Shelley’s Poetical Essay goes back to Oxford
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
By MICHAEL CAINES
Destruction marks thee! o'er the blood-stain'd heath
Is faintly borne the stifled wail of death . . . .
Every now and then, somebody discovers a manuscript previously thought lost – or previously altogether unknown. If there is any unpublished material to be discovered, however, manuscripts are usually the form they take. By contrast, it is "extremely rare for printed books of any period to be rediscovered", as Henry Woudhuysen has noted in the TLS, especially "after an absence of 200 years".
Professor Woudhuysen was writing about just such a rarity: Shelley's Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, which survives in a single copy. And which you can now, at last, read for yourself . . . .
As every radical schoolboy and atheist schoolgirl knows, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley enjoyed a brief but notorious career as an undergraduate of University College, Oxford: he was expelled in his first year, following the publication of tract provocatively titled The Necessity of Atheism. (Even more provocatively, copies were sent to heads of colleges; one don is said to have burned a copy on the spot.) This was not, you'll be unsurprised to hear, an isolated incident.
Oxford was then a "lethargic, conservative intellectual community", James Bieri has written, "largely confirmed in the prejudices of the wisdom of 'Kingly power' and the dictates of the Church". Within weeks of his arrival, Shelley had produced Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, a hotch-potch that included lines such as "Monarchs of earth! thine is the baleful deed, / Thine are the crimes for which thy subjects bleed", as well as a rhapsodic Epithalamium for those French regicides (of different eras) François Ravaillac and Charlotte Corday. Bieri quotes a conservative reader's view that the book was "stuffed with treason".
Shelley also appears in the "ultra-liberal" newspaper the Oxford Herald as one of four contributors to a fund established by the radical politician Sir Francis Burdett in support of an Irish radical journalist, Peter Finnerty. This was after Finnerty had been imprisoned (and not for the first time), for reasons outlined at the outset of Henry Woudhuysen's essay from 2006, "A Shelley pamphlet come to light"; Finnerty was also made to stand in the Dublin pillory, "where a large crowd of sympathizers kept him company". Such were the wages of sinning against – or rather, trying to stand up to – powerful men such as Lord Castlereagh, the then Secretary of State for War.
Shelley produced a pamphlet to raise funds for Finnerty, the aforementioned Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. While scholars have known of it since the 1870s, however, their efforts to locate it have proved fruitless. The seemingly sole surviving copy only came to light by accident, as it passed, unrecognized, into the hands of the antiquarian book trade.
Since 2006, the Poetical Essay has remained all but invisible to the general public, bar the odd exhibition. Michael Rosen, for one, has found this state of affairs perplexing. Why has such an important work remained hidden from view? "We must wait", he has written, "till . . . one of our libraries finds the money buy it."
That has now happened. Tonight the Bodleian Library in Oxford (where else?) unveils what is apparently its 12 millionth book, with Vanessa Redgrave and Simon Armitage (both of whom have accepted the most un-Shelley-like accolade of a CBE) among the distinguished celebrants. And it's safe to say that this is a moment to excite Shelley scholars, too. "I didn’t think in the course of my career studying Shelley", Michael Rossington has said, "I’d ever be in the position to read this work."
What exactly has the Bodleian acquired? Not only 172 lines of early Shelley but a preface, an epigraph from a poem by Robert Southey (The Curse of Kehama, 1810), and a dedication to Shelley's first wife, Harriet Westbrook (the first printed reference to the woman with whom Shelley would, in the same year, elope). The name scrawled at the top of the title-page reproduced above shows that the book belonged for a time to Shelley's first cousin once removed, the superbly named Pilfold Medwin.
And the poem? Judge for yourself. As every radical, atheist and Romantic with a web browser will soon be able to do, courtesy of a Bodleian website dedicated to the Poetic Essay, I read it this afternoon. So I think I now have a hint of how Professor Rossington feels; lines such as "Kings are but men" will remind the experts and aficionados of similar sentiments elsewhere expressed. One of my first impressions, however, is that Shelley might as well have written on the title page "Do not open until 2015" as "on the existing state of things". Shelley writes of the "Millions to fight compell'd, to fight or die", who in "mangled heaps on War's red altar lie". He writes of the gulf between flaunted riches and helpless poverty: "Is't not enough that splendour's useless glare, / Real grandeur's bane, must mock the poor man's stare". He writes of Castlereagh (although not by name) and those in power who make life worse for those altogether without it, the "cold advisers" who "coolly sharpen misery's sharpest fang".
The universal strain then finds expression in a globalized vision of imperial iniquities – of colonialist chiefs "hot with gore from India's wasted plains" (not exactly the Andrew Roberts view of history), and of "The Asian, in the blushing face of day, / His wife, his child, sees sternly torn away". There is even, at the end, in one of the notes at the end of the poem, an allusion to a government minister's speech during the most recent Session of Parliament, showing how Shelley, the son of an Whig MP, saw the need to keep up with the political times.
In poetic terms, the Poetical Essay adopts some thoroughly conventional manoeuvres that the young Shelley has more or less mastered, in the form of the rhyming couplets that the "essay" part of the title conventionally promised, the rhetorical posturing ("Yet let me pause . . .") and the ready stock of abstractions that he would press into use in later years, too. Take Queen Mab, another politically risky poem begun (not by no means finished) in 1811, for an example more sophisticated in terms of verse and vision.
In some alternative, counter-factual dimension, some less scandal-mad version of this Oxford poet inherited his father's title, and probably his seat in parliament, and every last piece of evidence for a versifying youth went on the fire. In this dimension, the Bodleian is doing fine penance by taking good care of those same fiery works.