, the Dissenting minister Richard Price asserted that there was no problem in celebrating the English constitution along with the events in France. The love of our country, Price says, "does not imply any conviction of the superior value of it to other countries, or any particular preference of its laws and constitution of government" (25). Moreover, Price says of our country that "[w]e ought to seek its good, by all the means that our different circumstances and abilities will allow; but at the same time we ought to consider ourselves as citizens of the world, and take care to maintain a just regard to the rights of other countries" (26).

  5. As David Bromwich notes, the "pretension" of Price’s cosmopolitan sympathies was a central target of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which argues passionately that such sympathy, in Bromwich’s paraphrase, is "morally impossible" because "before you can be a citizen of the world, you must be a member of a family, then a neighbor of others in a small community, then and only then a citizen of a nation. . . . After the abstraction of a nation, long after, comes mankind" (73). Burke’s expression of the communitarian thesis contains the memorable idea of our "little platoon":

    To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. (46-7)

    Shelley’s idea of patriotism encompasses both Burke’s organic localism and Price’s radical world-citizenship: it would extol them both equally for the basic virtue of countervailing our tendency to self-love, and for the expansion of private into public feelings for either a nation or a world.

  6. Unlike the patriotism of Burke or Price, however, Shelley’s idea of patriotism was not based on an ancient English constitution or even what Price calls "that event in this country to which the name of THE REVOLUTION has been given" (28). Shelley did not, as Paine charged of Burke, look to antiquity for authority. This much is made clear in Shelley’s obscure prose fragment The Elysian Fields (1815 or 1816), which E. B. Murray identifies as a lesson in political philosophy addressed to the Princess Charlotte (Prose Works 400):

    The English nation does not, as has been imagined, inherit freedom from its ancestors. Public opinion rather than positive institution maintains it in whatever portion it may now possess; which is in truth the acquirement of its own incessant struggles. (Prose Works 163)
  7. Yet in "The Mask of Anarchy" (a poem included among his "popular songs"), Shelley addresses the "Men of England, heirs of glory, / Heroes of unwritten story" (147-148), bringing together the acknowledgement of a common past with the idea of a shared future, while "unwritten" asserts the agency of the "men of England," the "heroes," in that future. "Unwritten" also indicates their heroic though yet-to-be written role in the past "glory" of England to which the present generation is "heir." The as-yet-imagined, "unwritten" quality of the future of England aligns Shelley with the radical constitutionalism of Paine’s Rights of Man, and against the interpretation of the English constitution in Burke’s Reflections. But how does Shelley get from the assertion in The Elysian Fields that "the English nation does not, as has been imagined, inherit freedom from its ancestors" to the idea in the popular songs of 1819 that the "men of England" are not only the "heroes" of their nation’s "incessant struggles," but also that they are the "heirs of glory"?

  8. The transition can be explained by a look at a series of texts in which Shelley invokes patriotism, proceeding from the political pamphlets of 1817 to A Defence of Poetry in 1821. Patriotism appears at the intersection of Shelley’s practical politics of reform, as in the appeals to it in the pamphlets, and his developing aesthetics of sociality, as in On Love and A Defence. The ideas that Shelley associates with patriotism, as well as the uses to which he puts it, originate as the going-out-of-ourselves, however contingent and varied the occasion, be it for the sake of aesthetic experience, material necessity, or public mourning. While the political pamphlets of 1817 encourage patriotism—and in fact are composed out of patriotic feeling—Shelley’s philosophical and poetic writings locate this patriotism in the affections. It is located in "our best affections," in fact, according to the Princess Charlotte pamphlet, and it is "at war with every base desire," in the language of A Defence. Variously deployed, patriotism in Shelley is a form of what he would come to call Love: a sympathetic identification with something besides our selves, something larger. It is both cause and effect; which is to say, it is both that out of which we act, writing pamphlets or poetry, and what it is we hope to achieve, the history that is yet unwritten.

