The speaker describes the state of England in 1819. The king is “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying.” The princes are “the dregs of their dull race,” and flow through public scorn like mud, unable to see, feel for, or know their people, clinging like leeches to their country until they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The English populace are “starved and stabbed” in untilled fields; the army is corrupted by “liberticide and prey”; the laws “tempt and slay”; religion is Christless and Godless, “a book sealed”; and the English Senate is like “Time’s worst statute unrepealed.” Each of these things, the speaker says, is like a grave from which “a glorious Phantom” may burst to illuminate “our tempestuous day.”
“England in 1819” is a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem metered in iambic pentameter. Like many of Shelley’s sonnets, it does not fit the rhyming patterns one might expect from a nineteenth-century sonnet; instead, the traditional Petrarchan division between the first eight lines and the final six lines is disregarded, so that certain rhymes appear in both sections: ABABABCDCDCCDD. In fact, the rhyme scheme of this sonnet turns an accepted Petrarchan form upside-down, as does the thematic structure, at least to a certain extent: the first six lines deal with England’s rulers, the king and the princes, and the final eight deal with everyone else. The sonnet’s structure is out of joint, just as the sonnet proclaims England to be.
For all his commitment to romantic ideals of love and beauty, Shelley was also concerned with the real world: he was a fierce denouncer of political power and a passionate advocate for liberty. The result of his political commitment was a series of angry political poems condemning the arrogance of power, including “Ozymandias” and “England in 1819.” Like Wordsworth’s “London, 1802,” “England in 1819” bitterly lists the flaws in England’s social fabric: in order, King George is “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying”; the nobility (“princes”) are insensible leeches draining their country dry; the people are oppressed, hungry, and hopeless, their fields untilled; the army is corrupt and dangerous to its own people; the laws are useless, religion has become morally degenerate, and Parliament (“A Senate”) is “Time’s worst statute unrepealed.” The furious, violent metaphors Shelley employs throughout this list (nobles as leeches in muddy water, the army as a two-edged sword, religion as a sealed book, Parliament as an unjust law) leave no doubt about his feelings on the state of his nation. Then, surprisingly, the final couplet concludes with a note of passionate Shelleyean optimism: from these “graves” a “glorious Phantom” may “burst to illumine our tempestuous day.” What this Phantom might be is not specified in the poem, but it seems to hint simultaneously at the Spirit of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and at the possibility of liberty won through revolution, as it was won in France. (It also recalls Wordsworth’s invocation of the spirit of John Milton to save England in the older poet’s poem, though that connection may be unintentional on Shelley’s part; both Wordsworth and Shelley long for an apocalyptic deus ex machina to save their country, but Shelley is certainly not summoning John Milton.)