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  • Published in History

A lost poem by the revolutionary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley has been found. Jackie Mulhallen takes a read and investigates

On 10 November 2015, the Bodleian Library announced that it had acquired a copy of a poem by the great 19th century poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, entitled A Poetical Essay on the State of Things. This poem had been ‘lost’ for nearly 200 years. Some scholars believed that it never existed, or that it was confused with another poem. Denis Florence MacCarthy, the author of Shelley’s Early Life (1872), believed in its existence and asked the book dealer, Bernard Quaritch, to track down a copy.  By a strange coincidence, the firm of Bernard Quaritch announced in 2006 that one had been found. I wonder what took them so long?

The pamphlet was displayed in the 2010 Shelley’s Ghost exhibition (Bodleian Library, Oxford) but no one could see it or study it until now. Yet this poem could have been included in the two ‘complete’ multi-volume collections of Shelley’s poetry published since 1989. While scholars worked hard and gave up much of their own time to finish these volumes the owner of the poem refused to sell it until they got their price. After nearly ten years, it is available to scholars, indeed to everyone as it can be downloaded.

The poem is an important one in Shelley’s career. It was written when he was only 18 as part of a campaign launched by radical MP, Sir Francis Burdett, to support Peter Finnerty, an Irish journalist serving a 2-year jail sentence for ‘libel’ in Lincoln prison. In 1809, when working for the Whig newspaper, Morning Chronicle, Finnerty wrote an exposé of a British military expedition intended to block the French fleet at Walcheren where 20,000 lives were lost from fever in the marshes. Lord Castlereagh was Secretary of State for War, and Finnerty also referred to Castlereagh’s role in the savagely brutal putting down of the 1798 Irish Rising.

The publishers of the Oxford University and City Herald, described as a ‘very liberal’ newspaper with a large circulation in the south of England, supported the campaign and printed Shelley’s poem as a fund-raiser. Later, the Dublin Weekly Messenger claimed that this poem had raised nearly £100, a large sum of money since the pamphlet cost 2 shillings, but of course many supporters may have added a donation.[i]

Technically, the poem, written in classical rhyming couplets, is of a higher standard than others Shelley was writing at this time. Shelley wrote notes for it, as he was to do for Queen Mab although he later came to dislike footnotes for a poem. He also wrote a preface in which he announced that it was ‘erroneous to think that [the poem] is subversive’ but went on to attack a system which allows some to ‘attain over others an undue invidious superiority’. He would use this style in later articles and prefaces, so it is interesting that he did it so early.

Shelley was still expecting at this stage to become an MP and would have hoped to work with Burdett, whom he mentions in the poem. Like William Godwin, Shelley advocates changes to be brought about gradually, but the reforms he wanted were very fundamental. He never changed his opinions on the need for the abolition of the unequal wealth of the society, and was impatient for this to happen. He was anxious to speed things up by organising groups.

On the same day that the poem was advertised, Shelley wrote to the radical journalist, Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, suggesting forming a society to ‘resist the coalition of the enemies of liberty’. In this letter he admits that while at Oxford he ‘dare not publicly to avow all that I think’ but that ‘the time will come when I hope that my every endeavour […] will be directed to the advancement of liberty’.[ii]

Shelley was often ambivalent in his expression of how this was to come about, even in his mature work.  In the Poetical Essay he says ‘Man must assert his native rights, must say/We take from Monarch’s hand the granted sway’. Taking the ‘native rights’ (of man) from those who rule is a revolutionary act - he does not say that the Monarch will give them.  In A Philosophical View of Reform (1819/20) he points out that ‘so dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then nor now nor ever left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood’.[iii]

The poem begins by attacking war. The opening lines would have recalled the loss of life at Walcheren, although Shelley speaks of those who die in battle:

DESTRUCTION marks thee! o’er the blood-stained heath Is faintly borne the stifled wail of death;
Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.

In 1816 Shelley would write a sonnet, Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte, which begins ‘I hated thee, fallen Tyrant!’and he appears to have Bonaparte in mind when he speaks of  ‘fell Ambition’ here. But the following lines could refer to any ambitious general ‘When thirst of wealth, or frantic rage for fame, lights for awhile self-interest’s little flame’. This ambition causes suffering to the poor.

Is’t not enough that splendour’s useless glare,
Real grandeur’s bane, must mock the poor man’s stare
The rich, who start the wars and benefit from them,
cause ‘ the bitterest tear of want to flow’ but that is not enough,
as ‘the comfort which despotic swayHas yet allowed, stern War must tear away’.

Shelley praises Burdett extensively, but he goes on to speak of India and colonialism, where ‘hot with gore’ ‘some Chief, in triumph, guides the tightened reins’. He describes William Pitt, who was by then dead, as ‘impervious to the power of gold’ but equally unsympathetic to the poor and it is this ‘spirit’ which allows him to wage war.

Ye cold advisers of yet colder kings,
To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings
Who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,
Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang,
Yourselves secure.

These lines seem relevant to us now when George Osborne is cutting tax credits. How ironic it is that this pamphlet, written to raise funds on behalf of a poor prisoner in 1811, should have made someone extremely rich in 2015!

[i]Denis Florence MacCarthy, Shelley’s Early Life (London: J.C. Hotten, 1872), pp. 93, 96, 25-27

[ii]The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley ed by F.L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), pp. 54-55

[iii]Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works ed by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 638