  9. Intended for an imagined readership of enlightened reformers, A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote throughout the Kingdom (1817) appeals to love-of-country as the solution to partisan gridlock:

    That the most eloquent, and the most virtuous, and the most venerable among the Friends of Liberty should employ their authority and their intellect to persuade men to lay aside all animosity and even discussion respecting the topics on which they are disunited and by the love which they bear to their suffering country conjure them to contribute all their energies to set this great question at rest—whether the nation desires a reform in Parliament or no. (Prose Works 173)
  10. With the concept of patriotism unstable in the second decade of the nineteenth century, Shelley attaches it to eloquence, virtue, authority, intellect, and even to rhetorical persuasion—all characteristics of the enlightened. There is a distinction between the "most venerable among the Friends of Liberty" and the "men" whom they must persuade, suggesting that those who are enlightened already love their country and ought, for practical political reasons, convince others to love it too. As such, patriotism has a dual function in this passage: it is both what motivates the eloquent and virtuous Friends of Liberty to persuade others to set aside their differences and what the result of such persuasion is; which is to say, patriotism is both cause and effect.

  11. In his other major pamphlet of 1817, Shelley locates patriotism not in the perfection of a mythical pre-Norman constitution or in "public opinion," but instead in the "bosoms of men," "revived" along with other "glorious emotions" such as "a noble spirit" and "the love of liberty" (Prose Works 236). The revival of patriotism in the "bosoms of men" occupies a crucial juncture in the brief historical narrative that Shelley presents in the pamphlet On the Death of the Princess. The narrative is an economic and social history of England from the war in America to the juxtaposed death of the Princess Charlotte and the execution of laborers Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlum. A précis of the socioeconomic analysis in the 1819 Philosophical View of Reform, the version of "things as they are" in the 1817 pamphlet not only shows Shelley’s proto-Marxian vision of alienated labor, but also, in its indictment of the "double aristocracy" effected by the public debt, betrays Shelley’s often overlooked aristocratic disposition.[2] Shelley posits a necessary connection between the prosperity of the new aristocracy of "villainous trade" and the "miseries" of the "day labourer":

    The labourer, he that tills the ground and manufactures cloth, is the man who has to provide, out of what he would bring home to his wife and children, for the luxuries and comforts of those, whose claims are represented by an annuity of forty-four millions a year levied upon the English nation. . . . Many and various are the mischiefs flowing from oppression, but this is the representative of them all; namely, that one man is forced to labour for another in a degree not only necessary to the support of the subsisting distinctions among mankind, but so as by the excess of the injustice to endanger the very foundations of all that is valuable in social order, and to provoke that anarchy which is at once the enemy of freedom, and the child and the chastiser of misrule. (236)
  12. According to Shelley the agent of redress is "the nation," which "began to be weary of the continuance of such dangers and degradations," and its means is "the public voice," which "loudly demanded a free representation of the people" (236). And while "the nation itself" was reacting to the "hard necessity" following from the public debt, at some point, perhaps without "the nation" even knowing, "[a] nobler spirit also went abroad, and the love of liberty, and patriotism, and the self-respect attendant on those glorious emotions, revived in the bosoms of men" (236). United in the sense of "self-respect" that they generate, the "glorious emotions" of patriotism, liberty, and nobility of spirit are in fact not presented as the cause of the nation’s "daring to touch the question" of parliamentary reform; rather, they are presented by Shelley as being there all along, having "[gone] abroad" uncaused or been "revived" unknowingly by and in each who contributed to the "public voice." But in Shelley’s historical narrative the "public voice" gets "overpowered by the timid and the selfish" (237), showing the contingency of progressive reform on the confluence of daring and selflessness. Only a "regularly constituted assembly of the nation" can conjure again the "public voice" that brings with it a nobler spirit, the love of liberty and patriotism—in short, the self-respect—necessary for wresting power away from the despots of England in 1817 and their "infernal agents." For the time being, however, Shelley advises the English people to mourn, not just for the Princess Charlotte or even just for the executed laborers, but for "British Liberty":

