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I'm trying to analyse Shelley's "England in 1819", but I'm having trouble with a certain passage which features a semicolon within two dashes. I find this quite confusing, and,therefore, I'm not sure what the author means. Here is the sentence with some extra lines for context:

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

Is the senate referring to the "book sealed" (the Bible) or is senate just meaning the parliament here? What does the use of the semicolon and dashes mean?

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1 Answer 1

I wouldn't rely too heavily on punctuation to give you the sense here. Shelley’s punctuation is notoriously idiosyncratic and erratic (particularly in the case of works like this which he did not revise), and often what you are dealing with is an editor’s points rather than the author’s. I’ve been exploring for forty minutes or so and have seen the poem in vastly different pointings, including versions in which all the semicolons, or all but one, are commas.

Despite the punctuation, the sense is pretty clear (up to a point). Religion and the Senate are the last two of the catalogue of ills under which England suffers and which (Shelley hopes) will after all turn out to be the graves from which the “glorious Phantom” will arise:

  • Religion is now Christless and Godless — it has become a sealed book, with a nod toward the promises in the Book of Revelation of what will happen when the book is unsealed.

  • The Senate (Parliament) either has left “Time’s worst statute unrepealed”, if you think Shelley is referring to the Test Acts, or constitutes in itself Time’s worst unrepealed statute (institution), if you think Shelley is anticipating the electoral demands of the Chartists.

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