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The second extract from Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary, sees the ferocious reaction produced by Shelley's pioneering advocacy of atheism

Jacqueline Mulhallen, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto Press, 2015)

The Necessity of Atheismis one of the earliest pamphlets on the subject to have been published in England. It argues that belief is not a voluntary act, since is not regulated by reason and so it is a mistake to consider disbelievers to be criminals. In the absence of personal experience, it does not follow that one should believe the testimony of another who claims to have seen God, since it is possible they were deceived or mistaken, and therefore there are no proofs that there is a God. The argument that God must have created the universe is not reasonable as the universe might always have existed; if it was caused by something there is no need to assume that the cause was God.[i][…]

[Shelley’s friend] Hogg states that his and Shelley’s reading and ‘careful analysis’of Locke’s Essay and of the arguments of David Hume was the basis for the ‘little book’, although it was Shelley who actually wrote it.[ii]A Reverend John Walker persuaded Slatter’s to burn all the copies when he saw it in the bookshop window. Hogg and Shelley had also sent copies to clergymen, professors and fellows of the colleges.[iii][…]The Master of the College and ‘two or three Fellows’sent for Shelley and asked him ‘in a rude, abrupt and insolent tone’if he was the author. Shelley would not answer as the question was not ‘just or lawful’. He was told to leave the college early the next morning. Hogg then went to the Master and Fellows and asked them to reconsider and was asked if he had written it. Hogg, later a barrister, was keen to point out that had they answered they would have either had to lie or incriminate themselves.[iv]

A week or so later, Charlotte Grove noted that Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for atheism.[v]This was not so, as the college records show, but that was clearly the popular view which has persisted. Shelley, in his account of this affair to Godwinin January 1812, said that he was told that if he ‘denied’it, i.e. repudiated it, ‘no more would be said’, but he could not do so. Hogg said this was not true, but it is suggested by Timothy Shelley’s consistent attempts to get Shelley to change his opinions.[vi]

Shelley and Hogg left Oxford together, though Shelley had time to say goodbye to his Eton friend, Halliday, beforehand. With this publication, Shelley had made a complete break with his old life, with his education, family and friends. The career he had planned for himself was now impossible. He probably thought he had been sufficiently cautious in his anonymity but he had reckoned without what Hogg describes as ‘an affair of party’.[vii]This does not mean a simple Whig/Tory rivalry, but the deep-seated hatred which the ‘Church and King’party entrenched at Oxford had for anyone who questioned their views. While they turned a blind eye to drunken orgies, the College authorities had expelled two hardworking intelligent students. They and their supporters, including a Robert Clarke who reported to Hogg’s father, justified their expulsion with a range of contradictory attacks on both Shelley and Hogg: they were sorry for Shelley but not Hogg or for Hogg but not Shelley.

Shelley had ‘always been odd’even ‘suspected of insanity’; he ‘dressed like a scarecrow’; both he and Hogg ‘dressed differently from all others and did everything in their power to show singularity’; ‘no one regretted their departure’. They also described Shelley as ‘insubordinate, a ringleader in minor mischief, whose departure ensured quiet within the College’. If the last was the case, then clearly Shelley’s views interested the other students: a ringleader has followers. Shelley’s ‘abundantly liberal’friends at Oxford clearly ‘regretted his departure’–Roe would hardly have kept such an inconsequential note otherwise –and the authorities feared the influence of Hogg and Shelley over the group.[viii]

[i]The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by E.B. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) Vol. 1, pp. 3-5

[ii]K.N. Cameron, The Young Shelley (London: Victor Gollancz, 1951), pp. 328-330

[iii]The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley edited by F.L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) Vol. I, p. 228

[iv]Humbert Wolfe (ed.), The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: J.M. Dent, 1933) Vol. I, pp. 168-172; James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Biography (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004) Vol. I, pp. 159-160

[v]Desmond Hawkins, Shelley’s First Love (London: Kyle Cathie, 1992), p. 83; Newman Ivey White, Shelley (London: Secker & Warburg, 1947), Vol. I, p. 115

[vi]Letters, pp. 74, 57n, 209n, 368n

[vii]Wolfe, I, pp. 169, 42

[viii]White, I, pp. 115-116

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