    Mourn then People of England. Clothe yourselves in solemn black. Let the bells be tolled. Think of mortality and change. Shroud yourselves in solitude and the gloom of sacred sorrow. Spare no symbol of universal grief. Weep—mourn—lament. Fill the great City—fill the boundless fields, with lamentation and the echoes of groans. (238-39)
  13. The idea of public mourning is addressed at the start of the pamphlet On the Death of the Princess. Shelley comes out in favor of it for reasons that have everything to do with what he means when he invokes patriotism: "Men do well to mourn the dead," Shelley writes, "because it proves that we love something besides ourselves" (232). Patriotism proves the same thing, and it becomes clear that patriotic sentiment is involved in Shelley’s vision of public mourning, as he writes that "[t]o lament for those who have benefitted the state, is a habit yet more favorable to the cultivation of our best affections" (Prose Works 232). While patriotism is not mentioned in Shelley’s dissertation on public mourning, it is undoubtedly present as the name for what happens when we mourn, like the Athenians, for "those who have benefitted the state." Feeling for a loss beyond our little platoon is a characteristic of a "liberal mind":

    We cannot truly grieve for every one who dies beyond the circle of those especially dear to us; yet in the extinction of the objects of public love and admiration, and gratitude, there is something, if we enjoy a liberal mind, which has departed from within that circle. It were well done also, that men should mourn for any public calamity which has befallen their country or the world, though it be not death. This helps maintain that connexion between one man and another, and all men considered as a whole, which is the bond of social life. (232)
  14. Public mourning and patriotic sentiment are affairs of the heart, grounded in the "feelings of men" rather than in their intellects (232). They "occasion" a "pouring forth" of "those fertilizing streams of sympathy," which Shelley calls "solemnity": "This solemnity should be used only to express a wide and intelligible calamity, and one which is felt to be such by those who feel for their country and for mankind; its character ought to be universal, not particular" (233). Seeing no problem with feeling for both the country and for mankind at the same time, Shelley looks to public mourning as an occasion for patriotic sentiment—an occasion, however contingent, for the sociality that comprises our "best affections."

  15. Our "best affections" are the subject of the 1818 essay On Love, which defines them as our search for community when we discover that merely our own thoughts are not enough: "[Love] is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive or fear or hope beyond ourselves when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void and seek to awaken in all things that are a community with what we experience within ourselves" (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 503). Directed "beyond ourselves," this "powerful attraction" is what is at work in the kind of patriotism Shelley imagines and invokes. Indeed, patriotism, or more specifically "patriotic success," is referenced in On Love, occurring remarkably in a group with both natural beauty and the singing of a loved one:

    There is eloquence in the tongueless wind and a melody in the flowing of brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes like the enthusiasm of patriotic success or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone. (504)
  16. The specific comparison in this passage between the effect of natural "eloquence" and "melody" on "the soul" and that of "patriotic success" and a beloved’s voice, both eliciting "tears of mysterious tenderness," suggests that while the true nature of patriotic sentiment is utterly inconceivable and thus profoundly mysterious, it can still be judged by its emotional impact. Like eloquence, melody, and a lover’s voice, it belies our self-centeredness and shows us that we have a stake in what is public, that our "souls" bear a relationship to a nation or a world.

  17. In A Philosophical View of Reform (1819), the idea of patriotism as both cause and effect, as both the motivation of the reformer and what reform would look like, informs Shelley’s definition of the "true patriot": "The true patriot will endeavor to enlighten and to unite the nation and animate it with enthusiasm and confidence" (Trumpet of a Prophecy 257). The true, reformist patriot by definition goes out of herself and identifies with something larger; and the task of reform is to elicit this going out of self and identification—in short, this kind of Love—in others. Patriotism is both what impels the reformer and what she hopes to achieve. Refraining from any talk of enlightening, uniting, or animating all of mankind (a task left to the poets, those "legislators of the world"), Shelley assigns a central role to the "true patriot" in his vision of English social reform. In fact, the projects that Shelley sets forth for the "true patriot" encompass many of Shelley’s own activities as a socially-committed poet: the tireless promulgation of political truth, the appeal to the Friends of Liberty to put aside their differences and come together on issues of common concern, the proposal of "open confederations" or philanthropic associations, and the incitement of the people to exercise their right of assembly in reasonable numbers. The "true patriot" is also the prophet of nonviolence:

