The poet was inspired by Britain’s economic state during this period, particularly due to the expensive Napoleonic Wards that ended a few years prior.
Famously, this poem was never published in Shelley’s lifetime due to the extremely controversial subject matter and the way it is delivered. The poem’s message that the working classes should stop enriching the oppressive upper classes was deemed too dangerous and revolutionary. It didn’t appear in print until 1839 when it was published in the Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
A Song: “Men of England” Percy Bysshe ShelleyMen of England, wherefore ploughFor the lords who lay ye low?Wherefore weave with toil and careThe rich robes your tyrants wear?Wherefore feed and clothe and saveFrom the cradle to the graveThose ungrateful drones who wouldDrain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?Wherefore, Bees of England, forgeMany a weapon, chain, and scourge,That these stingless drones may spoilThe forced produce of your toil?Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?Or what is it ye buy so dearWith 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 defence to bear.Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—In hall ye deck another dwells.Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye seeThe steel ye tempered glance on ye.With plough and spade and hoe and loomTrace your grave and build your tombAnd weave your winding-sheet—till fairEngland be your Sepulchre.
Explore A Song: 'Men of England'
‘A Song: “Men of England”’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a revolutionary poem that delivers a poignant message.
In the first lines of ‘A Song: “Men of England”,’ Shelley’s speaker asks the people of England why they continue to work for the upper classes when all they do is oppress and control. A change needs to be made so that the aristocrats stop taking advantage of the working classes, depending on them for labor and giving nothing in return.
Shelley’s speaker asks the working class of England why they continue to help the upper classes and therefore lend a hand in their own oppression. Everything that they plant and make is taken by someone else. Shelley’s speaker tells the people of England to plant crops for themselves, make the money they need, and give nothing to the aristocratic upper class. The speaker concludes by saying that if nothing changes, then the tools they’ve spent their lives making will end up digging their own grave.
Structure and Form
‘A Song: “Men of England”’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is divided into eight quatrains or four-line stanzas that use rhyming couplets (a pattern of AABB). The poem is technically a ballad, utilizing a consistent meter that often feels like a chant or like someone giving a rousing speech.
The poem is written in trochaic tetrameter with a few moments of variation. This means that most of the lines contain four sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed. Later on in the poem, the poet switches to iambs.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. They include:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “lords who lay ye low.”
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, to the economic state of England in the 1810s.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use the words “like” or “as.” For example, the poet compares the English working class to working bees.
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The” starts all four lines of stanza five.
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
In the first stanza of this poem, the poet begins by asking the “Men of England,” or the working class of England, why they spend their whole lives plowing other people’s fields and allowing themselves to be laid low by those they work for. Why toil to create things for other people, he adds, when you get none of the product for yourself? The poet compares the upper classes, specifically the aristocracy, to “tyrants” in this first stanza.
Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?
They go on to ask the working class of England why they spend their whole lives feeding, clothing, and protecting the “ungrateful drones” who would, without a moment hesitation, “drink your blood.”
This is a dark image that conveys the passion with which Percy Bysshe Shelley penned this controversial text. The use of rhetorical questions throughout this poem helps drive home his point and would have inspired contemporary readers to wonder about the answers to his questions.
Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?
The poet makes clear an extended metaphor that is seen a few times in the poem by using the phrase “bees of England.” He’s comparing the working class of England to working bees who do what they’re told by the “stingless drones” who, in reality, give them nothing real in return. They are forced to toil for someone else’s gain the poet is essentially saying.
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 speaker asks if, after all the work they’ve done, the workers of England have “leisure, comfort, calm” and “shelter, food love’s gentle balm?” It’s clear that the answer to this question is no.
After lifetimes of toil, families still struggle to make ends meet and live happily. The speaker adds that if it is not the simple necessities and pleasures of life that they’re buying with their hard work, what is it? It must be something “so dear” to spend all that “pain and…fear” on it. The implication is that there is nothing they’ve “bought” that makes the pain and fear worth it.
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
The poet uses a great deal of repetition, including anaphora and parallelism, in this fifth stanza. This gives the speaker’s words more power and also makes them feel like a chant or a speech.
The speaker drives home the point that whatever “you” do (“sow,” “find,” “weave,” “forge”), someone else has in the end. Someone else “reaps,” “keeps,” “wears,” and “bears” all that is created by the working classes.
Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.
The speaker empowers workers in this stanza to think about themselves. They should plant seeds for themselves and let no one else take them, keep their own wealth, make clothes for themselves, and make weapons in order to defend themselves. Their efforts, time, pain, and suffering, should at least be exerted for something that benefits them.
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.
If they don’t take the speaker’s advice from stanza six, then they’re going to end up living in tiny, dark homes while the rich live in bright mansions they did nothing to build. They should shake the “chains” they built (and which have now been used to confine them) and make a change before the weapons they forged are used to kill them.
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 Sepulchre.
The speaker ends the poem with haunting rhymes that imply what will happen if nothing changes for the working population in England. If they don’t shake off the metaphorical chains, then they are going to end up in a grave they dug, wearing a shroud they wove, and underneath a tombstone they built. Finally, England will be nothing but. “Sepulcher,” or a mausoleum filled with the worn-out, defeated working class.
The poem ‘A Song: “Men of England”’ is about the terrible working conditions that people in England experienced in the 1810s. They suffered lifetimes of pain while the upper classes did nothing but take.
The poet uses a bee metaphor in ‘A Song: “Men of England”.’ He describes the workers of England as working bees that serve “stingless drones.”
In the poem ‘A Song: “Men of England”,’ Shelley describes the working classes being taken advantage of. All their hard work results in nothing but a gain for the upper classes. Anything they make belongs to those who employ them.
The purpose of this poem was to rouse the working class of England after the Napoleonic Wars to fight for better working conditions and more rights to what they produce.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also explore some other Percy Bysshe Shelley poems. For example:
- ‘A Dream of the Unknown’ – a complete nature poem with descriptions of many different flowers.
- ‘Hymn to the Spirit of Nature’ – a nature poem that comes from Shelley’s long work, Prometheus Unbound.
- ‘Lines to an Indian Air’ – is dedicated to a singer who asked Shelley to compose words for specific songs.