Those Bastards In Their Mansions...
by Michael Woods
This poem is a sonnet written as a dramatic monologue in the voice of a man who would be considered a subversive in the context of a stratified, class based society. There is a clear political message informing the poem and the final line makes it quite clear that when someone is intent on righting what he or she believes to be injustice, they are unlikely to be overt in their methods and neither will they necessarily rely on purely political processes but will use force if they feel no other means will be effective.
The persona presented in the poem clearly holds the aristocracy in contempt. The opening nine lines form a single sentence that reads as a ranting invective against everything he loathes about the upper class. His assessment of these people as “Those bastards in their mansions” is uncompromisingly direct. The fact that they “shriek” tunes the reader’s ear into what he speaker clearly thinks is class hysteria. In his tirade he refers to all the aspects of the aristocratic lifestyle he seems to despise, ranging from “dogs” to “ditches” and “lawns”. The speaker thinks that the people he dislikes are paranoiac in their belief that he is intent on infiltrating their lives. He presents himself as being innocuous by saying that he could pose no threat in “stockinged feet and threadbare britches” (line 4). The word “britches” sets the poem in the historical past. The speaker clearly resents his “threadbare life” as is sardonic in his attack that sneers at the upper class for underestimating him, caricaturing their fear that he might steal “the gift of fire from their burning torches” (line 6). They are right about one thing, though. He would like to distribute the basic right to “heat and light” to ordinary people. He goes on to say that the way the rich behave towards him suggests that they suspect him of telling their inferiors how to escape iron handcuffs and ankle irons and how to turn these badges of enslavement into weapons of revolt. It is the opposite idea of the biblical “turning swords into ploughshares”. The persona in the poem clearly feels threatened and avoids being “sniffed out” by hunting dogs or “picked at by their eagles”. He decides to take the guerrilla approach and bide his time until he will be able to do something decisive: “me, I stick to the shadows, carry a gun” (line 14). Armitage chooses to conclude the sonnet, not with a traditional rhyming couplet but with a half line for the thirteenth and then a separate single line for the conclusion, delaying the volta a line later than is usual in, for example, a Shakespearian sonnet. The physical distance between lines 13 and 14 on the page is indicative of the gulf between the classes of people presented in the poem.
Although Armitage uses language associated with the class structure of a time well before the time of the poem’s writing, it is important to remember that there is still an aristocracy in Britain that some people think is as reprehensible in its wallowing in inherited privilege as it always has been. Those who grow used to their positions of privilege should not persist in complacency because one day they may be given a very nasty surprise by someone who may “stick to the shadows, carry a gun” (line 14)