    Lastly, if circumstances had collected a more considerable number as at Manchester on the memorable 16th of August, if the tyrants command their troops to fire upon them or cut them down unless they disperse, [the true patriot] will exhort them peaceably to risk the danger, and to expect without resistance the onset of the cavalry, and wait with folded arms the event of the fire of the artillery and receive with unshrinking bosoms the bayonets of the charging battalions. (257)
  18. The logic of Shelleyean nonviolence is manifold, but it includes at its heart the confrontation of the soldiers with their fellow men and fellow countrymen—or perhaps more accurately with their fellow men whom they only know, by virtue of the accident of being born in one country instead of another, as their fellow countrymen. Shelley notes twice this dual citizenship, both times pointing out that the soldiers are men and Englishmen: "In the first place, the soldiers are men and Englishmen, and it is not to be believed that they would massacre an unresisting multitude of their countrymen drawn up in unarmed array before them and bearing in their looks the calm, deliberate resolution to perish rather than abandon the assertion of their rights" (257). In the next use of the phrase—"[b]ut the soldier is a man and an Englishman" (257)—such dual citizenship is what "would probably throw [the soldier] back upon a recollection of the true nature of the measures of which he was made the instrument, and the enemy might be converted into the ally" (257). The sympathetic identification of soldier and laborer is not only a going-out-of-self by each party, but an expansion of passion, benevolence, and affection that is concomitant with the soldier’s realization of his merely instrumental, and thus repressive, agency.

  19. Although Shelley’s "popular songs" prescribe just this kind of nonviolent resistance, there is no mention of poets and poetry in Shelley’s description of the "true patriot" in A Philosophical View of Reform. Yet in A Defence of Poetry patriotism clearly depends for its vitality on poetry, and on the delicate sensibility and enlarged imagination of the true poet, which elevate patriotism to the realm of virtue, friendship, and love. Shelley mentions patriotism three times in A Defence, once in a discussion of Homer’s heroes, and then twice in a list with virtue, friendship, and love, implying that each is equivalent to the others not only for their common grounding in poetry, but also for the fact that each is a version of the great secret of morals, which is "the going out of our own nature" (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 517):

    What were Virtue, Love, Patriotism, Friendship &c.—what were the scenery of this beautiful Universe which we inhabit—what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it—if Poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? (531)
  20. Poetry, "unlike reasoning" but more like "something divine," "that from which all spring, and that which adorns all," or "the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of things," not only accompanies, expresses, and embodies patriotism, but also participates wholly in it. Poetry is the origin of patriotism as well as its performance. The expression of patriotism, or its influence on thought or action, is poetry, because a patriot by definition proves that she loves something besides herself. This is "the poetry of politics," the Shellyean patriotism that is what happens when "self appears as what it is, an atom to a Universe," the part of a necessary whole (532). But this applies, as Shelley’s repeated invocations of patriotic sentiment contend, whether the "whole" be a nation or a world, for love of either mankind or England is equally a going out of our own nature, equally enough to motivate reform and to occasion sympathy.


I would like to thank Chuck Rzepka for conversations about and comments on this essay, Orrin Wang for some suggestions, and Melanie Adley for reading and commenting on several drafts.

1. The radical patriotism of the eighteenth century came to an end with the American war because of the patriots’ generally pro-American, pacifist stance. After 1780 the relationship between radicalism and patriotism became strained, and the next two decades saw the vocabulary of patriotism enfolded in the rhetoric of conservatism—although the Tories grew increasingly fond of the idea of “loyalism” over the idea of patriotism. See Linda Colley, “Radical Patriotism in Eighteenth-Century England.”

2. For the classic statement of Shelley’s aristocratic politics, see Donald H. Reiman’s “Shelley as Agrarian Reactionary.”

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” For Love of Country? Eds. Martha C. Nussbaum and Joshua Cohen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. 21-29.

Colley, Linda. “Radical Patriotism in Eighteenth-Century England.” Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity. Ed. Ralph Samuel. Vol. 1. London and New York: Routledge, 1989. 169-187.

Bromwich, David. “A Note on the Romantic Self.” Raritan 14 (1995): 66-74.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. L. G. Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Price, Richard. A Discourse on the Love of our Country. Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 24-32.

Reiman, Donald H. “Shelley as Agrarian Reactionary.” Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 39 (1979): 5-15.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. Vol. 2. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1964.

---. The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. E. B. Murray. Vol. 1. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1993.

---. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002.

---. Shelley’s Prose: or the Trumpet of a Prophecy. Ed. David Lee Clark. New York: New Amsterdam, 1988.